A photo of changing times

by John Einar Sandvand on August 20, 2009

Look closely at this photo, taken in Anlong Veng in Cambodia, the latest stronghold of Khmer Rouge. Not many years ago it would have been impossible to find this motive in this area. Why?


Anlong Veng is located all the way north in Cambodia, just kilometers away from the border to Thailand and on the foot of the mighty Dangrek mountains. For almost two decades after Khmer Rouge was ousted from power in Cambodia, the leftist movement stayed in control in this area, making it a base for its continuous civil war against the government. This was also the place where Pol Pot hid during the latest years of his life.

Only in 1998, when Pol Pot died, did the Cambodian government take control of this are.

I visited Anlong Veng for the first time in early 1999, writing an article for the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. It was one of my most interesting reporting trips ever.

At the time we had to drive 5-6 hours through the jungle to get to Anlong Veng. The road was in terrible condition and an armed former Khmer Rouge office had been sent to be my escort and to ensure our safe travel. And so he did: Only half a meter from the road he actually neutralized a landmine as we were looking.

Anlong Veng at the time had been isolated from the rest of Cambodia for two decades under the strict rule of Khmer Rouge. During this period people were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world, there were no commerce, no imported goods, no opportunities to start your own business and prosper.

Most men had been soldiers, and people were used to the war being a part of their daily life. At the primary school I met children who explained to me in detail how one should put out landmines. Where had  they learned it? In school Рalong with a world perspective of Vietnam as the major enemy of all Khmers.

Let us turn back to this photo, taken on my visit to Anlong Veng in August 2009. There are at least two reasons why this motive could not have been taken before 1998:

  • Reason number 1: The mobile phone. Of course mobile phones as such were not so common in Cambodia. However, they did exist. But in Anlong Veng all contact with the outside world was prohibited. Nobody would have been allowed to own or use a mobile phone.
  • Reason number 2: The monk. All religion was prohibited during Khmer Rouge and no monks were to be found in the Anlong Veng area until the government took over in 1998. People did not need religion, according to Khmer Rouge.

Also, no foreigners were allowed in Anlong Veng at the time, for instance to take photos.

This photo was taken close to the hiding house of Ta Mok, the latest strongman of Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng. Ta Mok was arrested in 1999 and died in a prison in Phnom Penh in 2006.

Ironically the monk on this photo had been invited to perform a religious ceremony by one of Ta Mok’s close associates during the Khmer Rouge.

It turned out they did need religion afterall.

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