Unless you have visited the country or have a particular interest in the history of it, you may never have heard of the Khmer Rouge or the atrocities they committed. In 1975 following civil war and political unrest, Khmer Rouge soldiers took over the cosmopolitan capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. They forced all city dwellers to evacuate into the countryside, including the sick and elderly. Families were split up and forced to keep moving in any direction away from the city, many of the weak did not survive the journey. The Khmer Rouge then set about building the most most extreme communist regime that has ever been.
Clocks and calendars were destroyed, it became Year Zero. Everything that had been before, would no longer be. All subjects were required to work for the good of the country. Men, women and children were separated and sent to live in work camps were they would labour tirelessly from dawn until sun set. There was no school, no books, no money, no family, just work. The regime sought to restructure society through collective agriculture, capitalists and intellectuals were the new enemy within. Anyone who spoke out against the regime was executed. Anyone who had the potential to lead a rebellion was killed. This included anyone with an education, former government workers, teachers, doctors and their entire families. The regime believed that peasant farm workers were the future of the countries success and self sufficiency. Anyone who had any form of education or training had to hide it and pretend they knew nothing. Under the regime even wearing glasses was seen as a sign of intelligence for which people were executed.
With no doctors or medicines, many people died from treatable illnesses. Many others perished as a result of over working and the meagre rations which they were given. During the three year reign of terror, it is thought that 2-3 million Cambodians died. That is a quarter of the entire population. This was in the 1970’s when my parents had just married. Queens bohemian rhapsody was Christmas number one and bands like ABBA and Hot Chocolate stormed the charts. These were people, just like you and me who were persecuted, starved, beaten, raped and killed for no reason other than that they had the misfortune of being born in Cambodia.
After the regime ended the brutal truth began to unfold of how many people had lost their lives, then they found the Killing Fields. All over Cambodia there are areas which were used as mass graves by the Khmer Rouge. Following torture, prisoners would be forced to kneel at the side of large pits before being shot at, many did not die immediately and were then buried alive. When bullets became an expensive commodity the soldiers simply bludgeoned the victims to death. These were not enemy soldiers, they were starving men, women and children who had often committed no crime.
Just outside of Phnom Penh is the Cheoung Ek Memorial, Cambodia’s most well known Killing Field. It is a place to visit, learn about and reflect on the atrocities of the past. Many of the graves were excavated but some lie undisturbed. Bone fragments, clothing and other items belonging to the victims still work their way to the grounds surface, even after nearly 40 years. It is a sombre place were the deceased are given the respect they were denied in their untimely deaths. A large funeral stupa houses tiers of excavated skulls and bones, giving a final resting place and lasting memorial to the deceased. As I photographed the memorial the automatic settings on my digital camera whirred into action, with facial recognition and smile identification trying to understand the scene.
Another lasting monument to the atrocities is S21, the Tuol Sleng High School which became a prison and place of torture during the regime. Many of those who met their end at the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek were first tortured at S21. The Khmer Rouge documented their prisoners by photographing them. Row upon row of prisoner photographs line the walls of S21. The repetition of faces some defiant, some petrified which stare out as you walk through the classrooms turned torture chambers, are the epitome of terror. Wide eyes and black eyes, children and grandparents, emancipated bodies and broken limbs, they all stare out of the photographs begging to be let free, begging to be remembered.
Unfortunately S21 is poorly maintained, many of the displays are damaged and in a poor state of repair and graffiti has become a problem. Whilst it remains powerful and hard hitting it lacks the care and consideration of the Cheoung Ek memorial site.
Considering the Cambodian genocide was less then 40 years ago and it wiped out one in four Khmers, the country is recovering. In 1979 it is estimated that only 45 doctors remained alive in Cambodia and just 300 people with a university education survived the regime. From these surviving individuals and with the help of foreign aid, new generations of teachers, doctors, social workers and intellectuals have helped the country progress in massive strides over the last few decades. Phnom Penh has been re-established as the pearl of Asia and is every bit as cosmopolitan as it was before the Khmer Rouge take over, it even has a Costa Coffee. However Cambodia still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Only 40% of the population have access to safe drinking water, infant mortality is high and life expectancy is low. Despite the reintroduction of the country as a tourist destination there is still a large reliance on foreign aid and NGOs and many Cambodians live in abject poverty.
The genocide in the 1970’s still impacts everyday life in Cambodia. From the land mine victims begging on the street to the entire missing generation of educated people. A chance meeting with a local of a certain age always raises questions in my mind of how did they survive? What did they go through? How many people did they see killed? Remembering the genocide in Cambodia is easy, the real message is to remember it everywhere else, to prevent it from ever happening again.
A good starting point for anyone who would like more information on the Khmer Rouge regime is the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung and the film The Killing Fields.