Visiting Cambodia’s Choeungek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields) near Phnom Penh is a sad and depressing experience. It’s the best known of over 300 horrific “killing fields” throughout Cambodia 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).
In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting 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 others suspected of connections with the former Cambodian government or any foreign governments. Ethnic Vietnamese (Vietnamese Cambodians), Thai, Chinese (except Khmer Rouge), Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, 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 per cent 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 to carry on their religion. Amazingly, in the very 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 killing fields. Choeungek Genocidal Center tours consist of a signed 18-point audio stop list (click on photos of the signs to read inscriptions) which includes history, music, and graphic details of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The process begins with a truck stop where the Khmer Rouge unloaded innocent, blindfolded victims 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 9 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 which displays 17 layers of skulls and bones from the genocide victims. The exterior of the impressive structure includes Hindu and Buddhist symbols like garudas and nagas – large mythical birds and snakes – coming together in peace although they are traditionally enemies.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S21 – Security Office 21) is a former 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 Khmer Rouge designed the torture system at Tuol Sleng to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes their cruel captors chose. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments, hangings, and the use of various other torture devices. They cut prisoners with knives or suffocated them with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and using waterboarding techniques.
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.
The UN-backed trial of the three most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, charged with crimes against humanity, began on November 21st, 2011 in Phnom Penh:
- Nuon Chea – chief ideologist and right-hand man of Pol Pot
- Khieu Samphan – head of state
- Leng Sary – foreign minister