One of the most defining parts of Cambodia’s history is the devastating civil war that lasted for only three years (1975-1978). I don’t want to write a book here about what happened, so here’s a brief explanation of the war from World Without Genocide:
In 1953 Cambodia gained its independence from France, after nearly 100 years of colonialist rule. As the Vietnam War progressed, Cambodia’s elected Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality. Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 by a military coup led by his own Cambodian General Lon Nol, a testament to the turbulent political climate of Southeast Asia during this time. [...] The actions of the Khmer Rouge government which actually constitute “genocide” began shortly after their seizure of power from the government of Lon Nol in 1975, and lasted until the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1978. The genocide itself emanated from a harsh climate of political and social turmoil. This atmosphere of communal unrest in Cambodia arose during the French decolonization of Southeast Asia in the early 1950s, and continued to devastate the region until the late 1980s.
Overnight, the people of Cambodia’s lives were changed forever. Pol Pot marched all city-dwelling Cambodian’s into the country and forced them to become hard laborers. Millions of people died from starvation, disease and overwork. Anyone who was university educated, stood against his regime, or even just had soft hands (a sign of an intellectual) was ruthlessly murdered. He declared it “Year Zero,” and set about to erase all of Cambodia’s culture, religion and history.
There are two places in Cambodia that many of these atrocities took place–the Killing Fields, and the S-21 Prison (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). We spent an emotional day visiting both of these places, trying to learn about Cambodia’s history, and trying to come to terms with the ugly things that happened in this beautiful country.
The Killing Fields
Most everyone who was murdered by Pol Pot’s regime was killed in an isolated location known as “The Killing Fields.” Every day, trucks would arrive at the fields, packed with people considered to be enemies of the state. This could mean anyone from political opponents to educated people, people of other races to religious people, and the families of any of the aforementioned. The people were registered by soldiers, and then taken into the fields, systematically murdered, and thrown into mass graves. The soldiers would play loud patriotic music over loudspeakers while murdering the people so that nearby villagers couldn’t hear their screams. Because guns were too noisy, they usually beat or stabbed their victims to death. It was this way for at least 1,386,734 men, women and children–at least as far as researchers can tell, based on the bodies that have since been exhumed from these mass graves.
The Killing Fields are an absolutely sobering place. It’s nearly impossible to look at this place, now so full of life as dogs, cats and chickens roam freely, and imagine it was a place filled with so much death.
But there are constant reminders. There’s a massive mausoleum, filled entirely with the skulls of Pol Pot’s victims. There are glass cases filled with bones, clothing scraps, trinkets. And every time it rains, bone and clothing fragments come to the surface of the mass graves, and can be seen jutting through the soil. These things are easily spotted even with just a cursory glance into the graves. Several times a year, caretakers of the fields gather the fragments and put them in the glass boxes. One must be careful to stay on the path through the fields, as to not unintentionally trample these scraps of human life. It’s surreal, and it’s devastating.
The last stop at the Killing Fields is a small museum, where we learned one of the most devastating things yet–the Americans, and most other Western regimes, financially supported Pol Pot even after he was thrown from power, and many of those governments continued to recognize him as the leader of Cambodia as he hid in exile until his death in 1998. Why in the world would the West support such a monster? Because the alternative was Cambodia’s liberators, Communist Vietnam. Our governments were so poisoned with hate for communism and so tainted with disdain for Vietnam that we supported a tyrannical monster instead. Hearing that bit of history absolutely broke my heart, and I felt white hot shame for country’s past leaders.
The things that happened in Cambodia are some of the worst human horrors in history. And yet, the Cambodian people are strong. They encourage tourists to visit these sites, to learn Cambodia’s history, and to not let these atrocities be forgotten. They are fighting hard to bring the perpetrators to justice through international courts–the UN called for a Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 1994; the trials finally began in November of 2007, and sadly, the trials are still going. Amazingly, only one person has been convicted. The situation is politically complicated, the perpetrators are now old men and women, and sadly, these things just take time. It’s frustrating for sure, but it’s also empowering to see how far Cambodia has come in such a short time.
Stay tuned…tomorrow I’ll share our experience at the infamous S-21 Prison (now a museum), the former high school where Pol Pot had his enemies imprisoned and tortured.