Cambodia – The Killing Fields: Beyond Orwell and Kafka
To be ignorant of history is to remain always a child.
The great gift of Communism to humanity
“This isn’t ancient history. This happened during our lifetimes.”
I heard this from several people I met while visiting Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek killing field. I’m glad I went and glad to never see it again. It’s a powerfully depressing experience, walking through the remnants and memories of true madness.
The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society.
The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people from the cities to the country to take up work in the agricultural field.
They were not only forcing people out of their homes, but then also depriving humans of their basic rights as they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, who they could talk to, and many other aspects of their lives.
Over the next years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors
The population in Cambodia was around 7,100,000 at the beginning of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Throughout the next ten years, 3,300,000 people (including men, women, children, and foreigners) were killed and by the end of the genocide, there was a total of slightly less than four million that were lost to the ways of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of “involvement in free-market activities“. Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.
The Khmer Rouge believed parents were tainted with capitalism. Consequently, children were separated from parents and indoctrinated in communism as well as taught torture methods with animals. Children were a “dictatorial instrument of the party” and were given leadership in torture and executions.
One of their mottos, in reference to the New People, was: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss”.
Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) (died 1998), “Brother number 1“, General Secretary from 1963 until his death, effectively the leader of the movement
Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot), “Brother number 2“, Prime Minister, arrested in 2007, high status made him Pol Pot’s “right hand man“
Ieng Sary (Pol Pot’s brother-in-law), “Brother number 3“, Deputy Prime Minister, arrested in 2007
Khieu Samphan, “Brother number 4“, President of Democratic Kampuchea, arrested in 2007
Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) (died July 21, 2006), “Brother number 5“, Southwest Regional Secretary, final Khmer Rouge leader, died in custody awaiting trial for genocide
Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered, to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality.
The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halt of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and industrial and service companies.
Banks were raided and all currency and records destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.
The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them.
Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death.
The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies“:
Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments.
Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, or even people speaking english or wearing glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they were literate).
Many artists, including musicians, writers and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. (A similar policy was enacted in Maoist China, where Muslims were forced to breed pigs.)
Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
One former Khmer Rouge Commander, Comrade Duch, converted to evangelical Christianity in the years after the regime fell.
“Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty due to their lack of agricultural ability.
Through the 1970s, and especially after mid-1975, the party was also shaken by factional struggles. There were even armed attempts to topple Pol Pot. The resultant purges reached a crest in 1977 and 1978 when thousands, including some important KCP leaders, were executed.
Today, examples of the torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge can be seen at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum occupies the former grounds of a high school turned prison camp that was operated by Khang Khek Ieu, more commonly known as “Comrade Duch“. Some 17,000 people passed through this centre before they were taken to sites (also known as The Killing Fields), outside Phnom Penh such as Choeung Ek where most were executed (mainly by pickaxes to save bullets) and buried in mass graves.
Of the thousands who entered the Tuol Sleng Centre (also known as S-21), only twelve are known to have survived. These survivors are thought to have been kept alive due to their skills, judged by their captors to be useful.
The buildings of Tuol Sleng have been preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Several of the rooms are now lined completely with black and white photographs of the thousands taken by the Khmer Rouge.
For the first time, Cambodians are feeling comfortable enough to openly discuss life under the Khmer Rouge. A UN tribunal is underway. On trial four are people accused of genocide. And a new photo exhibit has opened in Phnom Penh, showing a side of life rarely seen in 1978. These pictures were the images the Khmer Rouge wanted the world to see.
Photo Exhibit Recalls Khmer Rouge Atrocities
- Cambodia’s Horrific Past: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum & the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh (chrystal-clear.com)
- Thet Sambath, journalist seeking truth about Khmer Rouge ‘fears for his life’ (nextlevelofnews.com)
- Nasty shock for Khmer Rouge leader Duch as his sentence is increased to life (telegraph.co.uk)
- 37 Years Anniversary of Forced Evacuation by the Khmer Rouge (trustbuilding.wordpress.com)
- Cambodia’s New Vacation Spot: A Khmer Rouge Bastion (time.com)