A few hundred kilometers south of Angkor is the current capital city of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Two nearby sites (one within the city) are remembered for some of the most horrific atrocities to ever befall a society. In my last post, I focused on the splendor and magnificence of the Khmer culture dating back to the 9th century. This week, we don’t have to travel that far back in time – we’re only going to 1975.
The Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmers, is the name of the communist party that formed in 1968 and took control of the country in 1975 after a brutal civil war related to the armed conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Let by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was in power until they fled in 1979, forced out of the country by the People’s Republic of Cambodia. But the damage done in four brief years was irreversible.
The Khmer Rouge initiated a policy of social engineering which directly contributed to mass genocide of millions of innocent Cambodians. Pol Pot insisted the people become self-sufficient, however, his methods for achieving said self-sufficiency were arbitrary, hypocritical, and flat out criminal.
The first thing the Khmer Rouge wanted to accomplish was the creation of a completely agrarian society. To accomplish this, they forced all the citizens from the cities (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kratie, and others) into the fields of the rural countryside. Regardless of social status or level of education, farm work was the best most of these people would ever see as the situation escalated quickly and to dire consequences.
The Khmer Rouge tried to control what people wore, ate, spoke, how they acted, and in many ways even tried to influence what people thought. Any potential threats to Pol Pot’s party (those suspected of being traitors) – intellectuals, politicians, minorities, and even just people who wore glasses – were detained, tortured, and put to death. The rulers didn’t want anyone alive who sympathized or rubbed elbows with any ‘free-market’ economies and many of those countries themselves were added to the Khmer Rouge black list.
Pol Pot separated the population into two distinct groups: New People (educated city-dwellers) and Old People (rural farm workers). The Khmer Rouge’s motto toward the New People was, “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” It’s hard to imagine where this philosophy originated as many developing nations rely on the educated population to hold everyone else up. Pol Pot was a sociopath; a paranoid megalomaniac who believed that any and everyone could potentially challenge his reign.
Over 2 million Cambodians (and a small handful of foreigners) were murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – a number equal to 25% of the total population. It was a massacre of epic proportions. Let’s put it into perspective…
There are just over 300 million people living in the United States. Imagine (if you can) that 80 million people suddenly disappeared from within America. 80 million is a difficult number to wrap your head around so if we add up the total population of the top ten largest markets in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, San Diego, and San Jose), the number of people is only equal to about 30 million – less than 10% of the total American populace.
If you were suspected of treason by the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t just kill you… they killed your entire family so that your children and your children’s children didn’t enact revenge for your death. These crimes against humanity occurred all over Cambodia as the military tortured their own citizens before dumping the bodies into mass graves. Two sites have immortalized this dark time in history: Tuol Sleng (or S21) and Choeung Ek (or The Killing Fields).
Tuol Svay Prey High School, located in the center of Phnom Penh, was converted into a security prison. It quickly became the largest center of torture in the country; we’re well aware of this because of the meticulous records kept by the Khmer Rouge. Each prisoner was photographed (sometimes before and after being tortured) and rolls of names were recorded.
During the peak of ‘revolution’, an average of 100 victims a day were taken at S21. By the time the Khmer Rouge were forced out in 79, there were only seven remaining prisoners living in the old high school. These lucky few had used their skills in photography and other arts to maintain value to their captors. The regime was cannibalistic as outgoing executioners were killed by their replacements.
Starvation and torture made Tuol Sleng the end of the line for some Cambodians. But for the majority of others, it was just another rest stop on the way to the killing fields. The closest of these fields to Phnom Penh is only 15 kilometers away.
While the total number of deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge were in the millions, the devastation at Choeung Ek was limited to only 17,000. Since that time, however, these deaths have become symbolically immortalized so that none will forget. Many other killing field locations cannot be accessed either due to excessive land mines or because they were simply forgotten, lost in the jungles. The stories that Cheoung Ek tells are not for the faint of heart.
The men, women, children, and infants fated to any of the killing fields weren’t considered human, certainly not Cambodian. Oftentimes, they were murdered without the use of bullets – to save ammunition. Thousands were bound and blindfolded before being beaten or bludgeoned to death. Once an orchard (nearby to an ancient Chinese cemetery), Choeung Ek is now home to 129 mass graves, only 86 of which have been excavated. The grounds are littered with fragments of human bones, teeth, and bits of cloth; some of which can be identified as belonging to very young children.
The executioners were resourceful, utilizing their environment to aid them in their machine of death. Razor sharp palm tree branches were used to slit throats. The nearby reservoir was used to drown children and the elderly. But quite possibly the worst story imaginable is that of the Killing Tree. The Khmer Rouge would hold infants by their ankles and swing, like a baseball bat, viciously bashing their heads against the trunk. The babies’ mothers were forced to watch before being raped and murdered themselves. Now, the tree is covered with brightly colored bracelets – mementos left by tourists and families in memory of the lives lost. Needless to say, this wasn’t the easiest place to visit.
If Cambodia was heaven prior to the 15th century, then it became hell in the 1970s under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s body count wasn’t as high as the Fuhrer’s but the brutality is equal. In fact, I find it hard to fathom how this event could’ve taken place at all, let alone a mere 30 years after the Holocaust.
I can only hope and pray that humanity finally learns the lessons that the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis teach us.
Until Next Time…