Visiting Cambodia’s Choeung EK Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields) near Phnom Penh is a sad and depressing experience. The site is the best known of over 300 “killing fields” used by the Democratic Kampuchea Regime (Khmer Rouge) headed by Maoist revolutionary Pol Pot. The tyrannical regime killed and buried Cambodian people during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975).
Khmer Rouge Regime
In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Regime. Estimates of the total number of deaths from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of an 8 million population.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and executed professionals, intellectuals, and all others suspected of connections with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments. Ethnic Vietnamese (Vietnamese Cambodians), Chinese (except Khmer Rouge), the Buddhist monkhood, Cambodian Christians, Thais, and Chams (Muslim Cambodians) were the chosen demographic targets of persecution. As a result, their leader, Pol Pot, is sometimes described as the Hitler of Cambodia and a genocidal tyrant.
“Not only did the Khmer Rouge massacre their own people, they tried to destroy the heart of the country and its religious beliefs.”
“Almost 90 percent of Cambodians believed in some form of Buddhism. The Khmer Rouge could not allow such a powerful institution to stand, so they destroyed it with vigor. They exterminated leading monks and either murdered or defrocked the lesser ones. One estimate is that out of 40,000 to 60,000 monks only 800 to 1,000 survived. Amazingly, in the short span of a year or so, the small gang of Khmer Rouge wiped out the center of Cambodian culture, its spiritual incarnation, and its institutions.”
To show respect, visitors are silent during walking tours of the Choeungek Genocidal Center Killing Fields. Tours consist of a signed, 18-point audio stop list (click on photos of the signs below to read some of the inscriptions) which includes history, music, and painful, graphic details of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The process began at a truck stop where innocent, blindfolded victims were unloaded on their way to execution.
Before it became the scene of genocide with bones and teeth fragments strewn throughout the soil, the land was a peaceful orchard. While walking the grounds I noticed hundreds of small colorful butterflies hovering around the mass grave sites. Part of the audio includes survivors telling their stories – tragic, gut-wrenching accounts of what they actually experienced. Their stories brought tears to my eyes.
The tour ends at a memorial stupa displaying seventeen layers of genocide victim skulls and bones. The exterior of the impressive structure includes mythical Hindu and Buddhist symbols – garudas (birds) and nagas (snakes) – coming together in peace. Traditionally, the religious groups are enemies.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S21 – Security Office 21) is a former Phnom Penh high school. In August 1975 after winning the civil war, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison and torture center. Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”.
Prisoners accused of opposing the Pol Pot regime were repeatedly tortured and coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit and naming innocent family members, close friends, and associates. In 1979 the invading Vietnamese army uncovered the prison and in 1980 the People’s Republic of Kampuchea reopened it as a historical museum memorializing the cruel actions of the Khmer Rouge.
The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes their captors chose. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured using knives, electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments, suffocation with plastic bags, and hangings. Other methods used to generate confessions included pulling fingernails, pouring alcohol on open wounds, and waterboarding.
The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison are two of the world’s most painful and appalling examples of political tyranny, intolerance, and man’s inhumanity to man. Touring these sites was extremely painful and disturbing.
Khmer Rouge Leaders
The UN-backed trial of the three most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, charged with crimes against humanity, began on November 21, 2011 in Phnom Penh:
- Nuon Chea – chief ideologist, deputy secretary, and Pol Pot’s right-hand man
- Khieu Samphan – secretary of state
- Leng Sary – foreign minister