There aren’t many events in human history that are more tragic or more ridiculous than the Cambodian genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979. But before we get into what happened at the Killing Fields, here’s a little crash course on what happened leading up to that. Taken out of context these events are pretty nonsensical. ...Actually even in context they are still pretty hard to follow, but I'll do my best to give you a brief(ish) summary.
For the people of Phnom Penh, this story begins one hot afternoon when, out of nowhere, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh and took control of the city. At least they made it sound like it was out of nowhere during my visit. But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start from the very beginning.
Pol Pot’s Beginnings
This story really begins with a man named Saloth Sar (who would eventually come to be known as Pol Pot). The brother of a royal concubine, he was able to gain admission to a university in Paris to study radio electronics. In Paris, while he wasn’t busy getting straight F’s in school, he was gallivanting around with his new friends, the French Communist Party (FCP). He did some window-shopping and 'tom-catting around' in the communist community of Europe, even having been involved in some of the ‘going-on’s of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, but he eventually settled down with the FCP. As a newly minted member of the FCP, his laughable academic track record actually played to his advantage. The FCP was staunchly anti-intellectual, praising the working class as the true heroes in society. However, after failing all his exams 3 years in a row, he was kicked out of school, forcing him to return to Cambodia.
Pol Pot’s Rise to Power
Upon his return, he bounced around for a little while, but eventually he got involved with the communist party in Cambodia. Over the next few years he climbed through the ranks to leadership. In the beginning he was one of many leaders in the party – but as time passed and he gained power, the party dynamic changed to a more absolutist regime, of which he was the sole leader. At this point his loyal followers amounted to no more than 200. With this transition Sar traded in his bunk bed for a private guarded chamber and his birth name for the self-given nickname “Pol Pot”.
In the interest of ‘getting to the point’, I’m going to try to streamline these events a bit. During the next few years Southeast Asia, as a region, saw a lot of unrest. The Khmer Rouge played pretty insignificant roles in most of the conflicts that occurred but they were always involved. Meanwhile, the policies of the current Cambodian government were causing a lot of unrest amongst the rural population. This played right into Pol Pot’s hands. The Khmer Rouge, in accordance with Pol Pot’s beginnings as a part of the FCP, believed the working class farmers to be society’s true proletariat. During this time Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge spent years traveling around the countryside, winning over the farmers village by village, and indoctrinating them into their strange and extreme strain of communism. Under Pol Pot’s rule, life was not good out in these rural areas, but his cause was aided by the lack of education of his followers and the (false) promise of a better life once the Khmer Rouge was in power. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled nearly two thirds of the Cambodian population.
At this point, although he had once tried and failed to take Phnom Penh, Pol Pot controlled most of the smaller cities in Cambodia. When the educated city folk in these urban areas didn’t buy into his extremist propaganda as easily as the peasants did, he became frustrated and ordered that they all be sent to the countryside to be farmers. With that he would empty the cities. Out in the countryside, these poor souls were often worked to death. In the mean time, he experimented with torture on the Cham people, an ethnic minority in Cambodia.
The UN & North Vietnam
In 1974 Pol Pot controlled most of Cambodia, and this was enough to earn the Khmer Rouge a seat at the UN. It is worth mentioning that, at this point, the Khmer Rouge was in cahoots with North Vietnam (the Viet Cong), which was in the middle of its war against Saigon and America. It was a troubled relationship though, and the 2 communist rebel groups were eventually competing to see which of them could gain control of their respective countries first, thus earning the respect of their big brother, China.
The Fall & Evacuation of Phnom Penh
On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army, composed mostly of brainwashed teenage peasant farmers, marched into Phnom Penh, met with little to no resistance. This is the day that the Khmer Rouge solidified their control of Cambodia once and for all. With this, Pol Pot declared “Year Zero” – he was going to press the reset button for Cambodia. His goal was to turn Cambodia into a socialist, self-sufficient, agrarian utopia. Pol Pot outlawed, well, pretty much everything other than work and sleep. There was no more "capitalist" commerce, no more religion, no more music, no more singing or dancing, no more anything. And in accordance with what had happened in all the smaller cities, when the inhabitants of Phnom Penh didn’t drop their capitalist business practices to hop on Pol Pot’s bandwagon fast enough, Pol Pot evacuated the city.
Pol Pot evacuated the city in 3 days. He had done this kind of thing before, but the evacuation of Phnom Penh unusual because of its massive scale - it was an outlier. The population of Phnom Penh was (at that point) about 2 million people, and he sent all of them to countryside over the course of 72 hours, which is pretty dramatic. This went along with an order to triple rice production. However, sending all these businessmen out to the countryside on foot to meet this nonsensical demand did not work out as well as Pol Pot had hoped.
On the journey out of the city to the rural areas was a harsh one. But if the rough conditions weren't enough, there were also frequent bombings from American fighter planes as the war between North Vietnam and America was winding down. These planes were trying to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines. If these people didn’t die on the journey out there, either from starvation, exposure, or having a bomb dropped on their head (which many did) they were useless once they got to the farms. These businessmen had no idea how to produce rice. On top of their inadequacies as farmers, they were all forced to work 18-hour days, beginning at 4am and ending at 10pm, on almost no food. This killed even more people – worked or starved to death.
Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh…
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Yeah, things were pretty bad out in the countryside… but it could have been a lot worse.
Tuol Sleng aka S21 was a high school at one point, but when the Khmer Rouge took over they turned it into a prison / torture facility. It has since been converted to a museum in remembrance of the atrocities committed here. It’s a pretty disturbing place for anyone to visit, but I felt like my particular experience cast light onto a new dimension of this house of horrors. You see, Cambodian high schools follow the same architectural format as do the schools in Vietnam. So Tuol Sleng is a spitting image of the schools that I teach at in Vietnam. It was a weird experience, seeing my place of work, called home by so many (mostly) sweet, innocent children, converted into a real-life version of the Saw movies. Here's a few snapshots of one of the schools where I work, to give you an idea of what Tuol Sleng once was:
The classrooms of this school in Phnom Penh, now, basically fell into 1 of 2 categories. The first were jail cells. The walls separating one classroom from the next looked like they had been busted down with sledge hammers on a day's notice. These walls were cleared away to make way for a continuous stretch of small stalls made of cement and wood. It looked like the stalls in barns that animals are kept in. It was probably one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. Standing in one of these stalls alone is not a good place to be.
The second category of classrooms was those that were purely for torture. These classrooms were devoid of the desks and school supplies that had once been used here. In their place was a singular metal bed in an empty room. Attached to each corner of these beds were crude metal restraints, meant for arms and legs. Although today these classrooms sit in an eerie silence, the screams of countless men and women once echoed off the walls. Most of these people died strapped to those metal beds.
What exactly happened in these rooms? There were paintings on the wall depicting just about every form of torture you’ve ever heard of, and some that you haven’t. One painting show a man, blindfolded, with his hands and feet tied together behind his back forcing his body into a contorted backwards arch. He was having his throat cut while his head was being pulled back by the hair. That one stuck with me for some reason. Here's a another one of the paintings:
Among these paintings are also pictures of some of the thousands of men, women and children that were tortured to death here. Every prisoner that came into Tuol Sleng had their mugshot taken, as well as all of their measurements. Here are some of the faces of these children:
The next gallery are some pictures I took of the places where these children died - maybe some of them had even attended this school before it was turned into a prison / torture facility. Why kill children? Pol Pot had a famous slogan that went something like this: "To kill a weed you have to dig up the root." In accordance with this, entire families were murdered. It is, however, worth noting that the guards of this prison were mostly between the ages of 15 and 19 - they were kids themselves! They were brainwashed, uneducated teenagers from poor, rural backgrounds.
However, this was not quite the end of the line for many of the prisoners of Tuol Sleng. The majority of Pol Pot's victims were eventually loaded into buses and dropped off at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. And this is where our story gets really disturbing.