CAMBODIA JOURNAL - 1999 (Part 4)

Ancient Buddhist Temple: Cambodia: Thursday, November 11, 1999: A peninsula of land jutting out into a pink, water-lily-covered lake is the setting of an ancient Buddhist temple. Cut stones from a quarry a great distance away were hauled by elephants and slaves to the temple site in the early eleventh century. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the grandeur of the temple fortress. The huge stones measuring about five feet in length and three feet in width all have holes drilled through them, two holes on each of the four sides. Over the years, enemies managed to ruin parts of the fortress, but the beauty of the place is still well intact.

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As we walked around and drank warm Coca-Colas, Dr. Yutheasa started talking about a little more recent history. “When Pol Pot was killing so many people, he stuffed all the Buddhist temples full of bodies. They were left there to decay and turn to skeletons.

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All the religious people were killed because they couldn’t be trusted, and usually because they were educated enough to read.”

I then asked him to explain the mystery of the Pol Pot regime. “It seems to me that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was part of a popular philosophy. There are so many similarities between Pol Pot’s actions and what took place in China’s Cultural Revolution. All the intelligent and culturally inclined people—except for the leadership intelligentsia who planned and carried out the whole terrible genocide—were accused of being ‘enemies of the people.’ They were tortured and executed, and their holdings were confiscated and divided up among the killers.”

“You understand quite a lot, Dr. Jackson” was Dr. Yutheasa’s reply. “Anyone who might ever be a challenge or a threat to the Khmer Rouge in action or philosophy was targeted for death. Somewhere around three million of Cambodia’s best people, including businessmen, doctors, teachers, and community leaders were killed off between 1975 and 1979. Then when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, Pol Pot’s slaughter stopped, but even more people were killed in the war with Vietnam. Pol Pot concentrated much of his killing around Battambang and Phnom Penh.”

“Why,” I asked, “do you think Pol Pot’s atrocities have never been punished? No one even seems to care about bringing any of the murderers to justice. In my lifetime, I have watched the Jews hunt down every prison guard and every Nazi military person involved in the genocide Hitler perpetrated on the Jewish people. But no one even seems to care about seeking justice for the three million innocent people killed in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Why?”

“It’s all too complicated for a person to understand, especially one from the outside. It’s very possible that Pol Pot isn’t dead even now. Seven different times, the government has claimed that he has died. He was an old man with gray hair. But the last man they cremated as Pol Pot had very black hair. They wouldn’t allow any investigation or autopsy. Within three hours, they burned the body and destroyed all the evidence. But it would be very hard for you to understand all that, Dr. Jackson.”

The doctor became more and more comfortable talking to me about sensitive things regarding Cambodia, but he also made very sure we were out in an open spot away from buildings, cars, and other people when we talked. Even at that, his eyes were constantly moving past me to the surroundings nearby.

I asked one final question before we headed back to the van for our trip back to Battambang. “Dr. Yutheasa, you are a doctor. Why didn’t they kill you?”

He laughed nervously and kind of rolled his eyes at my personal question. “I learned to become like the cotton tree” was his answer. I left it at that.

This evening at the Teo Hotel, my mind kept working overtime comparing the hospital at Battambang and the military hospital we toured in Phnom Penh. I felt uneasy about the military hospital but felt very clear about moving ahead and helping Dr. Yutheasa in Battambang. Over the course of my unorthodox life, I’ve learned to pay close attention to gut-level feelings about people and situations. Some might attribute that to my survivor skills. But I know God has blessed me with a certain perception, and in the past, things have gone a whole lot better when I don’t ignore those insights.

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The Battambang hospital was clean. The doctors and staff were happy people working hard with the little they had. Even though they were using makeshift IV poles, had no mattresses for the beds, and had to treat some of the patients out on the porches, the patients were getting love and personal care.

The military hospital in Phnom Penh was very different. In the recent past, it was Pol Pot’s military hospital and then became the Vietnamese military hospital. Now it’s the government’s military hospital. Something seems to be wrong there, beyond just not having any supplies, equipment, ambulances, or nurses. On my assessment tour, I was ushered right into the operating room while surgery was in process. The room wasn’t sterile, the doors to the hallway were left open, and people were walking through the operating room with bare feet and civilian clothes. And as I toured the postoperative rooms and the wards, it appeared that no one really cared and no one was really in charge. 

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Before I went to bed, I determined that Project C.U.R.E. will help Dr. Yutheasa at the Battambang Provincial Hospital, and we’ll collect more information on the Phnom Penh hospital. Donated goods worth $400,000 wouldn’t be safe or used efficiently in an institution where people have a bad attitude and no accountability measures are in place. We could send a container of good medical supplies to such a facility, and a week later, the patients would be no better off, but the officials would all be driving new cars and motorcycles.

Friday, November 12

This morning as I ate my breakfast of chicken-giblet soup and noodles and a nice helping of french bread, I was curious as to whether Setan Lee would be at the airport in Phnom Penh when I returned to the city. As I picked most of the repulsive chicken skin and giblets out of the bowl with my chopsticks, I was pleased with the thought that I confronted him regarding his inconsideration. At least he knows my evaluation and interpretations.

Dr. Yutheasa and his driver took me to the airport. The propeller-driven airplane scheduled to take us back to Phnom Penh had experienced trouble and was over an hour late arriving at the Battambang Airport. Once we finally boarded and were in the air, I realized that it had been a while since I had flown in a commercial airplane with seats constructed of curved pipes with canvas material stretched over them. I sat behind the engine in a seat with a view out the little, round porthole windows. Again, I was amazed at how much flooding Cambodia is experiencing in the flat, central part of the country.

My questions were answered about who would pick me up at the airport in Phnom Penh. Pitou and Sally Lao were there, and so were Setan and Randa Lee.

Pitou and Sally had scheduled a full day for me, but a very repentant Setan was there to try to amend for messing up. While waiting for my luggage to be unloaded from the plane, I pulled out my Cambodia files and systematically walked with both Setan and Pitou through the chronology of Project C.U.R.E.’s Cambodian involvement over the past eighteen months. Fortunately I had all my documents, applications, and correspondence regarding Dr. Singleton’s requests and the arrangements for the entire trip. With my calendar open, I asked Setan and his wife if they were aware of each step, if they had received my e-mails, and if they were aware that I’ve been in the country since November 8 at their request.

About halfway through the questioning, I became convinced that Setan is an evangelist, not an administrator. I also concluded that Jim Groen and Greg Groh of Worldwide Leadership, who are coming from the US to Phnom Penh next week for a missionary conference, had unfairly overloaded Setan and Randa with details and expectations far beyond their capabilities in order to make their missionary conference a booming success.

Instead of being upset with Setan and Randa, I began to feel empathy for them because they had been placed in a difficult position. There was no way they could be expected to accomplish what they were assigned to do. I assured them of my support and prayers and told them I didn’t need to take any of their precious time, but that Setan’s uncle, Dr. Yutheasa, had shown me everything I needed to see in Battambang, and that I had a good report for Dr. Singleton upon my return to Denver.

But Setan and Randa insisted on spending a little time with me as a courtesy and as an act of appreciation for Project C.U.R.E.’s commitment in Cambodia.

Pitou and Sally made the situation easier by offering to postpone their plans until tomorrow and Sunday so that I could get acquainted with Setan and Randa today.

With all the interpersonal relationships smoothed over, we all headed to lunch—more boiled chicken, which had been hardened by a life of trying to outrun the motorcycles on the rural dirt roads of the province and compete with the wandering pigs for broken grains of Cambodian rice. Colonel Sanders of KFC never had it so good.

Next Week: The proof of unimaginable horror