Understanding the Years of the Khmer Rouge

In British schools we are taught modern history. We are taught about the Victorians, the Tudors, the World Wars etc. But all of it we are taught from a western perspective. We are never really told about Asia’s part in the World Wars or what other horrible things happened in more recent years. These sorts of things I never knew until our recent trip through India and Southeast Asia. Cambodia is one such country where we made some shocking discoveries.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

It was here that we learnt about the very recent, and still raw, history of a horrific dictator, whom I would liken to Adolf Hitler. I am referring to the terrible pain and suffering inflicted on the people of Cambodia by a man known as Pol Pot and the Pol Pot Regime, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot (19 May 1925 – 15 April 1998) was a Cambodian revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1997. From 1963 to 1981, he served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. He became the leader of Cambodia on 17 April 1975 when his forces captured Phnom Penh. He served as the prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea from 1976 to 1979. He presided over a totalitarian dictatorship; his government forced urban dwellers to move to the countryside to work on collective farms and forced labour projects.

The combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population. In all, an estimated 1 to 3 million people (out of a population of over 8 million) died due to the policies of his four-year premiership.

In 1979, after the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, Pol Pot fled to the jungles of south-west Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest by the Ta Mok faction of the Khmer Rouge.

Choeung Ek Killing Field

When you are in Cambodia you will see very few people over the age of 50. This is because a lot of the older generation were killed during the Khmer Rouge, as one can imagine from the statistics above.

We visited Choeung Ek Killing Field, which has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, but in such a way as to educate rather than exploit tourists. Prisoners of the infamous S21 prison were brought to this killing field, and the many others that were scattered throughout Cambodia, in short, to be killed and left in mass graves. They made their final journeys in the dead of night in overcrowded trucks when the soldiers deeds were least likely to be noticed.

At the Main Gate

When the killings took place, loud and haunting propaganda speeches were played over loud speakers to disguise the screams and to trick surrounding villages into believing that a meeting was simply being held.

One feature at Choeung Ek Killing Field is a glass cabinet, meant as a demonstration to show the sheer number of those that died. In this cabinet are shelves lined with skulls and other major bones of the body, such as femur and thigh bones. The wounds inflicted on them can be clearly seen; they are also marked to identify what they were killed with and whether they were male or female.

Cabinet housing the bones of some of those who died on the Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge refrained from using bullets to kill people, due to the noise it would have made and the cost and availability of ammunition. Therefore, they resorted to old fashioned methods such as bludgeoning, stabbing and mutilating people with everyday items; farm tools for example.

Walking around the site was a very sobering and harrowing experience. Seeing excavated mass graves, bones and even rags of clothing in the dirt was very moving. There was one such mass grave for women and children that hit me so hard that I cried and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

One of the Excavated Mass Graves

Men, women and children were forced into labour, long hours in blistering heat with little food or water. They worked until they collapsed and were literally worked to death. Some were killed the moment they reached the camps. Why were these people killed? In the twisted mind of Pol Pot, they simply didn’t fit in with his ideals of what society should be like.

S21 Prison

As well as the Killing Fields, we visited another sight associated with the Pol Pot regime – S21, a prison where innocent people were brought and subjected to interrogation and torture and forced to confess to be spies.

Seeing the prison, and the pictures that were taken at the time, was as hard hitting as seeing the Killing Fields. I was not born when these terrible events took place but my parents have a brief recollection of the period. However, not a lot was known or publicised at the time.

Visiting the Abandoned S21 Prison

To visit Cambodia as part of a South East Asia trip is worthwhile as it has a lot to offer, as well as the tourist sights. To understand the recent history is, I think, a mark of respect for what so many people went through during such a dreadful time.

Cambodia is a beautiful place with many natural wonders, temples and other delights. However, it comes with a dark past, one that is still very raw for most people in the country and it will be for some time.

For more on the history of South East Asia take a read of our post: Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway

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