Democratic Kampuchea

Toward the end of our visit in Cambodia, Andrew and I spent three days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's bustling, dusty capital, to learn about the Cambodian genocide and visit the country's more famous memorial sites. 

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge defeated the Khmer Republic in present-day Cambodia and declared Year Zero in the new state Democratic Kampuchea. This pronouncement was intended as a rejection of all of Cambodia's social and cultural history, all remnants of which were to be destroyed and replaced with revolutionary propaganda. In this "people's revolution" young, poor, and uneducated rural Cambodians were forcibly recruited by the Khmer Rouge in a murderous campaign to purge Cambodia of teachers, artists, intellectuals, urbanites, and anyone else considered bourgeois. Even wearing glasses was considered a sign of intellectualism and anti-revolutionary sentiments. Between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge used a system of secret prisons, mass murder, and forced labor that left approximately a quarter of the population, or 2 million people, dead in less than five years. Facing a fatigued American public from the Vietnam War, US presidents Ford and Carter remained largely silent on the ongoing Cambodian genocide and did not get the US involved to end the violence. 

A photograph at S-21 captures life in the work camps for the millions of Cambodians lucky enough to escape prisons and mass grave sites. 

I find myself upset when people talk about the Holocaust as if it was THE worst thing that has ever happened in history; it is of course, a truly dreadful awful despicable ghastly inhumane and very real/important part of human history, but we kid ourselves that it was one of a kind. We feel that way because there are thoughtful and well funded Holocaust museums around the United States and because it dovetails with a war we fought and won - but what about the wars we chose not to fight? When we wrung our hands and turned away? People in the United States don't tell "bad Pol Pot jokes" or compare viewpoints we don't like to "femi-Khmer Rouges", because what happened in Cambodia for some reason doesn't "count" in the American psyche the way Hitler and the Nazis do. And that's a shame.

How can we, as Americans, do better? We can acknowledge that there are current mass atrocities that happen everyday around the world with our tacit consent (like Syria), even though we feel confused and helpless about what to do. We can learn about history, pay homage to it, and remind ourselves that European sufferings are not historically unique or more valuable. In that spirit, though it's difficult, I encourage you to try to make it through this difficult blog post. It's not too long, and does have some semi-graphic pictures.

Gallows outside of S-21 prison.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

Located in the heart of Phnom Penh, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former prison operated by the Khmer Rouge during it's reign from 1975-1979. In Khmer, Toul Sleng means "The Hill of Poisonous Trees", though the prison is known colloquially as S-21, or "Security Prison #21." It was housed at a former high school in a cruel twist emblematic of the Khmer Rouge's vicious campaign to stamp out education and "intellectuals." It was one of at least 150 execution centers and housed approximately 17,000 prisoners. Only 12 prisoners survived by the time the Vietnamese Army invaded and rescued the prisoners.

Early in the prison's operations it was filled largely with associates of the former regime, but as time went on the selection of prisoners expanded to include anyone broadly defined as an "intellectual." Later, selection for the prison camp became almost entirely indiscriminate and expanded to members of the Communist regime as the Khmer Rouge's extreme paranoia turned inward to their own party members. Thousands of inmates were kept in extremely tiny cells and subjected to regular torture to confess anti-revolutionary sentiments, their own "treasonous activities" to share names of friends and family members suspected of being anti-revolutionary, and usually killed anyway either shortly after or at the nearby mass grave site (detailed below.) 

Rules of S-21

Large rooms like this were used to harbor high-ranking officials before they were tortured and killed. Leg shackles and a torture device are visible on the bed. 

Barbed wire was used to keep prisoners from escaping their cell rooms. 

Each prisoner was photographed upon entry - though some of the individuals above were prison guards. The photos rotate with illustrations of the most common tortures inflicted at S-21.

Most prisoners were held in small brick cells like these in long blocks attached to one another. 

Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

Just 11 miles south of Phmon Penh is one of Cambodia's largest and the most well-known mass grave site where victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed and buried, known as the Killing Fields. 8,895 bodies have so far been discovered at the site, and tourists are encouraged to visit by the Cambodian government. Most prisoners arrived blindfolded in trucks. In small groups, they were led to the pit where they would be buried. The prisoners were killed with picks, axes, bamboo poles, machetes and other simple, hand-held devices, as bullets were too expensive to spare on prisoners. Upbeat, patriotic music celebrating the victory of Democratic Kampuchea were played loudly over the radio to cover the moans of the dying. Men, women, children, and babies were all killed here. 

Aside from a small entry hut up front, the site is mostly a large grassy field, some with open pits where bodies have been exhumed and other pits that have not yet been dug up. Visitors were given an audio guide to take them on a guided walk around the site. I appreciated how simple and somber the entire site was - no need for simulators, large photographs, statues, or pamphlets, or movie screening rooms with documentaries narrated by celebrities. The quietness of the bare fields and simple wooden bulletin boards gave appropriate testimony to what had happened, and echoed the helplessness I felt as a visitor. The loss of so many millions of lives has already happened, and the opportunity to prevent such a massive destruction of life is gone. 

Labeled the "killing tree," Khmer Rouge soldiers would literally beat babies heads against the tree, crushing them and killing the children. The bands on the tree and in other photos are left by visitors in remembrance and acknowledgement.

At the center of Choeung Ek, there is one simple monument - a tower of all the skulls and other bones that have been excavated a the site since 1980. They are color coded by the type of trauma that each bone experienced. 

Thank you for making it to the end of a challenging and emotional blog post. In our next post, we'll be talking about the last stage of our Asian adventure: two weeks in Vietnam.