I am trying a new blog feature called “Sights On Saturday” that will involve posts on various trips over the years. I’m starting with a trip to Cambodia in 2015 that I recently rediscovered in my saved pictures.
Warning. This is not a feel good post. It is about genocide. I still recall the somber feelings when I viewed these sights in person. Researching and writing this post was sobering to say the least, and you will likely experience painful emotions reading it.
Background – Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) and many other founders of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, were well-educated students who had lived in France. Radicalized by anti-imperialism and communist ideology, in 1968, they formed the Khmer Rouge as an offshoot from the North Vietnamese People’s Army from North Vietnam. On April 17, 1975, two years after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, U.S.-supported government forces surrendered and Phnom Penh fell to Khmer Rouge troops.
Pol Pot’s goal was transforming Cambodia into an agrarian, egalitarian society. Immediately after taking over he ordered the population of Phnom Penh, two million people, to move to the countryside. He abolished money and made everyone wear the same black clothing.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government, foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations, as well as monks, professionals and intellectuals. Between 1975 and 1979, it is estimated that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge organized the torture, starvation, and murder of between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians. Ironically, in 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and effectively ended the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng Prison
This prison in downtown Phnom Phen was one of the most infamous locations for torture and murder. Known as Security Prison 21 or S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison was a converted high school.
From 1976 to 1979, between 14,000 and 20,000 prisoners (including 488 Vietnamese, 31 Thai, one Laotian, one Arab, one Briton, four French, two Americans, one Canadian, one New Zealander, two Australians, one Indonesian) entered S-21. Many of the Western prisoners were sailing small craft that mistakenly entered Cambodian waters. A handful of Cambodians and no foreigners survived their time in S-21.
In 1979, the Vietnamese converted the prison into a museum.
The prisoner population was between 1,000 and 1,500. Most prisoners were held for only a couple of months before confession and execution.
Prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party turned on its own. Thousands of party activists and their families were brought to Tuol Sleng tortured and murdered.
After there was no more room for burials at S-21, most of those who eventually confessed were sent to Choeung Ek, an orchard 11 miles south of Phnom Penh. Mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Choeung Ek is one of hundreds if not thousands of Killing Fields locations. The site is now a memorial centered on a Buddhist stupa.
The government encourages tourists to visit and wander the grounds. There is an audio tour in several languages including stories from Khmer Rouge survivors and one of the Choeung Ek guards/executioners who were mostly teenagers.
Ammunition was scarce so other means of killing were used. I’ll spare you and me recounting the details.
Bone fragments and bits of clothing continually work their way to the surface.
One of the most disturbing sights was the location where children were killed.
There is no charge for admission. Choeung Ek can be reached by tuk tuk or through the Hop On Hop Off bus service. A memorial service is held annually on May 20.
What can you say? The level of inhumanity that humans perpetrate on each other is staggering. I had the same sick feeling when visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau. It happens repeatedly in human history. I remember hearing and reading about the Killing Fields. It happened during my lifetime. What is so absurd is people who do those things think they are making society better. Whether it is gassing, hacking or kneeling on someone’s neck until they are dead, this shit (pardon my French) needs to stop.