Why is Angelina Jolie causing a traffic jam in Battambang?

It turns out I have a few things in common with Angelina Jolie. She is in Cambodia and I am, too. She was in Battambang and I was there, too. She was shopping at the Night Market in Siem Reap and I was, too. She is researching the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide of 1975-79 and I am, too.

I guess that is where our commonalities end. She is spending much more money and actually making an important movie about the history of Khmer Rouge, based on the autobiography “First They Killed My Father”, written by a survivor Loung Ung. Angelina Jolie has been interested in Cambodia for years and one of her sons was adopted from here. So, obviously with such a high-profile global celebrity in town, the people of Battambang have noticed the presence of film crews and other entourage.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It is a sobering place. The Khmer Rouge (or Red Khmer) were a very radical Communist group with a utopian idea of restructuring the whole society. To create a class-less society,  they turned against education, religion, private ownership and any kind of freedom. Here are some of their slogans: “If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals” or “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.” (Mind you, many of the leaders were highly educated and had studied in Paris. Including Pol Pot himself.) The cities were emptied and the whole country was turned into a big labor camp with starving and suffering people. Almost 2 million died.

The Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 (S-21) had been one of the best high schools in the city before it became a place of torture. This was a special prison for mostly Khmer Rouge cadres and their families and many other random people. Approx 17, 000 people were held, tortured and killed in this place. The torture was meant to extract ‘confessions’ of what kind of traitor are you and who are you spying for – Americans (CIA) or Russians (KGB)? Men, women, teenagers and children, even babies… all were killed.

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The Khmer Rouge had photographed every victim at the time of arrest and many after their executions. Now there are thousands of photos of faces… smiling, sad, angry, confused, beaten, hopeful, hopeless and scared. I look at these faces and I think, it could have been me since I was born in the 70s. These could have been my parents, my grandparents, my brothers. I was fortunate to be born in Latvia and they were unfortunate to be born here.

I met on the survivors of this horrible place. His name is Bou Meng and he is 72 now. What saved him? His skill of painting and ability to draw portraits of the Khmer Rouge leaders. His wife and two young children perished. Bou Meng has written his testimony and advocates for justice and truthful remembering of Cambodia’s past.

One researcher said, “Wartime brutality, Marxist fanaticism, obsessive and threatened nationalism – these seemed to be three of the principal elements that had contributed to this totalitarianism. … I was disturbed not by the banality of evil but the intellectual pretensions behind it.” Words to reflect upon since these kind of ‘intellectual pretensions’ still exist. How to vaccinate yourself against it?

And no, I did not meet Angelina Jolie… but I will be waiting to see her new movie.

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Meeting Bou Meng, one of the survivors of S-21

Latviski:

Izrādās, ka man un Andželīnai Džolijai ir šis tas kopīgs. Viņa ir Kambodžā, un es arī. Viņa bija Batambangā, un es arī. Viņa iepirkās Siemrīpas nakts tirdziņā, un es arī. Viņa pēta Kambodžas vēsturi, konkrēti Sarkano hmeru (Khmer Rouge) režīmu un genocīdu no 1975. līdz 1979. gadam.

Te laikam kopīgais beidzas. Viņai ir daudz vairāk naudas, ko tērēt, un šobrīd viņa uzņem spēlfilmu par Sarkano hmeru teroru. Stāsts būs autobiogrāfisks, balstīts uz grāmatu “Vispirms Viņi Nogalināja Manu Tēvu” un Lungas Angas atmiņām. Andželīna jau daudzus gadus interesējas par Kambodžu, palīdz dažādos humanitāros projektos, un viens no viņas dēliem ir adoptēts no šejienes. Tāpēc saprotams, ka tādas pasaules mēroga slavenības un filmēšanas grupas uzturēšanās mierīgajā Batambangas pilsētā rada lielu burzmu un sastrēgumus.

Kambodžas galvaspilsētā Pnompeņā es apmeklēju Tuol Sleng Genocīda muzeju (S-21). Ļoti traģiska vieta. Sarkanie hmeri bija radikāla un fanātiska komunistu organizācija ar utopisku ideju par visas sabiedrības pārkārtošanu un ideālas zemnieku valsts izveidošanu. Tika likvidētas, skolas, rūpnīcas, nauda, privātīpašums un aizliegta jebkāda reliģija. Viena no šī režīma devīzēm bija “Ja vēlies iegūt bakalaura diplomu, dari to, būvējot dambjus un kanālus.” Vai arī “Izglītība nav svarīga. Svarīgs ir darbs un revolūcija.” (Tas nekas, ka paši ‘revolūcijas’ vadītāji bija guvuši augstāko izglītību, piemēram, Francijā. Arī pats Pols Pots bija studējis Parīzē.) Pilsētas tika iztukšotas, un visa valsts pārvērsta par vienu lielu darba nometni ar izsalkušiem un nomocītiem cilvēkiem. Aptuveni 2 miljoni bojāgājušo četru gadu laikā.

Paaugstinātas Drošības cietums Nr.21 (S-21) tika izvietots vienā no galvaspilsētas labākajām vidusskolām. Bijušās klases kļuva par cietuma kamerām. Pārsvarā te turēja, spīdzināja un nogalināja ‘savējos’ – Sarkanos hmerus, kuri tika apsūdzēti nodevībā. Arī viņu sievas un bēŗni, pat mazuļi, un ģimenes locekļi tika nogalināti. Apmēram 17,000 upuru. Spīdzināšanas mērķis bija noskaidrots, kā labā tu spiego – vai amerikāņu (tātad CIP agents), vai krievu (tātad VDK)?

Sarkanie hmeri fotografēja visus apcietinātos aresta laikā, un daudzus arī pēc nāves. Tagad piemiņai un liecībai ir tūkstošiem fotogrāfiju. Sejas, kas raugās uz mums… ar skumjām, ar smaidu, ar dusmām, apjukumu, cerību un reizē bezcerību un lielām bailēm. Skatos šajās sejās un domāju, kā tā varēju būt es, jo esmu tās desmitgades bērns. Tie varēja būt mani vecāki, vecvecāki, brāļi. Man bija tā laime piedzimt Latvijā, un viņiem bija tā nelaime piedzimt šeit.

Muzejā satiku vienu no nedaudzajiem, kas izdzīvoja. Šo vīrieti sauc Bou Mengs, un viņam tagad ir 72 gadi. Kas viņu izglāba? Spēja zīmēt un gleznot Sarkano hmeru vadītāju portretus. Viņa sieva un divi mazi bērni gan tika pazudināti. Bou Mengs ir pierakstījis savu liecību un atmiņas, un aktīvi piedalās taisnīguma un dziļas pagātnes pētīšanas procesā. Viņš bija liecinieks tiesas prāvā pret vienu no bijušajiem Sarkano hmeru vadītājiem, kas notika visai nesen. Šie tiesu procesi sākās tikai pēc 30 gadiem. (Taisnīguma meklēšana Kambodžā ir garš un sarežģīts stāsts.)

Viens no Kambodžas pētniekiem nonāca pie šāda secinājuma. “Kara laika brutalitāte, Marksistu fanātisms, milzīgs un it kā apdraudēts nacionālisms – tie bija trīs no galvenajiem elementiem, kas noveda līdz šādam totalitāram režīmam. … Mani satriec nevis ļaunuma banalitāte, bet gan tā ‘intelektuālās pretenzijas.” Svarīgi pārdomāt šos vārdus, jo līdzīgas pēc dabas ‘intelektuālas pretenzijas’ jeb pamatojumi pastāv vēl šodien. Kā iegūt imunitāti pret šādām idejām?

Un, nē, es nesatiku Andželīnu Džoliju, bet es gaidīšu viņas jaunāko filmu.

 

Cambodia and its complicated beauty

Have you ever unintentionally eavesdropped on someone’s conversation? I could not help it since this guys was talking on Skype very loudly. He was calling random people in China and always introduced himself as someone traveling in Asia. “I am in Cambodia right now”, he said. “It is a country between Thailand and Vietnam.”

I am in Cambodia, too. And currently reading a book called “The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience” by William Shawcross (1984) It reminds me of our complicated geographies and what it meant for Cambodia to be situated between Thailand and Vietnam. Very complicated story, indeed.

On my third trip to Cambodia, I continue to be amazed by the resilience and inner strength and warmth of these people. The children, of course, are adorable. I want to take photos with all of them as they wave, smile, say “hello” in English and send kisses. The adults smile, too. I cannot speak any Khmer even though (to my ear) it sounds very similar to Thai. I see lots of cultural and religious and linguistic similarities between Thailand and Cambodia.

It is a beautiful land but unfortunately not as beautiful as it used to be. One of the shocking facts is the horrific speed of deforestation. Just a few decades ago in 1969, its land was 70% forests. Now it is around 3% and the forests continue to shrink. In Siem Reap, there is still some green, natural beauty surrounding the national treasure – Angkor Wat. The huge ruins of temples and palaces from the former glory of Khmer kingdom.

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But most of the central plains are almost completely void of forests. Which means lots of things… Local people speak as common knowledge that each year gets hotter because of lack of trees. The flooding gets worse since the ground cannot drink it up; the air quality is bad. The wild animals lose their natural habitat and the list of man-made disasters goes on.

One of my friends from Malaysia made this comment about Cambodia. Dusty! Yes, it is very dusty, especially now in the dry season. I want to get one big hose and wash down everything. I also want to pick up all the trash on the ground. And I would like to see that all people have access to clean drinking water. Just yesterday I met with some great Khmer guys who are educating local villagers about the importance of clean water.

Here in Cambodia I hear two things a lot. Economic development and Community development. Often these two collide as money and corruption trumps the community needs. There is pride that this is one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia. Honestly I have very mixed feelings about the’ speed’ and question some of the definitions of ‘development’. Transparency International research about global corruption currently rates Cambodia in 150th place out of 168 countries. So, obviously transparency and rule of law is not something that is developing fast.

Easy to write a blog but what else can I do? I am here as a visitor who is also promoting development. I promote God’s vision of good life… the kind of life that most of us want. Life that is lived in right relationships within the community and the environment. The Hebrews call it ‘Shalom’; the academic Miroslav Volf calls it ‘flourishing life’; the think-tank Legatum Institute calls it ‘prosperity’ but they talk about the same thing.

I am inspired and challenged by Cambodia. Inspired because the country has traveled such a difficult road and has come so far. Challenged because I worry about the direction and many of the advisers. Therefore I am encouraged by our Khmer friends who are determined to learn new ways of ‘development’. They are making a new road. The real beauty of good living that reveals mercy, love, kindness, justice, dignity and honesty…

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Photos from personal archive