Cambodia. A land famous for its ancient stone temples nestled amidst lush jungle landscapes.
The home of Angkor Wat, one of the most famous structures in all the world.
But there is a darker, more sinister side to this ancient land; a tragic past that haunts its present and plagues its future.
From 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge, commanded by the ruthless tyrant Pol Pot, killed nearly 3 million Cambodians — out of a population of 8 million — with the goal of creating a peasant-ruled, agrarian society.
In April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge rolled into the capital city of Phnom Penh and completely emptied it, forcing its 2.5 million residents into the countryside. Those who held a professional job, had an education, spoke a foreign language, or were not 100% Cambodian were systematically targeted, forced from their homes, sent to work in the fields, imprisoned, worked to death, and executed. They continued this tactic throughout the country, emptying all cities and displacing the population to the countryside.
Pol Pot’s goal was to create an “ideal society” free of outside influence and ruled by a peasant class. His vision was to send Cambodia back to “Year Zero” to a world void of education, religion, or modern technology; to begin anew with a tabula rasa, or blank slate. The Khmer Rouge doled out executions liberally, operating under the belief that “What is rotten must be removed.”
In just three years and eight months, millions died from exhaustion, malnutrition, disease, and execution as a result of the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, Vietnamese troops, who had tired of conflict with the Khmer Rouge along the border, eventually pushed the regime into retreat in the jungle where they continued to operate as an insurgent group until 1997. Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever facing charges for his actions.
Thirty years later, a few of the remaining perpetrators of this horrific crime against humanity eventually began to face trial for their crimes in an international tribunal backed by the United Nations. But the wounds suffered by the Cambodian people have yet to heal; they still bear the scars of terror and genocide.
When one-third of a country’s population is murdered, it is not something that can be recovered from in just one generation.
The chilling entrance to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21, where thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned and tortured before being taken to the nearby “Killing Fields” for execution.
I am ashamed to admit that for the longest time I never even knew about the genocide executed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
Sadly, I was in graduate school before I even heard of it. I was studying to receive my Masters degree in Social Work with a concentration in International Social Work when my research and advocacy work around the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan led me to discover other recent instances of genocide, including the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia that ended less than three years before I was born.
“How is it even possible for me to get through twenty years of formal education without hearing about something like this?!” I wondered.
But I’m not alone. Very few of our friends and family members seem to have any knowledge of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia. The only people who seem to know are those who have traveled there themselves.
So I ask myself, what is the greater tragedy: that 3 million innocent people were killed … or that no one seems to even know about it?
There are two main ways in which visitors to Cambodia can experience in greater detail the effect of the Khmer Rouge regime: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. (Note: There are Killing Fields located throughout the country, many of which are also open to visitors. The one outside of Phnom Penh is the most commonly visited.)
Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21, in Phnom Penh can view photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their captives — thousands of whom were actually children. Prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs while their heads were held still by a brace as they were forced to sit for the final picture they would ever have taken of themselves. The fear in their eyes foreshadowed their impending, brutal fate.
After weeks of interrogation and torture, prisoners were eventually transported to the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh where they were executed in the most brutal of ways, usually within 24 hours of arrival. Their skeletons and clothing have been recovered and now remain on permanent display in a memorial stupa erected to honor and remember those brutalized and murdered during the ruthless reign of the Khmer Rouge.
An eerie reminder of Pol Pot’s goal to achieve an agrarian society outside of the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh: rice fields with workers tending their crop.
To be honest, I don’t actually want to write about this.
It’s just too hard. I want to stop here. Haven’t I said enough? I’ve mentioned the genocide. I’ve given it lip service. It is just so painful to even type the words to tell the story of what happened in Cambodia. It’s almost as if by remaining silent, I can pretend it didn’t really happen; that it will somehow seem less real, less raw. But it is a story that needs to be told; an event that deserves our attention and honest evaluation. The dead deserve at least that.
Over the course of this week, I will publish two additional posts on this topic: one on S-21, the prison where inmates were interrogated and tortured; one on the Killing Fields, where thousands of Cambodians were executed. We hope you will check back over the coming week for a photo tour of each of these sites. As sobering as this material is, I believe it is vital to understanding the situation in Cambodia today. I cannot imagine visiting Cambodia without paying our respects in person to the victims of this horrific crime.
To read more about the Khmer Rouge and to hear the stories of survivors, I recommend the following books:
Our accommodation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was courtesy of AsiaRooms.com. All opinions are our own.