Cambodia’s Living History

Disclaimer: this post contains images and content that you may find disturbing.

From Phnom Penh, I visited the Choeung Ek killing field and the S-21 prison.

Choeung Ek was one of 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia and has become the national memorial to the events that took place 40 years ago. S-21 was a prison where traitors to the state were taken to ‘confess’ their crimes. These were just two of many sites which embodied and became the vehicle for Pol Pot’s teaching, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”.

Condensed Background

In 1975 the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) led by Pol Pot, began a mass revolution. Pol Pot wanted to rapidly and dramatically transform Cambodia from a developing country with tremendous economic opportunity into a socialist agrarian society. The dream was a utopia of equality, where everyone worked and lived off the land, where everyone was equal, where religion was abandoned, where notions of extravagance and ownership were culturally erased.

The CPK recruited the working class who had been victims of the widening income inequality that has stood as the exhaust fumes of economic development since the first agricultural revolution; a problem which we are indeed still grappling with today in our own economy and society. The CPK called its guerrilla army, the Khmer Rouge. ‘Khmer’ refers to the Khmer people who are currently the largest (90%) ethnic group in Cambodia. ‘Rouge’, french for red, was the proud colour of socialism and communism.

In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge executed Pol Pot’s plan for mass revolution. They marched into Cambodia’s major cities, uprooted the entire population and forced them to relocate to the country side. The borders between Cambodia and its neighbours – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam – closed. Communications from Cambodia ceased. The country fell silent to the outside. Cambodia’s disappearance for the most part was overlooked as all eyes focused on the affairs between Vietnam and America.

The rivers of people flowing out of the cities were forced to leave all of their ‘greedy’ possessions from an instantly by-gone era behind. The Khmer Rouge combed the cities attempting to find government officials, statesman and anyone else part of the previous ruling institution. Once found they and their family were executed. Families were executed as well because Pol Pot taught “to remove a weed you must destroy its roots”.

The people were forced to walk for up to a week in the scorching heat from dawn to dusk. Those young or weak were beaten if they could not keep pace or continue. Littered with unexploded American bombs, the roads were dangerous; adults and children often lost their limbs (and subsequently their lives) from stepping on what seemed like scrap metal or shrapnel.

Once the city dwellers arrived at their allocated farm/village they were to report to the village chief to understand their duties. The Khmer Rouge operated in all of the villages, providing each person with one pair of clothes – plain black and red garments – that would need to last them for the following years until the rule came to an end.

People were forced to work day and night on the fields to fulfil Pol Pot’s ambition to triple agricultural output in three years. Families were torn apart as people were relocated to different camps and to areas where additional people were needed.

Those accused of stealing or treason were beaten, tortured and/or executed. With bullets so expensive and many Khmer Rouge soldiers carrying unloaded guns, the majority of executions involved blunt force trauma to the head. The plethora of agricultural tools at their disposal the most common execution methods involved bamboo, hoes, spades, or machete blows to the back or side of the head. These were also seen as a fitting execution method in an agrarian society.

The following three years saw over 2 million of Cambodia’s 8 million population die. As a Cambodian person put it, “imagine looking at your kinsmen at home, now imagine 1 in 4 died, and now think how you feel knowing they died at the brutal hand of your fellow countrymen”. The majority of people died from starvation or disease as agricultural output plummeted and famine overran the country.

In August 1978, 3 months before the Khmer Rouge were toppled, Swedish delegates from Swedish-Kampuchea Friendship Association were permitted into Cambodia. In a tightly controlled trip, they were brought to Phnom Penh, shown people working in factories happily, they were showed children playing in the streets. They were shown well clad, clean, healthy people enjoying a new socialist regime. Already sympathisers of the Khmer Rouge regime before arrival, after their departure they left without a doubt that Cambodia was a healthy and prosperous nation; an example on how socialism can be achieved and run. Throughout the world some debate continued as to what was happening in Cambodia and whether there were indeed acts of human rights violations. The reports and pictures to the world from the Swedish delegates cast doubts on the rumours that genocidal atrocities were widespread in Cambodia.

On December 25th 1978, Vietnamese forces took the country by storm, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. On January 7th 1979 they established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in Phnom Penh starting a 10 year occupation of Cambodia. For Cambodian people though, the Vietnamese invasion brought liberation from the Khmer Rouge. City by city, village by village the Khmer Rouge were forced into retreat or surrender to the relief of the millions facing hardship, labour and starvation. Though the Vietnamese provided some respite from atrocities taking place for some victims the horrors continued as Vietnamese soldiers were reported to have taken girls to fields to rape and murder them.

Such was the doubt following the delegations report to the media, the UN still recognised CPK as the ruling party in Democratic Kampuchea (the name given to Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge). Pol Pot and the CPK continued to be invited by the UN and foreign governments as the diplomatic representatives for Cambodia.

Over the next two decades the UN, Vietnamese and Cambodians were embroiled in a complicated and bumpy path to creating a stable political regime. In 1998, Pol Pot passed away without trial and without charge. The following year, the Khmer Rouge movement finally collapsed. All of its leaders had either defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested or died.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek, originally a Chinese Cemetery became known as the Killing Field. It contains 129 mass graves which were the final destination for 20,000 men, women and children.


A buddhist stupa was erected as a national memorial to what happened in the Killing Fields.


The stupa contains 5000 skulls and other remains of victims over 13 levels. To the right of the stupa is an orchard, a line of fruit trees that marks the start of the killing field.


Large pick-up trucks packed full of victims would pull into Choeung Ek once or twice a month. However during the last year of the Khmer Rouge regime Pol Pot became paranoid of being toppled. The hunt for traitors and defectors was stepped up. Through 1978, trucks were bringing in victims several times a week if not every day.

Most victims were unaware what fate lay ahead of them. They were told that they were being transported to be reunited with their family to avoid panic, disobedience or rebellions.

Victims were brought to Choeung Ek at night so they couldn’t see the mass graves. They were piled into a wooden shack where they would wait. The Khmer Rouge soldiers would begin blasting propaganda music through the field. In the middle of the night the victims were marched into the field. The guards executed them using any of tools they had at their disposal (described earlier) to strike their victims’ skulls. The music drowned the sounds of those screaming so those waiting in the shack and those in the surrounding areas wouldn’t be alerted. Those that instantly died from the first blow were lucky. Many would have been tossed into the mass graves whilst still alive and would slowly die from their injuries.

The 5000 skulls that have been recovered all show the victims had died of trauma to their skull. The Khmer Rouge soldiers typically used bamboo, batons, machetes and hoes to execute their countrymen. But with so little resources at their disposal they used anything that was available to them. They would peel the bark from fruit trees to use the serrated edge of the bark to slit victim’s throats. Perhaps most disturbing of all was a mass grave discovered next to this tree.


When the tree was discovered it still contained brain matter, chunks of skulls with thin hair hanging from them. The grave next to it contained the naked remains of hundreds of women and children. The tree was used to execute babies. The Khmer Rouge soldiers grabbed the babies by their legs, swung them fast smashing their heads against the tree, then fecklessly threw their remains into the grave. The naked women would then be raped, killed and thrown into the grave.

During the rainy seasons and over time, bones and clothing work their way up through the graves. The staff collect and store these for display in the fields.


S-21 Prison

Though countless lost their lives, executed at the whim of a Khmer Rouge soldier, those part of the political opposition or suspected of treason were tortured into confessing crimes.

The S-21 prison was a school in Phnom Penh that was repurposed by Comrade Duch (real name Kang Kek Lew, he was a senior leader within the Khmer Rouge and Director of Special Branch) to become one of their main torture sites


Even now the sheer contrast between the building’s original purpose and its legacy shows strongly. It’s easy to imagine the building filled with joyful, childhood innocence running around. Remnants of its former life can still be seen with some of the classrooms still containing blackboards and the old school’s signage still in place in hallways and above doors slowly decaying.


However the buildings final purpose is inescapable. Pol Pot’s regime turned playgrounds into outdoor torture sites, classrooms into prison cells and torture chambers. Windows had metal bars retrofitted into them. Barbed wire across the buildings strip the school of its former innocence. 40 years on some cells are still stained with the blood of its former inhabitants.


The prison was meticulously run with records kept for each prisoner. Upon arrival prisoners were identified, their height measured and a picture taken. Most prisoners that arrived to S-21 didn’t know where they were, why they were there and what horrors they were about to endure.

High profile prisoners were kept in their own room, chained to a bed. Other prisoners were kept in small cells that had been installed in the classrooms. Outside a large post stands tall; prisoners would have their hands bound behind them and hoisted in the air by their arms. They would be held upside down for hours and when they pass out the prison guards would lower them into a pot of urine and faeces to wake them up. This would continue for hours. Other contraptions were found that mimics water boarding. All of the various torture tools and instruments looked like they belong in a medieval museum, not a 1970s school.


Most prisoners confessed to all the crimes their interrogators accused them of. Once they signed their confession, they were told they’d be taken to their family at a different site. They would board a pick-up truck and driven to Choeung Ek, their final destination.

Victims on both sides

The S-21 museum shares the stories of all of the victims of the Pol Pot regime. A room in the museum is dedicated to soldiers reflecting on what they did. Many recount being only 12-13 years old. They were selected from their village to join the army. They were scared and told they and their family would be tortured and killed if they didn’t comply. Fearful they felt no choice but to comply. Many recall feeling sick from the actions they took against their countrymen, or from watching how they were treated. But deserters were traitors. Traitors went to S-21. As the children were forced to torture others, they were also observing their own fate if they defected.

The soldiers will never forget what they did, nor stop feeling remorse for their victims. But unanimously, all are angry that so few senior officials have been tried or convicted. They were the ones who orchestrated the whole thing, created the prisons, and threatened their army into carrying out their orders.

Final thoughts

1 in 4 of Cambodia’s current 15mn population lived through the Pol Pot regime. When travelling through Cambodia the events of 40 years ago isn’t readily apparent. As many fellow travellers have opined, Cambodian’s are some of the nicest people you’ll meet. Their genuine, unrevealing smiles convey innocence and happiness that’s hard to reconcile with the elephant in the room. The people have somehow forgiven their fellow countrymen for the detestable acts they have committed. A quarter of the population still live with the memories of the monstrosities they have seen and lived through. Most of the c.4mn people live without closure: the closure of knowing justice has been served (only 3 senior CPP officials have been convicted by the Hague); and the closure of laying their loved ones to rest in peace (mass migration during the 3 years and mass graves make this impossible). Yet, impressively, they smile with sincerity.



I deliberated with myself a great deal whether to (a) take pictures in the memorial grounds, and (b) whether to upload and include them in my blog. In the end I opted to do both. The Choeung Ek and S-21 prison are open to all to see as a memorial to the events and victims of one of the many genocides we have experienced in our generation. A memorial’s purpose, by definition, is to reach as many people as possible, so that we remember and learn from the events of yesteryears. With that purpose in mind it seemed only fitting to me to capture in words and images my experience and place it on the internet where it can reach a wider audience. This post hasn’t been exhaustive so I encourage you to visit the killing fields and S-21 prison yourself.

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