The fragility of safety: Cambodia’s recent past

I was never that interested in history. People I knew and respected would devour history books but I was always busy with other things. Now that we’re traveling, however, history is a pillar of my midlife education.

It’s not about brilliant leaders, courageous heroes and epic battles. Those are stories – more entertainment than education. To me, the real value in learning about the past is to better understand ourselves.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin

Like reading novels, history exposes us to experiences outside the confines of our existence. Learn about the events of history and you will be entertained. Learn about the experiences of the people and you will be humbled.

Cambodian War Museum

The other day, we went to the Cambodia War Museum. Fifteen minutes by tuk tuk along red dusty roads out of the city, past shacks of cobbled-together plastic and sheet metal. We arrived at a humble gate and ticket booth and paid for our admission. Once inside the open air museum, we were greeted by Danny, a soft spoken Cambodian man who explained that guided tours are free but tips are appreciated. Fair enough.

Four roofed buildings lined one side of the property, shelves heavy with rifles, mortars, and landmines. Black and white pictures behind cracked glass of Khmer Rouge soldiers holding their guns – often they were children. The open fronts of these buildings faced rows of decommissioned tanks, armored trucks and artillery vehicles. Between these rusting masses with their cracked, deflated tires and missing parts grew mango and apricot trees. A strange juxtaposition. Even in the 34 degree heat, I shivered as I touched the long metal gun barrels engineered for one singular purpose – to destroy.

But I soon realized that these machines of war were nothing compared to the menacing power of an idea.


Danny started by explaining that not long ago – just forty years – the ground we were standing on was a battlefield. People died there, all around us. When the fighting moved on, landmines were left behind. A lot of landmines.

The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may have been as many as four to six million mines buried in Cambodia. Think about that. Devices that are essentially invisible scattered underfoot in a country that is smaller than the state of Oklahoma – enough to kill the entire population. Danny explained that the average landmine cost $3-5 USD to make. Their removal costs: $300-400 USD. In the eighties and nineties 40 000 people were killed or maimed by landmines in Cambodia. That’s forty people per week for twenty years. And there are still more buried out there.

What on earth led to such insanity? The simple (and wrong) answer is that Pol Pot was a monster who brainwashed a nation. The scary truth is that it was simply people being people – holding onto a great idea so tightly that there was no room for compromise.

The background

History is subjective – you always have to consider who is telling the story. This is Cambodia’s story about Cambodia – and it starts with the Vietnam War.

The basis of the war in Vietnam was that the pro-communist North, supported by Russia and China, was fighting the anti-communist South, supported by the US and South Korea. Cambodia was officially neutral, but over time had cut off diplomatic relations with the Americans and secretly opened ties with the communist North. This led Cambodia to allow Vietnamese troops into the country to attack Americans from the eastern border.

Still trying to play both sides of the conflict, in 1969 Cambodia’s leader Sihanouk, condoned the extensive American bombing of Vietnamese forces in eastern Cambodia. In the process, farms were destroyed, people died, and hundreds of thousands moved from the country into the cities.

By this time the Communist Party of Kampuchea (which would become the Khmer Rouge) had already been around for nine years and had attempted several armed rebellions with little success. Their leader, Pol Pot, had been educated in France where he had learned about and become involved in Communist groups. His vision for Cambodia was that of a communist utopia where everyone was equal, living pure and happy lives as peasant farmers. Reports are that Pol Pot was introverted but engaging with a genuine smile and an ability to connect quickly and easily with others. The idea of a better Cambodia consumed him.

Lighting the fuse

The American bombings in the east were like gasoline on the red hot ember of that idea. They confirmed the evils of capitalism and the need for radical change. Support for the Khmer Rouge grew. They took control of the country.

Marching into the capital of Phnom Penh, they were met with cheers and some uncertainty. They wasted no time in turning their vision into reality and they did it with brutal efficiency by eliminating those who might stand in their way.

Forced relocation

Whole cities were evacuated. The Khmer Rouge marched through the streets of Phnom Penh, warning (lying) that the American bombers were coming. “Leave now. Only take what you need. You can return in three days.” It was a compelling case. Those who refused to leave were killed. Those who tried to return were killed. So, everyone left.

Imagine having an hour to gather your family and what food and possessions you might be able to carry, soldiers outside, gunshots in the background. Not knowing where you’re going, for how long, whether you can trust the guerrilla army that has just taken control of your country . . .

During the mass exodus, families were called to register their names and occupations. Under the guise of organization, the regime was identifying threats: members of the previous government, military, and those with higher education.

These people were separated from their families and killed. If orphans too young to work were left behind, they were also killed.

The exodus

In Pol Pot’s view, cities themselves were hubs of corruption and poisonous capitalist ideas. There was no intention to return the people to their homes. The utopia he envisioned was of a rural society where everyone worked together, no one benefiting at the expense of others. Pure equality.

Millions of people marched for days, surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers – men, women, and children dressed in black, heavily armed. Valuables were taken (“Angkar needs this”), families were torn apart, thousands died. The once bustling capital became a ghost city as the entire population was forcibly relocated to rural areas to establish farming cooperatives.

You’re not you anymore

If you were lucky, whoever you were before became irrelevant. You either fit into the homogeneous peasant collective or you were killed. Vast rice plantations were established in the countryside. Private property was abolished. Dissension was punishable by death. Forced marriages between ugly and beautiful, illiterate and intellectuals, were commonplace and often between children as young as 14 years old. The ideal of equality was the only thing that mattered.

Everyone was forced to work, including children. Those who questioned their task or made mistakes were sent to be “re-educated”. They were fed rice, but not enough. Most of it was being sold to China and the Soviets to fund the war that was then being fought with North Vietnam. If there were not enough fish for everyone, no one got fish. The workers became malnourished. They lived in shacks that didn’t protect them from the elements. They got sick and often died because the (educated) doctors had all been killed.

Did the end justify the means?

Danny explained to us that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge accepted these things in Machiavellian fashion: the end would justify the means. They knew that their vision would take years to create and sacrifices would have to be made. But the idea was so intoxicating that it would be worth the suffering.

But it wouldn’t last that long. In 1979, the Vietnamese took the capital and forced the Khmer Rouge to flee to the border region with Thailand. It is estimated that 1.7 to 2.5 million Cambodians had died in the genocide – roughly 25% of the total population.

To rebuild you need material

How do you rebuild a society when most of the skilled and educated people have been eliminated? When you have no money, no property, no infrastructure? Not to mention the scars from the ordeal. You can’t build a house without bricks.

The eighties were fraught with uncertainty, unrest and guerrilla warfare. Hundreds of thousands became refugees. The nineties saw the Vietnamese troops withdraw, more political unrest, and the death of Pol Pot in his jungle hideout. The last twenty years have been a period of growing pains as Cambodia tries to establish political stability and functional diplomacy. All the while, forgotten landmines killing and maiming.

For a timeline of events in Cambodia, click HERE.

A conversation with our host

I didn’t intend this post to be a history lesson, but I am consumed by what this country has gone through. We went to breakfast the morning after our visit and the owner of our small Airbnb, Pheakdey (pronounced “peck-a-day”), asked us about our time at the War Museum. We struggled to provide an adequate answer but she seemed to understand.

Then for over an hour Pheakdey told us about her family’s experiences over that time period. Turns out her father in law was a doctor too. He survived only by lying about his profession. At one point, Pheakdey compared Cambodia to Nazi Germany. “Hitler tried to kill another culture. We tried to kill ourselves.”

I asked how she felt about Cambodia’s future now. “It’s good, I think. More stable. But we need help.” She went on to tell us how the quality of education is poor, kids need books and educational toys, doctors need better training and resources, there are still problems with corruption.

“But it’s better, and I don’t think we will ever go back to that.” Pause. “I don’t think so. You know, I think Cambodia was like an experiment for the world, to see if radical communism can work. It did not.”

Perhaps Pheakdey’s biggest concern, however, is that her own children are not interested in learning about Cambodia’s history. They have been seduced by Hollywood and American consumerism. She’s visibly disappointed, but they’re still young.

The fragility of safety

Ideas held too tightly start to resemble fantasy more than reality. Whether it is utopian communism or libertarian capitalism, we would do well to recognize that the imposition of an ideology on others will turn it into a nightmare.

When I would hear about stories like this from the comfort of my home in Canada it didn’t feel like my business – it was too far away. I’m embarrassed that nearly all of this has transpired in my lifetime and similar devastation continues in parts of the world today. While I agonize over smartphone upgrades, people are literally dying. A year ago I would have thought that was being over-dramatic. I don’t think so anymore.

The other thing I think about is the fragility of culture. The Angkor Temples reveal that a huge, advanced society existed here when North America was sparsely populated by nomadic aboriginal groups. The fact that the tables of prosperity have turned so quickly on this planet is a sober reminder that we have to be very careful with the decisions we make as a society. Change is inevitable. How we treat each other is in our control.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cambodia’s recent past, here’s a Netflix movie worth watching (“First they killed my father”):


  1. This latest blog shook me. It’s often hard for me to use words to describe what I feel inside, and you seem to express my thoughts through your words that resonate with me. I’m fascinated and disturbed at the same time of this historic event that I knew so little about. Maybe it just takes the right story teller to lay out the events in a way that the reader can feel the human emotions vs knowing the events.

    1. Thanks John. I think you can tell how shaken I am too. Partly it is because of what happened. But partly it is because knowing this is forcing me to change how I interact with the world. I’ve been too isolated and too sure that the way I see the world is the way it is. I need to hold opinions more loosely, understanding that they are the result of my unique experiences. Rationally, we know that social, political, and religious views are determined largely by where we are born – but we don’t act that way. We act like our way is right and others need to come around to our point of view. The conversation is over before it’s begun. I’m trying to listen more, talk less.

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