Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s dark past

Phnom Penh, 12-14 January 2020

The 250km drive from Kratié to Cambodia’s busy capital city Phnom Penh is mostly uneventful and only slightly delayed (the equivalent of excellent when it comes to public transport in Cambodia). After finding our hotel at the city’s riverside, and scaling 6 levels to get up to our room, we’re greeted by a monkey peeping inside our window. Once again on our travels we’re being terrorized by macaques, who have taken over our balcony!

Phnom Penh first became the national capital in 1434 when Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer empire, moved it from Angkor Thom, which had been captured and destroyed by Siam. A stupa erected behind Phnom Penh’s major temple of Wat Phnom houses the king’s remains.

Positioned at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, by the 1920’s Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia, considered to be one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Today it is a busy, not unpleasant, city of 2 million people. While there are a few other things of interest around here, such as the Palace and the Russian Market, as well as numerous pubs selling craft beers, our main goal in Phnom Penh is to learn more about the grim events taking place in Cambodia during the civil war.

I see myself like a broken glass. It’s so important that genocide be prevented, because it destroys the strings of humanity, it destroys the family, not just physically but emotionally. Reconciliation is about the responsibility of each of the victims to put all these broken pieces back together. – Youk Cchang (director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia and Killing Fields survivor)

The Cambodian Civil War which officially started in 1968 can only be understood within the wider frame of the Cold War, in specifically the conflict in Vietnam. In 1970 the North Vietnamese Army captured a third of Cambodia in the northeast and started empowering a then small communist guerilla movement called Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. After five years of fighting, the pro-American Republican government was finally defeated when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.

The war had caused a refugee crisis in Cambodia. More than 2 million people had fled the countryside to find shelter in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city they began what has been described as a death march: the forceful evacuation of the entire city.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge would become increasingly xenophobic and paranoid, causing what is known as the Cambodian genocide: the deaths of 2 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

The prison at S-21

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh chronicles these dark pages of Cambodian history. The site is a former secondary school, which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21). During the regime an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, under accusations of political dissent. It is just one of roughly 200 torture and execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge.

An audio guide takes us through the complex of classrooms converted to cells and torture chambers, and rows and rows of victim’s photographs, so many of whom were just children. Recollections from survivors of this time make for a harrowing listening experience as we walk through the former school.

Choeung Ek

Following history we then visit the so-called Killing Field of Choeung Ek, about 10km away from S-21. After prisoners at the detention centres signed their forced confessions, they were brought here to be executed. Although Choeung Ek is one of the best-known locations, this is but one of many, many mass graves scattered throughout the country, some of which have yet to be discovered.

Fragments of bones and clothes still resurface from these mass graves when it rains, but even on a dry day like today some of the remains are visible in the burial pits. A monument was built in the central courtyard to remember the people that lost their lives at Choeung Ek.

I see my mother everywhere. I see my sister everywhere. I see the whole country as my family. When I meet a woman who has lost her child, I treat her like my mother. When I someone who is poor, who lost their siblings, I see my sister. They become my family. – Youk Cchang

Cambodians literally address others, even tourists such as ourselves, as family; brother, sister, aunt, uncle.

Visiting Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek has been informative, and heartbreaking and at times maddening, but I’m glad we went to see it. Seeing how much Cambodia has had to endure and still endures, not in the least because of Western countries, we’re only left with great respect for the people of Cambodia, who have began to put the broken pieces back together.