Cambodia has a fairly grim past. The former French protectorate really didn't catch a break throughout the entirety of the second half of the 20th century. A military coup, decades of civil war, large scale bombing, invasion and genocide. Despite everything that occurred, easily the most famous period of Cambodia's history is 1975 – 1979 when Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge.
The following describes some extremely horrific events. Choose for yourself whether you want to read it.
Khmer Rouge literally means “Red Khmers”. The Khmers are the largest ethnic group in Cambodia and The Khmer Rouge were the Khmer communist party. After winning a long civil war they came to power in 1975. They began a programme of violent social re-engineering. They were removed from power in 1979 by the Vietnamese although they held on to parts of the country for more than a decade more. While they only controlled the country as a whole for four short years they have left an indelible mark on the country and its people.
The Khmer Rouge regime is most remembered for driving people from their homes, torture, starvation and mass killings. S21, known to Cambodians as Tuol Sleng, and Choeung Ek, known to foreigners as “the killing fields”, provide a window into Cambodia's, and possibly humanities', darkest hour.
S21 (Tuol Sleng)
You don't win a civil war, forcibly evacuate the cities and force people to indefinitely perform back breaking labour with inadequate food and water without making some enemies. That's where a place like Tuol Sleng comes in. Tuol Sleng is a former school that was re-purposed as an interrogation centre. Suspected traitors were brought here, tortured then condemned to die. Of around 17,000 people brought here, less than 12 survived.
As a prisoner brought here you may or may not have realised that your fate was already sealed. Beatings, sleep deprivation, water boarding, electrocution, suffocation with plastic bags, cutting, hanging and applying heated metal instruments were all used to guide prisoners to confessing to a preordained list of offences. The confessions often included farcical elements like joining the CIA or KGB during childhood. Attached to each confession was a list of co-conspirators. These lists often ran to over 100 names, essentially everyone the prisoner knew. Many of these people would in turn be brought in for interrogation and the cycle would continue.
The guards were mostly teenagers while the interrogators were generally in their twenties. They were mostly uneducated young men and boys from the country with little knowledge of the outside world. The Khmer Rouge leadership painted a picture of Cambodia besieged by traitors and foreign invaders who must be rooted out at all costs. They were chosen because they didn't know any better.
Life for the guards and interrogators was often little better than for the prisoners. The list of rules they had to follow was long. Breaking the rules, which included a prohibition against sitting down or leaning while on duty, could potentially lead to interrogation and eventual execution. No one was safe.
Interrogation typically lasted for 2 to 3 months. Once it was over and the confession was complete the next stage was…
Choeung Ek (the killing fields)
Choeung Ek is about 15 minutes by tuk tuk outside of Phnom Penh. Audio guides are included in the admission price.
While it is commonly known as THE killing fields, Choeung Ek is actually only one of around 300 similar sites scattered all over Cambodia. We previously visited another known as the killing caves which are near Battambang.
Prisoners were brought here blind folded and at night. A diesel generator powered spot lights and enabled them to play loud music to drown out the screams. They were killed with whatever equipment was to hand. Anything heavy enough to bludgeon someone or sharp enough to cut a throat, included the edges of palm branches, was used. Finally they were dumped into mass graves, doused with caustic chemicals to reduce the smell and buried, sometimes while still alive. Somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people died at Choeung Ek.
Many of the mass graves have since been exhumed. Human remains have been gathered for display and preservation in a Buddhist stupa.
The sites of the former mass grave were left as is. They are slowly being reclaimed by vegetation.
While walking around you can easily spot numerous spots where partially buried bones and clothing have been brought to the surface by erosion. Staff periodically sweep across the whole site gathering them. Some areas have been roped off but make sure to watch where you step.
A large tree dubbed “the killing tree” was probably the most horrific element. Young children were beaten against its trunk. The lengths of string have been left by people as part of Buddhist blessings.
S-21 and the killing fields are not places you're really going to enjoy visiting. They are however worth spending a day walking around if you find yourself in Phnom Penh. I've tried to provide a detailed account of what I learned but there's no substitute for being there yourself.
The Khmer Rouge are still, per capita, the most lethal regime to have ever existed. While their revolution was born out of hope for a better life for all Cambodians it soon diverted into fear, paranoia and ultimately mass murder. They are a testament to the dark side of what can happen when people set out to change the world. I'm not quite sure what the lesson to be learned is. You'll have to figure that out for yourself.