How did such a horrific event in our history occur and continue for so long? By 1977, there was an awareness of the genocide occurring in Cambodia among the world nations. And yet, as a result of the politics which these nations were subservient to, there was no intervention for two more years.
The United States involvement in the region is of specific interest. In the late 1960s and early 70s, as the American war in Vietnam was ensuing and as Communism was spreading through Asia, a successful coup was staged by pro-American Marshal Lon Nol of Cambodia against the long standing head – Prince Sihanouk. One of many reasons for the support was to issue an ultimatum of evacuation to Vietnamese forces who were operating within the borders of Cambodia and aiding southern Vietnam in their fight against the US. Unfortunately, Marshal Lon Nol’s government was too crippled and was easily overthrown later by the Khmer Rouge.
Additionally, the 1960s and 70s were the time of massive carpet bombings conducted by the US over Cambodia and Laos. Opinions go in both directions: One end claims the bombings helped prevent the encircling of the Khmer Rouge around Phnom Penh which delayed their takeover; the other side claims the bombings displaced thousands of Cambodian people and boosted support & recruitment for the Khmer Rouge against the US.
Even long after the “fall” of the KR in the late 1970s, the leaders of the old regime were still alive & well. As a result of a diplomatic struggle, the question of who should occupy Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations arose in 1979. The Khmer Rouge already held the seat, but it was also claimed by the new leaders who were supported by Vietnam and the Soviet Union – enemies of the US during the Cold War. So, the US along with 70 other countries, voted for the Khmer Rouge. And up until the early 1990s, the Khmer Rouge was recognized as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia.
Even later, the Khmer Rouge trials for crimes against humanity & genocide commenced in 2007; almost three decades after their fall in Cambodia. As only a few were brought to trial & sentenced, most of the leaders by that time had died of natural causes while hiding in Cambodia or Thailand.
As for Pol Pot, “on April 16, 1998, the Voice of America, to which Pol Pot was a devout listener, announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in his bed later in the night while waiting to be moved to another location. It was claimed his death was due to heart failure. Despite government requests to inspect the body, it was cremated a few days later at Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone, raising suspicions that he committed suicide.”
Learning of these atrocities while being absorbed in the region was quite surreal. While discussing the current state of Cambodia with another traveler, I was pointed out that when touring around the country you realize how few elder people are seen. I didn’t believe it until I stepped out onto the streets. For almost 20 minutes while walking down a busy road and around a street market, I counted less than five people who appeared to be older than fifty-five. This anomaly continued throughout Cambodia.
Later while traveling, Ankur & I were fortunate enough to attend a very special performance in Siem Reap. It was a free concert performed by Dr. Beat “Beatocello” Richner. While playing the cello, the doctor pauses with long spoken interludes explaining his role in the Cambodian health crisis after the massive genocide. What we learned in the next hour was astonishing. As a pediatrician, Dr. Richner has spearheaded the development of four children’s hospitals in Cambodia while employing thousands of Khmer people since the 1980s. For at least the past decade, Dr. Richner has performed these concerts as a fundraiser & “bloodraiser” since donated blood is of highest priority as a result of the tuberculosis crisis. According to Dr. Richner, the Killing Fields of the late 70s turned Cambodia into a massive open-air graveyard, which was the precursor for the ongoing widespread disease.
Fortunately, the monetary funds that are raised through the concert and further awareness have allowed for completely free healthcare for anyone who walks in the hospitals’ doors. And where exactly do these funds come from? Over 90% comes from private individuals, mostly from Swiss people just after they have attended the Beatocello concert. And how much comes from outside governments, namely the ones who had a negative impact in recent Cambodia history? Almost nothing.