This sculpture — a handgun with its barrel tied in a knot — in the middle of a Phnom Penh roundabout might be the most appropriately placed art I’ve ever come across. The Khmer Rouge’s revolution and subsequent reign of violence set Cambodia back at least 50 years, and now all its people want is peace. Unfortunately, peace comes these days at the cost of deep-rooted corruption and the raping of the country’s natural resources — and sometimes not even peace: in early January, at least three garment workers protesting low wages were shot and killed by security forces near an industrial park in southwest Phnom Penh. The country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for 28 years; he vowed in May 2013 to remain in power for at least another decade. In the words of our tuk-tuk driver: “The people want freedom, but what can the people do?”
About 20 minutes by tuk-tuk from downtown Phnom Penh, the memorial at Choeung Ek, aka The Killing Fields, is the second-most depressing place I’ve ever been*. And now I’ve been twice. I won’t go a third time. Its nickname is an understatement, its grounds less a mass grave than a remnant of a slaughter pen, a somber reminder of the Khmer Rouge’s crude brutality: mothers were made to beat their children, children their mothers, husbands their wives. In just four years, more than 1 million people were killed here and on similar plots of land across Cambodia — one by one, and by some of the most twisted methods imaginable: bullets were too valuable to be wasted; perverse necessity was the mother of invention.*The most depressing place I’ve been is Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, the school-turned-secret-prison-turned-genocide-museum just a short drive from Choeung Ek. There, one can gaze at instruments of torture, peer into portraits of the executed, read reports and testimonies, and look the sick side of humanity square in the eye.