The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. Led by Pol Pot they immediately began to restructure society. Pol Pot believed that Cambodia should be a rural, classless and agrarian society. As a result, within just a few days of the Khmer Rouge coming to power, families were separated, jobs taken away and the entire population of Phnom Penh was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for up to 15 hours a day. Anyone who tried to disobey was immediately killed.
The Khmer Rouge declared it Year Zero, stopped the postal service, closed its borders and abolished currency, schooling, private property, foreign clothing and traditional Khmer culture.
Senior members of the former government and their families were executed. Pol Pot believed that all the various factions of the Khmer Rouge needed to be cleansed. This lead to an unknown number of people being killed, outside and within the Khmer Rouge party. The Khmer Rouge were finally toppled by the Vietnamese in 1978. While no one knows the exact numbers, during these 3 years and 8 months it is estimated that 1 in 5 Cambodians were killed, perhaps more than a million people. They were killed in executions, in killing fields, and by being starved and worked to death. We learned that one saying of the Khmer Rouge went something like this: Better to kill ten innocent people than let one enemy escape. With this motto, entire families, from newborns to the elderly were executed. During this time the world was clueless. The Khmer Rouge had completely closed Cambodia’s borders. They only invited those sympathetic to their cause, and took them on staged tours of their country.
While in Phnom Penh, we were able to drive a half hour to visit one of the many killing fields. It is estimated that about 17,000 men, women, children and infants were killed at the Killing Field of Choeung Ek. Bullets were expensive, so they were often bludgeoned to death. Previous to becoming a killing field, this land was a Chinese burial ground, where those who passed were honored and respected.
There are killing fields, such as this one, all over Cambodia, many surrounded by land mines or hidden in jungles. At Choeung Ek, when it rains, pieces of human bones and cloth rise to the surface. Below is a picture of the memorial at Choeung Ek. It is home to skulls and other bones from many, but not all, of the victims at this field. Many of the mass graves in this field have been left untouched, the Cambodian’s preferring to let the victims of the Khmer Rouge rest in peace.
During the Khmer Rouge rule all schools were closed. Anyone with an education became an enemy of the state. The Tuol Sleng Museum was once a high school. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into a prison, giving it the code name S-21 (Security Prison 21). Those killed at the Choeung Ek Killing Field were first tortured here. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records and today you can visit and look at the photographs of those who perished and the few who survived. Eventually, the Khmer party turned on itself and began torturing the killing their own.
Due to the closed borders and a few Westerners’ lobbying on their behalf, the Khmer Rouge continued to be given a seat in the United Nations. In fact, from 1979 to 1990, the masterminds behind this genocide, were recognized as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia (at that time the country was called by another name).
The Cambodians, also known as the Khmer people, are recovering from a genocide and civil war that didn’t end until 1997. Those that we met were kind, helpful and proud of their cultural heritage, a heritage that was almost lost.
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