Phnom Penh’s Dark Past

IMG_3435Outside Phnom Penh in a tuk-tuk

IMG_3446Rainy view close to Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

I stay only two nights in the Cambodian capital. First impressions of the country are that it’s much more quiet than Vietnam. There are few street lights in Phnom Penh. The darkness and relative calm of the city is in complete contrast to Saigon. The shadow cast by the genocide of the 70s is long; this is a country where the weight of history is heavy. Genocide tourism is big and encouraged by the government. I spend my full day  here visiting the Killing Fields outside the city  at Choeung Ek and the notorious S-21 prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide museum) near the centre of Phnom Penh. On the way to Choeung Ek, from the back of a tuk-tuk I witness a large dog in the process of being strangled to death on the street. One man has a chain around its neck as he dangles it in the air. Its mouth aghast as it struggles in final desperation, another man has already put a sack around its lower half and then clumsily/half-hearedly beats its head with some blunt instrument. Its pup wonders around their feet apparently oblivious to whats happening. All this occurs within a few seconds as my tuk-tuk passes but it stays with me till my destination. It ‘s like an echo from a few decades ago when millions people were treated by the Khmer Rouge in the same degraded manner or worse.

8,895 bodies were found at the Killing Fields outside the capital. Around 20,000 such sites exist throughout the whole country. An estimated 1.5-3 million people were killed during those four dark years (out of a population of 8 million). Choeung Ek is a snapshot of the widespread and systematic brutality that the nation was immersed in. It’s also a national monument and place of commemoration to all the victims of Pol Pot’s psychopathic regime. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they emptied the cities and sent everyone to needlessly work 12 hours a day with little food in the rice paddies of the countryside, where many died of starvation. Anyone in any way connected to the previous government or foreigners were killed. Any educated people, monks, those from religious or ethnic minorities, or anyone who complained were, with few exceptions, killed. They killed the children of those killed to prevent ‘revenge later on’. All this was dressed up in the name of ‘communism’ but its almost nihilistic interpretation made aberrations like Mao and Stalin seem like moderates in comparison. I take a few hours to walk around the site in the drizzle, amongst other solemn tourists with headphones on, listening to the gruesome details. Truck-loads of blind-folded prisoners were taken here at night and disposed of secretly. Pick-axes, bamboo sticks, farming tools and other rudimentary weapons were used to save bullets. At one area, a combination of a diesel engine and crude revolutionary music blasting from a loudspeaker were used to drown out the noise of the screams to prevent those in the outside vicinity knowing what was going on. For me, listening to that terrible cacophony on the headphones provided is one of the most chilling details of the tour, as I imagine the grim indignity of it being the last sound the victims heard.

IMG_3468Buddhist stupa holding many of the skulls and bones of the thousands killed at the site



IMG_3501Tree used to kill babies and infants

IMG_3471Mass grave of 450 bodies

IMG_3506Teeth and bone fragments still being thrown up by the earth

IMG_3499Mass graves

IMG_3478It’s ok; they have Coca-Cola now


Many of those taken to the Killing Fields were first detained and tortured at Toul Sleng prison (S-21) in the then deserted city. It’s now a genocide museum open to the public, exhibiting what the tens of thousands who passed through had to endure. Out of that number only seven survived their incarceration here. They were tortured to confess to whatever accusations their captors threw at them. Once confessions were obtained, they were killed. The accused were often charged with collaboration with the CIA, KGB or Vietnamese (or all of them). One survivor noted he had never even heard of the CIA or KGB before he was brought here but had to concoct a fantastical story to please his interrogators. The buildings used to be a school but the classrooms were turned into torture rooms and cells, which I wonder in and out of in the uncomfortable heat. The faces of the thousands of photos of the victims, although often looking dazed and shocked, don’t provide much clue to the horrendus fate that awaited them.

IMG_3550Outside wall of one of the four large buildings at Tuol Sleng prison

IMG_3544One of the many torture rooms



IMG_3562Some of the thousands of photos of the victims


How did Year Zero come about? Where did the support for such barbarism come from and how was it sustained? Initially, the Khmer Rouge were a fringe movement with little base up until 1970 but due to the carpet bombing of large swathes of the Cambodian countryside from the US airforce (as part of its war on Vietnam) which was escalated around this time, many peasants who suffered were easily recruited into the revolutionary ranks. Anger was widespread and people were easily persuaded by Khmer Rouge propaganda. An estimated 600,000 people, mainly poor peasants were killed by the bombings. In one six-month raid in 1973, the US dropped more bombs on populated areas of Cambodia than it did during the whole of the Second World War on Japan, an equivalent in tonnes of bombs to five hiroshimas. Combined with Chinese support and a purge of moderate elements within the movement, the Khmer Rouge swept to power. If it wasn’t for their astonishing ineptitude, they would’ve been in power for a lot longer. Their extreme xenophobia and illusions of grandeur led to cross-border attacks and massacres in Vietnam, whose Mekong delta they claimed as part of the Greater Khmer homeland. Pol Pot once said that it would only take 2 million Khmer soldiers to kill 30 Vietnamese each, to get rid of 50 million Vietnamese. Despite repeated overtures to peace from Hanoi, Pol Pot’s regime remained adamant in its stance, over-confident from being backed up by the Chinese government. In December 1978 Vietnam finally had enough and invaded; within a few weeks it had taken Phnom Penh and liberated most of the country, driving the Khmer Rouge to the mountains and jungles of the western provence and across the border in Thailand where they were given sanctuary. China responded with a short-lived invasion of northern Vietnam, retreating after just three weeks.

IMG_3554Children freed from the prison during the liberation of 1979

IMG_3572Returning home after 4 years of Khmer Rouge degradation

Vietnam remained in Cambodia for ten years after the liberation. The US, Britain and China denounced the occupation and continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, enabling Pol Pot’s regime to keep its seat at the UN for a further 15 years. Not only did the Western powers and China respect the genocidal government, they provided covert support to them in their camps across the Thai border, where they continued as a threat to the new government in Phnom Penh. Such cynical realpolitik is standard in international relations but this has to count as one of the most shameful episodes in the UN’s history, yet it is rarely acknowledged. There is a lot of talk about ‘truth and reconciliation’ and ‘learning from the past’ regarding the genocide. Such talk is cheap. Today, Cambodia is a failed state with UN approved parasites at the helm. It is a good ‘democracy’, meaning its rulers are prepared to sell the whole country off, mainly to be plundered by multi-national corporations while it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The country it reminds me of the most is Nepal, another country going nowhere. Investigative journalist Andre Vltcheck notes that, “instead of facing its past with dignity and honesty, it traded the truth for cash and aid, and as part of yet another business deal, began marketing itself as a victim of Communism.” Under such conditions, the lessons of the past will obviously go unheeded and indeed, in our present times we are witnesses to another genocidal abomination in the form of Da’esh (ISIS) in the Middle East, a similar breed of Frankenstein monster created from the horrors of Imperial intervention and geo-politics. In all this, as usual, liberal complacency is the main enabler to such massive crimes and injustice.

Unfortunately I arrived in Cambodia too early to see the completion of the planned centre for the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. It will be a beautiful building and one which such a traumatised nation deserves as an impressive monument to its fallen. It’s purpose will be to document and educate about the genocide. I hope that it will be more than another expensive, pretty white elephant for Cambodia and instead will herald a more just future…somehow. The people are even more deserving of good health, education and living standards; a well-functioning country and society. As I finish my tour of Tuol Sleng prison, there are two survivors sitting at separate desks. One of them, Chum Mey, is engaged in conversation with visitors as he shows them his autobiography. The other, Bou Meng, an artist who has also written an account of his time here, has his head on his desk, asleep in the afternoon heat. I wonder how difficult it must be to sit here day, after day, at the site of your previous torture and incarceration. But I imagine the alternative of not being here would be as difficult. They don’t want the the world to forget. They want people to know what happened, to remember and learn from history.

IMG_3606Bou Meng



One comment

  1. lisa

    thanks for the informative post. the photos made me tearful. what an intense 2 days.
    i feel so sad about the dog that you saw being strangled to death.


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