Monday, January 30, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Perspective

Disclaimer: I tend to write with a happy, 'there's always a silver lining' demeanor. But sometimes there are times when you travel that you do see something horrific, especially when you go to the Third World. I've seen death, starvation, prostitution, and the stranglehold that the 'civilized' world has on many poor countries. It's something you can't read about or see in a documentary. You have to experience it. Even now I can see how futile it is to put my feelings into words on a subject like this, as you can't truly understand it unless you've been there. This is for me as a writer: to release these feelings into a medium I'm familiar with in hopes that I can understand what it all means. 

It's going to get heavy, so if you want you can wait until I have something more happy-go-lucky to say. I'd understand. I do hope you stay for the journey. Maybe both of us can learn something...


Humanity is capable of amazing and terrible things, and traveling opens your eyes to the unbiased reality people face in this world. When I first left the comfort of my home country, I couldn't believe how diverse this world was. I mean, you knew about people from other countries. You knew there was more out there. But you really can't know the extent of how different everything is until you step foot into another country. It's overwhelming. I mean, that's why people travel, right? For that feeling of not knowing...and learning about what the world has to offer. It's addicting, like an itch that needs scratching. I stay in one place for too long and cabin fever sets in. 

Lately, though, that need has been much harder to fulfill. The more countries you go to, the more things seem the same. I remember in Cambodia climbing one of the temples and a traveling couple from North America (couldn't pinpoint the accent) was right behind me. I could hear them saying "Honey, this is amazing, isn't it? I can't wait to show our pictures to your parents. They're going to be so jealous This is the trip of a lifetime." All I could think was "Eh, this is cool, but I climbed Mt. Fuji at night and swam with sharks in the reefs in Fiji. I've seen better." I caught myself for a second and thought "Man, that was pretentious of you..."

There was more behind that fleeting thought than I realized. I was traveling for different reasons now, and they ran much deeper than taking pictures and telling stories to friends back home. I wanted to learn more about my place in the world. I wanted to find perspective, and along the way I wanted to touch as many lives as possible for my own personal joy and satisfaction. Humanitarian work is a completely selfish act because feeding and tutoring kids brings me happiness.

There's also a thirst for knowledge that set me apart from the average tourist in Cambodia, and that took me on the path less traveled. Part of that journey took me to the land mine museum outside Siem Reap, where I learned the story of the Khmer Rouge and the man that is Aki Ra.

Before coming to Cambodia, I had heard of the atrocities committed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. They were the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and ruled the country between 1975 and 1979. Under their rule, the Khmer Rouge believed in a classless society free of capitalism and wanted to revert back to an 'older way of life'. Institutions like money were abolished in favor of reverting to an agriculture society. The 'intellectuals' of the country were murdered, including teachers, bankers, merchants, politicians, foreigners, and anyone that needed 'cleansing'. There are many estimates out there on how many people died during that time, but it was hard to determine simply because access to the country was next to impossible. According to the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project, about 1.7 million people died from execution, disease, and starvation: 22% of the entire population of Cambodia. More estimates pinpoint that figure higher. You can find more information about this online. I was also recommended to read Alive in the Killing Fields by Nawuth Keat, which I'm currently reading now.

At the museum, a US Vietnam Veteran and a volunteer from Denmark talked with me for the better part of 2 hours (the place was empty...most tour busses don't come out there) about the history of Cambodia. I was horrified as much as I was fascinated about how much I didn't know about the subject. You don't really learn about this unless you try to seek information about it, and even then it's hard to get a clear picture of this dark time. I also learned why that is: the United States had a huge part to play in the death of those people.

The United States did 2 things that helped aid the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The first was the firebombing that occurred in Cambodia. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped about 2.8 million tons of ordnance in Cambodia. If you look at the map, you can see that this was much more than targets that happened to share a border with Vietnam. Part of the reason for the firebombing was to prevent the Vietnamese from using Cambodia to launch attacks from the side and retreat North. Another reason was the leadership of Nixon, who wanted the Air Force to go into Cambodia and 'crack the hell out of' the enemy. Studies in the 1990's revealed that about 10% of these bombings were indiscriminate, meaning that they either had unknown targets or no targets at all.

This forced the Vietnamese Communists to flee farther west into Cambodia and thus giving the Khmer Rouge a Communist influence. This also gave the Khmer Rouge political leverage coming into power by allowing them to blame the deaths from these bombings on the West, generating support and sympathy for the movement.

What's worst of all is that many bombs didn't explode and still reside in the jungle with their detonators intact. These are just as deadly as land mines, as many reside in the rural areas where officials can't defuse them. 

That would be enough to feel guilty for my country's actions, but the icing on the cake was learning that the United States supported the Khmer Rouge on multiple occasions! When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979 (after the war), we help fund their resistance. We would aid guerrilla fighters fleeing into Thailand to help fight the Vietnamese. We allowed the Khmer Rouge to survive well into the 1990's, thus promoting war in the region for the better part of three decades killing who knows how many.

That legacy also lingers with the land mines that plague the country. On the left is a map depicting the number of land mine accidents between 2005 and 2007. The darker the color, the more accidents. It's impossible to know how many mines were placed during the war and the rule of the Khmer Rouge, but present day contamination seems to be concentrated in the western regions of the country. There is an estimated 6 million land mines residing in Cambodia, not including the unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam war. Land mines do not expire with time and do not discriminate. They are meant to injure people as much as possible, as an injured man is more detrimental to an army than a dead one.  Land mines are perhaps one of the most inhumane and lethal weapons used by man as they are consistently killing and dismembering innocent people around the world...many of which were used in conflicts dating 50 years or more. 

Those people include children, and while in Cambodia I did see children missing legs and arms from land mine accidents. All I could think was that these kids were the lucky ones...because they survived.

There are people trying to find answers to this problem. A Cambodian man, Aki Ra, leads a group that helps decontaminate rural areas in Cambodia. He started by using pliers and a wrench to pull the pins out of land mines, many of which he buried himself while in the Khmer Rouge. Now they use TNT to blow them up, as many are old and the detonation pins are unstable. His story is remarkable and you can find more on him from this CNN Heroes story.

In 1997, there was also a treaty known as the Ottawa Convention that banned the production, stockpiling,  transfer, and use of anti-personnel mines. As of January 15th of this year, 159 countries have signed the treaty. The full text can be found here. Both South Korea and the United States have refused to sign the treaty. President Clinton set a deadline to sign the treaty by 2006, but President Bush reversed that deadline in 2004 and tried (but failed) to begin production of land mines that expired over time. Efforts to sign over the US-placed mines on the DMZ to South Korea and to stop the production of land mines have been defeated by the Korean government. Both countries have the legal power to produce and use land mines as they see fit. On a personal note, I'm severely disappointed in both countries but continue to have hope that they find a way to sign the Ottawa Convention treaty in the future.

Now what does all of this mean? Well, nothing really. This is just a political issue of a third world nation that happens to involve many other nations of the world. It doesn't mean a thing unless you have an emotional response to it. It's a story on late night CNN that makes you think before you go to bed. You'll wake up the next morning, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go to work like you always do. Nothing will change.

Nothing will change unless you get emotionally attached, and even then it might not be enough. You could donate to an NGO, but find out later that they are corrupt and don't help those who need the aid. Your voice might get drowned out by all the others asking for help. It's the bleeding heart routine, and from a social standpoint it gets old.

For myself, it comes back to that issue of perspective. When I came back to Korea, I felt disconnected from the culture here. The vanity here made my stomach curdle. I don't care how young I look or how young that I am. I don't let that get in the way of me living my life. At times, I wanted to scream at the people trying to peg me into a rung on the social ladder. That hierarchy...it makes me sick. I'm a person, and I know what kind of person I am and who I want to be. I see how beautiful I am, and I will never let you define that for me. Ever. There are issues way more important in this world than looking good in the public's eye and the amount of money I make in a year.

It reminded me of when I came back from Kenya, and how apathetic people were. How apathetic I was to a degree. I couldn't blame Korea, and I can't blame others for not caring about these issues. They didn't see what I saw. I can't bring the cause to them because they didn't experience it. Changing hearts and minds is never easy, mostly because no cause is completely good or completely evil. It'd be selfish of me to demand you to see it my way because I'm not completely right. The only thing I could do was adjust my perspective. I have to count my blessings. I'll take up causes and quietly work at making my world a better place to live. That's all I can do.

When I did that...when I adjusted my perspective...things like having a girl not text you back and the Republican Primaries become petty in comparison. My disconnect with the world instead turned into moral clarity. I know what I stand for, and finding how I fit into society back home becomes the challenge instead. 

And maybe, just maybe, sharing my stories and my perspective with you might get you to question yours. Not to change and agree with me...just to question it. To not be complacent with your morals and values. That's how we're going to change this world for the better.

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