The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. It was responsible for one of the worst genocides in the last century. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died under the Khmer Rouge regime in executions, from torture, or from starvation (although some estimates say as many as 2.5 million died).
Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge
Pol Pot abolished private property and money, and declared that Cambodia (or “Democratic Kampuchea”) would start from Year Zero. People were forced to leave cities and move to the countryside to work in agriculture, often as forced labour. The Khmer Rouge detained and killed anyone it considered a threat to Pol Pot’s deluded vision of Democratic Kampuchea: educated people, members of the middle class, anyone deemed “intellectual”, anyone who spoke foreign languages, suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge, and eventually members of the Khmer Rouge too.
The Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum
I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (“The Killing Fields”) just outside Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng was once a school but the Khmer Rouge regime turned it into a security prison (S21) and an interrogation, torture and execution centre. Prison records give the following numbers of inmates from 1975 to June 1978 (these numbers do not include children killed by the regime): 1975: 154 prisoners, 1976: 2250 prisoners, 1977: 2350 prisoners, 1978: 5765 prisoners.
S21 was divided into Buildings A, B, C and D. The detainees in Building A were mainly Khmer Rouge cadres (Pol Pot also turned against his own). Their cells had beds (iron beds that came with shackles) and were larger than the other cells. In the other three buildings prisoners were in small brick or wooden cells, or crowded into large cells together. The cells in Building C have been kept as they were (see the photo above).
Prisoners were tortured until they confessed to fabricated “crimes”. Torture methods included waterboarding, an “interrogation” technique also used recently by the United States of America. In Pol Pot’s S21, the victim was shackled onto a platform and water was poured (using a canister such as the one you see in the photo) on him/her to assimilate drowning. The CIA may have more sophisticated waterboarding equipment (or not). Read here what one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng says about waterboarding.
Choeung Ek: The Killing Field
After being imprisoned and tortured in Tuol Sleng (an average imprisonment was 2-4 months or for political prisoners 6-7 months), prisoners were taken to Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh. Also known as the “Killing Field”, Choeung Ek is only one of over 300 similar killing fields in Cambodia that were used by the Pol Pot regime. In Choeung Ek prisoners were killed, often by hacking them to death with axes, hatchets, shovels or knives to save bullets. They were then buried in mass graves. The number of people executed every day ranged from a few dozen to a few hundred. They included men, women, children and the elderly. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been found on the site.
Why You Should Visit Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng
S21 is today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Choeung Ek is a memorial site. In Choeung Ek you can visit the sites of several mass graves, see the Killing Tree against which children were beaten to death, see bones and teeth that have been found on the site and pay your respects to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at the memorial stupa that also contains thousands of skulls, all victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
I am quoting from the leaflet I picked up in Tuol Sleng:
“Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive is the key to build a new strong and just state. Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman regime of Khmer rough (sic) public plays crucial role in preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.”
Sources: information presented in the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre.
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