High in the top ten of the historic wonders of the world sits Angkor Wat, the vast city-temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a symbol of ancient Cambodian power and holiday destination for tens of thousands of tourists. Less familiar to the tourists will be the name of Kaing Guek Eav, prison commander of S-21, the horrific school-turned-torture camp created by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975. He remains the only person ever to stand trial for, and admit to, the crimes against humanity which cost the lives of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians at the hands of their Communist leaders.
Today, the sprawling capital city of Phnom Penn is so frantic, so full of life it is impossible to think that only 35 years ago under the Khmer Rouge the calendar was set to ‘Year Zero’ and a frenzied attempt to create a ‘pure’, indestructible Communism began. The population was decimated – forced to the countryside or executed. At S-21, the transformation of this seat of education into a place for the destruction of the mind reflects the way in which they deliberately set out to destroy Cambodian history. On the surface, today’s visitor to Phnom Penn sees the rampant commercialism and the seedy sex tourism industry, and is less aware of the heartbreaking process going on alongside it. The traveller hoping to ‘enjoy’ the city may be looking in the wrong place: the killing fields may be the hard-hitting reality they seek. The Cambodian people are drawing on an enduring culture and spirit which the Khmer Rouge never fully managed to destroy, having rebuilt their lives from the rubble of war and from a devastating political philosophy. Their history is still living, still in denial, still on trial. Many Cambodians have looked to Theravada Buddhism, which stresses the cyclical nature of life: while the great Angkor Wat era of Cambodia was obliterated by Pol Pot, the country and people will thrive once more. While they can’t forget the recent past they look to the future, where past actions can be rectified and history can be built on, not destroyed.