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  • Writer's pictureMick

40 years since the Khmer Rouge

Photographs of female victims of the Khmer Rouge at Security Prison 21 (S-21) Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I'll admit the math and sciences were more my cup of tea while in school and remain relative strengths. English and Social Studies courses were of less interest and my progress in them was limited more by my attitude and efforts than that of the teachers I had. Into my adult years now, I am significantly more fascinated by the events of world history and how they relate to current events and often envy the high school students I work with now for having dedicated time in their days devoted to expanding their knowledge base of worldly matters. This has only been amplified by our program work in Cambodia, as well as the work on our Global Disability Directory where we are mapping organizations working with people with disabilities across the majority world.

When I first came to Cambodia in 2009, I didn't actually know where Cambodia was on a map, let alone any of it's pertinent history. As I've shared about my experiences in Cambodia, I find that I was not alone in my high school experience in not learning about the not so long ago Khmer Rouge genocide or retaining the location of all the countries in a continent outside of North America. For me, I left my 13 years of public education thinking there was one historical genocide which occurred during World War II and that slavery was a historical problem only in the United States; and I've found that I wasn't alone in those assumptions either. Again, my teenage years may have bested my attention span and empathy during class time but nevertheless I am thankful now for my developed inquisitive nature to pursue historical knowledge as well as current events for my own benefit, to share with others, but especially as it relates to our programming.

Bed used by the Khmer Rouge for torture at Toul Sleng

2019 marks a 40 year milestone for Cambodia acknowledging the fall of the Khmer Rouge and inspired this moment for reflection to share what we tend to keep on the forefront of our minds while in Cambodia. These events have historically altered this nation and their effects are long lasting even today. The BBC recently shared some stories of some of the survivors to mark 40 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge which is definitely worth a view if you are unfamiliar with the horrific events that occurred.

On past trips in country, we have visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (just north of where we are staying now) in Phnom Penh and have read and seen various news stories and documentaries. What has been so impactful for us beyond these educational experiences are the interactions and heartbreaking personal stories we've heard first-hand of people who survived but lost family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and their then present livelihood along the way. To put this into perspective, anyone older than 40 survived the Khmer Rouge, aged 30-40 were the first children in the years that occurred right after the end that didn't mark a miraculous change but rather continued years of poverty and incredibly harsh conditions in a country trying to recover.

Even now while the capital city has seen dramatic development with skyscrapers and comforts common in well developed areas, the rural portions of the country still reflect many

impoverished families living in one room homes scraping by day to day. Development efforts from both the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to support efforts of continued development in communities across the nation but much work has yet to be done.

Skulls in case at Choeung Ek (Killing Fields)
Skulls in a case at Choeung Ek, the best known of the execution and mass grave sites called 'The Killing Fields'

What is imperative in our work here in Cambodia (and into other countries as we can do so sustainably and effectively in the future) is to recognize the pertinent history and keep in mind the realities of the lives lived of those we interact with. While we know we are 'barangs' (foreigners) we want to make sure that our interactions hold high levels of respect for those we interact with whether our direct partners, the families and children we interact with, the vendors we purchase goods from, and even those we simply pass on the street. We want to ensure we properly use formal greetings and dismissals and bow when appropriate, and are sensitive to our attire. We want to make sure that while we hold sympathy for the horrific realities people experienced during the Khmer Rouge and in the years recovering, we ensure to give credit where it is due, uphold dignity, and see those we aim our programming at as 'partners' where we strive for equality in our relationship and not a one way transferal of information and services as the term 'beneficiaries' might evoke. We know our partners have just as much if not more to offer us than our trainings bring to them. We are just honored and humbled to be able to enter into partnership by sharing our knowledge with them.

Learn more about the Khmer Rouge:

*Perhaps this goes without saying but please be aware, some of this information is of course graphic and explicit in its detail because of the obvious nature of the content.

Learn more about modern day slavery:

Current estimates from the ILO state that 40.3 Million people are in modern day slavery including people in the United States and other developed countries.

Learn more about genocides in the 21st Century:

And familiarize yourself with the following modern genocides and crises:

  • Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

  • Yazidis in Syria and Northern Iraq

  • Darfur in Sudan

  • Nuer in Sudan

  • Yemen Civil War

  • Bambuti Genocide in Democratic Republic of Congo

"For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

- Elie Wiesel


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