Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields

Following our adventures in Vietnam, we cashed in a few frequent flier miles and treated ourselves to a flight to Cambodia.

IMG_4430-5At least 40% of the people riding in open air vehicles wear masks due to the quantity of road dust and engine fumes. I joined the trend on this particular ride, much to the amusement of both Becci and our Tuk-Tuk driver.

IMG_4463-4The primary vehicle for personal transportation in southeast Asia is the scooter. No one drives a car except for cabbies. We have seen a scooter laden with 10 cases of beer; we have seen medium-sized pieces of plate glass being transported by two guys on a scooter. These appear to be rugs or mats.

We came to Cambodia to see two things: the horror of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the amazing beauty of the Angkor Wat temple complex. The Angkor Wat post will follow this one; I’m afraid today’s update pertains to war crimes and atrocities. I’ll warn you that this isn’t going to be a particularly happy read; the Angkor Wat post will be a hell of a lot funnier. The killing fields are incredibly important, however, so I hope that you will stick with this one. I’m so glad that we came here. Like Auschwitz, this is an important place, and it is critically important never to forget these people and what happened here. And, as always, Becci has provided some beautiful, moving photographs that really tell the story.

The History

This gets a little involved, but I’ll keep things at a high level. Everyone is aware of the war in Vietnam that occurred between the U.S. and South Vietnamese, in opposition to the North Vietnamese, who sought to unify the country. This war lasted from the mid 1960s until the mid 1970s.

Concurrent with that conflict, there was signifiant civil unrest in Cambodia. The monarchy, who were sympathetic to the North Vietnamese cause, were under attack from communist guerrillas known as the Khmer Rouge, literally, the “Red Khmer” (the Khmer being the largest native indigenous ethnic group in Cambodia). And there were other, more conventional factions in opposition to the monarchy. In 1970, Cambodian Prime Minister Lon Nol (palindrome alert) staged a coup and wrested control from the monarchy, abolishing it and creating a republic that lasted until 1975. This government was much more U.S.-friendly, and immediately created an alliance with the United States. There is significant speculation that the CIA had involvement in the Lon Nol coup, although this remains unproven.

The advantage of this coup to the U.S. was that the Cambodian government, previously sympathetic to the NVA and having allowed the North Vietnamese to use Cambodia as a supply route to the Viet Cong, was replaced by an anti-NVA government. Once the Lon Nol government took control, U.S. forces were allowed into Cambodia, intensifying bombing and ground fighting along Viet Cong supply routes in Cambodia.

Unfortunately, Lon Nol was a poor leader and the country foundered under his leadership. He continued to come under attack by the Khmer Rouge, who were trained and equipped by the North Vietnamese Army. Although American forces were employed to assist in the defense of the country, the Khmer Rouge eventually took control of Phnom Penh, and the whole nation, in April 1975.

The Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot, had a whole new game plan, and it turned out that it wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. Pol Pot was an idealist who envisioned a perfect Communist state based on a self-sufficient, agrarian economy. He devalued city-dwellers, and he despised most forms of commerce and society that we today consider standard. Within the first week of his dictatorship, he closed all schools, destroyed all banks, outlawed money, seized most private property, and ended organized religious services. City folk were quickly rounded up and sent to the country to work on the collective, communal farms that had been seized from the farmers who had owned them the week before. He called this plan “Year Zero”.

Here’s the really nasty bit: Pol Pot, like Stalin before him, was certain that his vision of a perfect Communist society could not succeed, or would succeed much more quickly, if those in opposition were eliminated by force. Like Stalin before him, Pol Pot targeted and rounded-up broad swaths of society on the basis that they might some day oppose him. Like Stalin, Pol Pot committed genocide on his own people.

Pol Pot’s targets were broad, and he believed in a thorough, exhaustive approach. Targeted groups included: intellectuals; city dwellers (whose ranks had swelled due to U.S. bombings in the countryside); monks and others associated with religious practices; supporters of the past two political regimes; ethnic minorities; people who wore glasses.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge sent these people for re-education. Re-education was conducted at schools that had been closed and re-factored as prisons. Here’s the basic sequence of activities that one could look forward to as part of his or her re-education:

– Imprisonment in a maximum-security prison.
– Torture until confession, including the use of beating, genital clamps, foot and hand crushing, cutting-off of fingers and toes, waterboarding, and electric shock.
– Once a confession was obtained and signed, if you happened still to be alive (many died during interrogation), death was imminent. However, unlike the Spanish Inquisition, they didn’t tell you that.
– Every week or so, all the recently-confessed (and their families) would be blindfolded, bound, and loaded onto a truck for “relocation”. They were told that they were going to “start a new life”.
– Bad news: the “relocation” spot is a killing field. The victims were taken to a field (there were many, located within a few kilometers of each torture prison), and killed.
– Murders were committed by marching the prisoners, who often still didn’t know exactly what was going on, serially to the edge of a pit, killing them, and pushing their (hopefully) dead bodies into a pit with the rest of today’s kills. Next in line!
– Murders were rarely committed with firearms, or any other “humane” tool. Bullets were considered too expensive to be used. These murders were committed with wooden clubs, axes, hoes, and other farm tools that were available.

Additionally, Pol Pot was a big fan of killing in broad, deep swaths. If a person was considered to be a threat, that person was killed. So was the rest of his family, including any children. The theory was that this strategy left no survivors to seek revenge later. “To dig up a blade of grass, you must also pull out the roots.”

Pol Pot was deposed in early 1979 by an invading Vietnamese army, and Vietnam occupied Cambodia for 10+ years after that. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled for less than four years, and in that time are credited with killing as many as 3.4 million (of the 8 million) people in Cambodia. This was done through murders at the killing fields, as well as via social and agricultural policies that caused death by disease and starvation. Of the 2.5 to 3.4 million that were estimated to have died, it is believed that around 1.4 million of these people were murdered in the killing fields.

What We Saw

During our time in Phnom Penh, we visited Tuol Sleng, one of the detention prisons, and we visited the killing field that is a few kilometers away.

Tuol Sleng is now a museum. This complex started out as a public school (S-21), and was converted to a prison when the Khmer Rouge closed all of the schools in the spring of 1975. Between 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. There are only seven known survivors of this prison.

So far we haven’t seen too many slick museums in southeast Asia, and Tuol Sleng is no exception. A great deal of it appears today exactly as it did when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it as they fled Vietnamese attack in 1979; the rooms have been enhanced only with some large posters containing photographs and descriptions of daily life at S-21, and photographs of some of the prisoners who were held and tortured there.

This presentation is very effective. One need not imagine the starkness of the small brick and wooden cells that were built into S-21’s classrooms: they can be visited; they can be walked into. Some of the beds and waterboards where prisoners were tortured are still there. Blood still stains the tile floors in some of the former classrooms.

IMG_4453-0One of the beds used to hold S-21 prisoners during torture sessions. Prisoners were chained to these beds for interrogation, beatings, and electrocution.


IMG_4454A placard describing key members of the Khmer Rouge. All of the faces on this placard have been defaced by visitors.

IMG_4455Brick cells were built into some of the classrooms at S-21. These cells are approximately the length and width of a single bed. Some cells had windows.

IMG_4457The cells in some of the buildings were wood, and were approximately the same size as the brick cells. Each cell contained a small metal ammunition box for collecting human waste.

IMG_4458All prisoner cells had iron bars over their windows, if they had windows. The prison cells adjoined a hallway, which overlooked a courtyard once built for children to play in. This barbed wire was put across the view to the courtyard, so that any person who might somehow make his way into the hallway could not commit suicide by leaping into the courtyard.

IMG_4456Doorways were made by knocking holes in the wall between classrooms. No sense installing proper doorways I suppose.

IMG_4460-1The “no laughing / no loud talking” sign at S-21. Despite this, and despite the fact that most visitors were walking around in a state of quiet shock at the horror of this place, a few people were still hollering and taking selfies.

IMG_4462-1An illustration showing a baby being taken away from his mother as she is brought to the prison at Tuol Sleng. It is believed that babies and children of prisoners were generally killed also; children and babies have been found along with women in the mass graves of the killing fields.

IMG_4461-1Photographs of some of the prisoners of Tuol Sleng. A record and report was made of each prisoner, including his crimes and his signed confession. Unfortunately, many of these were lost after the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh. Many of the prisoners photographed appear happy or confused, clearly not knowing what is coming.

IMG_4459-1Another look at the anti-escape, anti-suicide barbed wire.

We left S-21 and took the 13 kilometer ride to the nearest killing field, at Choeunk Ek. This site is now a well-maintained and beautiful memorial to those killed there. We took the same road and the same ride that 20,000 scared, confused victims took from Tuol Sleng to their violent deaths in a field in Cambodia.

In contrast with the efficient mass-killing process of the Nazis at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, this place is shockingly simple and brutal. Victims were marched one-by-one to the edge of a burial pit, bludgeoned or hacked to death while blindfolded and bound, and then tossed into a mass grave. Amplified revolutionary music masked the moans of the dying. Uneducated Khmer Rouge peasants, probably in fear for their own lives, acted as executioners.

The site today is anchored by a Memorial Stupa that contains the bones of all of the victims that have been recovered from this site. New bones are occasionally added as new victims are found or as they surface due to weather conditions. This is a continuous occurrence, and we saw a number of bones and articles of clothing lying on the ground as we walked around the site.

The grounds are today beautiful and peaceful, and we walked around them for a few hours. We observed the mass graves and contemplated the horrible, frightening, violent end that was experienced in twenty thousand lives. What a waste, for them and for all of those that participated.

IMG_4469-0The Memorial Stupa at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This building contains all of the cleaned, stacked bones of the victims that have been recovered at this site.

IMG_4472-0One of Choeung Ek’s mass graves, at a distance. The mass graves that have been discovered are covered in this fashion with a simple roof. The ground inside the fence is covered with small gifts that visitors leave to remember the dead.

IMG_4466-2Cloth and bone can occasionally be seen on the ground along the paths of the killing fields. Although care has been taken to excavate, clean, and house the bones of victims, new victims continue to reveal themselves.

IMG_4464-2These palm trees are prevalent throughout Cambodia. The branches have a hard serrated edge; these were sometimes used to slit the throats of victims at the killing fields.

IMG_4468-0These small structures are called spirit houses, and they are seen frequently throughout Cambodia and the rest of southeast Asia. Most houses and businesses have a spirit house placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of the property. This one at Choeung Ek is laden with small gifts from visitors.

IMG_4467-0The so-called “Killing Tree” at Choeung Ek’s, where babies were smashed to death in front of their mothers. This tree sits adjacent to a mass grave that contained hundreds of women, children, and infants.

IMG_4475-0Cloth and bone continue to surface. Every few weeks, caretakers walk the site and collect these items, for inclusion in the Memorial Stupa. I stood and looked for a long time at a shirt, half-buried in the dust. The man who put that shirt on, when he put it on, had no idea that it was the last shirt he would wear.

The Aftermath

The Choeung Ek site contains a small display discussing the perpetrators of these crimes, and what has become of them.

Remarkably, the ousted government of Pol Pot was not immediately brought to justice following the flight of the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. In the eyes of the United Nations, the Khmer Rouge remained the recognized, “wronged” government of Cambodia until the early 1990’s, largely at the behest of the United States, who rejected the Vietnamese occupying government.

Pol Pot died in 1999, before he could be brought to justice. Several of his lieutenants have subsequently been convicted of war crimes, and are at last serving long prison sentences. They should be hanged, but the tribunal that judged them does not recognize capital punishment as an option. The Cambodian people seem uninterested in pursuing low-level perpetrators, as it is generally accepted that those individuals performed their crimes under the fear of death.

As I promised, our next post will focus on more positive and beautiful aspects of Cambodian culture and history. Thank you for spending time reading this post; it is important for our future never to forget the atrocities and injustice of the abuse of power exercised by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This type of abuse and horror has happened far too often in the history of the modern world; remembrance and vigilance are our best hope for keeping it from happening again.

IMG_4473-0Fence around one of the mass graves at Choeung Ek. Visitors leave tokens of remembrance.

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