Revisiting the Khmer Rouge Era

Holiday in Cambodia

Almost everyone has heard of the Khmer Rouge and their leader Pol Pot. But I'm sure that many of the younger people don't know much about them. The Khmer Rouge came to power after the Lon Nol regime, and were radical marxists who determined to obliterate higher culture in Cambodia. They killed or marched to distant farmlands all the intellectuals, teachers, etc in the cities in an attempt to return Cambodia to a purely agricultural economy. Their brutality culminated in "The killing fields" in which hundreds of thousands were executed in a small space and a relatively short time. This was another 20th century genocide that nobody stopped. although the victims were not from a different religious or ethnic group.

I recall news reports about the genocide in the late 1970s, and then the Vietnamese invasion that overthrew the Khmer Rouge and stopped it. Although the Vietnamese were historic enemies of the Cambodians, I was certainly in favor of anyone deposing the Khmer Rouge. The UN's support of the Khmer Rouge certainly was disappointing. It seems to me that certain crimes against humanity must be stopped at any cost, but that didn't seem to be the UN position at that time. I'm not sure how much has changed, since at this writing, the current UN doesn't seem to feel that chemical weapons in Syria must be stopped at any cost.

People who know me best know that I have a song for almost any word or phrase. Believe it or not, a punk rock song by the Dead Kennedys "Holiday in Cambodia" (1980) was running through my head for a couple of days before we left, on, yes, our holiday in Cambodia (2013).

Well you'll work harder with a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers til you starve
Then your head skewered on a stake
Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need my son:

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot [etc.]
The holiday was much more feasible 33 years later, but the history remains the same. Check out the song on Youtube if you like that kind of thing.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng Prison Dispersal to the Countryside I very much wanted to visit the Khmer Rouge sites and memorials to the victims, but Laura thought that half a day of that would be enough for her. We were only going to be in Phnom Penh for several days, so on Thursday the 7th Laura and I went with her sister Beth, our tour guide, to the Tuol Sleng prison in the city. This former high school was known as prison S-21 by the Khmer Rouge, and its existence as such was secret. The inmates were largely Khmer Rouge cadres who were suspected of being disloyal to the movement. They were typically tortured until they confessed to crimes, many of which were imaginary such as working for the CIA or the KGB, and then executed in the killing fields outside of the city. The prison itself (at left) looked like it might have been a pretty nice high school when it opened in 1962, but when you started to read the posters about what had transpired under the Khmer Rouge, the grim reality of the site emerged.

Faces of the victims Labor camps There were informative posters such as the one at right above, showing the geographic dispersal of the city residents to the distant countryside to work as agricultural laborers. Many did not survive the forced march, and many more starved to death in the resulting food shortages. The museum displays with the most impact on me were those showing the faces of many of the victims, as well as some of the slave labor camps.

Painting and nuns Perhaps the most interesting were the displays recounting the stories of the survivors of the prison. Of perhaps 20,000 who passed through the prison, seven were known to have survived at the time of liberation; since then a handful more have turned up. Laura was interested in the story of an artist who survived by painting for the Khmer Rouge. After liberation, his art documented his experiences, as shown. Note the nuns from Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, walking through the doorway. I'm not sure why they came, but it certainly was a good lesson in sin as well as man's inhumanity to man.

I was interested in the story of the "sewing machine man" Chum Mey who was saved from death by his mechanical aptitude; even the Khmer Rouge occasionally needed some mechanical devices repaired. Unfortunately, the reprieve gained by a few usually did not extend to their families. When the Vietnamese invaded and the Khmer Rouge were on the run, Chum Mey's wife and baby son were killed along with a friend, and he managed to escape, with no hope of saving any of the others.

Size of a cell Torture room The physical facilities themselves were pretty much the same way they had been 35 years ago. In the basement were the individual cells, tiny spaces where the prisoners were shackled as in the artist's painting above. At left I'm standing in cell #4 to give you an idea of the size. The prisoners wouldn't be living in those cells for too long. They would confess under torture in the rooms upstairs, as shown at right, and their final destination would be the killing fields. The torture devices appeared to be left pretty much as they had been. There were occasional posters (not shown in this picture) explaining the gruesome details, which are beyond the scope of this web page. There's not a lot of money in Cambodia to convert the site into a proper museum, but there was a partnership with a foreign museum helping present some of the material such as the posters and artwork.

The survivor in person Well, that was a lot to process. Certainly it hit close to home, but it was about to hit even closer. As we walked out the exit, we saw the usual gift shop setup with various books, pamphlets, and souvenirs available for purchase. But there was a small table of books with a man sitting behind it, and Beth identified him as the "sewing machine man." He was there in the flesh, as you can see from the photo at right. We bought his book and of course had our picture taken with him. We bought an additional book about the survival of the artist who had painted the picture of himself in the cell (above).

This can be the impact of genocide that has occurred within our lifetimes; some of the victims are still alive and can tell their stories in person. The survivors of the Holocaust are dwindling fast, but Cambodia is full of victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The Killing Fields: Choeung Ek

Sisters at Killing Fields Choeung Ek We didn't go straight from Tuol Sleng to the Killing Fields. We visited Kevin at the University where he was teaching in the morning, and we had lunch. Then Laura and Beth headed out to the market and Kevin and I took a tuk tuk to Choeung Ek, the best-known of the Killing Fields, perhaps due to its proximity to Phnom Penh. It wasn't just me who was up for visiting two Khmer Rouge sites in one day; the Missionaries of Charity were there as well, as you can see at left, near the exit to the site. When we entered we paid I think about $10 for both the admission and the headphone-guided tour package, in your choice of language. The site is not imposing from a distance, with a few relatively small buildings plus one large building which is a Buddhist stupa, the memorial, at right.

Excavation Bones Part of the reason that the site does not have many buildings is that the local people destroyed them when the Khmer Rouge were driven out, and the scope of what had transpired here became apparent. It's believed that a good 20,000 people were killed here. The KR played loud music over loudspeakers many hours a day to cover up the screams of their victims; the locals didn't understand why they did that until later. There are many holes where some of the bodies were excavated, as shown in the picture at left. In my yard in New England sometimes rocks and roots come to the surface. At Choeung Ek, human bones continually come to the surface. These depressions are still burial sites.

The genocidal nature of the killing is shown by the fact that they didn't just execute the party members who were accused of crimes, but whole families, men, women, children, and babies. It truly is a sobering experience to walk around the former Cambodian orchard and hear of the events of the late 1970s narrated in your own language. At right are some of the fragments. The small birdhouse-like structure is an altar to the gods which is a relic of the ancient Cambodian animism which pre-dates Hinduism and Buddhism. They can be seen in many yards in Cambodia, so I guess syncretism is a fact of life here as it is in so many other places.

The memorial Memorial closeup

When you reach the end of the tour, you are at the memorial. This has been somewhat controversial, but it contains over 8000 skulls which were excavated from the site, perhaps one fourth of those killed. They are displayed on 10 levels of about 800 each, and the injuries they suffered are apparent in many cases. Kevin captured me at left in front looking rather hot and unhappy, both appropriate for touring this site.

As I looked at the well-preserved skulls, it didn't seem so long ago that I was living in W. Lafayette, Indiana with Laura and we were hearing news reports of the Vietnamese invasion and the downfall of the KR. I thought that about half of these people could be alive today if not for the KR atrocities. Certainly it's a gruesome site from one standpoint, but I thought the display was effective. There is no way to identify the skulls right now, but I did wonder if 20 years from now when all the people of Cambodia have had their DNA sequenced they will test the skulls for that purpose. The answer to that question probably requires a greater understanding of Cambodian culture than I gained from this short trip.

When we left our tuk tuk driver was waiting for us, as they typically do. Kevin asked him to remind us who in his family had perished here and he said his grandparents had. He explained that his parents had been taken to a different killing field in another part of Cambodia. When one fourth of a population is killed, the effects are far-reaching on both individuals and society. Cambodia is still paying the price for this in many ways.

On the way back, the tuk tuk driver took us down some back roads, and showed us some people fishing in the outskirts of the wetlands, which filter the sewage from the city. He knew Kevin well enough to realize that was the kind of thing he would be interested in. A few more miles down the road, Kevin asked the driver to stop, and shot the short video below. It's pretty self-explanatory; the wetlands look pretty normal at the start, and then the sand starts to appear, finally filling the entire field of view. At the end I'm asking our tuk tuk driver where they got the sand. He informed me that it was dredged from the bottom of the river.

There's a reason we're not allowed to fill in wetlands in Massachusetts. They perform essential functions, even more so in Cambodia than here. It's a potential ecological disaster due to the lack of sewage treatment over there. The wetlands are filled in so that building can be constructed there. These construction projects are mainly funded by the Chinese, and most of the top jobs go to Chinese nationals, with the Cambodians serving as laborers. It's really a failure of the Cambodian government, not an unusual event in many third world countries. You can decide to what extent poor government is a legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

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Page last updated December 21, 2013
Related links: Traveling to Asia / Jet Lag - Prince Sihanouk - The Khmer Rouge Era - Ecotour of the Floating Villages Water for Cambodia - Angkor Temples and Siem Reap -