Cambodian Genocide

Although this tragedy happened only a few years before I was born (1975-1979), I knew very little about it and found it very interesting and worthwhile to share.

In total, this was a very moving experience, but I will warn you that some of the pictures and descriptions can be a bit disturbing as well.

Since our arrival in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, Adam and I noticed bits and pieces of a brutal history. Signs for historical sites related to genocide, conversations about Cambodian history, far too many people walking around without limbs and an obvious amount of elderly population seemed to be missing. Despite that, everyone was in good spirits. It was another big city of Southeast Asia with crazy motorbike traffic, tons of food, busy and lively.

On the way from the bus station to the guesthouse, we made arrangements with a tuk tuk driver to pick us up the following morning for a tour.  As promised, he was waiting for us at 9am. In my ignorant bliss, I was all excited to start exploring Cambodia until Adam reminded me about the place we were going. This may be intense; prepare yourself to see some disheartening stuff.

We arrived first at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. As I hopped off of the little car, a man begged me for some money. His face and arms were completely burned. Most likely he was a victim of one of the many land mines that were planted during the awful Cambodian genocide, one of the most brutal in history. Before arriving in Cambodia I had heard of the communist dictator Pol Pot, but did not truly have a grasp of the atrocities that occurred during those four years in this country. I would get to know it very well over the next few weeks.

Tuol Sleng was originally a school. When the communist group known as the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975; they forced everyone to leave the city and turned the former high school into a prison camp.

The first building we visited was used to torture prisoners. The prisoners were those against the regimen or anyone they thought were suspicious, along with their entire families.

Suspicious people were all the educated, former police and military people, professors, middle and upper class, even the people wearing glasses were a threat because they appeared too smart and therefore were a liability.

The rooms were left as they were found; only without the corpses. My morning smile was all gone by then. It was almost as if there was heaviness in the atmosphere.

From the rooms we went to a building used for housing prisoners in cells. As I was walking in, I noticed that a wire fence was placed along the outdoor hallways along the balcony. It made me wonder… later I read that the fence was put in place to keep prisoners from committing suicide by jumping. Unimaginable what it must feel like to be pushed to that point. Then I looked to the patio, a huge sign was facing me; they were the rules from the regimen.

To know that this happened only 35 years gave me chills. We walked slowly, observing everything and without talking to each other, imagining the horrible scenes.

Another building had rooms with information about the facts and photos of prisoners. They ranged from children to elderly, all with the same short cut hair and identical uniforms. Their malnutrition was apparent in their bony bodies and their faces showed no hope and a deep sadness.

In the courtyard was a tall pole they used to hang prisoners and submerge them in putrid water to confess crimes they never committed. If ghosts existed, this place would be full of them, roaming around the patio and rooms day and night. It was such an eerie place.

The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot. He died in 1998, but some of the living top officials from the Khmer Rouge still remain in trial to this date, waiting for judgment. His goal was to create a society without competition, where people worked for the common “good”.

The Khmer soldiers forced everyone to move in communes and indoctrinated them with their ideas for four years. Anyone refusing these changes was killed.

People were divided into categories that reflected the trust that the regimen had for them.  Many were forced to work long periods of time and were fed very small portions of only rice.

From this prison, after months of torture, prisoners were transferred to their final destination: the Killing Fields. Our tuk tuk took us there next. I wanted to ask him about it, but didn’t  He was a child when this happened and was most likely negatively affected in one way or another.

The fields are outside of the city, around 20 minutes away. At the entrance they gave us an audio guide that helped explain the history as we toured the fields. They also had recorded testimonies of survivors from both sides. I dropped a few tears while I listened to the stories of the victims.

The Khmer Rouge would truck dozens of people at a time to this place, kill them and dump them in mass graves. Some had up to 500 people in them. All the grounds are uneven now. Although they collected the skeletons, teeth and small bones come out to the surface when it rains a lot.

As we walked in the first thing ahead was a tall memorial that the Cambodians built housing the bones from the graves they have excavated. It was unlike anything Adam or I have ever seen in our life. Very powerful.

The soldiers argue that they had no option but to do what they were told at the time. Most Khmer Rouge soldiers were recruited from the rural county. They were young men without education, easy to manipulate.

The horrible events were finally over with the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Many Cambodians ended in refugee camps and immigrated to the United States.

Outside of the museum, a little shop was selling related books. I bought and read one named First They Killed my Father where a survivor relates how her family was forced to move outside of Phnom Penh and got separated in working fields. Some members of her family were killed. I learned many other details about how families were treated and how many families suffered first hand.

What Cambodians suffered during this period is beyond words. It is one of the worst human tragedies of the last century without a doubt. More than twenty percent of their population are believed to have died (1.7 million), some were killed, and others died of starvation. (and maybe more)

Knowing what Cambodians have been through and getting to know them meant a lot to me. I am not exaggerating when I say people in Cambodia are some of the nicest in the world. We spent three weeks there, and they overwhelmed me with constant happiness and smiles. And their country is beautiful!

I encourage you to share this post, to visit Cambodia, and to visit the Genocide museum and killing fields given the chance.

Related posts:

A few days in Bangkok
Ko Samui, Gulf of Thailand
Huay Xai to Luang Prabang: Travel Guide
Riding Solo to Konglor
Comments To This Entry.
  1. RW October 24, 2012 Reply


    Thanks for sharing this gruesome reality.
    I am surprised that the genocide is attributed to Pol Pot but not to US Forces which invaded Cambodia in the mid seventies.

    I was in Grad School studying for my major in Economics and very keenly followed these events.I read the scanty news that came out of Cambodia while this happened and will tell you the following from what I recall. While Pol Pot was a horrible dictator and his acts of violence no less than Hitler’s, it doesnt come out that the US took charge of cleaning up the country and many gruesome acts were committed on the locals by US soldiers, the US fresh out from Vietnam needed another hunting ground to exercise their might and Cambodians suffered the US soldiers’ miserable violence which resulted in an end to the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and his army the Khmer Rouge. Chemical and various other weapons were used, including the infamous Agent Orange which was a gas used by US forces that killed everyone who breathed it! These atrocities were ordered by President Nixon, on plans laid out by the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger….as you read this you’ll see parallels with today’s Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully the US has chosen to stay out of armed control of Egypt,Syria, Iran and other disturbed nations. I want to say that the UN which was supposed to be the body to handle such humanitarian mess sat quietly and their funds were squeezed by the US administration whenever some Secretary General or the other tried to get serious. Today the UN is so starved of funds, mainly due to cuts by the US and many European nations, that it is breathing its last breath. Do see the pics in some issues of National Geographic of this period, the US Forces did every possible atrocity to take over the country and free them of their dictator. It doesn’t come out so openly in Time, Newsweek US News and World Report magazines, but some articles revealing facts in a gentle way did slip through in the Economist published from UK, though the UK was all through an ally of the US. Indian government wasn’t friendly with the US at that time and though Indian news was censored by the Indian Government, the newspapers of that time carried this side of the story.

    To conclude that the atrocities ended with the invasion of Vietnam is very far from the facts! The US leaders of the time justified their actions saying they were fighting communism, which is true! Some of the English speaking or educated persons executed by the Pol Pot regime were US sympathisers or spies. The US did not just invade Cambodia in one shot, its agents and Secret Service were active for years.
    The US invasion into Vietnam also needs to be read from both sides to get to the bottom of the story.

    Look at North Korea today, the present ruler is a dictator and a descendent of Kim Il Jung who ruled at that time. They let their country breakup into two but didn’t let US set up its bases there – didn’t bow down to to US supremacy. South Korea therefore is a capitalist country while North remains sealed in time.

    Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines had given US access to setup bases and defacto rule the country with economic as well as military might much before this time. If you visited Thailand or Malaysia at that time they had large camps of US Forces and some camps of UN Forces all over these countries with the US largely determining the course of action for the UN commanders as well. The economic might I refer to is that the US corporations needed cheap minerals and raw materials, manufacturing hubs, cheap sources of labor and see the number of Koreans and Philippinos who came in as Hourly wage workmen, maids and cabbies and after a couple of generations of toil they still barely run stores or newsstands in the US. Europe being further away from the West coast did not reap these labor benefits, but German English and French and Italian corporations felt safe to setup operations in these countries and take away precious materials and minerals. In the past two decades most US cabbies were Pakistanis and Indians today you’ll find most of the cabbies are Afghans….you know why!! The Japanese have been through this in the fifties, soon after the two atomic bombs were dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.. the Japanese ran newsstands and cabs in the US in the fifties, spoke broken English and were at the bottom of the US society covered by the term “coloreds”. Japan also supplied in the Fifties cheap Watches,Fountain pens,Radios, Transistors and later Calculators and Walkmans, like the Chinese do today.

    There seems to be a critical mass or a tipping point when a nation becomes so rich and mighty that it chooses to rule the world, see what England did in the 1700/1800’s and Germany in the 1900’s. There were many who tried to rule the world before this but couldn’t.

    Please also notice that this US supremacy drive petered out when the country elected Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But it gathered momentum again in Bush Jr’s regime. So watch out and evaluate carefully who you want to vote for this election!!

    • Pamela October 24, 2012 Reply

      Wow, thanks Rajnish, you have some great info and points on the entire affair. I knew that the U.S. had some sort of involvement and there was more to the story, but honestly there wasn’t anything about it in the museums or my book. Now you have my interest piqued again, time to read some more.

      And yes, after the third presidential debate on foreign policy, I have a very clear picture from that perspective of who I’d like in power.

      • RW October 25, 2012 Reply

        I Googled Cambodian Invasion Phonm Penh and found Wikipedia lists the whole affair. I can see that the official line in the country has been influenced by aid and other support to turn their dictator into the culprit. It is so easy to do this on unsuspecting poor and illiterate people who have to worry about their food and clothing, not much time or energy for other games. The vested interests that other powers had in this genocide therefore seem hidden from their own people and I can guess that Cambodian textbooks may also be monitored by censoring.
        I can tell you this, I’ve seen efforts by the US and others in India to control and dominate, the Manmohan Singh government is at present under domination by some interest groups to turn into a nuclear manufacturer of equipment as well as power. Well, the western world doesn’t want to risk more nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons manufacturing factories on their lands in this generation but they have to be set up somewhere and power can always be carried on the grid. India and others have been hungrily asking for nuclear technology/machinery/parts which have been blocked for decades under the NPT Non Proliferation Treaty which limits sale of these to a select club of nuclear power nations who have signed this treaty. The US made an exception recently for India to have access to machinery and technology transfers required to setup nuclear power plants, both countries have applauded this great historic agreement, but see, it comes at this convenient time in history when the nuclear club nations have all decided to stop putting up further nuclear power plants on their own nations! Behind this lobby are University think tanks and Professors, Nuclear machinery and technology supplying corporates and Senators who know how to help the business!!I am sure the key technologies and patents will remain in their control and India will assemble the equipment and get technology to install it, like China assembles Phones, Pads and Computers ! Do check it out, there might be many new nuclear power plants coming up at Mexico!!

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