Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Hong Kong: Monday, November 15, 1999: Sally and Pitou arrived at the hotel early to take me out to breakfast, far away from the hotel’s chicken-giblet porridge. Sardm Mey, a man with the ministry of transportation who is in charge of railroad safety in Cambodia, drove us in his car. He’s part of the CMC team but wasn’t available to join us yesterday on our thirteen-hour road trip. Yim Youdavann, the other ministry lady, also joined us.
When we got to the restaurant, guess what they had for breakfast? That’s right, chicken-giblet porridge and deep-fried bread. I asked if I could just have a simple bowl of noodles.
I didn’t have to be at the airport until about 3:00 p.m., so the morning was quite relaxed. Pitou wanted me to look at some articles of metal and some carved wooden furniture and rattan items for possible export to the US. If a market for any of the items can be identified, then Pitou will take it on as a project to possibly get the rural people involved in cottage industries to make the items to sell in the US. I told him my time is really packed full with the medical demands of Project C.U.R.E., but I would be happy to keep an ear open for any obvious possibilities.
I had to admit that the sightseeing and shopping in Phnom Penh did get a little out of hand, because I found exactly what I’ve been looking for to give Anna Marie next summer for our fortieth wedding anniversary. But since this journal entry is in advance of our anniversary date, I won’t disclose what I purchased for her.
While we were riding along, I couldn’t help reviewing the subject of Pol Pot’s ruthlessness and the fact that the incredible crimes of his regime have been ignored and the criminals have never been brought to justice. As we rode, Pitou added more bits of information to the story that he hadn’t already shared with me.
It amazes me how quickly I’ve become close friends with Sally, Pitou, the CMC team, as well as Setan, Randa, and Dr. Yutheasa. At the airport, they hung on to me as if I had also escaped from Cambodia’s terrible nightmare. Perhaps the even stronger bond we have is that of mutual love as we share in God’s grace and love.
As I flew back to Bangkok, Thailand, and caught a taxi to the Rama Gardens Hotel, my mind drifted back to everything I’ve learned on this trip about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s bloody regime, and the horrors of the killing fields of Cambodia. I don’t want to run the risk of redundancy but I do want to review in my own mind and capsulate in simplicity what I have learned about the dark history of Cambodia. I want to remember what I have learned.
Setan explained to me that the Khmer Rouge flourished and controlled Southeast Asia from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. It was deeply rooted in the cultural and political soil of Southeast Asia and China. The Khmer Rouge built the Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest religious building, which is still Cambodia’s most cherished national symbol.
During my conversations with Dr. Yutheasa, I began to understand that the French colonization of Cambodia in the 1860s didn’t do away with the pure Khmer ideology. Maybe it only tainted the ideology, and the Khmer deemed it necessary to purge it from Cambodia.
It also makes sense to me that when Cambodia was granted independence from France in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk devised an ambitious plan to reunite the Khmer empire. But Pol Pot and his radical Communists overpowered Prince Sihanouk’s monarchy. They terrorized and purged the Cambodian society from 1975 to 1979, until Vietnam invaded the country and cut short the Khmer Rouge’s aggressive plans to expand the old empire.
When Vietnam withdrew in 1989, they left an intact government, with Hun Sen as prime minister. Hun Sen was also a Khmer Rouge member, as was Prince Sihanouk. In 1990, Hun Sen, the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and supporters of Prince Sihanouk agreed to adopt a United Nations plan that created a Supreme National Council as an interim government and arranged for free elections to be held in 1993. The elections would be fair, peaceful, and free and would decide the new leadership. Four and a half million voters turned out and elected Prince Sihanouk as their leader, and he wasn’t even running as a candidate.
In a compromise, a new constitution was drawn up that declared Prince Sihanouk king of the kingdom of Cambodia with no administrative powers and granted Hun Sen and Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, shared administrative power as joint prime ministers. Since then, Hun Sen has become the only prime minister, and the prince has become speaker of the legislature. All the confusion spurred Pol Pot to restart his purging machine through guerrilla warfare in five of the twenty-one provinces of Cambodia.
Eventually government troops quelled the guerrilla gangs, and Pol Pot was declared dead in 1997. But strange as it may seem, before he died, he threw his support in favor of the prince and the Khmer Rouge.
My curiosity about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge will keep me searching for answers in the future. It’s no wonder that when I asked Dr. Yutheasa or Pitou or Setan about those years, they just rolled their eyes and said, “From the outside, it’s hard to understand the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian people.”
It’s as if everyone is still a cotton tree, seeing nothing, thinking nothing, and saying nothing. But it makes a lot of sense to me why nothing has ever been done about the torture and murder of three million Cambodians in the worst kind of terrorism. And it makes sense to me why no effort has been made, or ever will be made, to bring the criminals to justice. No one wants to start unraveling the mystery or opening up the past, because even today the king, the prime minister, and all the other power centers are Khmer Rouge and are still closely tied philosophically, if not personally, to the Khmer Rouge organization throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand and China. Everyone seems to understand full well that an investigation would implicate not only Pol Pot but nearly everyone else who is currently in power. Every Cambodian leader in some way bears some responsibility for the killing fields, and no one wants to open it up and reveal the level of involvement or the guilt associated with the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979.
As one person said to me, “There has been too much bloodshed, there has been too much violence, and there has been too much sorrow and grief. Now is the time to forget everything and move on. Trying to dig into the past would only start the process all over again. It’s time to move on and live life and just put the killing fields behind us.”
Monday, November 15–Tuesday, November 16
After spending the night in Bangkok, I caught United flight 2 at 8:05 a.m. to Hong Kong. We changed equipment and were scheduled to resume the flight to Los Angeles at 12:10. But lo and behold, our Boeing 747 sprang an oil leak, and our flight was delayed and rescheduled to leave for the US at 7:30 p.m. By the time we actually departed Hong Kong and arrived in Los Angeles, we were well over eight hours late.
I know it might seem narrow-minded and quite impossible to believe, but United Airlines didn’t volunteer to hold my connecting flight from Los Angeles to Denver for those eight hours. Therefore, I had to play the standby and wait-list games to make a Denver connection and work my way back home. I must admit I was quite exhausted by the time I reached home and my own bed.
Cambodia is an extremely needy country, but I have confidence that God is going to allow Project C.U.R.E. to do a significant work in that shattered land in Southeast Asia.