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‘They don’t know about war’: The legacy of forgotten horrors

SNA ANSA, CAMBODIA — The land mine that killed Ma Simet and two others was laid decades ago. The devices are designed to endure. They can outlast monsoons and droughts, years of political upheaval and submerged histories — until the cataclysmic moment of contact.

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims in a memorial at the Choeung Ek Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday, Jan 22, 2022.

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims in a memorial at the Choeung Ek Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday, Jan 22, 2022.

SNA ANSA, CAMBODIA — The land mine that killed Ma Simet and two others was laid decades ago. The devices are designed to endure. They can outlast monsoons and droughts, years of political upheaval and submerged histories — until the cataclysmic moment of contact.

On Jan 10, under an early hot sun, the men worked to remove mines from a field, vestiges of a time when Cambodia was at war with itself and suffered as a victim of a larger conflict. By late morning, they had discovered a Russian-made anti-tank mine. Nestled nearby, unseen by them, was an anti-personnel device, which targets anyone trying to defuse the larger explosive.

The two men closer to the detonation were obliterated. All that was left of one was a couple of fingers and a patch of scalp. Ma Simet, 32, was a bit farther away. His body was found intact.

“Even though his face was burned, it was like he was sleeping peacefully,” said Ms Khuon Savin, his widow. “I don’t care about the history. I just want those mines gone before they hurt other people.”

The three men’s deaths are reminders of how an unearthed past continues to shatter Cambodia’s present, even if most of the population has no memory of the country’s deadliest years.

Two-thirds of Cambodians are younger than 30. They were born long after the Khmer Rouge unleashed its totalitarian terror and extinguished up to one-quarter of the nation’s population in the 1970s, long after the United States (US) carpet-bombing campaigns that poisoned their earth with 500,000 tons of ordnance during the Vietnam War.

People want to gaze ahead, a natural impulse of the young — and of those who wish not to remember.

But in soil still stained by the legacy of genocide and crimes against humanity, new blights have taken root: kleptocratic rulers, runaway corruption and a chasm of inequality.

Ma Simet knew the weight of history. His job deactivating unexploded ordnance was a daily reminder of a past that had ravaged his parents’ generation and that of their parents. His siblings knew the effort to eradicate mines was important, but they say there is little point in excavating the deeper truths about what happened long ago. His widow agrees.

Yet their lives will continue to be formed by this act of forgetting and of the sudden surfacing of trauma. Far from being freed from history, Ma Simet’s eight siblings, whose ages span from 19 to 41, are living the arc of modern Cambodia, a time of phenomenal change but also tremendous imbalance.

The current leadership of Cambodia has encouraged a national amnesia, allowing authoritarianism and its attendant ills to flourish again.

The country is led by Mr Hun Sen, a strongman who after 37 years in power is the world’s longest-serving prime minister. He started off in the Khmer Rouge before aligning himself with the forces that swept aside the regime. Mr Hun Sen has destroyed the political opposition, groomed his son as a successor and allowed for the enrichment of an elite that once espoused communist ideals.

At Ma Simet’s funeral in late January, in a shaded pagoda complex rebuilt after the Khmer Rouge destroyed it, his mother, Ms Mak Leuk, received the mourners.

“My son’s death had value for the nation,” she said, “but we have lost our blood.”

Among those at the funeral was Ms Kao Kea, the widow of Mak Leuk’s brother. He too, was killed by a land mine, nearly 30 years ago.

Ms Kao Kea, 58, shook her head at the chances that two men would be killed by these hidden remnants of the past, planted at the same time perhaps, but detonating a generation apart.

“The young generation, they don’t know about war, and even me, I’m from that generation, but I don’t know much about it either,” she said. “Maybe we should remember. Because if we don’t, what will stop us from making the same mistakes again?”


Ma Simet took a job deactivating land mines to spare his new wife the danger. Before he and Ms Khuon Savin married, she worked for a nongovernmental group called Cambodian Self Help Demining.

Over the years, about 20,000 Cambodians have been killed by unexploded ordnance scattered across the country by warring forces: the Khmer Rouge, the Americans, the Vietnamese and other Cambodian factions.

Each work day, she strapped on body armour and ran a metal detector over the earth, helping to deactivate a mine when she found one. For this perilous work, Khuon Savin made about US$300 (S$406) a month.

After they wed in 2013, her new husband insisted on taking the risk instead.

“He wanted to make Cambodia safe,” Ms Khuon Savin said. “He was proud of our country.”

For all the strides Cambodia has made — three decades of peace and economic growth, at least until the coronavirus pandemic — the country is still defined by its violent past. Like Rwanda, Srebrenica or Darfur, Cambodia stands as a byword for the worst impulses of humanity.

Yet much of that past remains unspoken, even if Cambodia’s youth are confronting the nation’s repressive leaders. Most of the textbooks that educated today’s young adults touched lightly on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. In villages, those who killed still live next to relatives of those they killed. Within families, personal histories are obscured.

Before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Ms Khuon Savin’s mother had been from a comfortable family. Her father spoke French, the language of the former colonizers. For that bourgeois affectation, she said, he was taken for a “study session” and never came back.

Such executions were common in Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge renamed the country, where an agrarian utopia was to replace a decadent capitalism. People were killed for wearing glasses, a sign of education. They were killed for every and any reason.

In late January, Ms Khuon Savin sat with her parents mourning her husband.

Ms Khuon Savin knew that her father, Mr Khuon Khai, 63, had been a soldier for a Cambodian force that battled the Khmer Rouge. This was after the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, which ousted the more radical communists.

Sitting with his wife and daughter, Mr Khuon Khai had a confession. After his mother died of starvation, he had served in the very force that had precipitated her death: the Khmer Rouge.

“I just followed others,” he said. “I had no parents. I didn’t want to die.”

It was the first time his daughter and wife had heard his secret. Days before, his son-in-law had been killed by a Khmer Rouge mine.

His wife, Ms Soum Vai, looked at the man seated next to her, the man to whom she been married for 35 years.

“I’m afraid of him now,” she said, covering her face. “My father, my family members, were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”

A transistor radio sat next to Mr Khuon Khai, its antenna leaning against the wall. He listens to Buddhist sermons every day.

“It helps give me peace of mind, helps my sins to be forgiven,” he said.


At noon, Ms Ma Syloun, the youngest of Ma Simet’s eight siblings, logs on to her college classes, which are being held online because of Covid-19. She does not have a laptop, but she does have a scholarship to the Royal University of Law and Economics and a Chinese-made smartphone to watch her professors.

Cambodia’s youth have opportunities that the earlier post-war generation never enjoyed. Ms Ma Syloun’s oldest sister works in a garment factory. Never having finished primary school, she can barely write her own name. For those who emerged from the Khmer Rouge era and the years of civil war, mere survival was an accomplishment.

By the time Ms Ma Syloun came along, she was not only able to finish high school but also won funding for college in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital — the only student from her high school that year who did. She decided to study law, her interest sparked by her family’s land being seized without proper compensation.

Over the past two decades, much of Cambodia’s farmland and forests has ended up in the hands of foreign investors and local developers tied to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Socialist in its founding, the governing force has long since embraced the trappings of capitalism, defending its material gains with thuggery and graft.

The streets of Phnom Penh, a city once emptied of cars by the Khmer Rouge, later the domain of United Nations peacekeeping vehicles, are now choked with the traffic jams common in many Asian megacities. Vast villa complexes, gilded with Louis XIV flourishes and Venetian domes, ring the capital on what was once farmland.

The progeny of former Marxist revolutionaries are some of the most conspicuous consumers of Cambodia’s new money — and their impunity is fiercely protected. A political activist who exposed the business empire controlled by Hun Sen’s extended family was fatally shot while sitting at a Phnom Penh cafe.

The wealth gap can seem unbridgeable to many Cambodians, even if the number of those living in absolute poverty has declined sharply. Mr En Poy, 33, the sole survivor of the Jan 10 accident that killed Ma Simet and two others, was maimed by another land mine when he was a child. He has dodged death twice, lost an eye and part of an arm.

He is so deeply in debt that he is considering returning to his job finding land mines. More than half of Cambodian households, his included, owe money to what critics say are predatory microfinancing institutions.

Some of Ms Ma Syloun’s classmates, rich students from Phnom Penh, do not understand why she cannot join calls for some group projects. To afford life in Phnom Penh, she works at a restaurant, seven days a week, for US$80 a month. Since she is studying on her phone, she writes her assignments on paper.

“They say they’ll take my name off the group work,” she said. “They say I’m lazy.”

She shows photos of these classmates, posing on social media, sipping icy drinks in air conditioning.

Ms Ma Syloun brings rice from her village of Sna Ansa to Phnom Penh. It is cheaper than buying city rice. Her father has sold a buffalo and cows for her education.

She acknowledges that her chances of becoming a lawyer are slim. Many white-collar jobs are secured through connections and under-the-table payments, the kind of inequalities that led many Cambodians to initially welcome the Khmer Rouge.

“In our country, without money and a strong network, you are nothing,” she said.


On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, on a dusty road crowded with motorcycles and trucks carrying garment workers to factories, stands a cream-colored edifice set against a vast lawn: the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia.

There, over the past 16 years, what are known as the Khmer Rouge trials have unfolded, through a United Nations-sponsored process that was supposed to bring a measure of justice and catharsis to Cambodia. This, though, is hardly the Nuremberg trials, which delved into Nazi horrors, or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was meant to help mend the rifts of apartheid.

The Khmer Rouge trials have cost more than US$300 million. Yet only three defendants have been found guilty. Two others died in the course of the trials, and two cases against lower-level commanders were dismissed, one in December.

From the beginning, the scope of the court, with its mix of Cambodian and international judges, was limited to a handful of men and women who were considered senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge or those most responsible for its horrors.

Mr Hun Sen’s government worked to slow down the effort, according to human rights lawyers and legal scholars. Dredging the past could be risky for the ruling party, which is stocked with Khmer Rouge defectors and their disciples.

“The artifacts of a terrible history, the experience of surviving genocide, shapes Cambodia’s future,” said Mr Sophal Ear, a dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, whose father died during the Khmer Rouge era.

Yet without the burden of those memories, Cambodia’s youth may be better suited to fight Mr Hun Sen’s autocracy, through activism and online dissent. Unlike the generations that survived the Khmer Rouge years, they have not been conditioned to keep quiet to stay alive. Dozens of young activists are now in prison.

“If you’re only looking at the past, then it’s hard to escape it,” Mr Ear said. “Because they didn’t live through the awful history, it’s the young who are willing to face the ex-Khmer Rouge guys running the government.”

When she was in high school, Ms Ma Syloun visited the court with her mother, Ms Mak Leuk, whose younger sister was taken in for questioning by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again. Ms Mak Leuk’s parents died of disease when she was 11 years old. Decades on, she, unlike many others, has told her nine children of these tragedies, of the three cups of rice stretched into a watery gruel for 150 people, of her skeletal frame with legs swollen from malnutrition.

“They don’t believe it,” she said. “I tell them it’s true.”

Sitting at her brother’s funeral, Ms Ma Syloun said her mother has told her those stories, over and over.

Buddhist monks chanted, the incantations broadcast by loudspeaker over a village where history’s aggressors and victims still coexist, where farmers’ landholdings grow smaller with each year.

“I don’t want to think about this terrible history,” Ms Ma Syloun said. “It’s better to look forward.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Related topics

Cambodia war Khmer Rouge

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