Cambodia: Cashing in on the Khmer Rouge

Garish murals grace the walls of Ta Mok's home in Anlong Veng, including this painting of Angkor Wat.
Sebastian Strangio

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia — The memorial is eerily mundane: a simple mound of earth covered by a low roof of rusting corrugated iron and a hand-stenciled sign.

Mixed into the sandy soil, amid the stalks of scrawny pink flowers, are the ashes of one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, Pol Pot — the mastermind of the bloody Khmer Rouge revolution that left as many as 2 million people dead in the late 1970s.

Its dark history notwithstanding, this makeshift grave in northern Cambodia attracts a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom actually revere Pol Pot. They light incense and pray to the ghost of a departed tyrant.

“Without Pol Pot, I wouldn’t have survived till today,” said Khim Suon, a 56-year-old who has a job selling tickets to the cremation site. “Pol Pot was a leader who protected the nation, so foreigners and locals come to respect him. ... They come to pray and take souvenir photos.”

It’s a common sentiment in Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, which lies near the Thai border and around 60 miles north of the famous temples of Angkor.

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Between 1975 and 1979, under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a vast rural labor camp in their bid to create a communist utopia, leaving one in four Cambodians dead from execution, starvation or overwork.

More than three decades on, countless survivors struggle to put the past behind them, even as surviving leaders of the regime stand trial at a UN-backed war crimes court in the capital Phnom Penh.

But in this remote district of red earth and cassava fields, nostalgia for the Khmer Rouge lingers. Until it fell to government forces in 1998, Anlong Veng was a nest of die-hard communist fighters who took refuge there after a Vietnamese invasion overthrew their regime in 1979. Many residents still have fond memories of the Khmer Rouge years, and pay regular visits to their old leaders’ homes and gravesites.

Many of the sites have fallen into disrepair, and the Cambodian government, which has largely failed to hold members of the genocidal regime accountable, is now poised to give these landmarks a makeover. Under a 2010 plan that is now reaching the implementation stage, 14 former Khmer Rouge sites, including Pol Pot’s cremation memorial, will soon be restored and furnished with improved signage and visitor information. A museum is also in the works.

The government's stated aim is to preserve Anlong Veng’s historical sites in a bid to allow “national and international guests to visit to understand the last political leadership of the genocidal regime.”

Khmer Rouge nostalgia

Of the old Khmer Rouge leaders, the most revered figure is probably Ta (Grandfather) Mok, the one-legged Khmer Rouge military commander who once ruled the area. In the 1980s and 1990s, “The Butcher” — as he was nicknamed for his violent purges — turned Anlong Veng into a private fief, building a small fortune from the sale of the area’s hardwood forests to the Thai military and using the proceeds to buy the loyalty of his supporters.

“Everything in Anlong Veng was built by Ta Mok,” said Sam Roeun, 59, a Khmer Rouge veteran with a prosthetic leg who shows visitors around his boss’ former home, which overlooks an eerie manmade lake filled with dead trees. “Even the lake here was not natural,” he added. “Ta Mok made it.”

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Except for a few basic, hand-painted signs, however, there is little to suggest the historical significance of the site. An old Chinese radio truck sits derelict in a grove of mango trees near the house, slowly falling to pieces.

Many visitors are ignorant of the area’s history. Some recent arrivals in the area, like 33-year-old Oeung Long, say they come to Ta Mok’s house to marvel at the massive hardwood trunks that hold up the structure. “I don’t know much about the history,” he admits.

Others come simply to hang out. In Ta Mok’s yard, a group of local youths gather at sunset around a white Toyota Corolla, drinking beer and listening to Khmer pop songs, the music’s synthesized calypso beat echoing through The Butcher’s empty halls.

Other former Khmer Rouge sites are more dilapidated. An old munitions warehouse, perched high in the Dangrek Mountains along the Thai border, is scrawled with graffiti, while Pol Pot’s cremation site sits in a sandy lot close to the makeshift shacks of construction workers.

A trip to Anlong Veng

For foreign visitors, Anlong Veng — like Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison in Phnom Penh where as many as 15,000 people were tortured before being executed as “enemies of the revolution” — offers a harrowing counterpoint to the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the laid-back atmosphere of the coastal backpacking scene.

Most Cambodians tremble at the mention of Tuol Sleng or Comrade Duch — the gaunt chief of the prison who was handed a life sentence by the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. So, the warm recollections of many Anlong Veng residents raise a disquieting question: Will government preservation efforts serve history, or burnish the legacy of a bloody regime?

In this poor and forgotten corner of the country, where the prospect of an influx of foreign tourists is undoubtedly welcome, there are also some who hope to cash in on the renewed interest in Khmer Rouge history.

One of these is Nhem En, the former photographer from Tuol Sleng who snapped the chilling monochrome prison portraits that have become an icon of the regime’s systemic murder of its opponents.

Over the years, Nhem En has amassed an impressive collection of Khmer Rouge relics, including thousands of photographs, Khmer Rouge-era songs and what he claims are Pol Pot’s shoes and toilet seat, pilfered from the former leader’s home in the late 1990s. Now a deputy district governor in Anlong Veng, Nhem En has announced plans to set up a private museum about 6 miles outside town to house his collection.

The project has stalled due to a lack funds, but Nhem En says he is eager to see his memorabilia preserved for future generations. Though he is willing to hand it over to the government, Nhem En says he won’t turn down more lucrative private offers.

“I would like to sell my museum and all my Pol Pot material if anyone is interested,” he said, flashing a winsome smile. “I plan to sell everything I’ve got for $500,000.”

But for the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an NGO devoted to historical research of the genocide that has helped plan Anlong Veng's preservation, the goal is not simply to cash in on the region's legacy.

“Memories should not be commercialized. It’s not about tourism; it’s about history,” said the director, Youk Chhang.

In a country where Khmer Rouge history wasn’t even taught in schools until recently, tourism officials hope that the preservation effort can better educate the young about the country’s past.

“If the government did not protect this area, the young generation wouldn’t know about the history of the last Khmer Rouge,” said Sieng Sokheng, the tourism director in Anlong Veng district.

He also said profit-seekers like Nhem En would have “big problems” if they tried to cash-in on the area’s history. “The government will not let him set up a private museum, and all his material must be given to the museum here,” Sokheng said.

As the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Youk said Anlong Veng has great historical significance. It was here that Ta Mok’s forces arrested Pol Pot in June 1997, an act that precipitated the final disintegration of the movement.

A year after Pol Pot’s death under house arrest in April 1998, Ta Mok himself was arrested by the Cambodian military. He was set to be tried at the war crimes court in Phnom Penh, but died in 2006 before the trials got underway.

Given the strong local sympathies for the Khmer Rouge, and the recentness of its history, Youk said DC-Cam is also training local guides to educate visitors, and will later this year publish a written history of Anlong Veng, based on interviews with around 500 local residents. He hopes that both will help forge a dialogue between old communist supporters and outside visitors, promoting reconciliation between perpetrators and victims in this final bastion of Khmer Rouge terror.

“When you talk of Anlong Veng, people are afraid,” he said. “That is the final chapter of the Khmer Rouge, and it has yet to be written properly.”

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