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Of Violence and Hope: Final Thoughts From Cambodia

July 15, 2013

My fellowship with WFDD has come to an end and after a year and a half two reports have been written and countless stories have been told through interviews and blog posts. But there is one story that I had yet to learn more about: that of the town of Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and the final resting place of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

Anlong Veng is in the Northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey, 125 km north of Siem Reap Town. We hire a driver from Siem Reap to drive along the reconstructed Highway 67, off in search of pagodas and graves. This strange dichotomy has been one that has colored my experience and time in Cambodia. The town of Anlong Veng has lived in relative isolation since the invasion of the Vietnamese in late 1978. The Vietnamese army invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government following the Khmer Rouge attacks on Vietnam. A government loyal to Vietnam was installed with Heng Samrin as president and Hun Sen, who had defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1977, later being named prime minister.

However, the Khmer Rouge rebuilt their former bases in Anlong Veng town and the surrounding Dangrek mountain range; during the 1998 census, the population of Anlong Veng district were not able to be counted as these areas continued to be a bloody battlefield between the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Governments. Our driver emphasizes that many more people continued to be killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers under the leadership of Ta Mok.

Ta Mok is a name that I have heard in passing but know relatively little about. Our driver, who would become our interpreter and guide, explains that Ta Mok was Brother number five in the Khmer Rouge leadership and had the nickname of “The Butcher” owing to his key role in a series of massacres and purges which began even before the Khmer Rouge took power. Ta Mok translates to “Grandfather Mok” and he was much loved and respected in Anlong Veng. It is believed that he was born to a wealthy Chinese-Khmer family in Takeo province, and he became a Buddhist monk for a short time in the 1930s. He became powerful within the Khmer Rouge party and had been appointed by Pol Pot as the leader of the Khmer Rouge national army. After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok remained a dominant figure, controlling the remaining Khmer Rouge territory in the Dangrek Mountains and having a base both there and in Anlong Veng town. Estimates suggest that between 3,000 and 5,000 combatants remained loyal to Pol Pot and were directed by Ta Mok after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

However, in 1997, there was a split in the party and the history of subsequent events remains unclear. Reports suggest that following the split, Pol Pot fled and was later arrested and tried by Ta Mok forces. His sentence was lifelong house arrest, but following the government attacks in 1998, Ta Mok fed to the forest, taking Pol Pot with him, and in April 1998, Pol Pot died in custody and was cremated. Following the death of Pol Pot, Along Veng finally came under Government control, peace was established and a monument dedicated to PM Hun Sen was constructed, affirming the new loyalties for the new leader in this area. In March 1999, Ta Mok was arrested in Anlong Veng market and spent the remaining years of his life awaiting trial. His detention period was repeatedly extended and on July 21, 2006, Ta Mok died from heart complications in a military hospital without ever being brought to trial.

We arrive in Anlong Veng town and find a local café to have a coffee after the two and a half hour drive from Siem Reap. I had spotted a few people on the road wearing t-shirts from this year’s Dhammayietra (peace walk) and so asked the local restaurant owner where I could find the Anlong Veng pagoda from which the 2013 Dhammayietra had set off. She pointed a few hundred meters down the road and told us to turn right. After draining our coffee whilst conveniently watching the end of a news report about the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng, we set off again in the car, arriving at an arch indicating the entrance to the pagoda, and we continue down a long dirt road, no pagoda in sight. After five more minutes of slow driving, so as not to disturb the sleepy village houses, we see a second arch leading into a dusty complex of houses and ornate buildings.

The history of Anlong Veng is one of isolation and desperation. The town and surrounding villages and districts remain one of the poorest and most in need of support for education (Khmer Rouge propaganda is still being taught) and healthcare. Buddhism is also little understood and in need of help and support; prior to 1998, all religious traditions, including Buddhism, were prohibited, but with the removal of the Khmer Rouge, establishment of the Cambodian government, and the dedication of the local community, there has been a resurgence in Buddhist practice, though not necessarily a renewal of belief.

Parking next to a gaggle of motorbikes, we spot a bright orange figure surrounded by an entire family who had come for a blessing. We can overhear the family asking the monk for information about their future and for blessings of good luck and good health. So we sit and wait for a few minutes before the monk leaves the family and comes over. I recognize him immediately as one of the monks who my colleague and I had befriended the year before on the 2012 Dhammayietra. He introduces himself as the head monk of the pagoda and the head of Anlong Veng district.

I ask about the successes of this year’s Dhammayietra, which took place between Anlong Veng district and the neighbouring Trapang Prassat, and the head monk explains that the Dhammayietra was needed again and again here in Anlong Veng: “many still do not understand the principles of Buddhism. Many people in Anlong Veng continued to believe in Buddhism during the rule of the Khmer Rouge but without a monk or a teacher they forgot the old traditions and practices. Now that there is peace in Anlong Veng, many members of the community gave a lot of money to rebuild the pagoda and come often to pray.” He continues to emphasize that the Dhammayietra was a big success this year, despite the smaller numbers who attended; “I hope that we can have the Dhammayietra here again because it is very useful to educate the community, especially because the monk goes to talk about he precepts in the local schools.” We sit and talk for a while longer before lunch about his life growing up and his decision to become a monk; “I had to study in Siem Reap because there was no Buddhist education here. I wanted to come back and help my community so I have no thoughts to disrobe yet. Buddhist education and knowledge is needed here. If I leave, who will teach the younger monks who stay here? Who will teach the community?”

Upon leaving the pagoda, I ask the driver if my friend and I can walk back down the dirt road, not only to stretch our legs but also to imagine what it would have been like at the beginning of this year’s Dhammayietra. The road no longer feels sleepy as observed from the car, instead there is a feeling of both hostility and confusion. What are these westerners doing walking down the road? Despite the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s December 2001 Historical Restoration Initiative Circular which called for Anlong Veng to become a memorial and tourist site, we see no other Westerner during our time in Anlong Veng. As a commitment to increasing tourism in this area and getting Anlong Veng connected to the rest of Cambodia, Highway 67 from Siem Reap towards Preah Vihear has continually been rebuilt, widened and de-mined. However, this road also serves to support migration and trade between Cambodia and Thailand, and for increasing access for armed forces to Preah Vihear during the continued border conflicts with Thailand. In addition, there has been no other substantial support for tourist initiatives or for general development in this area.

When we get back to the car at the end of the dirt track we ask if we could visit the two major tourist “attractions” in the town: Ta Mok’s house and the cremation site of Pol Pot.

The track to Ta Mok’s house is about 1 km north of the roundabout on the road to the Thai border. The house is clearly guarded and protected by military police that have set up camp on the site and by two young boys stationed in the “ticket office.” This is not a tourist destination in appearance or operation; instead it is a bewildering encounter with a confrontational reality.

This is where thousands were murdered and buried in the surrounding killing fields. This is where Pol Pot was tried following the internal conflict in the Khmer Rouge leadership back in 1997. This is where hundreds were tortured as they waited for death; some in the solitary tiger cages that were still outside the downstairs windows of Ta Mok’s house, and others were tied to the poles in the yard drinking from water bowls like animals.

Walking around the house is jarring, both spiritually and emotionally. I keep trying to picture the monks from the Dhammayietra blessing the house, but all I can see are the soldiers, loyal to Ta Mok and his family, on guard like snarling dogs. Our driver informs us that many in Anlong Veng remain loyal to Ta Mok owing to his great achievements as the local leader; he constructed dams, provided villagers with agricultural knowledge and irrigation, and constructed schools. However, the artificial lakes and irrigation channels have killed surrounding trees and were used as killing fields for the enemies of the Khmer Rouge, and the schools have nothing but four external walls; there are no books or furniture.

Inside Ta Mok’s house, the entire structure is supported by a center pillar, which is a gigantic tree, symbolizing strength and prowess. There are murals on the walls of Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear and a map of Cambodia. But when looking out of the upstairs window, the view is of the killing fields; fields with pools of water and lifeless trees. This killing field does not have the same honor and care which has been cultivated at the Choueng Ek memorial in Phnom Penh, which has had numerous blessings, excavations and provides detailed information for visitors. Instead, the view from this window brings a confrontation with horror and a realization of a very recent history – less than 15 years have passed since Ta Mok lived here, slept here and executed the enemies of the regime here.

So we leave Ta Mok’s house and ask locals for directions to the cremation site of Pol Pot. Our driver has been to Ta Mok’s house on numerous occasions but no one has ever requested to visit the cremation site of Pol Pot. This surprises me as Khmer Rouge history ranks highly with tourists; after the Angkor temples, the second most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia are the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek, so I assumed that this would be another stop that might appear on the Cambodia tourist trail. We learn that the cremation site is just over 10 km from the town itself, on the road to the Dangrek Mountains and the Thai border. The car has to climb the steep hill, and as it begins to plateau, newly constructed casinos appear in view.

The Dangrek Escarpment is a mountain ridge which for years served as Pol Pot’s home and as the Khmer Rouge hideout. It was here that Pol Pot was kept under house arrest and was cremated after his death in April 1997. We talk to the driver who pulls up the small sign indicating that the cremation site is down a small dirt road and we suggest that he waits in the car if he does not wish to come with us. However, he insists that this is something he must learn about.

The cremation site is not how I am expecting to find it. I think my expectations were of ornate structures, a stupa, distance and protection. Instead the area just off from the main road is deserted. There is an ankle high fence, lined with flowers, which encloses a mound of dirt with a tin roof and a sign telling visitors to keep the area clean. Butterflies greet us and once again I try to picture the monks on the Dhammayietra walking three times around the grave as a sign of respect and Metta (loving kindness).

Our driver, who is gesturing and leading me in the direction of an old man, interrupts my thoughts. As we approach the man I cannot see his eyes behind modern, reflective sunglasses, and he demands an entrance fee, claiming that our tickets from Ta Mok’s house are invalid and that we need to pay more money. His severity and the fear from our driver make me cautious in our interactions, envisaging that 15 years ago, this man would not have thought twice to use a weapon in aggression if we had refused. I wonder what it was like for the monks. Did this man confront them also? Was there an audience for the blessing? Was this man part of that audience?

There is no one to answer my questions. There is no documentation of the Dhammayietra or of the ceremony. I felt remorseful that I had not had the time to accompany the monks on the 2013 Dhammayietra and document this story of hope, forgiveness and renewal and I am reminded again and again of the importance of the research conducted by WFDD and the need for investigation, dissemination and understanding.

Step by step, Anlong Veng continues to “develop”, to move away from its isolation and from its past; less than a few hundred meters from Pol Pot’s body come the casinos. Villagers explain to us on the way back to the car that trafficking is widespread along the border and that they are desperate for a way out of poverty. Who will help them, they ask?

So despite all of the misery, or perhaps partly because of it, as the Lonely Planet Guide asserts: “Nobody comes away from Cambodia without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this beautiful yet troubled country.” Cambodia has lightness in equal measure to its darkness; this year’s coming elections house equal amounts of fear and violence (and power cuts) alongside the sounds of hope and change taking place. I can only watch as a country that has become my second home enters this new era of turbulence and change. As friends and all those interviewed as part of my research continue to improve their lives and the lives of their families, I must leave. I feel a kinship with the reporters who were flown out in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power and I leave Anlong Veng unsettled, but I leave Cambodia with a clear understanding of the role and impact of religion in the communities we have spoken to and of the development of the country as it passes into this new era; one of change and maintenance of stability amidst fears and oppression.