Cambodia: The Killing Fields

Cambodia: The Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge was perhaps the worst regime that ever happened to any country, ever. Cambodia is still recovering from what the sadistic freak Pol Pot got away with, and my stay in Phnom Penh helped to clarify my knowledge about what happened over those dark years.

In wake of the unrest and violence that had engulfed the region, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power by force in 1975, immediately unleashing it’s own horrific brand of Agrarian Marxism upon a helpless populace. The KR seeked to create a classless, self-dependent society and to do so, they would have to be reborn, in what was known as Year Zero. This entailed collectively enslaving the entire population – moving everyone out from the towns to primitive labor camps in the countryside to triple rice production. Anyone perceived to be educated was executed. Private property became illegal. Institutions like hospitals, banks, schools and universities were demolished or abandoned. Cambodia was sent to the dark ages – except of course for the high level cadres of the regime.

Devoid of hygiene, medicine, adequate rest or food – millions died working in the countryside. But perhaps they were the lucky ones. To be accused of even the faintest dissent – real or not – almost certainly meant torturous death. The S21 prison in the middle of Phnom Penh now serves as a museum to the atrocities committed there. Of the 20,000 people who went through, 12 survived.

Walking around the place by myself was chilling. It’s been left largely as it was, including exhibits detailing specific people killed, torture methods and the different cells people were kept in. But in a nutshell, the prison worked like this.

  1. The accused was told of their perceived crimes and dissensions (real or not)
  2. They either confessed, to be sent away and killed OR they were tortured with electricity, pliers, water, beatings etc. until they confessed – to be sent away to be killed.

That’s where the Killing Fields come in. Some 20,000 mass graves exist around Cambodia where people were sent to be killed, but Chung Ek, is the most well known – preserved today as a morbid open-air museum and memorial. Locals ripped most of the place down following the KR’s capitulation to Vietnam, but the free audio guide details exactly what you used to be where, and the overall execution process. None of it is easy listening. The already badly tortured prisoners would be brought here in trucks at night, briefly held in a detention cell before being taken out for execution in mass pits. To save bullets, no one was shot – rather the condemned had their throats slit, or were hacked to death with farming utensils, axel rods or whatever else was lying around at the time.  Walking through the site today, one can still see fragments of human bone and clothing littered around the ground, constantly being brought up from the ground by rain and erosion. If that wasn’t enough, a Buddhist stupa memorial in the center of the fields houses 5,000 human skulls. In spite of all this, the most disturbing thing for me here are two particular trees.

The first tree is marked with a sign ‘Killing tree against which executioners beat children’. To elaborate, this meant grabbing an infant by the legs and bashing their heads against the tree – an easy, budget solution for baby killing.

The second tree was where the KR propaganda loudspeaker sat. The audio guide weaved a particularly upsetting image of how this would have once looked and sounded. Nearby was a diesel power generator to power the floodlights in the area. The last thing people would have heard as they died – other than theirs and others screams – was the heavy drone of the diesel engine, against blasting revolutionary music from the loudspeaker. That just struck the eeriest of notes for me.

Some 20,000 people were murdered here, but the total death toll from Khmer Rouge sits somewhere between 1.75 and 2.5 million – a quarter of the country. Beyond that, the country was left without an educated base, and the national infrastructure had been eviscerated.

However, the Lunacy and bloofthirst of the KR was also its undoing, as it sought to expand its borders and attack the vastly more powerful Vietnamese. While Vietnam defeated the KR and sent them packing from Phnom Pen in 1979 – they continued to operate as a guerilla unit from the Thai borders for years while receiving foreign aid and been recognized as the rightful government of Cambodia by the UN. Unbelievably, Vietnam’s reward for ousting one of histories sickest regimes was to be internationally vilified.

If that weren’t disgusting enough, virtually no one has been held accountable. Pol Pot died at the age of 82 in 1997 in his own bed while under house arrest, while only a handful of his high level cronies – also elderly and senile – are only just going through the war crime courts NOW. How the hell it has taken this long is infuriating enough for me, but how the average Cambodian feels about it must go beyond all words. The overall experience of seeing and learning these places is never a happy one, but it is necessary and should be for everyone. It puts your life in context and lets you know how lucky you are. I was livid yesterday when my phone got nicked, but in the scheme of things it seems silly. It’s the same reason I love history so much – not for all it’s happy endings – but for what it teaches and reminds us of.

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