Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide


Travel Dates | December 12th, 2017 to December 16th, 2017

The Khmer Rouge was based on a theory – not practical knowledge – that failed miserably. – Tuol Seng Genocide Museum, Phnomh Penh, Cambodia

I took a solemn step forward to peer over the pocked handrail. My gaze was steady as I followed the even rise and fall of the ground. The soft-spoken narrator broke my focus, drawing my attention to one of the craters. I narrowed my gaze to what could have been small, inconspicuous pebbles, and the guide hummed on.

After large rains, the remains from Khmer victim’s surface, revealing the graves…

Often when I’m visiting museums or memorial sites, it’s easy for me to keep a healthy separation from the present and past. Yet when I saw that one little tooth jetting above the red dirt, it made it difficult.

Tuol Seng Genocide Museum & Choeung Ek Killing FIeld

Starting from Year Zero

My eyes glided through black and white photos. I searched each face for signs of distress, but there was little. Anger, sure, but I didn’t see anyone mirroring my horror, the knowledge that most victims brought to S-21 Prison were about to be stripped of their clothes, names, everything – a dehumanization process the Khmer Rouge used to coerce false confessions from loyal followers.

The Tuol Seng Genocide Museum, formerly S-21 Prison, taught me most of the Khmer actions ended in execution. Cambodians were promised a new start, but that entailed being forced from cities, and a return to the land. The Khmer used the U.S. Secret War, one that in 1973 dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the U.S. did in all of WWII, to drive over 1 million new refugees to the countryside. Those that refused to abandon their lives were killed on the spot. The young, sick, old, and healthy were all forced to rural areas on foot, a promise to start at year zero. In 3 days cities were emptied by Pol Pot’s Communist regime.

Many did not anticipate what a new beginning meant. Modern agriculture equipment was abandoned. Those who worked in politics, were professors, or perhaps followed intellectual pursuits had no experience working the land. They died within a few months of malnutrition and labor related injuries.

Paranoia and S-21

Pol Pot, Brother Number One of the Khmer Rouge, was paranoid. He assumed his downfall wouldn’t be from outside forces, but from mutinous Cadres that were whispering to plan his demise. He responded with more secrecy, rage, and unfathomable brutality: Security-21 Prison.

S-21 was a former high school turned prison; it was also an open secret amongst the regime. The prison’s brutality reached outside its walls, and quickly became known as the place one enters, but never returns, which is evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s lack of boundaries. S-21 was intended for party dissenters, however they operated under arrest by kinship, meaning entire families were taken, tortured, and ultimately executed at the prison.

Life of A Prisoner

They were nameless. Shackled together in rows of 9, face up. If one rattled their chains, all were beat. Conversation didn’t exist. Distress was the method of communication.

Torture was intended to extract confessions, and however ridiculous it sounds there was method to their brutality. The goal was to “smash,” or break down the entire memory of a person. This began with the dehumanization process.

Blindfold removed, photo snapped, blindfold retied.

Then prisoners were bound in rows or chained to the floor in single cells. And after 12 to 14 days of restraint, one by one their health was checked, and they were isolated for torture.

Toenails ripped out; fingertips clipped short; centipedes dipped in wounds; water boarded; repeatedly dunked; then killed.

Killed unintentionally. If a prisoner died in torture then there wouldn’t be documentation, or a confession of treason. Either way there were two senseless losses.

A Grave Ending

Quickly the death toll grew, and the space for bodies diminished. The Regime was in need of a new place to bury their victims, but secrecy remained with utmost importance to the Party leaders.

So once more prisoners were blindfolded, and moved in groups of more than 100. As a cruel joke, victims were told they were moving to their new home, one where they’d remain permanently.

Cadres forced them into bare straw huts, ordered them to band together, and wait for their new assignments. Then in groups of 50, prisoners were led together, and forced into rows, teetering on the edge of their soon-to-be grave. Guns were not used – the Regime wanted to save bullets and found the blasts conspicuous.

Instead, long metal bars were lifted, then thickly swung and cracked against the back of the line of skulls. The dead and undead thudded into the graves, and their throats were slit to ensure no survivors.

There are more than 300 mass graves scattering Cambodia. To this day many of the graves are unreachable due to landmines.

The Aftermath

Cambodians respect May 20th as the Day of Remembrance – the day the Khmer Rouge began the mass killings. There are said to be over 1.8 million Cambodians who died between the years 1975 to 1979, and the country has been recovering ever since.

The government succeeding Pol Pot’s Regime archived all documentation that survived the Party’s downfall. The information is dedicated to “the memory of the world, so we all strive for peace, dignity, and human decency.”

Moving On

The Cambodian genocide was recent. A large amount of the current population can tell horror stories of life under the regime, and very few families were not affected. Yet many of those families have ties to Party members and Party victims.

That stuck with me. I can’t imagine the difficulty of justifying family members actions. But as I thought on, a quote from Bou Meng, a survivor and artist from S-21*, kept coming back to me.

“I don’t want to hear that, obeying orders or be killed. That’s the end of justice, human conscience.”

He’s right, and I believe these memorials should remind us, among other things, to see how complacency can lead to the dark.

Cambodia is just now undressing their wounds, working to be transparent through their recovery. I hope families will learn to forgive, and move their society toward a tolerant and informed culture. And perhaps for Cambodia this will come sooner rather than later, but like for most cultures, I believe there is still work to be done.

*Bou Meng was 1 of 14 survivors from S-21. In total, there are 12,000 confirmed victims at the prison.

Information for this article came from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center audio tours. More information can be found at their website.