This is not going to be as cheerful a post as my last. But the fact is, the memories of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that killed roughly a third of Cambodia’s population three decades ago still greatly effect life here. In the weeks I’ve been here, numerous Khmer people have readily brought up the genocide to me: from the street vendor I wrote about in my last post, to the tuk tuk driver whose first question to me was had I visited the killing fields yet, to the wasted, barefoot Khmer at the bar who referred to himself only as Mr. Bombastic. Everyone here was touched by it. It’s a part of Cambodia’s history and culture that cannot be ignored – and yet I don’t think we learn or talk about it nearly enough in the West.
The rebel Khmer Rouge won the civil war they were waging against the Cambodian government on April 17 1975, when they captured the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. At the time, Phnom Penh was one of the most developed, booming cities in Southeast Asia, and was called home by 2 million people.
The philosophy of the regime, called the Angkor, was to build a perfect agrarian society, where there was no crime, education, religion, materialism or foreign influence. The Khmer Rouge saw cities as places that bred immorality and materialism. Conversely, they saw country people as moral, uncorrupt and in possession of strong work ethic. They thus sought to restore the country to a purely agrarian state: to “year zero” – meaning no technology, no books, no schools, no matchbooks, no watches.
Accordingly, their first step was to destroy the cities. The Khmer Rouge forced all civilians to leave the cities on death marches. Survivors relocated to “collective farms,” which were really simply forced labour camps where prisoners were often starved and worked to death. Undesirables were brought to detention centers to be interrogated and tortured, and were soon after brought to killing fields.
Who were the undesirables? Monks and nuns, and anyone religious. Diplomats, foreigners, intellectuals and officers who were all seen as enemies of the state. Women, who were considered weak and dispensable, except for their ability to breed and create more sons to work and fight for the Angkor. Pol Pot was known to call women “parasitic plants. To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss.” Cripples, the mentally handicapped and physically weak (meaning anything from having a lame leg to wearing glasses.) And the children of all these people: another one of Pol Pot’s infamous sayings was “to clear grass, you need to pull the entire root up.”
And these people were not killed gently. Bullets were expensive and considered too valuable to spare on prisoners. Instead, the Khmer Rouge officers at the killing fields used traditional faming tools to beat and hack their prisoners to death. Sometimes they even used the palm tree leaves, which were hard and jagged, and assured to lead to an agonizingly slow and painful demise. Bodies were then dumped unceremoniously in mass graves. Most of these people had committed no crimes, and posed no threat to the powerful Angkor. Yet, Pol Pot and his followers maintained, “it’s better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.”
The Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979. After only 45 months in power, the regime had brutally cut the country’s population by roughly 1/3, from 9 million to 6 million people. Cities were demolished and emptied, left with years of recovery: Phnom Penh went from a city of 2 million to one of 20,000. The Khmer Rouge is largely to blame for the undeveloped state of the country now, and you can see the effects in both the lingering poverty, and the fact that you see almost no old people walking around. It was a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign, committed by a faction of the country’s own citizens.
Reflecting on my own self: I am a woman. Educated. Needs glasses. Has studied foreign languages. Lived in a city. These are all reasons that the Khmer Rouge would have seen me as morally corrupt, and murdered me.
Below are some pictures from the Cheoung Ek killing fields and genocide center. For more information on the Khmer Rouge, I would highly recommend the book First They Killed My Father, memoir of a survivor.
The killing tree, against which children and babies had their heads beaten in. They were then dropped into mass graves, along with their mothers. Most of the women and children found in these graves were naked.