Cambodia: The Killing Fields

This is a direct copy of the entry that I made on my travels at the time, but even if I re-wrote it, it would still say more-or-less the same thing.

I wasn’t originally going to come to Cambodia. My initial plan was to go into Laos and go North, and cross into Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, and then hit Hanoi. But once I decided on going to Cambodia (at the time, “as well” as South Vietnam, ending in Ho Chi Minh City), there was only once place that was definitely on my list. I mean Angkor Wat is the mother of all temples, and the only reason most tourists ever go to Cambodia (unless your name is Paul Gadd, of course!), but I was even originally going to pass on the temples in order to go to Phnom Penh. Not because I fancied the city, but rather because of a little more recent history.

To be absolutely precise, I was born a few months *after* the Khmer Rouge victoriously entered Phnom Penh and took power on April 17 1975, but they designated 1975 as ‘Year Zero’, and, effectively, tried to restart history. I was too young to remember anything about the Khmer Rouge (although I have smatterings of memory beforehand, the first absolutely historic event I remember was the SAS storming the Iranian embassy in May 1980), but, whereas people who lived through the Nazis or Stalin are slowly dying out, the Khmer Rouge reign is still well within “living memory”.

It’s hard to express exactly what happened with sheer words, hence the pictures in the previous entry. The concept was actually pretty simple: a chap from Cambodia called Saloth Sar was educated in France, and while at University there he got influenced by the radical left (as you would in France in the 50s!). Upon a later trip to China, he was incredibly impressed with the concepts of the Cultural Revolution, and tried to imagine how that would work in his home country. When he visited the very rural East of Cambodia, with peasant farmers, he decided the ideal future for Cambodia was as a purely self-dependent, agrarian society, with no need for money, hierarchies, or education, as everybody would be fully employed working on the land for the benefit of the state.

Now, given a gradual long-lasting series of re-education plans, organised logistics, and the will of the people, he might well have done rather better. However, his simple plan was simply executed: upon finally gaining control of Cambodia, within *48 hours* he had closed all the hospitals, all the schools, all the monasteries, and evacuated all the cities, transporting *everyone* to work on the land. He declared this to be the start of a new Cambodia – ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ – and from here on, he declared that Year Zero had begun.

You might well want to examine just how bad this plan was actioned then. Take a bunch of city-dwellers who’d never handled so much as a hoe in their lives and get them to work on the land to produce excessive amounts of food, for effectively no wages and with little training. Added to this there was no treatment for disease except local remedies, and that the people already *in* the countryside didn’t much like or trust these ‘New People’ from coming in where they were, effectively, not wanted. In addition, working conditions were, uhm, ‘basic’ – work over 12 hours a day doing very physical work, with only a couple of bowls of gruel/rice-based watery stuff a day.

People were separated from their family. The Khmer Rouge theory was that *they* (the state, the party, the country) were the only family you needed. At first people were sent back to their ‘home’ villages, but over time people were moved about the country wherever the government deemed they were needed. Men were kept with other men, women with other women. Children were, more often than not, recruited to be the ‘soldiers’ (as the Khmer Rouge knew that children were much more easily ‘moulded’ to a certain viewpoint without asking the necessary questions). After the Khmer Rouge fell, there are millions of tales of families moving back across the country to try to find their loved ones, often to discover they weren’t going to be coming back at all.

And then of course there was the fear. Fear of being arrested, fear of being shot, for the smallest of offences. One woman was killed on the spot for being accused of stealing two plantains, which she’d claimed had been given to her by a guard. Who denied all knowledge, of course. Every weakness was eradicated. There was a regime of terror.

Some people didn’t even get that far. In the hours after taking power, the Khmer Rouge eradicated pretty much the entire administrative body that had preceded it. Anyone who had worked for the previous regime, anyone related to someone that had, even friends, were systematically killed. Then they purged on the elites and the intelligencia. Anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who had a degree education, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who had soft hands (a sign that they didn’t work on the land), was taken away and killed. No quarter given. Which is ironic as several of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge had, er, been educated to university level in France. Amazing how often dictatorships are hypocritical).

Overall, estimates of between 1 and 3 million people died in the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge regime, either directly (by being killed) or indirectly (by dying of starvation, overwork, or disease). The population of Cambodia at the start was only about 7-8 million. So, at lowest estimates, 20% of the entire population died.
If it happened now, I can pretty much guarantee that everybody reading this will be dead within two days.

Why am I telling you all this? Because today I visited the two main sites of, how you might call, ‘memorial’ to the Khmer Rouge – the notorious Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Both are detailed complexes that pull no punches about what they are.

I went to Choeung Ek first – it’s about 15km SW of the city and, at the time, would have been ‘quite a long way’ outside the city proper (these days it’s pretty much in the suburbs). Originally a Chinese burial ground (and there are still scattered remains of Chinese gravestones, mostly long since destroyed), it was turned into a very organised and processed site of mass execution. Prisoners were loaded onto trucks more-or-less at dusk from Tuol Sleng Prison and taken, bound and blindfolded, to the site. Mostly they were told they were being transferred to a ‘new house’ but is likely some of them were well resigned to their fate. There then followed a simple checklist of processing each prisoner individually (to make sure none had escaped), then getting them to kneel down while one of the guards hit them over the head with an implement originally used for farming, or in some cases, slit their throat with a palm tree branch. See, recycling and making use of the natural environment! No waste here!

Generally, the Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill one person, they killed the entire family. This included babes; their theory being ‘to get rid of the grass you have to get rid of the roots’ – leaving no-one behind who could take revenge. You didn’t have to have *done* anything to be arrested either, they just had to *think* something, or even just not like you. Party members were especially pounced on (to preserve the integrity of the revolution) – a bit like Stalin before them, the Central Committee of what they called ‘Angkar’ (‘The Organisation’ – a front for the Cambodian Communist Party) were somewhat paranoid – one of the mass graves at Choeung Ek was found to contain 166 headless bodies, all of whom were dressed in the uniform of the Khmer Rouge. It seems these were soldiers who were killed in a purge of Eastern Cambodia of ‘undesirable elements within the revolution’ – this included the head of the entire Eastern Zone, as it was believed he was in league with the Vietnamese). This made the Khmer Rouge reign rather hard for the average Cambodian to survive, unlike say, Nazi Germany, where as long as you were ethnically Northern European and kept your head down and said the right things, it was actually pretty easy to survive.

[Side note: This leads open to question the exact word that should be used to describe it. Genocide isn’t technically accurate since, although ethnic groups were targeted (mainly the Chinese and especially the Vietnamese), native ethnic groups within Cambodia itself seemed to do rather well out of the regime. In addition, people seem to have not been killed because they were *ethnically* foreign, more because they were *actually* foreign. Also, most people who were killed were ethnically Khmer – Auto-genocide has been used for this but it is an awkward term. It’s also not a War Crime since, regardless of the ongoing Cambodia-Vietnam conflicts of the late 70s, the deaths themselves did not take place under a state of war. One *could* theoretically use the term Holocaust as the word has been used to describe several major massacres over history, and simply means ‘whole (ie all of it) burnt’, but that word of course has specific connotations these days.]

[Side note 2: The other comparison to be made between Democratic Kampuchea and many other totalitarian dictatorships is the fact that, with regard to orders and processes, Angkar was top-heavy; that is, the leadership made orders and everyone followed. Stalin similarly was very good at this; if he wanted you dead, you died. Nazi Germany was pretty much the opposite; a *suggestion* from Hitler or Hess became a *recommendation* from the party which became an *order* from the middle-ranking officers/middle-management, who wanted things ‘done’ in order to further their career – in much the same way that many businesses (especially Call Centres) work these days, although obviously the Nazis were much more organised. Conversely, career development seemed to not be an option in Democratic Kampuchea; if you were young you were taken on as a soldier or a guard, otherwise you worked in the fields. Simple as.]

When the Vietnamese invaded and/or liberated (*) Cambodia in the 17 days following 25 December 1978 (don’t forget, the Khmer Rouge had emptied Phnom Penh and put everyone to work in the fields around the country. The Vietnamese came from the East, where they had a lot of underground support anyway, and the border’s only about 200km away, so they just simply walked in, pretty much!), the Khmer Rouge had not long fled from Choeung Ek, so everything there was as it was, with blood on the trees, bones everywhere, pieces of clothing torn and flapping in the breeze … must have been quite an appalling sight. Even today you can still come across the occasional piece of bone that has recently come to the surface. Most of the bones have been now properly handled according to Buddhist tradition, which, combined with preserving the memory, means that a Buddhist tower has been constructed in the site with 17 levels, each level containing bones of varying types and ages – the lower levels have the skulls whilst the higher levels have the other bones and bone fragments, all sorted by age, sex, and type.

(* depends who you ask. The Khmer people would say liberated. The USA, UK, Australia, Thailand, and China say ‘invaded’ which is why we gave diplomatic recognition for the Khmer Rouge for a further 10 years. Hey, who cares if they’re genocidal maniacs, they’re not communists. Well, not any more. Meh.)

So, Choeung Ek was where they killed people. Tuol Sleng was where they tortured people. Originally a 1960s-built High School (and it shows, it’s an ugly series of buildings!), the Khmer Rouge turned it into the most notorious of their prisons – S-21 (note that there were hundreds of both prisons and killing fields scattered across Cambodia; these however were the biggest and most important of each).

The overall structure has been preserved – three blocks of three levels each, built around a wide rectangular open area that’s now been ‘gardenified’ but presumably would originally have been the playground. One of the blocks still has the rooms set out the way they were found when the Vietnamese arrived – with bare metal-framed beds in large empty rooms – but there are photographs on the wall taken at the time of the (dead) victims they found therein. Another of the blocks was converted by the Khmer Rouge into narrow cramped cells, some wooden, some brick, and these have also been left in situ – complete with remains of metal chains used to lock prisoners in place. Other rooms now have exhibits and photographs of all the people known to have been processed here (the Khmer Rouge were, like most dictatorships, very anal about processing and leaving traceable records). In the past, some Cambodians have gone there and seen photographs of long-lost relatives.

Torture methods ranged from waterboarding to sleep deprivation, from isolation to removing fingernails and toenails. The day lasted for as long as necessary, and the guards were as terrified as the prisoners (for fear that they’d be next in line if they did something wrong). The idea was to get a confession out of the prisoner – it didn’t actually matter what for – so many people just said the first ludicrous thing they thought of (being in the pay of the CIA was quite a common one). Once the confession was signed, they were generally carted off to Choeung Ek, and anyone mentioned in the confession would then be ‘called in for questioning’.

Not many people survived Tuol Sleng. Over the entire history of the site, only about 200 people are believed to have emerged alive (out of around 17,000 people imprisoned there) – when the Vietnamese came, there were between 7 and 12 prisoners alive in the entire complex. Everyone else held there had been quickly tortured to death before the Khmer Rouge fled. Those that survived had done so because of their skills – a couple were painters, and one was an engineer so had fixed things in the prison. One of the painters was invited back not long afterwards and asked to paint scenes he’d seen, to show the world what had happened here. If you’re wondering why he agreed, it’s because everyone in that prison made a pact with each other to tell the world, no matter how heart-rendering it would be; they vowed that they would not die in silence or in vain.

There are some photographs also in the centre of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. People over time have come along and scratched their faces off and written expletives in Khmer over the top of some of the photographs. What a difference from Anlong Veng where they still laud over Pol Pot’s grave. But then the Khmer Rouge were *really* hated here in Phnom Penh. Interestingly, when they marched in in April ’75, they were at first seen as ‘liberators’ themselves, from a US-dominated nepotistic clique, and the people hoped the Khmer Rouge arrival would signal an end to the bloody civil strife and the bombing campaigns that had been ongoing for a number of years. That feeling lasted two days. When the Vietnamese came in ’79, there was no-one left to celebrate their arrival. Imagine a Scottish or (heaven forbid) a French tank driving up a completely empty Oxford Street in London, because everyone had been moved away to work on the fields in Norfolk. Eerie.

Share this post:

4 thoughts on “Cambodia: The Killing Fields

  1. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek provided two of the most emotional travel experiences in my life. You written about them and the history well. Well done.

  2. It’s always good to read about Cambodia. I *know* how bad it was, but the West doesn’t talk about it nearly enough.

    1. Yeh, I think it’s because ‘it happened a long away away’ and ‘we weren’t involved’, so we’ve tended to play it down and not talk about it much. It surprises people when I point out that, proportionately, the Pol Pot regime killed more of the population than Hitler’s.

Comments are closed.