Cambodia’s lost souls

building with tree
Photo by James Wheeler on

My recent visit to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the outlying killing fields at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre stirred unsettling emotions; emotions not very  different from those that overwhelm me whenever I cast my mind on the historical atrocities of Auschwitz, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, or ponder the ongoing brutalities in Myanmar, Syria and Gaza. It’s a feeling of deja vu that eludes any rational, sensible explanation;

a sense that millions of men, women and children who have gone before us have died senseless deaths, while millions today in 2020 continue to be detained in ‘re-education camps’ and prisons, tortured and killed at the hands of all powerful State officials, while the International Community remains blase to their plight.

An indifference evinced by State leaders, born out of ‘respect’ for the concept of Sovereign equality of all States ( Art. 2.1, UN Charter), and the need to ‘refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ (2.4, UN Charter)…..or so they claim.

Political rhetoric invoked sanctimoniously not just by self-styled leaders of liberal democracies,  but also by autocrats and far-right nationalist despots……invoked even when more than 500 children were slaughtered in  Gaza by the Israeli defence forces during its Operation Protective Edge ( B’tselem 20 July 2016);

when immigrants were tortured, raped and murdered in Tripoli’s refugee detention centre (The Guardian , 2019) and hundreds of Rohingya women raped by the Burmese  military (Human Rights Watch 2019).

It seems that it’s not difficult to be indifferent to and unfeeling about whether another lives or dies if one remains emotionally detached, ensconced in the security of one’s political office ; ask the politicians who stand by apathetically while millions are imprisoned in Gaza and life in Yemen has become a ‘living hell’ for children in Yemen suffering from malnutrition, disease and death ( unicef November 2019) thanks to the war crimes of the Saudi US led coalition’s in Yemen’s civil war ( The Guardian, 3 October, 2019)

As our taxi driver drove us towards the killing fields at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, I  couldn’t help but think of what happened here some 40 years earlier in April 1975…..Cambodians, entire families, forcibly evacuated from the city of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, trudging  along these very roads to the various outlying villages such as Ro Leap  to work  in the rice fields, and eventually dying from starvation or the cruelest torture in prisons such as Tuol Sleng.

I think of 5 year old Loung Un, together with her family, walking for hours on these very roads under the sweltering heat, crying out in exhaustion and pain to her father ( Loung Un, p.44) who was later taken from her by Khmer Rouge men dressed in black, wielding  rifles.

Loung Un vividly recounts her separation from her father and relives the agonizing moment in which she asks him:

“When will you be back, Pa?”; ” Can I go with you, Pa?” ; Her father who was holding her in his arms replies to her pleas, saying: “No, you cannot go with me …you kids be good and take care of yourself.” ( Loung Un, P.103).

As a father myself, I find it unbearable to even begin imagining the sense of powerlessness that may have overwhelmed Loung Un’s father……..

of being unable to protect his beloved daughter and family from the brutal Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Loung Un herself lived to survive the brutality of the regime and went on to become the National Spokesperson for the “Campaign for a Landmine Free World.’

It’s heart  wrenching when you realize that millions of children and their families like those of Loung Un’s experienced similar fates under Pol Pot regime of death; Fathers were powerless to protect their children from being killed by being smashed to death on trees in the killing fields; all this done to prevent them ‘from growing up and taking revenge for their parent’s death.’ (mailonline, 9 June 2009).

The poignant image of a nameless young girl below is displayed  in the Tuol Sleng genocide museum where at least 12,000 men , women and children were brutally tortured and murdered ( BBC 2015) under the orders of the convicted war criminal, Duch.

One can’t help but wonder what was going through her mind when the staff of the Tuol Sleng , possibly prison photographer Nhem En (NYT, 2007), took her picture. Did this young girl have a premonition of her fate; was she terrified of being separated from her parents? Did she hope and pray for a miracle …

not the kind of questions that those dissociated from the realities of such horrific experiences are likely to ask.



Yet politicians continue to claim that the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, bringing an end to Pol Pot’s rule was unjustified and violated the rules of international relations. Jones notes that Vietnam’s

”motives in invading were not so much humanitarian (though it clearly had positive results for the Cambodian people), as self-interested – the goal being to remove a dangerous regime that menaced Vietnam’s borders constantly with significant loss of life and food security” ( Lee Jones, p, 523, 2007)

The point is this:

Had Vietnam failed to intervene in Cambodia, one wonders how many more millions the murderous Khmer Rouge might have killed….

Did the invasion violate the sovereignty principle and set an ‘undesirable’ precedent for larger countries to follow in breaching international borders of politically weaker States? ( Straits Times 2019)

Only if one could, in some warped way, conceive the brutal Khmer Rouge as a legitimate government, benevolently ruling the Cambodian people in 1978…..

one shudders to think of what might have happened if Hitler’s Nazi Germany had not been invaded by the Allies for fear of encroaching on the political sovereignty of a State that poisoned and burnt over 1.1 million  Jews, gypsies and other humans in the crematoriums of Auschwitz ….

so much for a so-called principled foreign policy approach.




‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,’ Loung Ung,  April 4th 2006, Harper Perennia

Lee Jones (2007) ASEAN intervention in Cambodia: from Cold War to conditionality, The Pacific Review, 20:4, 523-550,

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