Cambodia’s Bloody Recent History

On one of our days off from volunteering in Cambodia we took up the opportunity to visit the S21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. Here we learnt about the viscous and destructive reign of Pol Pot and the devestation it caused to the people of Cambodia. Even today the impact on the people, the communities and the country as a whole is still felt and visible.

It was in 1975 when Pol Pot (short for his early nickname “Political Potential”) and his Vietnam and USSR backed Communist Party, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew Cambodia’s US backed military government. The initial jubilations from the people of Cambodia that this might mark the end of their years of civil war was short-lived as the cruelty of Pol Pot’s regime became apparent.

Pol Pot’s Communist vision for Cambodia was to force the country to become self-sufficient and create an agriculture focused society. To do this cities were cleared with almost everyone forced from their homes and into work in the countryside on labour intensive agricultural projects. Anyone who refused was killed.

All forms of business or social/economical infrastructure were closed or ceased to be, including hospitals, banks and factories. Schools were even closed so that children could work on the agricultural projects too. 

Regardless of the focus agriculture was given there was still a widespread lack of food 

Those forced to work often lacked the farming skills required to meet their ambitious targeted production levels. Those who failed were killed and overall there was a considerable lack of food with many communities trying to survive on miniscule helpings of rice and little else. This led to mass deaths through malnourishment and starvation.

The brutality didn’t stop there. The regime had a vicious programme of identifying and dealing with potential political enemies.

The S21 Prison

Prisons were set up across the country for those identified as enemies. S21 (Security prison 21) is one such prison in Phnom Penh. S21 was a former school and what once was a place of education and joy was turned into a place of torture and horror for the very people that the school once served.

The former school was turned into a prison and covered in barbed wire

Intellectuals (anyone who was educated, anyone who could speak a foreign language), people who wore glasses (spent too much time reading and not working), engineers, artists and writers were sought out for being enemies of the state and imprisoned along with their families. Once held they were tortured until they confessed to their crimes.

A torture cell: blood stains the floor where prisoners were shackled to the bed and tortured

Once the prisoner confessed – and everyone did eventually confess to end the torture – they were driven into the countryside and shot or beaten to death in mass graves. S21 had around 20,000 inmates in its time, only 7 survived.

The cells where prisoners were kept were built in the old classrooms
A shrine with skulls of those killed in S21

In the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh we walked around one of these mass graves. It’s chilling to walk around and see bone fragments of those killed there. There is also a commemorative building housing the skulls of the victims.

Excavated graves at The Killing Fields site
The Khmer Rouge beat children to death against this tree
Bones of some of those executed
The commemorative monument houses the skulls of those found in the mass graves
The skulls of those found in the killing fields. Evidence of gun shots, head trauma and poisoning

It was in 1979 that the regime fell when Vietnam trained rebels invaded and forced the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot out. Over their four years in power it is estimated that between 2 and 2.5 million Cambodians were killed and the country left a shell of its former self.

The impact this has had on the people of Cambodia is still evident today. With it being only 40 or so years ago many people still remember being forced to work or have family/friends who died at the hands of this regime.

Noticeable for us was a lack of village level culture/tradition. When we volunteered in rural communities in Borneo we were always introduced to the communities traditional dance, past times or dress. However, in Cambodia we experienced none of this. On reflection this is probably a result of the local traditions being litterally killed off during the Khmer Rouge rule.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, Cambodians remain a warm and friendly people. Everyone seems genuinely pleased to see and speak to you and are always quick to crack a smile.

Whilst the brutality of this regime is devastating, it is criminal that regimes or movements like this are still impacting the world today.


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