Wednesday, July 25, 2012

WAR AND GENOCIDE

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Turmoil

March 18, 1970. The date was historical for Cambodia and the Cambodians. But for the rest of the world, it was just one of those normal cycles of the week, the month, the year, and the century. Nothing would ever stop the inexorable evolution of time. The sun would rise and set as it had for millennia. The new day arrived, the old day disappeared. Everything seemed to move forward peacefully. However, being caught on the verge of a civil war, Cambodia appeared to fall into a world of uncertainty. News of the Americans invasion and bombardments on the Viet Cong’s (North Vietnamese Communist guerrillas) sanctuaries in northeastern Cambodian territory had spread as fast as the blasting sounds of those bombs. Every day, rumors and gossips about Cambodia being dragged into the tumult of the Vietnam War began to diffuse from town to town. Despite lack of information from the media, the earth trembling caused by the explosions of the American secret bombardments in Cambodia spread even faster than the press release. Day after day, the explosions of cluster bombs dropped down by the U.S.’s B-52 war planes had sent plenty of clear messages to the local people indicating that Cambodia’s independence, neutrality, and territorial integrity, which were guaranteed by the Geneva Conference in 1954, were now threatened, and devil and danger were on the way to steal their souls. Though it seemed a bit premature to predict any possible disaster at the moment, based on the ever present sounds of explosions, the smell of destruction was unmistakable. It was at that point in time that I began learning and memorizing life’s lesson about being caught in a war--a war that was to forever shape and change the course of my life. At the age of six, I had my first taste of escaping the destructive forces of war.

It was early in the morning. All living creatures began their daily routines as usual. From the top of a jackfruit tree, a sparrow chirped ceaselessly beside its nest calling for its mate, which was busily looking for worms in the nearby vegetable beds, to feed its newborn chicks. From the neighborhood’s barns, cattle bawled back and forth begging for release to the open pasture so that they could enjoy eating the tender grasses which had just sprung up after being sprinkled by the cool early morning dews. Occasionally, one would hear a deep, strong explosion ringing from the horizon like a thunder that roared in the first summer’s rainstorm. Sometimes, people could hear the rattling noises coming from the trembling of some objects around the house after the impacts of the bombs’ outbursts.

I woke up at just about the time when everyone in the village would normally leave for work. Strangely, it was quieter than usual that day, especially around the house. Filled with curiosity, I went to the porch and, as soon as I got out of the living room, I heard a bizarre noise coming from the street. Searching toward the source of the noise, I saw my parents standing beside the sidewalk. Beyond them, a large crowd of people hustled along the street with axes, machetes, hunting knives, and even bayonets in hands. Some of them carried banners and placards with words of protest. Frequently they chanted their slogans with a strong sense of demand. What the hell was going on! I thought to myself. Then I went toward my parents and stood quietly behind them as they were attentively watching the event unfold.

“Cheyo! Somdach Euv, nonah min tov kab chaul!” shouted the demonstrators. The words literally meant: “Long live Royal Father (a term referring to Prince Norodom Sihanouk)! Those who do not join in the protest must be hacked (killed)!” The protesters shouted the words again and again as they marched toward Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, which was located about 77 miles away. As that group of demonstrators went passed, my father turned around; he closed the gate and, along with my mother, walked me back to the house. My father told me not to go outside, and that I have to stop going to school for a while because of the chaotic situation. Emotionally, I saw my father appear to have grave concern over what was going on. I sensed that he was worried about something. But I was too young to understand and make a comprehensive connection between my father’s concerns and the unfolding events. My father went to the porch to take a short look at the demonstrators one more time then came back inside and turned on his old Philips radio.

On the news, there were reports of civilian unrest and the nationwide demonstration. But the biggest news was that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s head of state, who was ousted from power a couple of days earlier as he was on a trip to France and the former Soviet Union, was banned from returning to Cambodia. Prime Minister Lon Nol, a man who orchestrated the coup d'état and also headed the military, urged the pro-Sihanouk demonstrators to disperse and warned them not to march into Phnom Penh or they would face serious consequences. But, despite the warning, the protesters remained defiant. From a window of my house, I could see them march in unison--one group after another like waves along the Mekong River during the monsoon season. Looking at their plain clothes, I could tell off hand that these groups of people were apparently peasants and farmers who lived in the countryside and devoted themselves to the simplicity of rural lifestyles. The majority of them were literally not quite well-informed or knowledgeable of the outside world.

The next day, there were some reports of the incidents between the demonstrators and government soldiers. As usual, rumor news spread out before the official national broadcasts. There were some unconfirmed casualties as the protesters clashed with government soldiers who barricaded Phnom Penh with armored vehicles. Because Cambodia was a neutral country since 1954 and had been at peace for a relatively long time, its population had no experience with gun shots. When the protesters were approaching the perimeter of the city where they were forbidden to enter, government soldiers began to open fire above their heads, and it scared the hell out of them. In a panic, those protesters ran for cover like a herd of sheep being chased by a wolf. As for the soldiers, they were confused and frightened, too. Because of inexperience and inadequate training, some panicky soldiers had fired at the crowd. Many protesters were reported dead or wounded. Terrified by the muddled situation, a lot of demonstrators abandoned their companions and ran for their lives. On the air, broadcasting agents announced words from government officials asking the rioters to lay down their arms and disperse.

Back in the streets around the country, there were people walking about everywhere. They were protesters who had been vocally active a couple days earlier. However, this time, everything was different for them. They appeared calm and quiet. One after another, they walked without expressing unity or even noticing one another. There were no placards, no pictures of Prince Norodom Sihanouk (the man they demanded to be reinstated as head of state), no weapons, and some of them didn’t even have their shoes on. Their faces expressed fright, fear, and nervousness as if they had just been experiencing a terrible nightmare. Some of my neighbors who had joined the demonstration and went all the way to Phnom Penh returned with scratches and bruises on their bodies because people were running on top of one another in the commotions. They told tales of being fired upon by the soldiers and of those who were wounded were left to fend for themselves.

As the disbanded protesters walked on and on, the streets became empty, and things gradually returned to normal. I ran into the street to take a glimpse of it after being confined inside the house for a few days because of the riots. At that moment, I sensed that the street seemed unusually calm and detached. I looked in both directions of the street and saw nothing but a few neighbors standing on the sidewalks looking far and near as if they were also amazed at the eerily quiet surroundings. I stepped into the middle of the street and sensed that the lively atmosphere, which it used to be, was no longer there. While I was fantasizing with that lonely feeling, my mother called out to me beckoning me to come inside for dinner. It was 6:30 p.m. and the darkness was ready to replace the lovely, quiet, warm spring day.

My father lit a big kerosene lamp and hung it in the living room. He turned on the radio as we ate dinner. There was some new news about the new government being formed and a new constitution being drafted to replace the doomed old monarchy. There was also news of the U.S. government’s willingness to give Cambodia some helping hands in order to drive the Viet Cong (the Vietnamese Communist guerrilla forces) out of its territory. It was good news, I thought, because I saw my father showed a sense of delight on his facial expression. I had no knowledge about the United States of America at the time; but I used to hear grown-ups who had studied history in school say that America was the most prestigious country in the world, which always helped and supported free people to fight against the encroachment of communism. As a naïve kid, I felt like it was a good omen to hear such great news; however, the greatest sign of all was seeing my father showing some sense of agreement with the news report, for he was the kind of person who read and followed politics daily.

Some months later, following the unsuccessful, chaotic, pro-Sihanouk demonstration, a new government in Cambodia was officially formed. It was known as the Khmer Republic. Marshall Lon Nol, who was also the Prime Minister, added more stars to his rank and proclaimed himself head of state. Simultaneously from China, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the deposed leader, appeared on Beijing radio calling on his children (the term he used to address his subjects) to go into the jungles and join the opposition forces called the Liberation Armed Forces (Kang Torp Rumdos), which were later known as the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge was a Cambodian Communist movement which was formed under the tutelage of the North Vietnamese communists. They were initially trained and supported by North Vietnam. Just a few years earlier, the Cambodian communists (Khmer Rouge), had been brutally persecuted by Prince Sihanouk who had driven many of them into hiding in the jungles. Now that the table was turned, Prince Sihanouk had made an ally out of the very enemies he used to despise. Subsequently, as events began to unfold, a fatal mistake was made on the part of Prince Sihanouk and many of those who heeded his calls.

Out in Cambodia’s countryside, many people who were loyal to Prince Sihanouk received his messages, and they went by the hundreds to join the Khmer Rouge. In the cities, the new government began to draft high school and college students to join the army in order to fight and drive the Viet Cong out of Cambodian territory. At my house, several of my father’s friends came to meet with him. They were thinking about going to join the revolution movement in support of Prince Sihanouk and asked my father if he would be interested in joining them. They said that they wanted to flee into the jungle within the next few days since the civilian unrest was still hot. My father said no. He also told them not to side with or support Prince Sihanouk, for he was working with the Khmer Rouge, and the Khmer Rouge were communists who were radical and irrational. He told them that Prince Sihanouk was unpredictable, and to support or follow his reckless actions would be foolish. After an hour or so of discussion, my father’s friends left and went back to their homes.

A few days later, my father learned that some of his friends went to join the Khmer Rouge in support of Prince Sihanouk. As a consequence, this social disintegration eventually brought Cambodia under the wrath of a civil war. People began to distrust one another as they gave their support to different political camps. Those who were faithful to Prince Sihanouk would side with and support the Khmer Rouge to wage war against the Lon Nol government in order to bring Prince Sihanouk back to power. As for those who opposed the communist Khmer Rouge, they had, of course, to ally themselves with the Lon Nol regime. It was this power struggle that led Cambodia to an unimaginable disaster--a disaster that resulted in an even bigger tragedy than anyone could have predicted.

(To be continued)

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