Evidence of Genocide, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 2:17am

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia has a dark reputation on the tourist trail from a horrific past of genocide - not unlike Dachau, Germany or Rwanda. Indeed, Phnom Penh was the center of the Khmer Rouge “revolution” that left over 1 million Cambodians dead. While a majority of the deaths occurred through starvation, malnourishment and poor medical care, thousands died at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers.  Cambodia has created two genocide memorials that make up two parts of the machination of death implemented by Pol Pot.


The first memorial is a former school that was turned into a prison when schools were outlawed.  The prison was called “S-21” or “Tuol Sleng” and it played a central role in the identification and execution of those accused of treason within the Khmer Rouge itself.  Of the over 20,000 people sent to the prison, only 7-12 reportedly survived. 

Pol Pot and the others running the show became increasingly paranoid and convinced that CIA and KGB agents were operating within their ranks. Unbelievable means of torture were used to bring out “confessions” including electricity, mutilation and burning. The accused were forced to name other “spies” and faced a choice of naming other innocent people or dying. This created a vicious circle of needless death as these soldiers named one another in an attempt to save their own lives.  In the end of course, all involved were executed. 

Many of the deaths actually occurred at what is now known as the “Killing Fields” which are mass graves about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh.  Perhaps the darkest of the sites I’ve visited, the Killing Fields offers an absolutely chilling experience of walking across mass graves where the soil is littered with human bones and clothes of victims.  Signs are posted by trees that say things like “Killing tree against which soldiers beat children” and “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”.

 While these memorials are sad, gruesome and effective, I think it is a bit unfortunate that Cambodia is known more for genocide than it's beautiful beaches, waterfalls or incredible ancient ruins.  I'm seeing a nation on the rebound who is ready to shed all the baggage and move on.

Pol Pot and his Murderous Khmer Rouge

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 1:55am learned a bit about the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history lately via books and visits, I’ve been struggling about what I should share here on TwinF.  I want to say so much – too much.  I find myself being overwhelmed with interesting, horrifying and heartbreaking stories that a single blog entry cannot do justice.  I’ve resolved to focus on just a few points:


  1. Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less
  2. Only seven Doctors Left
  3. Year Zero

Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less

In 1975 a new Communist government came to power in Cambodia called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.  Pol Pot instituted an extreme and cruel version of fundamentalist Communism that quickly forced the population into farm labor.  Further, the regime outlawed money, markets, schools and religion.  Families were split apart; starvation and brutal murders became commonplace.  By 1979, when Vietnam invaded, over 1 million (1 in 7) Cambodians had lost their lives and every part of Cambodian society lay in shambles – all in the deranged pursuit of Communist Utopia. 

Only Seven Doctors Left

I met a Cambodian man in our hotel lobby that was watching BBC World News when a news story came on about the upcoming trial of some now-elderly Khmer Rouge leaders.  His name was Dom and he spoke with obvious emotion. I was interested to know his story.  In 1975 he was 2 years old (same as me) when Pol Pot came to power.  His father, a physician, was immediately separated from the family after being identified by his profession.  Dom never saw his father again.  The systematic execution of intellectuals was a strategy implemented by the Khmer Rouge.  People who were deemed to be educated were potential enemies and enemies had to be “smashed to bits”.  When the regime finally crumbled, some estimates conclude that there were only seven physicians left in all of Cambodia - seven doctors out of 7 million people.

Year Zero

Pol Pot’s goal was to turn Cambodia upside down and into an agrarian society.  According to his plan, the population would work to produce crops that would be exported to bring in money to fund social products and industry.  This is why money, schools and religion were banned- they were not needed for farming. Cambodia would revert to a pre-industrial backward-looking culture.

In talking to Cambodians I heard a theme regarding the Pol Pot time that related to starting over from “Year Zero”.  I’m only starting to grasp what it means for Cambodia to start over from Year Zero.  Once Pol Pot had been driven out, Cambodia started to rebuild, but found that the very means to rebuild had been eliminated.  Hospitals had no workers, schools had no teachers, government had no administrators – the cornerstones of modern society had been systematically eliminated.  The Khmer Rouge had murdered a generation of people that could have worked to speed the country’s recovery.  Instead they were left with former soldiers, rural farmers and broken families to rebuild a country that was “revolutionized” into the stone ages. 

The more I learn about the Khmer Rouge the more unbelievable it seems and I get the feeling that Cambodians that are my age feel the same.  I don't get a sense of anger or hatred as much as disbelief. From my own perspective I cannot get past the fact that Pol Pot and his cadre were absolutely convinced that their plan would actually work and would be a good thing for the country.  Simply unfathomable.

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