Photo: Flickr/Kyle Simourd

Cambodian War Museum: Insights Into the Tragic Tale of War and Genocide

The Cambodian War Museum in Siem Reap is a hidden treasure within a hidden treasure. It is both an enlightening experience and a grim memorial to just how devastating unintended consequences can be.

After the splendor of Angkor Wat and the sophisticated National Museum, I couldn’t imagine that the province had anything more that could impress me. However, I had read good reviews of the War Museum on Trip Advisor, so I decided to give it a try.

I stepped out of the hostel and found the same tuk tuk driver I had employed the day before waiting for me outside. I had been told prior to arriving in Cambodia that “everyone there speaks English.” However, I discovered this to be a bit of an exaggeration. Some tuk tuk drivers could hold a conversation with you in English, others could only say and understand the names of important tourist attractions. My driver wasn’t fluent in English by any means but quickly understood that I wanted to go to the War Museum.

After at least 20 minutes on the main road, I was slightly taken aback when he turned onto what, to me, resembled a driveway. My first thought was that he had taken a wrong turn and was trying to get back onto the correct route, but no, he soon stopped in a dirt parking lot and indicated we had arrived at the museum.

I hopped out and walked through a gate past a small table where an author was chatting about his book with other visitors. A young tour guide immediately approached me and offered his services. I gave my knee-jerk answer of no thank you and continued to look around.

The museum is outdoors. It is surrounded by a wall that went just above my head. It is no larger than a big yard with a lush green lawn to match. I walked the short path around the rusted bombs and tanks and tropical trees, looked at the pictures, and read the short descriptions of the weapons.

I came back to the entrance after maybe 20 minutes thinking there was awfully little here for such a well-reviewed attraction. I walked over and initiated a friendly conversation with the author at the entrance, and mentioned to him I was reconsidering my decision not to employ a guide. He told me I should certainly utilize them and they are free of charge so there was nothing to lose.

At that point I shyly walked over to one of the guides and said I wanted his help after all. He quickly agreed.

I had heard the war in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge referred to briefly before, but this was where the horrifying and tragic story was laid out for me.

At the time of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was jointly ruled by both a king and a prime minister. The prime minister supported America’s invasion of neighboring Vietnam, but the king did not. The king was consequently driven into exile and the prime minister took power. During this time he allowed the US military to run operations out of Cambodian territory. Once the United States withdrew from Vietnam, however, the king returned from exile and the prime minister was ultimately overthrown.

Once the king returned to power, the Khmer Rouge regime was established and the Cambodian genocide began. This genocide served a joint purpose, to eradicate anyone and everyone with connections or sympathies for the prime minister and his regime, and to eliminate anyone who was a barrier to establishing “agrarian socialism” in the country.

My guide escorted me to the weapons and vehicles of war that I had passed by so quickly before, except this time, I learned from him where each weapon came from. I realized the museum was a monument not only to the genocide but to the five-year long civil war that preceded it. As with most every war, each side had its allies: the tank, helicopter, bombs and guns all hailed from China, the Soviet Union, the USA or Vietnam. If the weapon came from China, he described how agricultural products had been traded for them. If it came from the Soviet Union, he would give me a description of its devastating effect and how it got into the country.

However, if the item was manufactured in the USA, a tone came into his voice that was difficult to describe and he had comparatively little comment. Perhaps it was because he knew I was from the USA and didn’t wish to cause offense.

Regardless, these pauses were deeply haunting to me. I sat and looked at those tools of war and wondered, in 30 years, what other countries will have weapons from my home nation sitting in its museums.

We came up to a small shack on the side that housed the guns and grenades as well as small pictures on the walls, including an image of someone shooting a baby that had been tossed into the air. This was where my guide’s personal connection to the genocide started to come out. At an age when I was being told if I swallowed watermelon seeds watermelons would grow out of my nose, he was being told stories of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

During the genocide, virtually the entire population was commanded to engage in forced labor. According to my guide, if a woman had a baby at the time she was sent to the labor camps, the baby was killed so she wouldn’t be distracted from her work. My guide’s own grandparents were killed because they were too old and weak to perform manual labor.

He led me over to one of the trees. I had noticed virtually nothing about the trees before other than the fact they were lush and green. This time, however, my guide pointed out the deactivated landmines that had been put in the ground beneath the tree. He explained with subtle but unmistakable emotion in his voice, water supplies were poisoned and trees like the ones growing in and around the museum had landmines placed around them, even if they were growing there freely without any human cultivation.

Starvation, he explained, was one of the tactics employed by the Khmer regime in the effort to wipe out dissent. Laborers in the camps were deliberately fed very little, just enough to keep them able to function, but not enough to give them strength for any type of resistance.

Starving and malnourished people had to choose between succumbing to their hunger and risking the loss of life or limb to a mine.

I felt cold fingers pinch my heart when I looked at those mines and heard just how cruelly they were used. My mind went back to my first day in Cambodia, when I spent my long layover in Phom Phen visiting the country’s royal palace. Sitting at the gates of that glittering pavilion were people begging for money from well-to-do tourists, many of whom had lost limbs. I myself had been directly approached by a man sitting in a rickety wheelchair because he was missing a leg.

As if the mines weren’t enough, in accordance with the principles of “pure socialism,” all natural resources were the property of the government. This made foraging for food a crime and picking up a piece of fruit that had fallen from a tree in the jungle without the permission of the Khmer Rouge was grounds to be shot and killed on the spot.

Then we came to the imposing Soviet tank that dominated the open air museum. “This,” my guide told me, “is the (type of) tank that was used to destroy my village.”

When he was a boy, the regime responsible for the genocide was no longer in official power, but pockets of Khmer guerrillas still plagued the countryside. When he was 12 years old, one of these dying embers of the Khmer regime came to his village to use it as a battleground. He remembers his mother coming to him and saying they needed to leave immediately because the Khmer Rouge were coming. He remembered rushing from his home and just barely escaping in time before the village went up in an explosion of fire and bullets.

But what he remembered the most was the Khmer themselves, and how normal they appeared.

“I was shocked,” he told me, “because they looked just like me. I had heard tales as a small child of the Khmer Rouge and how they killed babies and ate human flesh. I was expecting a monster with crazy eyes or an alien from outer space. But they looked just like normal human beings.”

The tour came to an end and I thanked my guide sincerely. More than that, I marveled at what a long, tragic and complex tale I had just walked through within such a small space. Among the many other things I learned that day, I was reminded of how something like a rusted and broken helicopter or a fruit tree can have so much more of a story to tell depending on who is looking at it.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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Cambodian War Museum: Insights Into the Tragic Tale of War and Genocide

The Cambodian War Museum in Siem Reap is a hidden treasure within a hidden treasure. It is both an enlightening experience and a grim memorial to just how devastating unintended consequences can be.

After the splendor of Angkor Wat and the sophisticated National Museum, I couldn’t imagine that the province had anything more that could impress me. However, I had read good reviews of the War Museum on Trip Advisor, so I decided to give it a try.

I stepped out of the hostel and found the same tuk tuk driver I had employed the day before waiting for me outside. I had been told prior to arriving in Cambodia that “everyone there speaks English.” However, I discovered this to be a bit of an exaggeration. Some tuk tuk drivers could hold a conversation with you in English, others could only say and understand the names of important tourist attractions. My driver wasn’t fluent in English by any means but quickly understood that I wanted to go to the War Museum.

After at least 20 minutes on the main road, I was slightly taken aback when he turned onto what, to me, resembled a driveway. My first thought was that he had taken a wrong turn and was trying to get back onto the correct route, but no, he soon stopped in a dirt parking lot and indicated we had arrived at the museum.

I hopped out and walked through a gate past a small table where an author was chatting about his book with other visitors. A young tour guide immediately approached me and offered his services. I gave my knee-jerk answer of no thank you and continued to look around.

The museum is outdoors. It is surrounded by a wall that went just above my head. It is no larger than a big yard with a lush green lawn to match. I walked the short path around the rusted bombs and tanks and tropical trees, looked at the pictures, and read the short descriptions of the weapons.

I came back to the entrance after maybe 20 minutes thinking there was awfully little here for such a well-reviewed attraction. I walked over and initiated a friendly conversation with the author at the entrance, and mentioned to him I was reconsidering my decision not to employ a guide. He told me I should certainly utilize them and they are free of charge so there was nothing to lose.

At that point I shyly walked over to one of the guides and said I wanted his help after all. He quickly agreed.

I had heard the war in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge referred to briefly before, but this was where the horrifying and tragic story was laid out for me.

At the time of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was jointly ruled by both a king and a prime minister. The prime minister supported America’s invasion of neighboring Vietnam, but the king did not. The king was consequently driven into exile and the prime minister took power. During this time he allowed the US military to run operations out of Cambodian territory. Once the United States withdrew from Vietnam, however, the king returned from exile and the prime minister was ultimately overthrown.

Once the king returned to power, the Khmer Rouge regime was established and the Cambodian genocide began. This genocide served a joint purpose, to eradicate anyone and everyone with connections or sympathies for the prime minister and his regime, and to eliminate anyone who was a barrier to establishing “agrarian socialism” in the country.

My guide escorted me to the weapons and vehicles of war that I had passed by so quickly before, except this time, I learned from him where each weapon came from. I realized the museum was a monument not only to the genocide but to the five-year long civil war that preceded it. As with most every war, each side had its allies: the tank, helicopter, bombs and guns all hailed from China, the Soviet Union, the USA or Vietnam. If the weapon came from China, he described how agricultural products had been traded for them. If it came from the Soviet Union, he would give me a description of its devastating effect and how it got into the country.

However, if the item was manufactured in the USA, a tone came into his voice that was difficult to describe and he had comparatively little comment. Perhaps it was because he knew I was from the USA and didn’t wish to cause offense.

Regardless, these pauses were deeply haunting to me. I sat and looked at those tools of war and wondered, in 30 years, what other countries will have weapons from my home nation sitting in its museums.

We came up to a small shack on the side that housed the guns and grenades as well as small pictures on the walls, including an image of someone shooting a baby that had been tossed into the air. This was where my guide’s personal connection to the genocide started to come out. At an age when I was being told if I swallowed watermelon seeds watermelons would grow out of my nose, he was being told stories of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

During the genocide, virtually the entire population was commanded to engage in forced labor. According to my guide, if a woman had a baby at the time she was sent to the labor camps, the baby was killed so she wouldn’t be distracted from her work. My guide’s own grandparents were killed because they were too old and weak to perform manual labor.

He led me over to one of the trees. I had noticed virtually nothing about the trees before other than the fact they were lush and green. This time, however, my guide pointed out the deactivated landmines that had been put in the ground beneath the tree. He explained with subtle but unmistakable emotion in his voice, water supplies were poisoned and trees like the ones growing in and around the museum had landmines placed around them, even if they were growing there freely without any human cultivation.

Starvation, he explained, was one of the tactics employed by the Khmer regime in the effort to wipe out dissent. Laborers in the camps were deliberately fed very little, just enough to keep them able to function, but not enough to give them strength for any type of resistance.

Starving and malnourished people had to choose between succumbing to their hunger and risking the loss of life or limb to a mine.

I felt cold fingers pinch my heart when I looked at those mines and heard just how cruelly they were used. My mind went back to my first day in Cambodia, when I spent my long layover in Phom Phen visiting the country’s royal palace. Sitting at the gates of that glittering pavilion were people begging for money from well-to-do tourists, many of whom had lost limbs. I myself had been directly approached by a man sitting in a rickety wheelchair because he was missing a leg.

As if the mines weren’t enough, in accordance with the principles of “pure socialism,” all natural resources were the property of the government. This made foraging for food a crime and picking up a piece of fruit that had fallen from a tree in the jungle without the permission of the Khmer Rouge was grounds to be shot and killed on the spot.

Then we came to the imposing Soviet tank that dominated the open air museum. “This,” my guide told me, “is the (type of) tank that was used to destroy my village.”

When he was a boy, the regime responsible for the genocide was no longer in official power, but pockets of Khmer guerrillas still plagued the countryside. When he was 12 years old, one of these dying embers of the Khmer regime came to his village to use it as a battleground. He remembers his mother coming to him and saying they needed to leave immediately because the Khmer Rouge were coming. He remembered rushing from his home and just barely escaping in time before the village went up in an explosion of fire and bullets.

But what he remembered the most was the Khmer themselves, and how normal they appeared.

“I was shocked,” he told me, “because they looked just like me. I had heard tales as a small child of the Khmer Rouge and how they killed babies and ate human flesh. I was expecting a monster with crazy eyes or an alien from outer space. But they looked just like normal human beings.”

The tour came to an end and I thanked my guide sincerely. More than that, I marveled at what a long, tragic and complex tale I had just walked through within such a small space. Among the many other things I learned that day, I was reminded of how something like a rusted and broken helicopter or a fruit tree can have so much more of a story to tell depending on who is looking at it.

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