Killing Fields of Cambodia

Graveyards from the Khmer Rouge regime

Killing Fields of Cambodia is infamous.

Cambodia has had a tumultuous political past since it declared its independence in 1953, with civil wars and struggles among political parties. In the period after the Vietnam War, Cambodia became the scene of one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.

Capital city, Phnom Penh, fell under the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. Under their leader Pol Pot, over a million people died. Some estimates however, put this number as close to 3 million, representing over a third of the population at that time. The term killing fields was used to describe the many sites throughout Cambodia where large numbers of the population were killed and buried.

The New Order

After taking power, the new regime evacuated millions of people from the capital city. Urban dwellers were also removed from other cities into the country. Schools were emptied, sick patients were forced out of hospitals and public officials were caught and captured. Their goal was to create an agriculturally strong peasant class. To meet this agenda, citizens were forced to become laborers on collective farms. The journey from the cities to the rural areas was a long and tough walk. Many died from exhaustion, hunger and lack of water during the long walk under the hot tropical sun; especially children and the elderly.

Relocated to collective farms, both children and parents were forced to work for long hours with little food and rest, many died from the backbreaking work or were executed for trying to steal food in order to survive.

During the reign, the killing fields of Cambodia became littered with victims of random executions and those who became victims as acts of ethnic and moral cleansings. Vietnamese Cambodians in the country were sent back home or killed and thousands of Chinese Cambodians were executed. Buddhism was banned and educated individuals such as teachers or doctors and upper class individuals were often targeted and murdered. People were often executed in the open for little or no reason, and entire families would disappear overnight.

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Just a few miles outside the capital city is Choeung Ek, one of the largest killing fields. This mass grave contains over 10,000 bodies of prisoners who were brutally integrated and tortured before being murdered. Most of the victims did not die from gunshots. Instead, the regime short on weapons, bludgeoned them to death with machetes, pickaxes, bamboo sticks and other weapons.

Women, children and even babies just a few months old were also violently killed. To kill babies, their heads were often bashed against trees, before they were thrown into the graves. In memoriam, 8,000 skulls are enclosed in a glass-wall shrine and the grave has been partially excavated to show the skulls and bones of the Cambodians who died there. Choeung Ek, is only one of hundreds of killing fields in Cambodia. In total, thousands of mass graves have been discovered in the country.

A Cambodian Man Walks Past One of the Many Killing Fields of Cambodia Sites
A Cambodian Man Walks Past One of the Many Killing Fields Sites


In 1979, the Khmer Rogue where bought down when neighboring Vietnamese entered the country. Forced into the jungles, the genocide was over, but it would be years before Cambodia would emerge from civil war.

Today the killing fields of Cambodia have become a tourist attraction. Hundreds of Cambodians who survived the mass genocide now make a living guiding tourist through the killing fields, prisons and related areas where the atrocities occurred. Tourists come to try and understand the horror of what occurred and honor the dead. Though grisly to explore, reflecting on what happened in Cambodia can hopefully prevent further such atrocities from occurring. 

Decoration Sits on One of Many Skulls on Display at Killing Fields of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
Decoration Sits on One of Many Skulls on Display at Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

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