When you get closer you can see that the tower is full of skulls. Stacked 80 feet high, sorted by age and gender. The skulls are deeply inanimate, sockets empty in a way that makes it hard to believe they ever occupied a human face. This is Choeung Ek Memorial Genocide Memorial, better known as the killing fields. It was here, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, that the Khmer Rouge executed prisoners of the infamous Security Prison 21. In all, about 17,000 people were shipped here in trucks and murdered on site, often bludgeoned to death to save bullets. Wholly, viscerally, monolithically shocking; shocking in way that blunts the actual human tragedy of the place. This is where the Post sent me on the second day of my internship, charged with reporting on a memorial ceremony held by an international delegation of Buddhist monks. I do plan to write more about the actual newspaper: the office, my coworkers, the process of creating a daily bilingual newspaper in a developing country, but I want to give my first impressions a bit more time to simmer. For now, suffer me a story that I think offers a good primer on some of Cambodia’s constitutional hypocrisies.
Don and I stepped out of the office and flagged down a remork, one of the ubiquitous motorcycle-carriages that vastly outnumber cars on the streets of Phnom Penh. Immediately ten would-be drivers jockey for our business, “moto moto good price sir good price.” We calmly choose a single driver and begin to negotiate the price, deflecting the constant barrage of sales pitches that plague most Westerners in the city. “Choeung Ek killing fields,” we say, and our mustachioed driver nods happily and asks us whether we’d like a tour of the whole city. There is a disconcerting sense in which all the remork drivers in the city seem to treat Choeung Ek as another bullet point on the weekend tourist agenda, slaking a vicarious lust for tragedy in exchange for a couple bucks. Other destinations are available as well, and our driver enthusiastically offers to bring us to a shooting range where it’s rumored several hundred dollars can buy trigger-happy foreigners a machine gun and a live cow for target practice. I swallow hard on the irony and politely explain that a one-way to the killing fields will be adequate.
Don, who specializes in videography, has along a camcorder and a professional microphone. I’ve brought a small notepad for conducting the interviews. Our remork sputters towards the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the roads lose their paving and all the buildings stand mid-construction, with rebar scoring the concrete and plastic tarps covering the windows. A property tax loophole here often makes it more profitable not to fully complete a construction site, and many houses of impoverished Khmer are perpetually almost-finished. The ride takes about 45 minutes and the sky is nearly cloudless. Apartment buildings melt slowly into rice paddies. When we finally arrive the Buddhist ceremony we were sent to cover is nearly over. Several dozen monks wearing bright saffron robes sit silently in the shade of a large tree, listening to community leaders recite dharma and deliver speeches. The thermometer strikes around 105 F as the monks march three plodding circles around the memorial stupa containing the skulls, ending the ceremony with the dedication of a wreath and the burning of incense. The entire scene is peaceful and somnolent, making it all the more difficult to come to terms with significance of the place.
As the crowd disperses I sit down with a few Japanese monks who haltingly explain to me that they have been praying for “world peace” and the “alleviation of all forms of suffering.” How else can we process irrational brutality except with earnest, inarticulate pleas for its opposite? Our interview comes to a close with several bows and the ritual exchanging of business cards considered de rigeur in any Cambodian business dealing. The killing fields are nearly empty now and I ask Don for 10 minutes so I can take in the place myself. Besides for a small museum, the giant stupa is really the only permanent structure at Choeung Ek. Behind that is a field where the open pits of the mass graves are overgrown but still visible. The few weather-beaten signposts pull no punches: “Mass grave of 450 victims”; “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.” Some of the graves have been delineated and exhumed, but most of the human skeletons are still buried just beneath the topsoil.
Compare the killing fields with, for example, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, and it becomes clear the extent to which the orchestrated catharsis of any memorial is correlated positively with the socio-economic power of the victim population. The sheer rawness of the killing fields provides us with a visceral reminder that the Khmer people have not been fully re-enfranchised since the tragedy of the late 1970’s. I wander dumbstruck between the graves until a Cambodian monsoon rumbles through overhead, and giant raindrops churn the mud at the bottom of the execution pits. I keep staring until I’m soaked to the skin and then find Don to walk back to the remork. Our driver finishes his cigarette, chows down the rest of his sandwich, and waves to us happily. Did we enjoy it? How many dollars for the ride back? He busies himself putting up a jerry-rigged rain tarp over the small seats in back and then motions for us to hop on. Are we sure we didn’t want that city tour?
It may seem callous, but this is Cambodia: surviving here requires a delicate balancing of memory and necessity. The luxury of unadorned mourning is not one reserved for a nation that is still the poorest in Southeast Asia. At the end of the day, the remork drivers of Phnom Penh feed their families with tourist dollars spent in commemoration of past massacres. Here, history and tragedy must accommodate the insatiable profit motive, sacrificing Cambodia’s past for Cambodia’s present. Indeed, controversy erupted in 2005 when the memorial itself was bought by a private company, JC Royal Co., that has now begun charging a $3 admission price. To the Western eye, nothing seems more reprehensible than profiting off tragedy. But perhaps equally reprehensible in the Cambodian eye is the willing neglect of revenue that could help buy food or school supplies. If tourists have turned this country’s tragedy into a marketable resource, then far be it from us to condemn its exploitation.
And frankly, it would be hypocritical of me to blame our driver for his ulterior motives. After all, I too visited Choeung Ek with professional rather than ethical motivation, in the hopes of interviewing a monk. The specific alchemy of journalism turns suffering into “a story.” The remork drivers transform it directly into gold. At Cambodia’s killing fields, death sustains life.