Tuesday, September 18, 2007


If you're wondering why I have a somber look in this picture, it's because this was taken at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is prohibited to smile in this historic site, since the Cambodians consider this almost a sacred site, a reminder of the times when evil ruled in Cambodia and a despotic leader thought that eradicating a quarter of his country's population, mostly intellectuals, professionals, government officials, students and even children, would usher in a new era for this beautiful and fertile land.

That was during the regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by the infamous Pol Pot. This facility, which used to be a school, became one of the prisons and torture centers of the Khmer Rouge, under the operational command of the S-21, the unit which oversaw this center and
three others around the country. This particular facility housed at least 1,500 prisoners at any one time, with inmates given some of the most inhuman treatments ever known to man.

Many of the inmates who suffered and died here were buried in mass graves which later on became known as the "Killing Fields" (a movie was made from the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide). The Vietnamese army, which invaded Cambodia in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge, discovered the bodies of the tortured prisoners shackled on metal beds.

Visiting the facility now, you get a heavy, eerie feeling as you enter one of the rooms, which have on display the actual beds used by the prisoners.

There were displays of the mug shots of the prisoners, which ranged from children all the way to old ,men and women. The Khmer Rouge meticulously kept records of their prisoners and numbered each one of them, as seen in the mug shots.

The people in the photographs had a variety of expressions, from plain, blank stares to expressions of fear to those of defiance. Indeed, my visit to this monument to man's capacity for evil against his fellow man is a one that gave me a fresh perspective about our country.

With no offense meant to the gentle and friendly Cambodian people, I had a renewed faith in the Philippines and a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the country that we have.

I am thankful that we did not experience the kind of terror that Cambodians experienced in the hands of their fellow countrymen. True, we had and still have some abuse of rights and even involuntary disappearances, but it did not and does not come anywhere near to the savagery inflicted by Pol Pot to the people he was supposed to lead.

Despite all the complaints that we now have in our country (the corruption, the political instability and the rising prices), we are still a lot better off than the Cambodians. My impression of Phnom Penh, their capital, is that it is still way behind our capital, Manila (including the Greater Metro Manila) in terms of infrastructure development. I think even our provincial cities like Dumaguete or Pagadian is ahead in development.

But it might be unfair to compare Cambodia to the Philippines in such terms, since they have gone through a long period of conflict which ended relatively recently only. Up to the mid-90's, they were still in a brutal conflict which stunted their growth as a country.

Behind as they are in terms of economy and infrastructure, I would say they are ahead in terms of character as a nation. While in the Philippines we are constantly on the guard for fellow Filipinos who will take the first opportunity to fool us, cheat us or steal from us, money changers in Phnom Penh operate on open tables in the street corner, without even the protection of a security guard. Yes, they're just there on the street corner with the money lying on the table in front of them.

In the market, a stall owner selling semi-precious stones lays out on top of the counter almost half of her inventory, even turning her back to the customer once in a while, unmindful of the fact that the customer browsing her wares may just pocket one of the items she is selling.

It may be stupidity for us, especially because here we look at the next person as a potential criminal, but I think to them, it is the naivete that is borne of trust--trust that is not broken by her own countrymen. The different travel guides I researched before going to Cambodia all said the same thing---Cambodians are generally honest.

And I experienced it myself. The stall owner of the jewellry stall (it was in a Divisoria-style market called the Russian Market) pointed out to me which of the items were fake and which were genuine. To me, everything looked the same and she could have easily fooled me into believing that everything was genuine (I've expereinced that here in the Philippines).

I took a Tuk-Tuk (tricycle in the Philippines) from the King's Palace to the National Museum. Unlike Bangkok where the Tuk-Tuk drivers try to mulct you with their outrageous fares and forcibly bring you to the expensive jewellry shops (where they get a commission from items bought by their unwitting victims), this driver told me that I could pay him whatever I wanted. I was prepared to haggle to death, but when he told me that when I first asked about the fare, I was caught by surprise.

When we got to the National Museum, I told him I will next go the to Central Market after my visit to the museum. He said he'd wait for me. I wanted to pay him (just to show my good faith that I will not do a 1-2-3 on him, since he had already driven me to the museum from another place), but he said, I can just pay him after my whole itinerary.

As I entered the museum, the naughty Filipino in me thought, "hey, I can go out the other gate and he wouldn't know..I can get a free ride!". But my conscience got the best of me, so of course, after my visit to the museum, I went out the way I came in. He was taking a nap in his Tuk-Tuk and I even had to wake him up.

At least I felt good at the end of that excursion.

That trip to Cambodia, which was just three days after I came back from a trip to Australia, gave me a new perspective towards our country. I am thankful for the blessings that our country has. I am grateful that we didn't have to endure genocide or years of civil war and strife. I am glad that we have the numerous malls and countless entertainment centers around our developed cities.

But I am envious that as a nation, we have yet to earn the admiration of the world for our honesty and integrity. IF there's one thing we should work on as nation, I believe that more than the economic and material prosperity, it should be our character, in order for us to earn the respect of our fellowman.

God bless the Cambodians.

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