You can’t escape knowing about the Cambodian genocide when visiting the country.
The Khmer Rouge was only officially in power from 1975 -1979, but in that short time inflicted deep wounds on Cambodia and its people that will endure for generations to come.
During their time in power the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, affected a Cambodian genocide that left around 1.7 million Cambodians dead: murdered at the hands of a megalomaniac leader.
Pol Pot’s attempts to turn Cambodia into a Maoist communist state and peasant farming community left one quarter of the country’s population dead from over work, starvation and execution. No one in Cambodia was untouched by the Cambodian genocide.
Every single Cambodian citizen lost family members, or was injured in some way by the Khmer Rouge’s influence in the country.
Pol Pot’s rise to power was facilitated by the instability of the Cambodia and Vietnamese region and he gained some popular support from Cambodians who were fed up with being bombed by the Americans who were trying to eradicate the North Vietnamese from Cambodia.
When the US invaded Cambodia to drive out the North Vietnamese, they went deeper into the country and ultimately joined forces with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
In 1975 when the US had withdrawn from Vietnam, Cambodia was left with a government that was riddled with corruption and incompetence and had lost American support and the support of the Cambodian people. Seizing his chance at overthrowing a weak government Pol Pot and his army of Khmer Rouge peasants marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and took political control of Cambodia.
Within days of seizing control of the government Pol Pot began his very own “Great Leap Forward” and Cultural Revolution in an attempt to turn Cambodia into a Maoist pastoral society. The Khmer Rouge began to “cleanse” the country of evil threats to Cambodia’s agrarian utopia such as western influences, intellectualism, city life, religion and capitalism.
All foreigners were deported from the country and embassies closed, other languages were banned, newspapers and TV stations were all shut down, money was forbidden, religion banned, education and health care stopped and even parental guardianship was taken away. Cambodia was completely closed off from the rest of the world.
The Killing Fields
One of the most infamous of Pol Pot’s horrific achievements was the Killing Fields. Most of Phnom Penh’s residents were forcibly removed at gunpoint from the city and made to work in the fields as slaves.
The people were worked until they collapsed and died of exhaustion, from disease or starvation. Workers were given only one portion of rice every two days to nourish them while starting the work day at 4am in the fields and not stopping until 10pm at night. They were constantly guarded by soldiers who would kill for even the smallest misdemeanor.
All throughout the country the Khmer Rouge undertook purges to rid the society of any of the old non-Maoist ideals and influences. Under Pol Pot entire groups of Cambodia society were ear-marked for extermination such as Buddhist monks, western educated individuals (despite the fact that Pol Pot had been educated in France), all Khmer Muslims, bureaucrats, large and medium landowners and intellectuals.
The Khmer Rouge also divided Cambodians into three categories and your category decided the relative harshness of your work and the amount of rations you received: individuals with full rights, candidates for full rights and those who had no rights whatsoever.
So in short…
Today people can visit the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, where mass graves have been found. It is a chilling reminder of the tyranny, hardship and suffering that the Cambodians have endured in recent history. The Security Prison 21 (S-21) was a school house used by the Khmer Rouge for torture and executions is today known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
The museum can be visited in Phnom Penh and in the rooms where tortures and executions took place there is still blood that dried where it splattered years previously. It is estimated that around 17,000 Cambodians were imprisoned at the school, where they were beaten and tortured into naming family and friends and then executed.
These sites are painful and harrowing to visit, but they serve as a constant reminder of the Cambodian genocide and the universal value of freedom and democracy. They are also a testament to the bravery of the Cambodian people.