In neighbouring Vietnam it was war that killed millions, but here it was sheer madness. A quarter of the whole population of Cambodia in the 1970s lost their life in the criminally insane attempt of the Khmer Rouge to make the country a genuine communist state. It all happened in just three years, between 1975 and 1978, until the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese military in January 1979. Today, some of the sites where the most gruesome atrocities were committed have become memorial sites to educate visitors of a painful, not so distant past clad in blood and tears.
When the Americans withdrew from Vietnam in April 1975, Cambodia came under the total control of the Communist Party, nicknamed by the French as Khmer Rouge, the ‘Red Khmer’. The world was soon to witness one of the most horrifying genocides in the history of mankind.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to take the country back to its supposedly glorious past in which the rice growing ancient Khmer society built Angkor. To create a genuine peasant society, no one was spared. Private property, markets, schools, and religion were abolished. Cooperatives were formed throughout the country where people were forced to work, eat and live together. They had to dress in the way peasants dressed. Working hours were doubled from eight to sixteen. Cambodia became a gigantic prison farm. Even the slightest expression of dissent invited death. Killing fields and concentration camps grew in numbers to suppress any form of possible opposition.
TuolSleng Genocide Museum
No testimony of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge can be as authentic as the haunting expressions in the photos of prisoners exhibited at Tuol Sleng. It was the Khmer Rouge’s premier security institution, designed for the interrogation and extermination of ‘counter revolutionaries’. Any suspects – men, women and children – were brought from every part of the country and imprisoned in Tuol Sleng. Almost all of the more than 15,000 inmates were brutally executed. Today, Tuol Sleng is a genocide museum and on the itinerary of many tourists visiting Phnom Penh.
Thousands of photographs of prisoners are mounted on the prison walls still stained with blood. Before prisoners were put into the cells, they were photographed. At every stage of torture they were photographed. And a few minutes before their execution they were again photographed. Four decades later, their expressions ask us: Why am I here? Why did this happen? Why have we been killed? Their faces indict the Red Khmers’ leader Pol Pot, his paranoia and the deeds of his regime. As we observe the victims, they observe us. While we focus our camera on their frozen expressions they seem to ask us, “Why are we being photographed again?”
The Killing Field of Choeung Ek
Equally haunting is the display of thousands of human skulls stored in a stupa at the killing field in Choeung Ek. It is here that prisoners from Tuol Sleng were executed. Each skull behind the glass seems to be staring at the visitors. Their expressions are in extreme contrast to the mysterious smiles on the faces of colossal figurines of Angkor built by their ancestors centuries back. They represent all victims of all genocides that happened anywhere in this world at any juncture.
The landmine legacy
Forty six million landmines were laid across the country by Khmer Rouge in their two decade long futile attempt to come back after being overthrown by Vietnamese army in 1979 – three landmines each for every surviving Cambodian. It is estimated that 64,000 people lost their lives in landmine explosions in Cambodia since 1979. Over 40,000 survived as amputees. Beggars approaching tourists in Phnom Penh or Siem Riep include only a few visible victims. In 21 districts located in the north west of Cambodia, landmines still remain a serious threat. According to the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA), it would require 400 million US dollars in aid to clear all landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in the country by 2025.
“I survived in Cambodia”
Light coloured T-shirts imprinted with the catchphrase “I survived in Cambodia”, sold by Cambodians and worn by tourists, may seem to just naively fit in with a series of “I survived…” souvenirs, along with “I survived my trip to Paris” or “I survived Oktoberfest”. In Cambodia, however, the slogan comes across as worse than just sarcastic. It grossly trivialises genocide and the fact that the atrocities committed in the 1970s have not ceased to affect people’s lives.
Local people are not usually keen to talk to travellers about the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. They tend to obliterate them from their collective memory. But to visitors in Cambodia, Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields, and the land still contaminated by mines speak a lot. They speak of a history we have to learn from and reflect upon in order to prevent such horrible crimes against humanity from ever being repeated again – anywhere in the world.
Vinod Krishnan T.Y. works at the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, India. As part of his research on ethnic minorities he has been working on the Cham minority of Cambodia and Vietnam.