Choeung Ek, Cambodia

The rule of Pol Pot (1975-1979) and the Khmer Rouge was responsible for two million deaths in Cambodia out of a population of seven million. A combination of dissident executions, forced labor, disease, and starvation were the main causes.

Choeung Ek is about 15 miles from Phnom Penh. Here, an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge. The first thing I noticed while visiting the “Killing Fields” was that it was eerily silent. It had the same feel as when I visited Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp in Austria.

Choeung Ek was different though in many ways. The most striking part of the site is that it is mainly left in tact from when the Khmer Rouge fled. Bones, and teeth are still coming up from the ground when it rains. Clothes from the victims can be seen peaking up from the dry, red, dirt. I felt very tentative when walking not to step on any of the remains.

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam War they saw little opposition, partly because they were Cambodian. The main goal was to eliminate “class” and begin an agrarian society. On the plane, I read a very interesting book written by Dith Pran, titled, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. It chronicles 29 different memoirs by survivors who now live in the United States, Canada, or Europe. Most of the stories are similar in overall structure.

When the Khmer Rouge stormed into the capital of Phnom Penh, they told the locals that the U.S. was going to bomb the city so they had to evacuate immediately. Although there was some resistance, most of the urban residents obliged to the request. They were told not to bring anything with them since they could return in three days. Little did they know they would probably never come back.

They were marched into the countryside and split up based on age and gender, to separate farming camps. The treatment was horrible. The soldiers dressed in black, with red and white bandannas, constantly harassed the “New People”. New People were those who came from cities, probably educated, and therefore enemies of the Khmer Rouge. “Old People” were those who had been farming the hot and humid rice paddies of Cambodia for generations.

Executions could happen for any reason. Most notably teachers, former Cambodian Army personal, and medical doctors. Wearing glasses was also grounds for execution because it showed that the person was probably literate.

One of the saddest stories from the site is the big, old, Chankiri Tree, otherwise known as the “Killing Tree”. Since bullets were in high demand, soldiers would take children by the feet and swing them into the tree to kill them. Often, the Khmer Rouge soldiers would laugh while killing the children. Not laughing, might be a sign of showing sympathy, and result in questioning of your own loyalty to the party.

6 responses to “Choeung Ek, Cambodia

  1. An interesting account, but as horrific as the Khmer Rouge years were, we Westerners mustn’t forget the damage the United States did to Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power. I had been led to believe that US bombing raids were limited to the border region near Vietnam, but in fact the entire country was bombed extensively. Little wonder, then, that the Khmer Rouge were able to convince so many of Phnom Penh’s residents to flee.

  2. I actually saw the bomb holes in the forests of Kompong Thom—right in the middle of the country. The US bombing campaign was horrific, cynical, and ill-advised in every possible way. And I don’t think America has done the necessary soul-searching in the wake of our naive and destructive “policymaking” in (then) Indochina. We simply tried to forget it, leaving millions of Cambodians to their fates.

    But I do think that’s a separate issue from the Khmer Rouge’s systematic destruction of the country, its population, and its culture. Their murderous bent grew from a bizarre ideology born in Paris and honed in the forests of Cambodia. While US bombing played right into the KR’s hands, I don’t think it created their murderous tendencies.

    A wonderful memoir by Francois Bizot called “The Gate” provides insight into the KR belief system. He was captured and held by the KR in 1971, during the civil war, and was interrogated by Duch, who would later become the infamous head of S-21, the prison that supplied Choeung Ek’s body count. He got to know Duch fairly well and saw firsthand how a burning ideological belief can morph into justification for mass murder. Grimly fascinating, a must-read.

    Kurt, I just visited Tuol Sleng last week—did you go there? Still reeling from that. I had a powerful emotional reaction, one that surprised and frightened me.

    • I’ll keep an eye out for The Gate – it sounds fascinating. Yes, I agree it’s a stretch to blame the U.S. entirely for the Khmer Rouge, but “My War with the CIA” (Norodom Sihanouk and Wilfred Burchett) helped me see how the French occupation and then the US’s attempts to make Cambodia a “new American satellite” played a major part in allowing Pol Pot to come to power. Sihanouk aligned himself with him for a time because he was the only one capable of resisting Lon Nol – generally regarded as a US puppet. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, though. Just my thoughts so far.

  3. I’m no expert either—I’d be interested in reading “My War…” Thanks!

  4. I will have to look into obtaining a copy of The Gate. One aspect that I find interesting about the whole Khmer situation was that Noam Chomsky actually endorsed the regime because of its revolutionary philosophy on paper.

    • “The main goal was to eliminate “class” and begin an agrarian society.”

      That wasn’t really the main goal though. That was just an excuse for take over, in my opinion. Pol Pot was just trying to feed his own ego. A classless society except for the all-powerful Khmer Rouge is not a classless society.

      Noam Chomsky likely supported the idea of a classless society, but not the misuse and abuse of the idea. Chomsky supports a lot of what Karl Marx expounded upon. That doesn’t mean he supported the misuse and abuse of those ideas by the Soviet Union to justify the all-powerful Soviet state. Marx talked about a stateless society…

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