Phnom Penh; the legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

A few of the thousands of skulls at the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Some of the thousands of skulls of victims at the Cambodian Killing Fields

Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated three million people lost their lives under the barbaric rule of the Khmer Rouge and their murderer-in-chief, Pol Pot. Initially welcomed as a revolution of the proleteriat over the previous corrupt system, the killing and torture of the Cambodian population started within days. The infrastructure to conduct genocide on an unimaginable scale took very little time to set up, while the terror and trauma that the Khmer Rouge created in the normal population lasted long after the Vietnamese invasion that finally ended this dark stain on human history in 1979.

Some of the victims of S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh

Some of the victims of S-21 Prison, Phnom Penh

There are two sites in and around Phnom Penh that provide the visitor with a powerful insight into the effects of Pol Pot’s regime. The first is Tuol Sleng Prison, formally a public school in the centre of the city, but transformed immediately by the Khmer Rouge into an interrogation centre and prison. Known as S-21 Prison, this is the place where many thousands of enemies of the revolution were brought for questioning and torture. Enemies included doctors, teachers, monks, anyone with an education (wearing glasses was enough to be convicted as an intellectual), previous government ministers, and anyone who was considered a threat to the ultra-paranoid regime.

The torture methods employed at S-21 were beyond inhuman, and a confession by the victims was not enough to end the punishment. The Khmer Rouge insisted on capturing every member of the families of these ‘enemies’, as their belief was that the children would grow up to be counter-revolutionaries, and it was better to get rid of them now. Only once the names of the other family members had been obtained were the prisoners taken from Tuol Sleng and on to the Killing Fields for their final journey.

The Gallows at S-21, used for torture

The Genocide Museum that is now housed at S-21 allows a view of the cells and the torture implements that were used, but it is the personal testimonies (or prisoners and Khmer Rouge guards) in the many written accounts that provide the most memorable impact. Stories of bravery, of survival, tragedy and hope, told by many who still live today, in many cases side by side with those who commited some of the atrocities with which they still struggle to comprehend.

The memorial stupa filled with layers of skulls; Choeng Ek

Memorial stupa filled with thousands of skulls on display; Choeung Ek

The next day we visited Choeung Ek, 15km out of town ($12 by tuk-tuk) to see the site of the Killing Fields, where the prisoners of S-21 were taken for execution. A guide showed us around the site and pointed out the many mass graves that were discovered, the piles of clothing that emerge every year when the river levels drop, and the tree against which the children were smashed to death. Pol Pot did not want to waste money on bullets, so the common method of killing was beating to the back of the head with agricultural tools for adults, while children were either beaten against a tree or thrown in the air and speared on a bayonnet.

In the centre of the Choeung Ek memorial site is a giant stupa, housing 17 levels of skulls found at the site. It is a stark and chilling memorial, and requires little description to leave the visitor numb from the scale of the barbarism that took place here, and in many similar sites around Cambodia.

Killing Tree, against which children were smashed

Like my previous visits to Nazi concentration camps, it is a place that left me feeling desperately sorry for the victims who were brought here to die a brutal death. At the same time, my mind still tries to come to grips with how humans can be conditioned, through fear or brainwashing to commit such acts, and what impact the actions of the young men of the Khmer Rouge must have had on the rest of their lives. It was a tragedy that affected everyone in this beautiful and diverse country, and one which has left a legacy with which so many people are still struggling today.

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Freelance travel writer

7 Responses to “Phnom Penh; the legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge”

  1. Power can dehumanize the powerless for those in power. I too wonder what the psychological impact afterward must be for those who were part of the killing.

    January 6, 2010 at 1:59 pm
  2. Thank you for this post. I will be going out to volunteer in Cambodia from February, hopefully for a year and aim to learn a lot about Cambodia’s history.
    The charity I am volunteering at helps girls and children who have been trafficked and sold into prostitution, it’s a large problem out there. The charity was started up by a Cambodian woman called Somaly Mam who was herself trafficked, first at the age of 8. She now heads up the charity AFESIP which helps todays young victims of Cambodia’s complex past.

    The girls AFESIP looks after have not just suffered repeated rape, electrocution is frequently used to terrify them, whippings, placing chillies inside them, locking them in cages, broken bones…the majority of girls report these same stories. AFESIP has photographic evidence of girls with nails pressed in their skulls. It’s so hard to accept this is happening today but once I started to research more, these same stories keep coming up.

    I just wanted to make this comment because reading this post and also the comment above I believe that when we look at history such as this, it is so important to open our eyes and realise that this is still happening today so we can try to do something about it while we can. To Anil’s comment, I can only think that the effects and scale of Pol Pots reign are a significant part of the reason this level of this violence can still be channelled at young girls and children today.

    For anyone interested, I highly recommend the book Somaly Mam has written to raise awareness – The Road of Lost Innocence. I’m running a blog, twitter and facebook through out my time in Cambodia volunteering at the charity,


    January 6, 2010 at 3:36 pm
  3. Josh #

    First They Killed My Father is a fantastically written, first hand account of the autrocities committed under the Pol Pot regime. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in Cambodia during this period of time.

    January 7, 2010 at 12:37 am
  4. S-21 was one of the most chilling and moving places I’ve ever seen. At the time, I was amazed, like you, by how people end up in a situation where they believe that crushing children to death is a commendable, normal activity. I also wondered why the history of the Killing Fields isn’t as well known as that of the Nazi concentration camps, particularly when the Khmer Rouge atrocity took place relatively recently and well within the reign of TV and radio.

    January 7, 2010 at 1:53 pm
  5. Thanks for all the great comments. I was also drawn into making parallels with the Nazi death camps, and suppose only that because it was not in Europe that the history of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide did not received the same notoriety in the West. The exhibition in S-21 is very thoughtfully laid out; full credit to the curators for creating a sensitive yet powerful display to teach those who previously knew little about the tragedy.
    Thanks also for the book suggestion Josh – I’ll have a look at that.

    January 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm
  6. Really good post. The S-21 Museum was one of the most interesting and toughest places I’ve ever visited. I just can’t fathom what would make humans do that to one another. The thing that made me most angry though was the fact that the whole thing was just ridiculous. Pol Pot and his supporters had quite possibly the worst plan for their country, and their implementation of this plan resulted in so many deaths. Not that any genocide can be understood, but the fact that what he was wanting out of his takeover of Cambodia was so ludicrous and clearly wouldn’t work, it just made me that much angrier. Cambodia was definitely one of the places that opened my eyes and made me realize how lucky I am to be where I’m from. Then seeing and interacting with the Cambodian people made me feel even more blessed, as these people, who practically lost a generation of people, always seemed so happy. It really made me reflect, and it has since made me be more rational about the trivial things I get upset about. Well written.

    May 25, 2010 at 11:08 pm
  7. Thanks Adam for your valuable thoughts. Like you say, it defied belief. It wasn’t racism – they were his own people. It wasn’t on grounds of religion, or sexuality. Instead, people killed for crimes such as wearing glasses! As you rightly say, one of the most humbling memories of Cambodia is the warmth and beauty of the people, and when you set it against the context of their recent past, it’s hard to fathom where their joy comes from. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

    May 28, 2010 at 5:18 pm