This was one of those moments on our travels where we were both really disappointed in our American educations. Neither one of us recalls taking a history class that covered, or even mentioned, the Communist genocide that took place in Cambodia from 1975 through 1979. Instead of spending weeks and weeks learning about Pharoahs in Egypt, this seems far more relevant to us. Not enough time is spent on the recent past.
Pol Pot was a totalitarian dictator who came to power in 1975 when his forces took over Phnom Penh. He was educated in France and celebrated Marx’s ideology. He forced millions of people from cities into the country to work the land. The horrendous conditions led to the deaths of nearly 25% of Cambodia’s population at the time. His regime, the Khmer Rouge, was responsible for the murder of almost 3 million men, women, and children, often times through viciously inhumane methods. Pol Pot also was highly paranoid, which led to prisons being full of those that he viewed as suspicious.
What seems shockingly unjust is that after he was forced out of power, Pol Pot lived life on the countryside with his family in Thailand. He was never charged and he died in his sleep from heart failure. His life must be one of the most negative and criminal in human history. I wonder what it is like to die knowing that the world would have been significantly better if you hadn’t existed at all.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
These killing fields are ground zero for the genocide that took place across the country. Choeng Ek is the site of one of the largest mass graves. We saw a map of the mass graves established by the Khmer Rouge across Cambodia and they were everywhere. Men, women, and children were shipped in by bus, tied up in a shed, and then brought out to the edge of the grave, where they were murdered, generally with a blunt object, axe, sword or some other method. The murderers didn’t use guns because they didn’t want to waste money on ammunition. There were two parts of this killing field that will be impossible to forget. First, the “the killing tree.” At this huge tree, the Khmer Rouge murdered babies by picking them up by their feet, and hitting their heads against the side of the tree until they were dead, sometimes as their mothers watched. It’s hard to imagine an act more disgusting. Flowers and pendants hang from all over the tree today. Second, our headsets played the revolution song that blared from the sirens when victims were killed. Because these murders weren’t quick deaths, the Khmer Rouge played music very loudly and revved the engines of their trucks so as not to let other prisoners know what was to come.
This is one of the most eerie places we’ve ever seen. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they closed most of the schools in Phnom Penh and transformed them into prisons. The regime wanted to avoid educating the population, which would theoretically reduce the chance of any uprising in the future. The S21 School still has its original architecture. But now it sits as this weird combination of school / prison. A swing set. A torture apparatus. A chalk board. A metal bed frame with chains at each corner. It gave me the chills. This prison had been filled with individuals thought to be involved in a conspiracy against Pol Pot’s regime. The next day in Phnom Penh, we saw one of the new schools in use today. It looked almost exactly like S21.
A Missing Educated Class
One of the policies enacted by Pol Pot was to eradicate the educated class, the “intellectuals.” The Khmer Rouge rounded up teachers, lawyers, scientists, doctors, and engineers because they believed that these people would stand in their way. Cambodia’s population is now missing the wisdom of these older generations. The removal of these groups has left a huge hole in their society and has prolonged the nation’s recovery. When you add Cambodia’s intellectual genocide with the fact that Vietnam has hijacked its neighbor’s most valuable resources, it becomes evident why Cambodia continues to struggle.