I was told that I had to visit two sites while in Phnom Penh—the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the Killing Fields of Choeung EK. Tragically, these two sites are the most popular tourist attractions in the city (with excellent audio tours available).
In 1975 the Tuol Svay Precy High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21(S-21). It soon became the largest center of detention and torture in Cambodia. Between 1975 and 1978, more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp of Choeung EK (referred to as the Killing Fields). They were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. The remains of 898 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. More than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.
In 1969 the United States launched “Operation Menu,” the secret bombing of suspected communist based camps in Cambodia. The ferocity of the bombing campaign helped the communist Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. Savage fighting engulfed the countryside, bringing misery to millions of Cambodians. Many fled rural areas for the relative safety of Phnom Penh and provincial capitals.
The Khmer Rouge ideology (under its leader, Paris-educated Pol Pot) was influenced by four interrelated principles: (1) total independence and self-reliance; (2) preservation of the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) total and immediate economic revolution; and (4) complete transformation of Khmer social values. In his address on September 27, 1977, Pol Pot stated:
Cambodia’s economy was under the blanket of US imperialism…a semicolonial country…Cambodia was a victim of foreign aggression in economic, culture, social, and political and military fields… imperialism did no armed aggression against us, but it launched economic, cultural, social and military aggression by taking control of everything.
After taking power, the Khmer Rouge set out to immediately revamp Cambodian society. Their first step was to rusticate the cities so that the urbanites, suspect for their “regressive” class background, could be reformed through hard labor. These reformed subjects could then contribute to the new agrarian economy focused primarily on massive increases in rice production. Thousands of people died during the evacuations. The Khmer Rouge aimed to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there are no rich, no poor and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private properties, foreign clothing styles, religious practices and traditional Khmer culture. A national bank was destroyed. Public schools, hospitals, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities and government buildings were shut down or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private properties and no nonrevolution-related entertainment. The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. Soon after seizing power, they arrested and killed thousands of soldiers, military officers and civil servants from the Khmer Republic led by then-Marshal Lon Nol, whom they did not regard as “pure.” Over the next three years (1975 to 1978) they executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, city residents and minority people like the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese. Many of their own soldiers and party members were accused of being traitors.
The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia for three years, eight months and 20 days, a period etched into the consciousness of the Khmer people. The Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979, but Cambodia’s civil war rumbled on for another two decades before drawing to a close in 1999. Finally, more than 20 years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, serious discussions began about a trial to bring those responsible for the deaths of about 2 million Cambodians to justice. These trials commenced in 2006 and continue to this day.
Despite the deaths and sufferings inflicted during these three years by the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people appear to be a happy and proud people. One can see evidence of the Nation’s glorious past. The country’s symbol, the Angkor, is everywhere on the flag, the national beer, cigarettes, hotels and guest houses—anything and everything. It is a symbol of nationhood and fierce pride. A tumultuous history, an incredible heritage of architecture (they built the awesome Angkor Wat visited by over 6 million people a year), a fascinating mosaic of people, faiths, sculpture, dance and art, all coalesce to form Cambodia’s rich national character.
Many of us who clamor for radical change want to purge all evil, corruption and inequality in society. To level off and start at ground zero. May the Killing Fields of Cambodia be a lesson in history for all of us.