We visited the infamous Tuol Sleng re-education camp and the Killing Fields at the weekend, which was a sad reminder of Cambodia’s tragic past. A word of warning, some of the photos below are very upsetting.
1. Independence
Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1953. After a short period of relative peace, Cambodia found itself dragged into the front line of the Cold War.
During the Vietnam War, waves of Viet Cong troops fled from Vietnam and sought refuge inside Cambodia’s eastern border. The US promptly launched massive bombing raids targeting the Vietnamese troops with scant regard for Cambodian territorial sovereignty nor for Cambodia’s explicit declarations of neutrality throughout the ‘Cold’ War.
The Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s indigenous communist group, had existed in the background well before the US bombing commenced. However there can be little doubt that by dropping the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs worth of munitions on Cambodian villages throughout the late 60s and early 70s, the US provided the perfect recruitment tool for the Khmer Rouge who later admitted using the bombing as a key part of their recruitment drive.
Whatever the arguments surrounding the rise of the Khmer Rouge one thing is certain. By 1975, under the leadership of Pol Pot, they had seized power.
2. Ideology
Pol Pot’s government immediately set about implementing their warped vision of an agrarian utopia. History was erased as ‘year zero’ was declared. Cambodians were divided into two classes - the ‘old’ people and the ‘new’. The old people were the peasant farmers from the village communities who in the eyes of the regime represented a heroic state of being. However the new people - who included remnants of the previous government, the professional classes, city dwellers, and ‘intellectuals’ were automatically assumed to be the enemy within. Speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, or even just having soft hands was enough to classify someone as an intellectual and thus brutally seal their fate.
3. Re-education at the Hill of Poisonous Trees
And so began the mass evacuation of the capital city, Phnom Penh, where two million people were force-marched from their homes and even hospital beds into the countryside in what one journalist referred to at the time as ‘the greatest caravan of human misery the world has ever seen’.
The new people were destined for forced-labour, disease, starvation, or re-education camps around the country. The most notorious of all re-education camps - facility S21- was based in central of Phnom Penh and survives as a gruesome memorial to this day.
Khmer Rouge officers kept meticulous records of inmates both on arrival at S21, and then when they died.
Tiny cells
Pure angst is written in this prisoner’s face
Even children were imprisoned
Torture methods included simulated drowning, electric shocks, and suspension by hands tied behind backs to dislocate shoulders (which were relocated and dislocated again and again if required to extract a ‘confession’). Torture victims often suffered so much they were forced to give up names of their community and even family as ‘enemies of the state’, who would then be arrested and suffer the same fate.
Prisoners had to sleep like this with their legs held together by shackles
Torture illustration
Torture victim
Between 17-20,000 people entered S21. Less than a dozen inmates made it out alive. Facility S21 became known as Tuol Sleng - the Hill of the Poisonous Trees.
4. The Killing Fields
Once prisoners had ‘confessed’ to their crimes against the revolution they were destined for one of the many killing fields scattered around the country (if they hadn’t already died through torture). One of the most infamous is Choeung Ek, lying 15km west of Phnom Penh.
Victims were killed using farm tools to save bullets. Children of victims were often killed as a precaution to prevent them becoming counter-revolutionaries when they grew up. Babies were killed by swinging them by their ankles into trees, crushing their skulls. As the Khmer Rouge saying went, ‘to destroy the grass, you must kill all the roots’.
In total around 2-3 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s four year reign out of a national population of just over 7 million. Unmistakable evidence of the brutal reality of the Khmer Rouge’s policy towards the new people which stated with a chilling matter-of-factness that, ‘to keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss’.
Thousands of skulls are displayed in this stupa where visitors can pay their respects.
5. The fall of the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath
In 1979 Vietnamese troops launched an offensive into Cambodia and brought Pol Pot’s regime to an end. However the ousted Khmer Rouge regime was to officially retain its place at the UN table for a further 15 years, courtesy of blocking vetoes from China, the US, and the UK government, supported also by the likes of France, Germany and Australia, who continued to view the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. Quite why is hard to fathom, but one explanation is that by continuing to oppose the Vietnamese, Pol Pot became viewed by some in the West as “the enemy’s enemy”. And as the saying goes…..
6. Seeking justice in the 21st century
A protracted civil war waged following the Khmer Rouge era until a UN peacekeeping force was able to bring peace to Cambodia in the early 1990s. Since then Cambodia has been reborn as a constitutional Monarchy with governance structures not too dissimilar from the UK’s. This modern, law-based era has allowed for the establishment of an Extraordinary Chamber - otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal - to bring a degree of justice to some of the most senior surviving members of the Regime.
In 2010 Kaing Guek Eav, otherwise known as ‘Duch’, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role as camp Commandant at the Tuol Sleng facility. The sentence, which was less than the maximum sentence possible of life imprisonment, was reduced by 11 years for time already served and a further five years as compensation for an earlier period of ‘illegal detention’ by the military. Duch will therefore serve a further sentence of 19 years in prison for his role in running one of the most gruesome facilities of torture and mass murder the world has ever known - a sentence he has appealed against as being too harsh.
Rain still washes up bones and clothes of the victims in the mass graves-as if they still haven’t found their peace.
The Extraordinary Chamber is currently trying a further three members from the Khmer Rouge leadership including ‘Brother Number 2’, Pol Pot’s right hand man. All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them arguing, broadly, that they acted in the best interests of Cambodia and the Cambodian people.
Pol Pot himself died in 1998 while under house arrest. He had lived a relatively comfortable life into his 80s, having taken a second wife. Whilst there may have been some benefit in seeing him survive long enough to be brought before a court to answer for his crimes, there can be little doubt that his death was ‘no loss’.

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About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

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