24 June 2012

The dark side of Cambodian Buddhism

Curtains of barbed wire
I usually blog about Buddhism or Buddhist temples, monasteries and related topics. However, having been in so many temples in Cambodia I have heard "Khmer Rouge" so many times, that I ended up buying a book to read more about it and it happens rarely, but I read all 500 pages in one go! I was pretty speechless after I finished the book "Surviving the Killing Fields". 

Prison rules
Going back to Cambodia and visiting Phnom Penh temples and southern Cambodian Khmer temples, I was not sure if I even wanted to visit the S21 prison and the Killing Fields, which are covered in every guidebook. I left it open with my tour guide if I even had enough time for it. 

But learning that during the Khmer Rouge regime nearly two thirds of more than 3.000 temples got destroyed and the rest were damaged and desecrated and that only 3.000 monks of 65.000 survived the 4 years of genocide, I changed my mind. The Buddhist sangha, the teachings and believes were virtually annihilated from a Nation, which built some of the greatest temples in the world. 

Blown up Buddha image
In Udong we visited the impressive temple of Vihear Preah Ath Roes with it's huge Buddha statue inside, which were both blown up by the Red Khmer with only sections of the building and parts of the Buddha remaining. Reconstruction work was going on while we visited and we made donations to support those efforts.

Prisoners at S21
So, I decided that I would visit the former Tuol Svay Prey High School, which was turned into the Security Prison 21, where more than 17.000 people were held and tortured before being taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. My guide and I visited several of the rooms where prisoners were held and interrogated and where many had died. It was an unbelievable experience and thinking that this had happened in my own lifetime made it even more realistic than other genocides, which happened in the past and I could only read about. 

Killing Fields
At the end of our visit to the rooms and buildings we visited the Documentation Center of Cambodia where I met with two of the survivors of the prison, Mr. Chum Manh and Mr. Bou Meng, who both published books about their stories to make sure it is not forgotten by future generations (or even today's generation).

"Killing Tree"
After the S 21 prison we went the long way out of the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where the 17.000 men, women, children and even infants were exterminated by unspeakable methods. While the visit to the prison was difficult already, this was just unbearable. Nobody speaks. Some people, even western visitors, cried as they walked over the mass grave sites, which are in direct neighborhood of villages and rice fields. Some of the remains of dead bodies are still out there in the open sites, some are shown behind glass containers. 

Desecrated Buddha Tree
The most graphic display of what human beings are capable of doing were the "Killing Tree" and the "Magic Tree", which is the Buddha tree where he meditated and attained enlightenment. The Memorial Stupa, which contains 8000 skulls arranged by age and sex, just left me in a stage where I lit some incense sticks in memory of those who suffered and died here, but I was not able to visit the nearby Museum anymore. 

Skulls in the Memorial Stupa
As difficult as it might be to see these two sites, you cannot avoid it when traveling in Cambodia. The Documentation Center has documented 196 prisons and 388 genocide sites, which contain 19,733 mass graves all over the country. Besides these numbers and the fact that there are memorials all over the country, many of the people you see and interact with today are still survivors or participants of the Khmer Rouge regime.

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