Temples of Angkor

It was delight spending the last four days in Siem Reap, close to the Temples of Angkor, those ancient monuments of the ancient Khmer empire that enshrine the Hindu and Buddhist faiths in rich detail.

Angkor Thom







Angkor Thom, South Gate







Angkor Wat, Vishnu





The Killing Fields

I recently visited Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Both are potent and vivid memorials to the genocide overseen by Pol Pot during the 1970s, in which up to perhaps 3,000,000 Cambodians were slaughtered in gruesome circumstances.

At the memorial of the Killing fields of Choeung Ek

Pol Pot was a mad man who was hell-bent on creating a perfect Communist society. Paranoid to the hilt, he trusted no one and operated on the assumption that killing all of his enemies (real or imagined) was the best way to stay safe.

Visiting the Killing Fields is a harrowing experience. The grounds are hauntingly beautiful and a self-guided audio tour enables visitors to reflect at their own pace. The grounds are actually shifting, as the rains and weather expose the remains of mass graves from time to time. It’s not uncommon to come across a fragment of bone or a scrap of cloth from a shallow mass grave. Visitors, of course, are simply asked to not touch these and to let the grounds keepers move and preserve them accordingly.

My first thought while visiting the genocide museum at Tuol Sleng was, “why does genocide keep happening?” At the end of the Second World War the nations of the world said “never again” to mass atrocities like the genocide that took place in Nazi Germany, in which some 6,000,000 Jews were slaughtered at the behest of Adolf Hitler. Yet, decade after decade, genocide continues, whether it’s the mass killings of Cambodians in the 1970s, Rwandans in the 1990s, or the Sudanese in the 2000s. We, as a people, as a planet, allow the darkest reaches to consume us, it would seem. It makes me wonder where genocide will occur next. Sadly, I think it’s a matter of when it will happen, not if.

It was gruesome to visit the torture rooms at Tuol Sleng. In each room was a photograph of the last person tortured and murdered, along with the actual rack upon which the torturing would take place. (The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous record keepers. There literally thousands of photos they documented of the Cambodians they arrested and tortured.)

Torture Room at Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

Tuol Sleng was originally a high school, but during the rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the facility was turned into a secret prison, S-21, in which the innocent were held captive and tortured until they confessed whatever crimes they were accused of.

Only a handful of survivors remain from S-21. One of them, Bou Meng, was at Tuol Sleng when I visited. He’s an old man now. I purchased a copy of his biography, which is part of his efforts to teach others of what happened. In his book he writes, “Sorrow and pain have always stuck in my mind and have become a shadow that always follows me. …I will not forget the past, but I don’t want to live again through what I experienced. I want to close this dark chapter through legal means. Although I am growing older, I am still looking forward to the first trial [of the Khmer Rouge tribunal] with hope and confidence. My wish is that such atrocities will never happen again anywhere on earth.”

With Bou Meng, a survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

My First Week in Cambodia

My first seven days in Cambodia have been memorable. It’s been a while since I’ve been in South Asia–about twelve years since I last visited Thailand. This is my first trip to Cambodia and there is a smorgasbord of thoughts and feelings I’ve experienced over the past week.

At the Royal Palace

On the bright side, I’m impressed with the vitality and dynamism of the city. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is an energetic city with never a dull moment. Locals zip in and out the busy streets on their motorbikes. The city awakens very early every day. Construction is everywhere. The nation is on the move to develop quickly. Cambodia has a lot of catching up with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, and is making up for lost time.

The nation is flooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of non-government organizations (NGOs), the vast majority of which are here to help the country come out of poverty and embrace a more prosperous future. That’s partially why I’m here volunteering with Chab Dai, which seeks to join local NGOs in the fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery.

In some ways, it can feel like the wild west here. Motorists hardly obey traffic laws. The rich and ruling elite can do anything they want. I’ve even begun to hear stories about how the rich can literally get away with murder, with enough in bribes to pay off the authorities.

Although the nation is fighting its way out of poverty, there is still so much work to do.

Human Trafficking in Cambodia

With Long Heng from Chab Dai


I just arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to spend three weeks working with the anti-human trafficking organization Chab Dai. Meaning “joining hands” in the Khmer language, Chab Dai is among a myriad of non-governmental organizations in Cambodia that are dedicated to ending modern day slavery. To say the least, it’s an honor and a privilege to partner with an NGO like Chab Dai. The director of the program, Helen Sworn, is a remarkable woman who has devoted her life toward ending slavery in Cambodia.

I first met Helen at the 2011 Human Trafficking Conference in Lincoln Nebraska. This conference is unique in that it invites a broad array of professionals in the field, including NGOs (both faith-based and secular), policy practitioners (local and domestic) and academics such as myself. I approached Helen after she made an excellent presentation and asked if I could be of assistance. Flash forward nearly one year later and I’m in Cambodia. I’ll be helping with a research program called The Butterfly Project, which is a ten year longitudinal study of survivors of human trafficking. To the best of my knowledge, very few NGOs that combat modern day slavery are working on such research topics. (A notable exception is Free the Slaves and their work on The Freedom Dividend, of which I am a part.)

The goal of The Butterfly Project is to assess how much, and in what ways, survivors of human trafficking are growing over time. The research team of the Butterfly Project, led by Siobhan Miles and Glenn Miles, has collected an impressive amount of survey data over the past two years. This fall, at the 2012 Human Trafficking Conference in Nebraska, we’ll present some preliminary descriptive statistics. Next year we’re planning on presenting an academic paper on the subject, which we plan to submit for publication with a peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences.