During our time in Phnom Penh we visited the famed Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide also known as S-21, and the Choeung Ek Genocide Center also known as the Killing Fields. Before I can explain these two tragic locations, I think you need some context on the history that led to their existence.
History of the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge started off in the 1960’s as a Communist Guerrilla force living in the jungles of Northeast Cambodia. Their leader Pol Pot admired the way of the simple farmer living in the countryside. A life of peace and hard work with no money, religion, or class system. through the 60’s their numbers remained small, but in 1970 Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted from power in a coup that resulted in a pro-western government taking over. Prince Norodom Sihanouk decided to give legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge movement and their numbers grew from 4,000 up to 70,000 within months. Further backing from the Chinese and North Vietnamese as well as a lack of backing from the United States on the part of the new Cambodian government led to a bloody civil war that lasted until the Khmer Rouge finally broke the siege of Phnom Penh and took the city on 17 April 1975.
Within 3 days of Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge, the entire population of 2.5 million people (most of which were refugees already and had little to nothing as it was) were then forced out of the city to random farming camps in the countryside. Pol Pot was initiating his plan to turn Cambodian in to a full fledged agrarian based Communist society. Tens of thousands of civilians from the city would die just on the march out of the city and even more would die of malnutrition in the coming days and months. The Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia for 4 years before Cambodia was finally liberated by Vietnamese troops in 1979 working with anti-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rebels. Within the coming years, the true atrocities of the Khmer Rouge would begin to unfold to the outside world.
S-21 was originally Chao Ponhea Yat High School and it still resembles it on the outside today. When you enter you see 4 multistory school houses overlooking a green grass courtyard with pull up bars by the grass. The Khmer Rouge however, did not believe in education and within days of their takeover of Phnom Penh all schools were closed permanently. Some were used as storehouses for weapons and ammo. Some just remained empty. Unfortunately, 4 months after taking over the country, The Khmer Rouge reopened Chao Ponhea Yat High School, renaming it “Security Prison S-21”. This would be 1 of 150 such facilities throughout the country but it would soon become the most notorious.
Pol Pot and his band of Khmer Rouge higher ups were ruthless in their drive to form a true Agrarian-Communist society. They started by targeting the former government; teachers, intellectuals, anyone with wealth, anyone with foreign blood, and even the Buddhist monks. Almost all were killed along with their families. The killing of families would become commonplace as to prevent revenge killing in the future.
As the years continued, more and more were killed as a a full fledged Genocide unfolded in the small country of Cambodia. People were targeted for having soft hands or wearing glasses. Many had no idea what they were charged with. It didn’t matter. All were brought to a facility similar to S-21 where they were tortured brutally until they confessed to whatever trumped up charge they were accused of and then sent off to be killed for their crimes. Many times they were forced to implicate others in false crimes as well, and again, any of these people who were charged with anything could also expect all of their immediate family to suffer the same fate just for being related to them.
The Khmer Rouge kept extremely detailed records and accounts of every prisoner that passed through S-21 including a black and white portrait of each person upon checking in. Some of these portraits were defiant while others looked of resignation… they all knew the fate that lie ahead. All in all over 17,000 “prisoners” passed through S-21…. only 7 are have said to survived although more recent evidence has it just over 100. Either way, all were brutally tortured and the majority would never see a free Cambodia again.
The Killing Fields
About 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh is a field. Green grass stretches out to a lake, an orchard in the distance, and a beautifully constructed Buddhist stupa standing in the field. It seems quite peaceful today until you get a bit closer to the stupa and notice the over 8,000 skulls and bones that were discovered buried in that field between 1975 and 1979. The stupa stands today as a memorial to the dead.
This is the location where “prisoners” from S-21, having recently confessed their “crimes” were sent to be killed. They were brought hands bound and sardined in a military transport truck to the field. The Khmer Rouge built a small encampment and blasted revolutionary music through the night to cover the sounds of the moaning and screaming of the victims. Bullets were expensive and needed elsewhere so all of the victims were killed by whatever means were available. Some were clubbed and had their throats slit. Other were beheaded by farming tools. Even babies weren’t spared. They would take the babies by the ankles and slam their heads in a tree before throwing them into the mass grave.
In the end around 2 million Cambodians were killed between the civil war and the genocide committed afterwards. The population of Cambodia was only 8 million people. Imagine if in 8 years, a quarter of the entire population of your country was killed. Imagine every teacher and intellectual and scientist in your country killed. Every good leader and educated individual. Then you can begin to understand why Cambodia is in the condition it is in today.
To Wrap it up…
As sad as Cambodia’s past is, there is optimism in its people who show a strong resilience. They work hard all day, many of them 7 days a week for little money, yet you can always find smiling faces everywhere you look.
I couldn’t finish this blog post without leaving you with this quote…
“When I was a young officer in 1979, I toured what was known as the killing fields in Cambodia. This is where the Khmer Rouge killed off nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population, something like 1.9 million people in just a few years. My guide told me that they started off by rounding up all the teachers. They wanted to extinguish free thought, and the spark of questioning and dissent. Because, to a totalitarian dictator, an open and inquisitive mind is more dangerous than even a Marine and his rifle.” – General James Mattis