Genocide–totaling an estimated two million deaths. That’s what happened when Pol Pot, the radical Marxist and Khmer Rouge leader, attempted to achieve his dream of an agrarian utopia at the dawn of “Year Zero.” On April 17, 1975 immediately upon seizing control of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated all cities, sending all the residents to the countryside for social engineering. Over the next four years, attempts at fostering a “perfect” and “pure” society led to violence at an unimaginable scale, and what happened still resonates in society today. In fact, some Khmer Rouge leaders are still on trial for crimes against humanity.
There are more than 300 killing fields scattered across Cambodia, with the best-known being Choeung Ek. This particular killing field is located about 15 km south of Phnom Penh and is the location of mass killings totaling 17,000. The Khmer Rouge would transport blindfolded men, women and children deemed enemies of the state to the killing fields by the truckload. During the killings the soldiers would blare propaganda songs on loud speakers hanging from the trees in a weak attempt to cloak the prisoner’s impending doom. Propagandizing people with loud revolutionary songs at this point was worthless as their fate was already determined, so the music served another purpose–to drown out the sounds of moans, blood curdling cries and skulls being crushed with blunt weapons, like steel pipes and hoes. Bullets were too expensive to use. Much of the food produced during the Khmer Rouge rule went straight to China in exchange for weapons–weapons that would later be used against the liberators, the Vietnamese. Giving much of the food to China led to dangerously low food rations and to eventual famines.
At Choeung Ek, both the audio and tour guides attempt to describe these indescribable acts, while consistently asking the difficult question of how. The tour guides, still feeling the sorrow, could not explain how people could commit such heinous acts, and would just shake their heads in disbelief. It has been 35 years since the Khmer Rouge systematically wiped out a quarter of Cambodia’s population, but still the question remains. How? Without going into much of the history of the Khmer Rouge (there’s plenty written about already), I can tell you that Pol Pot was very successful in arousing the poor, uneducated peasant class. Being a simple uneducated peasant, poor, and hungry, coupled with an already existing anger from American bombs dropping over head was enough for the class to adhere to Pol Pot’s revolutionary pronouncements and rise up. It was class warfare at its scariest. Through brainwashing and fear mongering, Pol Pot successfully made people do savage, unthinkable things to their fellow-man, family members, friends and strangers all to achieve the wild and unrealistic goals of self-sufficiency and ethnic purity, among other things.
At Choeung Ek, the most eerie aspect of the killing field was the “killing tree,” which got its name because this tree, still standing today, was a tool the soldiers would use to kill children. The soldiers would take children by their legs and violently swing their heads into the tree, crushing their tiny skulls. Even if the killing fields are old news, being 35 years ago and all, it’s still tough and unbelievable news to hear.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, no one was safe. Being a former government employee, living in the city pre-Khmer Rouge takeover, not being 100 percent Khmer, being an academic and even wearing glasses, to name a few, could get you killed. The only people who could probably sleep easy at night were the “base people”–the original peasants. Pol Pot considered the peasants heroes and since there were essentially two different groups of people–the base people and ex-city folk, with the former having all the power, many people suffered. In the book First They Killed My Father, the author, a young girl at the time, would always come under fire from the base people for having lighter skin (she was part Chinese). As a result she had to keep many secrets. If people found out that she came from the city or that she was part Chinese it would certainly mean death. It was ethnic and class cleansing and no one could escape it. Also in the book, the girl’s brother tries to explain to her why they must keep their ethnic identify safe by saying, “The Angkar (the Khmer Rouge higher-ups) hates anyone who was not true Khmer. The Angkar wants to rid Democratic Kampuchea of other races, deemed the source of evil, corruption, and poison, so that people of the true Khmer heritage can rise to power again.” Frightening and hard to believe it was only 35 years ago.
In addition to the killing field Choeung Ek, we went to the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). The Khmer Rouge used this high school-turned-prison and detained as many as 20,000 people during the four years it was in operation. By using creative, yet horrific torture devices, the prisoners were routinely tortured and coerced into giving the names of family members and friends so then they could be tracked down and brought to “justice.” The people being brought to S-21 were seemingly everyone else in society other than the peasant base people, though they too could be punished. Doctors, students, teachers, monks, former Lon Nol government employees, etc. were the types detained, tortured and murdered.
If you want to find out more about the killing fields or what people’s lives were like during the Khmer Rouge rule, I recommend the following books:
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson