Reflections Upon Visiting Cambodian Killing Fields



Normally when I travel and see new places I procrastinate on writing about it. When I was 13 my Grandma said I had a lazy streak and I guess that’s the reason why. In college I would wait until the night before the deadline to write 10-page essays whose content was expected to reflect a month’s preparation. I don’t know, sometimes I just don’t want to do things until I absolutely have to. But this is different.

I didn’t know anything about the Cambodian genocide before coming down here. Hell, I barely knew anything about Cambodia. But let me tell you, that Cambodian genocide was real. In the mid-70s, a Communist revolutionary by the name of Pol Pot rose to power as the leader of the country. His party, known as the Khmer Rouge, came to be known as one of the most ruthless regimes the world has seen. Between 1975 and 1979, it’s generally estimated that TWO MILLION Cambodians were murdered in cold blood, or roughly one out of every four of the nation’s inhabitants.

Is there any justification for a ruler to kill a quarter of his population? In Pol Pat’s mind, yes. The way he saw it, his proud nation–what had once been the seat of the great Khmer civilization–was now contaminated by the forces of imperialism, its regal legacy sacrificed for the impinging socioeconomics of a new, global-minded urban life. It was time to hit the reset button. Pol Pat proclaimed the rural peasants to be the “old people”, the true Cambodians, praising the tradition of agriculture as being the lifeblood of community. But if you were a teacher, an intellectual, an artist, an entrepreneur, a traveler, Chinese, or even soft-handed YOU were the problem.

Apparently this is called agrarian socialism. You can also call it a dictatorship. Whatever the terminology, it resulted in genocide. The Khmer Rouge sectioned the country off into zones, set up camps, and proclaimed 1976 to be “Year Zero”. For many, Year Zero was the beginning of the end. The capitol of Phnom Penh was evacuated. EVACUATED. Has a dictator ever evacuated his capitol city before? I don’t know, but that shit is crazy. The rest of the narrative will probably remind you of the Holocaust. Families separated, people carted off into camps where they were either tortured and made to write false confessions or simply killed on the spot, mass graves, unthinkable bloodshed. Two. Million.

So the place I went to is called Choueng Ek, right outside Phnom Penh. It’s basically a pretty orchard next to a lake that the Khmer Rouge converted into a pure killing field. Almost 9,000 bodies were excavated here. Oh, and the killing wasn’t done with bullets. Bullets were too expensive. Instead the executioners used agricultural tools–hoes, axes, shovels, wood beams from wagons, bamboo sticks. The victims were hacked to death with farmers’ instruments. Agrarian socialism, right? Next to one of the mass graves was a big tree called the Killing Tree draped in multicolored bracelets. Here they hung babies by their legs and smashed their heads against the trunks. Revolutionary music blared over speakers to drown out the screams.

I’m sorry if this is hard to read, I’m only reporting what I just learned. We don’t know about this stuff back home; I know I didn’t. Sadly, many Cambodian students growing up today don’t either. The Khmer Rouge regime is long gone, as far as I can tell–I suspect the real reason might be that the Cambodian government hasn’t figured out a way to communicate what happened to the new generation. Understandable. How would you tell your child that you killed the rest of the family a few decades ago?

But what’s insane, or flat-out embarrassing depending on how you look at it, was the world’s reaction to Pol Pat and the Khmer Rouge at the time. After Phnom Penh was captured by the Vietnamese in 1979 forcing Pol Pat and his pigs to retreat to the border of Thailand, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was founded as the replacement of Pol Pat’s Democratic Kampuchea. Amazingly, the United Nations refused to recognize anyone but the Khmer Rouge as the true representatives of Cambodia, even receiving some of them at a convention in New York! China, too, supported the Khmer Rouge and kept them armed with weapons thanks to trade routes provided by the Thais. The Reagan Administration even supplied them with aid. (Reagan just never catches a break does he?) Not a shred of respectful horror on the part of anyone.

The Cambodians have done a wonderful job in memorializing the dead at Choueng Ek. In the late 80s they completed work on a towering, impressive stupa with the skulls and bones of the executed interred in glass cases within. The remains start at the bottom and go all the way to the top. Think about that for a moment: a tower of human bones. This was the magnitude of the Cambodian genocide. When you’re on the grounds of the killing fields the whole thing seems inconceivable. As I said, it’s a pretty orchard next to a lake with birds chirping and butterflies flouncing through bright blooms of fuschia and blood orange. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the place and forget why you’re there. As I listened to the horrific stories on the provided audio headsets I tried to imagine this place as it appeared 35 years ago when it was an island of living hell, an inferno of nightmare. Not because it’s an enjoyable vision, but because I feel like it’s our responsibility to remember. That’s the greatest kind of memorial, isn’t it?

The audio tour pointed out something interesting. It said the Cambodians never expected that one day they’d see the Cambodian government killing Cambodians. But there it was, realer than the blue sky. Genocides aren’t normally anticipated, they just happen. Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Russia, China, Argentina. They even listed the US government’s genocide of Native Americans. What’s to say it won’t happen again somewhere near you? This is why we can’t afford to forget, even if we want to because it’s easier. So now that you know a little something about Pol Pat and the Cambodian genocide, please remember the things that happened down here. Someone has to!

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