Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

Rice fields near Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh
Blog Entry #42: Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I have spent several days trying to figure out how to write about the time we spent in Phnom Penh, seeing first hand some of the legacy of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge who were responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians – 1/3 of the population of Cambodia at the time – during their 4 years of rule 1975-79.  But words largely fail me.  [Note: the content and photos in this blog entry may be upsetting, so please use your judgment as to whether you want to continue reading].

Sign at Stupa with skulls
Following our visit to the Royal Palace, we drove the 15 km west from Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where over 17,000 political prisoners were executed.  The story of the Khmer Rouge is now well-known, and was brought to a western audience through the 1984 British film called The Killing Fields, which chronicled the intertwined stories of the Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran, and his American journalist colleague, Sydney Schanberg. 

The Cambodian People's Party, successor to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge
After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese army in 1979, evidence of the atrocities they had committed came to light.  Over 20,000 mass graves have been documented, and an estimated nearly 1.4 million remains of their victims in these graves.  Further deaths from disease and starvation during this period bring the total killed to an estimated 2.5 million.

Entering the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek
Gravestone dated 1969
Choeung Ek is a deceptively beautiful and peaceful site today, with a small trail that takes visitors through a cratered landscape, the pits where the mass graves have been exhumed.  A Chinese cemetery prior to its conversion to a site of mass executions, fragments of funerary urns and bones of victims still appear regularly at the surface after the frequent rains expose them.  Simple signs along the trail inform the visitor of the different atrocities that took place at each site.

Excavation pits at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Stupa filled with victims' skulls

At the center of Choeung Ek is a large “stupa”, a tower from the Buddhist tradition that typically contains Buddhist relics and is a place of veneration and worship.  Only in this case the stupa is enclosed in glass and contains the skulls and bones of thousands of the people who were killed at Choeung Ek.  The contrast between the beautiful and harmonious form of the stupa and its setting, with the contents it holds within, is chilling.
View inside the Stupa showing levels with victims' skulls
V____ telling family's story under the Khmer Rouge
V in the Killing Fields
On the drive back to Phnom Penh, our guide, V____, (he has asked to remain anonymous to protect his identity) told us the story of his family under the Khmer Rouge.  V____ was born in 1975, just as the Khmer Rouge came to power, following the Cambodian Civil War of 1970-75, a spillover of the conflicts raging in Vietnam to the east.  V____’s father had worked in Vietnam with the South Vietnam army, and had returned to Cambodia when the people there initially welcomed the Khmer Rouge as their liberators.

Pol Pot's dream: an agrarian communist Cambodian society
The Khmer Rouge (“Red Khmer”, the name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea under its leader, Pol Pot) immediately set about installing a Maoist-style campaign to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient agrarian-based Communist country.  The cities were emptied, and anyone with education or intellectual credentials – tainted by contact with the West – were rounded up and executed. 

Remnants of Victims killed at Choeung Ek
V____’s family immediately fled Phnom Penh for their home village near the Thai border, keeping his father’s identity and education a secret.  Facing starvation, V____’s older brother was caught stealing food for the family and executed; another sister died of starvation.  V____ is the oldest remaining sibling in his family, and though he has few direct memories of this time itself, apart from constant hunger and fleeing on foot, his parents have passed along to him and his children the legacy of this time.

Trial of "Duch", Chief of the Central Prison S_21
Though much of Cambodia’s population has been born since the Khmer Rouge, it remains a largely traumatized people.  Only 7 of the KR leaders responsible for the planning and execution of the genocide have gone to trial; Pol Pot himself died in 1998 under house arrest, but never having faced trial.  A number of members of the Khmer Rouge government remain in power today, and people are very cautious about what they say in public about the government; our guide, V_____, would only speak to us openly when we were on the bus.

Entering the Genocide Museum, walking past genocide survivors
V talking to us at S-21
From the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, we drove to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge converted it into Security Prison 21 – S-21 – a center for detention, interrogation, torture and coerced confessions for detainees before they were taken to Choeung Ek for execution. 

Child "criminals" held captive at S-21
As often seems to be the case with genocidal regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept careful records of the “criminals”, photographing each and documenting their crimes.  Today many of the rooms are filled with walls of these photographs, a numbing testimony to the people and faces behind the skulls and numbers we had seen at Choeung Ek.  Particularly horrifying are the walls of photos of young children whose only crime was to be the child of professionals, intellectuals, ethnic or religious minorities – anyone considered to be an enemy of the “people” and “Democratic Kampuchea.”

Tuol Sleng S-21 Torture Center
Pat & Bou Meng at S-21

Very few people who entered S-21 came out alive.  Only 7 are known to have emerged alive; we were fortunate to meet one of them, Bou Meng, who spoke to Pat and signed a copy of his memoir.

We continued on with our itinerary in Cambodia, headed to the Phnom Penh airport for our short flight north to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.  But the memories of this day and the history we encountered will remain with me, a poignant reminder of the need to confront genocide whenever and wherever it occurs, and not to stand by, silent.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this touching sharing of your experiences in Cambodia. I was just getting to know your family during Poh Pot's evil time and thoght I was reading and trying to learn about Indochina from some of our refugee patients I never began to understand. Your visit and your reflections are a help. Also I am glad you were in a beautiful, peaceful place for your anniversary. Good travels. Jean