During the last three decades, Cambodia has suffered through war, political disorder and genocide. On April 17th 1975 after winning the civil war, the Khmer Rouge gained the control of the Phnom Penh. This communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot would cause unimaginable devastation and misery throughout Cambodia for the next three years, eight months and twenty days. The Khmer Rouge forced the people of Cambodia to the countryside and to labor camps.
Families were separated, children taken away from their parents. Former city residents would become subject to unending political bombardment and brainwashing. The children were even encouraged to spy on adults, including their parents. Fifteen kilometres outside of Phnom Penh an extermination centre known as the Choeung Ek, or the ‘Killing Fields’, would become a mass grave the size of a soccer field for the many that were killed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Throughout the reign of Pol Pot, many modifications and rules were put in place to validate his communist ideology becoming a reality in Cambodia.
These changes caused 1.5 to 3 million people to die from starvation, disease, exposure, by being overworked or were executed for committing crimes. Crimes punishable by death included, not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food for personal consumption, wearing jewellery, engaging in sexual relations, grieving the loss of a family member or friend and expressing religious views. Foreigners were also banished from the country, embassies were closed and currency was abolished.
Markets, schools, newspapers, religious practices and private property were all forbidden. To confirm his system to work, members of the government, public servants, police, military officers, teachers, Christian preachers, Muslim leaders, members of the middle-class and the educated were identified and killed.
Pol Pot took control of a high-school located in Phnom Penh and transformed it into a prison, torture and interrogation centre known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), only one of the 167 prisons throughout Cambodia. This prison would be in use from mid-1975 through to the end of 1978. Many precautions were taken to ensure the chance for escape to be impossible. The former school was enclosed with corrugated iron sheets covered in electrical wire; windows were secured with iron bars covered in tangles barbed wire. The classrooms were converted into tiny prison cells for individual prisoners as well as larger mass cells. Houses around the school area were modified to become rooms for administration, interrogation and torture. Several torture tools were cruelly used against the Cambodians including, hammers, pincers and electric cable.
There were around 1,720 workers controlling the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. Most of these workers being Cambodian boys and girls from peasant backgrounds ranging from ten to nineteen years old. These young men and women were trained to become guards and interrogators to their own people. The prisoners varied from Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, British and American nationals, but the majority of those imprisoned in S-21 were Cambodians. Civilians were also taken as prisoners if they had any kind of education, doctors, professors, students, politicians etc. Prisoners held in S-21 were tortured until they confessed to any crimes their captors accused them of before being taken to the Killing Fields to be brutally executed.
Ways of forcing the confession from the prisoners included routine torture sessions, electric shocks, hot metal instruments, hanging, pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on their wounds or holding the prisoner’s head under water. The actions taken place against the Cambodians would have been physically and mentally draining, and many were fatal. The average time of imprisonment was two to four months. The photographs that were taken of each prisoner were then handed to the Khmer Rouge authorities in order to prove they had been eliminated and the executioners had followed orders. Former prison staff say as many as 30,000 people entered the S-21 Prison to be held, and only 12 survived the violent acts that occurred within the walls.
The one that was behind these horrendous events was a man named Pol Pot. Pol was born on May 19th 1925 in Cambodia. His father was a farmer and their family had connections to the royal family. In 1949, Pol won a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris. This is when he first became interested in Marxism and revolutionary socialism. In Paris he bonded with several other like-minded young Cambodians including, Khieu Samphan, Khieu Ponnary and Song Seng, and formed a sort of “study group” if you will. This group of young scholars became the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In 1953 Pol returned to Cambodia and began to work for the Cambodian Communist Party (Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP)). He began leader of the Party by 1962. Pol actually obtained his name from the shortened French phrase “political potential.” Pol made a living by teaching history and geography in a private school, and he was very well liked by his students.
He became greatly influenced by the people supporting the Communist movement and also by Mao Zedong’s concept for continuous revolution. In 1967 Pol Pot was living in Northeast Cambodia with a hill tribe. He was thoroughly impressed with the simplicity and non-material way of life – much of this growing on his already existing ideology. The Khmer Rouge established the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea in January 1968. In 1969, the US President Nixon authorised a secret and illegal bomb raid on communist Vietnamese areas and the supply routes inside Cambodia (all in an attempt to halt the spread of communism during the Cold War). By 1973, America had dropped a total of 539,129 tons of bombs in Cambodia killing 600,000 Cambodians. This was a massive military fail on the US’s part during the war with Vietnam. The bombing only increased the support for the Khmer Rouge among Cambodians that were horrified and disgusted with the bombings.
Once the Khmer Rouge had captured Cambodia on April 17th 1975, one of Pol Pot’s first notions was to begin Year Zero. After sealing off Cambodia to the rest of the world so one knew what was going on, the brutal killings could begin. One of Pol Pot’s goals was to force upon the people a new calendar starting at the Year Zero (hence the name). This would make all of Cambodia’s previous history irrelevant. His ideology was that the current social, traditional, cultural and economic aspects of the Cambodian society would be destroyed and erased from history. When this was achieved, an entirely new society would be created from scratch. This is why the educated were eliminated from the equation – it would be far easier to re-educate those who have not yet been educated. In order to “purify” society, he believed he needed to dispose of capitalism, this would create a Cambodia that was self-sufficient – Cambodia was turned into a giant labor camp (agrarian communism).
Urban and Western culture needed to be non-existent. To achieve this, cities were evacuated and were marched to the countryside in an attempt to create a pure and peasant society – as that of the hill tribe. Religion could no longer be an issue. The dominant religion in Cambodia, Buddhism was attacked with suppression and the killing of Monks, leaving only 3,000 of the original 60,000 alive after the Khmer Rouge reign. All foreign influences needed to be eliminated, especially Chinese, Vietnamese and Muslims. During this time, only half the Chinese population survived, thousands of Vietnamese were killed and of the 250,000 Muslims taking residence in Cambodia, 90,000 were murdered. Pol Pot needed to do all this, plus kill those with any level of education or professional occupation along with their extended family. Anyone who opposed this ideology was killed.
The horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot lasted a long three years, eight months and twenty days. During which 30% of the population, 2 million, Cambodians were violently murdered. With these numbers, almost every Cambodian would have lost at least one relative in the duration of the Killing Fields. The dreadful Killing Fields came to a halt on January 7th 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded and freed the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge’s reign. 600,000 Cambodians fled to the Thai border, many of them being too afraid to return had no choice by to migrate to the United States, France and Australia. Pol Pot went into hiding and retreated to Thailand, where he remained for six years. After this, he returned and regained control of the Khmer Rouge. Although, by 1996, the Khmer Rouge was again losing strength and many of the Khmer Rouge officials turned against Pol Pot. On April 15th 1998, at the age of 73, Pol Pot died of natural causes the night it was known he would be handed over to face charges of crimes against humanity the next day by the International Tribunal.
The S-21 Prison is now a museum called, Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide meaning ‘poison hill’. The ground floor classrooms have been untouched from the day they were found. The once interrogation rooms contain only a school desk and a chair facing a steel bed with shackles on either end. The far wall contains the photographs of the horrendous sights that faced the two Vietnamese photographers that discovered the prison in January 1979. Bloated, decomposing bodies chained to the bed frames with pools of wet blood surrounding. Thousands of photographs of the prisoners cover the walls inside several buildings. Cambodia faced many chilling events during the events of the Killing Field. Brutal killings taking place, with guns seldom being used because the bullets were seen as valuable, the bodies were hacked to death with iron bars, pickaxes, knives, bamboo sticks and machetes. Small children and babies simply being beaten against a tree before their defenceless bodies were thrown into one of the many hundreds of pits located in what used to be an orchard.
Bone fragments and scattered clothing can be seen on the ground of the Killing Field, a large monument erected holding the skulls of 8,000 of the victims. Even though the Khmer Rouge no longer have control of Cambodia, many of the landmines they left behind continue to leave Cambodians severely injured or dead – making it an impossibility to escape the terrors caused by Pol Pot. Almost every Cambodian over the age of 40 has a story to tell about the terror that took place during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Sadly, around 70% of the population are the age of 30, and four out of five that live in Cambodia know very little or none about the events that caused devastation and pain throughout the time of the Killing Fields. (1) Although Cambodia will never be rid of its brutal and horrifying past, it has begun to slowly revive. “Tourism has increased by 40% every year since 1998. Over 30% visit the Killing Fields.” With the tourism increases over the years, Cambodians are now making a living as a guide though the Killing Fields and other genocide related areas.
“Tourist dollars and capitalism are helping me come to terms with my country’s history – and my own.” Says an unnamed Cambodian guide, who lost his grandfather and uncle to the Khmer Rouge. Many guides share their own personal stories of their survival and experiences during this time. Not only do the struggling Cambodians make a living by guiding tourists through the horrific sites cause by the Khmer Rouge, but also by begging the tourists on the side of the road. It is said a begging Cambodian can make $1,000 US dollars a year, a massive different to the usual $260 they accumulate in a year. (2) To the disappointment of many, both Pol Pot and his military chief, Ta Mok, died before either could face the punishment for their actions. All through to the end of his life, Pol Pot showed no regret or remorse for the devastating happenings that took place throughout Cambodia during his reign.