Only four decades ago, Cambodia went through one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. Over a span of four years, a genocide, carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime - under the name of creating an agrarian socialism, based on the ideals of Stalinism and Maoism - claimed an estimated two million lives.
The Beginnings of the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge was the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in Cambodia. It was officially formed in 1968 and was based in the remote jungle and mountain areas in the north-east of the country. Initially, the organization did not receive much support.
In 1970, Norodom Sihanouk, who was the Head of State of Cambodia at the time, was overthrown by a military coup, led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, who was Sihanouk’s cousin.
Soon after his exile, Khmer Rouge entered into a political coalition with Sihanouk. With Sihanouk’s support, Khmer Rouge was able to gain many more supporters.
From 1970-1975, Lon Nol’s new regime, which was backed by the US, had a lot of opposition from the Vietnamese forces as well as the Khmer Rouge. There was extended civil war in Cambodia for almost 5 years, and the Khmer Rouge gradually gained control in the country side.
In April 1975, the US finally withdrew their support from the Cambodian government, and five days later the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge Regime
The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot and his comrades (although at that time until 1977, the party’s existence was kept secret, and no one outside the party knew who its leaders were), changed the country’s name to Democratic Kampuchea. They tried to model Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward and to transform the country into an agrarian utopia.
One day after the Khmer Rouge conquered Phnom Penh, they evacuated everyone from the city to rural areas. This marked the beginning of a country-wide genocide, which saw around a quarter of the population killed, an estimated two million people.
During their regime, the Khmer Rouge isolated the people from the rest of the world. They abolished money, private property, and religion and set up rural collectives. They called this drastic revolution “Year Zero”, implying that all culture and traditions must be completely destroyed and previous history discarded and be replaced from scratch by a new revolutionary culture.
Cities were evacuated, and millions of civilians were sent to rural areas to do hard labor on communal farms. Many people died in the process due to starvation, disease, and overwork.
Following the concept of Year Zero, intellectuals, teachers, and artists, also termed as the ‘New People’, were tortured in special centers and killed. One of the Khmer Rouge mottos in respect to these New People was: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
Anyone showing any signs of being an intellectual was also prosecuted. Wearing glasses and knowing a foreign language was condemned, books and temples were destroyed, and schools were closed down.
The Security Prison 21 (S-21)
The most notorious torture center which saw an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned, tortured, and executed, was the Security Prison 21 or S-21 in Phnom Penh. The S-21 prison was a former site of a high-school which was repurposed as a torture center. The jail is now preserved and converted into Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. If you visit this museum, you can enter the torture rooms and see many photographic records of the people executed there.
The S-21 prison camp was headed by Kang Kek Iew, also known as Comrade Duch. He was responsible for the heinous torture and killings that happend in S-21. Details of his life journey were recorded in the biography “The Lost Executioner”, written by a British journalist.
Duch was the first, and one of a small number of Khmer Rouge leaders, to be tried and convicted by the Cambodian tribunal. During the judicial process, he stated: “I ask for your forgiveness; I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.” He was sentenced to a lifetime in prison.
The Killing Fields of Cheung Ek
The bodies of more than a million of genocide victims were collectively buried in mass graves, and the most famous one is Cheung Ek, about 17 kilometers south of Phnom Penh. 8,895 bodies were discovered in the mass graves in this site after the fall of the regime. Many of the victims buried here were political prisoners from the S-21 prison.
You can visit Cheoung Ek and see the memorial monument marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. You can also see pits, where bodies were exhumed, and human bone litters on the site.
The Fall of the Khmer Rouge
On January 7th 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime finally ended when Vietnamese troops, with the support of defecting Khmer Rouge activists, invaded the country, after a series of violent border confrontations. The Khmer Rouge party was forced to retreat to the mountain area in the west.
Although Vietnamese occupation is not what Cambodians would consider as ideal, it put an end to the hideous regime, and a later UN involvement in the 1990s allowed Cambodia to finally stand on its own feet.
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