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The dark side of Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s capital city is still haunted by the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge

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The convoluted history that paved the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover and the subsequent tragedy of Pol Pot’s social experiment is a tale of political intrigue, deceit and social collapse. Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 and for 20 years, under the autocratic rule of Norodom Sihanouk, it enjoyed a period of relative prosperity.

But discontent with Sihanouk’s repressive policies came to a head in 1970 when a military coup led by general Lon Noi overthrew him. After fleeing to Beijing Sihanouk set up a government in exile allied with a revolutionary movement lead by Pol Pot, whose peasant army had been waging a limited guerilla war against the government since 1963. Sihanouk nicknamed them the Khmer Rouge and his support drew thousands of new recruits into the revolution.

In the meantime the Vietnamese war was spilling over the border, and in 1969 U.S. president Nixon authorized the secret bombing of suspected communist bases in Cambodia. Over the next four years an estimated 250,000 Cambodian civilians, mostly peasants, were killed by B52 carpet-bombing. The survivors, bitter and displaced from their land, flocked to join the Khmer Rouge and, with aid from China, Pol Pot’s guerrilla skirmishes escalated into full-scale civil war. On the 17 th of August 1975 truckloads of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed triumphantly into Phnom Penh and replaced the Lon Noi government with a regime even more brutal and horrific than the war that brought them to power.

Our brief stay in Phnom Penh was an emotional roller coaster that took us through the depravity of the Pol Pot years to the measured optimism of modern Cambodia — from the unspeakable horror of the killing fields to the tranquility of the Royal Palace.

“We will go first to Tuol Sleng Museum,” Kosal tells us as we pile into a tuk tuk and head off in a cloud of exhaust from the aging motorcycle towing us. The sprawling low buildings of the museum were once occupied by a high school but, with the addition of razor wire, barred cells and long rows of leg shackles chained to the floor, the Khmer Rouge converted it to a prison. Security Prison 21 (S21) became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country — the place where those suspected of being a threat to Pol Pot’s regime were brought for interrogation. Few of them left alive. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people were trucked from S21 to the killing fields of Choeung Ek.

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