National Day

This week saw National Day in China. On the 1st October 1949,  the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was established by Mao Zedong – an event which is now celebrated as a national holiday.

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

For those who do not know how modern China was established, this blog post will describe briefly how National Day came about.

The final Chinese dynasty, Qing, ended in 1911. Its replacement was what is now known as the Warlord Era.  KMT (Kuomintang) leader, Sun Yat-sen wished to see the end of this rule and replaced instead with a democracy, and he attempted to seek assistance from the international community. His appeal was rejected, and Sun Yat-sen moved to the Soviet Union for aid. The Soviet Union granted this aid to the KMT – and to the newly established (and what would soon become) Chinese Communist Party. Both parties wished to end the Warlord Era and gain control of China.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 from cancer and his military leader, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded.

The fighting between the two parties – and their supporters – began in 1927. The KMT appeared to be stronger and secured most of the east coast of China, including the warlord’s capital in Beijing in 1928, and the KMT became recognised as leaders of China. Meanwhile, the CCP moved underground and into the countryside where they mobilised peasants and slowly began revolting – only to meet suppression from the KMT military.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

In 1934, the CCP, led by Mao, began a retreat of 12,500km which would be known as The Long March to Shaanxi. Throughout the march they recruited support from the peasants and the poor, leading the CCP to gain mass support of the Chinese people. This event also firmly placed Mao as leader of the CCP.

The civil war was disrupted in 1937 with the second Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The CCP, against Japanese imperialism, immediately began to fight the Japanese army. The KMT however, continued to target the CCP. This lead to compromises with the Japanese, much to the anger of the Chinese people. After the Xi’an Incident, the CCP and KMT united to fight against the Japanese. The CCP relied on guerrilla warfare, which allowed them to gain more support with the Chinese living in Japanese occupied areas.

Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek

After Japanese surrender to the United States, both the CCP and the KMT, who had sustained heavy losses in the second Sino-Japanese War, began peace talks with Mao Zedong meeting Chiang Kai-shek. Despite this, fighting between the two continued. The CCP now controlled almost a quarter of Chinese territory and their forces had increased dramatically. With Soviet support, and its promise of land reform – allowing peasants to free away from landlords – CCP support grew, as did its military.

The CCP was able to gain control of more territories in China, and seized several cities which gave them the military equipment they needed to advance. The civil war ended with the remaining KMT forces, along with Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Taiwan, and Mao Zedong, on the 1st of October 1949 proclaiming victory and establishing the People’s Republic of China. Although some resistance remained, the CCP were able to control the whole of China by 1950.

If you wish to learn more about modern Chinese history, but don’t fancy reading large history text books on the subject, Rana Mitter’s  Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2008) is a great, pocket-sized book which covers everything you need to know.


Many Chinese authors have written about this time in history (both fiction and non). I reviewed Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which covers from the Boxer rebellion right through until modern-day China. Other writers include: Qu Bo,  Qu Qiubai,  Su Tong, Chi Zijian and Geling Yan.

Freedom From Fear

”Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”

Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi

freedom from fear

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Pro-democracy campaigner, Burmese politician, and mother, is an incredibly inspirational woman, and one who everyone should learn about. Her fight for democracy in Burma, which still hasn’t been completely achieved, has been arduous and resulted in her being put under house arrest twice, totalling 15 years. She was separated from her young children, from her dying husband – all to fight on behalf of all Burmese people for democracy and human rights.

Freedom from Fear is a collection of essays written by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the first edition her husband, academic Michael Aris, wrote an introduction and in the second edition Archbishop Desmond Tutu also wrote an introduction. These introductions are valuable essays in themselves and make the reader become completely absorbed before the book even truly begins. Every page of this book is meaningful.

aung san

Aung San Suu Kyi

The essays depict a number of subjects: from the Burmese people, even those from ethnic minorities who are otherwise looked over; modern Burmese history, allowing the reader to understand Burma and their history of fighting oppression – including colonisation. The essays also focus on democracy and the importance of rescuing the Burmese people from tyranny, which has been constant in the country’s modern history. The book teaches the reader the importance of freedom and how to fight for it peacefully and how democracy can be used as a tool for achieving peace.

with obama

With President Obama

Her writing is incredibly inspirational. Her passion shines through and the reader is able to completely understand her reasonings and why it is important for people to be free.  You empathise with the Burmese people and you wish to join in their fight for freedom. The book defines who Aung San Suuu Kyi is, it explains to the world exactly what she is doing and why.

Regardless of who Aung San Suu Kyi is, Freedom From Fear is a great piece of writing. For those wishing to learn about democracy, or for those needing guidance to stand up for what they believe in, this book is a must read. Even current political leaders could do with reading it!

For anyone who wishes to learn more about Aung San Suu Kyi, 2011 saw the release of the film The Lady, a biopic of her life and work which is now available on DVD.

For up to date information, or if you wish to support Burmese people in their fight for freedom visit the charity Burma Campaign

Survival in the Killing Fields

This autobiography sums up the chaos that was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and to an extent, what still happens in Cambodia. I’ve read a few autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge years, and this one hits me the hardest. It makes you depressed, and more importantly, makes you appreciate the life you are living now.

killing fields

Haing S. Ngor was made famous by acting as Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields – a role which won Ngor an Oscar. Dith Pran’s story is a famous one, it’s horrific and upsetting what he experienced under the Pol Pot regime. Ngor’s account takes this feeling to a whole new level.

This book definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s heartbreaking and horrowing. There are graphic descriptions of torture and murder, of disease and starvation, of crimes against humanity both within the Khmer Rouge and outside (including the rape of women by Thai soldiers as they try and escape Cambodia, and the mass killing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand). The description is so vivid you can almost smell the death of the people around him.

Ngor doesn’t just describe his own personal suffering, he describes Cambodia’s suffering. He writes what he witnesses. His personal accounts of being tortured (which happened on numerous occassions) also describe how others were treated. Not many autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge do this, for example, Denise Affonco’s  To The End of Hell, which describes only the author’s suffering and feelings of starvation. It’s quite a tedious read as Affonco doesn’t even describe in detail her own children’s death and as a result doesn’t generate the same emotional response as Survival in the Killing Fields.

Haing S. Ngor not only gives an account of what happens to his life during the Pol Pot regime, he also disusses the culture and most importantly, the politics of Cambodia before, during and after the regime.  The book can easily be split into two sections: Ngor’s life before, during and after the regime; and what happened to Khmer citizens before, during and after the regime. The book is a mini contemporary history of Cambodia and you can begin to understand the political workings of a nightmare.

The Khmer Rouge regime is incredibly fascinating and raises certain questions: why didn’t the West intervene? We knew what was happening in the country, yet there was no international discussion about how to solve the problem. This wouldn’t happen today – Syria being the prime example. Ngor doesn’t blame anyone for events happening in his country. All his anger is directed at the Khmer Rouge, to those who tortured him and others, to those who brought the Cambodian people suffering and death.


Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

Ngor’s memoirs conclude with his own death.  Roger Warner (the co-author) describes in an epilogue what happens after Ngor won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields and he ends describing Ngor’s death in 1996 and the mystery surrounding it.

There is a happy ending however. Since his death a charity, Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation  was founded, which provides aid to the people of Cambodia.

Survival in the Killing Fields is a book everyone should read, and no one should forget.

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

I have recently been re-reading the diary I kept whilst travelling in Cambodia in 2010. It’s not often that I forget chilling events and goings-on when talking to people and visiting places. What happened in Cambodia however, was very nearly forgotten and upon re-reading I was able to remember and appreciate just exactly how lucky I am.

My diary is 30 pages long, but I have condensed it down for the purpose of this blog. This first post focuses on S-21 and the Killing Fields.

26th November

It was easily one of the most depressing days of my life. Why? Because I visited S-21 and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

S-21 is utterly bizarre. It’s located on a normal street, with cafés and homes opposite. The site itself was surreal; despite it being gorgeously hot, it felt cold and oppressive. I hired a female guide who before taking me around explained what she lived through in the Khmer Rouge years. She told me that she and her family were forced to leave Phnom Penh when she was six. They were told to walk south towards the Vietnamese boarder, on the way her father was killed for being a former Lon Nol soldier. They reached a village where they were told they would only be for three days before being allowed back to the capital. But she ended up staying for a year. Her older brother and sister, being children and not understanding, tried to get more food. They were shortly taken away from their mother and were killed. A couple of months later my guide, now 7, left with her mother at night and escaped over the Vietnamese boarder where they made way to a refugee camp full of other Cambodians. She said it was one the most terrifying journeys ever; never knowing if they were going to be caught and killed. She went back when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and resettled in Phnom Penh. She said she has no idea where her father, brother and sister are buried and cannot visit their graves to pay her respects.

She pointed out the graves of the last people who were killed in S-21. Apparently, they were killed in a rush of panic –the Vietnamese were coming so the Khmer Rouge were desperately trying to run and hide. She took me into the first block; the classrooms were split with makeshift walls. The rooms were roughly the size of a double bed, they had no doors, and some still had blood smeared up the walls. Chains and cuffs were nailed to the floor. She explained that everything has been left untouched in memory to those who died there. These rooms were where the prisoners stayed before being tortured and killed. Two or more were in the same room. One room we went in still had some torture equipment in the centre and photographs on the wall.

The final block was full of other torture equipment they found and of photographs. Every single prisoner had their photograph taken upon entry. There are children, women, babies and men. There were also paintings. My guide explained that one of the S-21 survivors is an artist and he painted them after he left. They were graphical and showed the torture he witnessed whilst in S-21 – including babies being murdered and women being raped. My guide went through how each piece of equipment was used. One room had a large wooden table with chains on. It was used to help torture the women. They were tied down, raped and mutilated (mainly their breasts were cut off).

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

S-21: The wire stops the prisoners from committing suicide

Finally I was shown some more photographs, however, these were the ones of the Khmer Rouge who worked in S-21, and my guide picked out the faces of those who were now in prison or had died before going to prison. But I noticed that some of them she ignored and I asked her what happened to them. My guide went a bit pale and took me into an empty side room and asked me again if I really wanted to know, and I said I did. She started off by saying I was the first person who has ever asked about them(!). And she told me that what she is about to say is illegal, that if she is overheard criticising the politics of her country that she would be taken away and would never see her children again, but that she would tell me because it was important to tell someone. She told me that those people were given protection by the government as they had friends in high places, including the prime minister Hun Sen, and a few were even given jobs within the government which angered a lot of the people.

She went on to explain that nothing has really changed in Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge have gone but behind closed doors it was the same as usual. People were still being taken away and never seen of again. People aren’t allowed to speak their minds and protest against what’s being done in government. That the ‘foreigners’ came in the 1990s and didn’t really change a thing, except send Pol Pot into hiding, and replaced him with a dictator who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. Journalists aren’t even are allowed to report the corruption that’s going on in their government. In NGOs there are senior figures who monitor what’s going on to make sure nothing too incriminating gets published. She said the ‘foreigners’ had introduced other problems including HIV and that violence had only got worse, that now you know longer knew who to trust. People were scared of putting a finger out of line.

She was in tears and when she was ranting she kept looking at the door. I can’t even imagine what she’s seen and she was clearly trying to keep the rant as short as possible but at the same time you could tell she wanted to say more. She quickly left, bowed and asked if I was visiting the Killing Fields next. She then told me I could take photographs around S-21 and upstairs there was a documentary being shown.

After S-21 I left for the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The complex is quite large, and only some of the mass graves have been excavated. Outside there are landmine amputees begging for money.

You are free to tour the Killing Fields how you please. I worked my way clockwise starting at the memorial stupa. It was surrounded by Japanese tourists who were taking cheesy, happy-smiley, posing with their fingers in the ‘v’ sign and laughing inside the stupa which is filled with skulls of Khmer Rouge victims and displayed according to age and sex. What the tourists were doing made me feel incredibly sick. They didn’t even take their shoes off, and being Japanese I thought it would’ve been natural for them to do so. Tourists were expected to be respectful (obviously) and lay down white flowers and incense and take a few moments to pay their respects. Cambodian families also often visit to do the same, many go because they don’t know where their family are buried and feel the need to pay respects somewhere. The Japanese were clearly being anything but respectful.

There were signs everywhere telling people to mind the mass graves and not to walk in them. Some were fenced off, including a grave that around 166 bodies which were found decapitated. There were also signs explaining the significance of some objects, including trees. There was a tree that babies were killed against (one of the paintings in S-21 showed a baby being held by one ankle and thrown against the tree with force, killing it). There was also a sign by a building which apparently housed chemicals which were poured over the graves to burn off any remaining survivors and to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

At the end of the trail there was a mini museum with information on the Killing Fields, Pol Pot and S-21. It explained that there were over 300 of these sites around the country.

The Killing Fields