2013 Travels: #7 Khmer Rouge

Victims of the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Victims of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek Killing Fields

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

The year was 1975. Cambodia (Then known as the Khmer Republic) has already seen years of unrest and civil war. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Paris-educated leader Pol Pot, won the war and subsequently took over the country. Being a Marxist believer himself, as soon as he got into power, he imposed a form of strict agrarian socialism onto the country. He envisioned a utopian country where its people would work under a planned economy as peasants to generate the needed production for the country. Free from class struggle and pitfalls of capitalism, it was to usher in a new golden era for the country.

Pol Pot labelled the year as “year zero”. Threat of capitalism needed to be curbed and society cleansing was to be carried out. Cities were seen as antithesis to socialism and thus citizens were evacuated to the countryside, often under extreme conditions. The rich, the educated, doctors, artists, musicians were deemed as surplus and could potentialy threaten the regime. Many were sent to prison camps, only to be tortured and subsequently murdered with inhumane methods. Religion was considered a distraction and therefore, many religious sites were razed to the ground. Opposition parties, traitors and ethic minorities wern’t spared either.

In 1978, the Vietnamese launched an attack on Cambodia and successfully invaded the country. Pol Pot and his remaining loyalists fled to the Thai border.

Although it was the end of the Khmer Rouge era, the damange has been done. It was estimated that between 1 to 3 million people perished. That’s about a quarter of the population. Murdered, in just 3 years 8 months 20 days. Moreover, a big chunk of the rich Khmer culture, disappeared without a trace. It was the darkest spot in Khmer history.

Corridor of what formerly was a school
Corridor of what formerly was a school

When the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh, there wasn’t enough time for time for the Khmer Rouge to destroy the prison camps and evidence of human atrocities. One of the remaining camp, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is a popular tourist attraction today.

I spent half a day at what formerly was a school. The place was worn out and haunting. The mood was sombre. I followed a free English guide (Tips encouraged though as they are mostly volunteer students) who brought us around the museum. His explainations were concise and put a lot of small details – that would otherwise elude the average visitor – into perspective. He explained to us the brutal methods the soldiers used to extract information and often false confession from their inmates. He also talked about how they were tortured and punished for wrongdoings.

At the end of the tour, we met with one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison Camp, an inmate named Chum Mey. He told us that the Khmer Rouge kept him alive because of his ability to operate and fix the typewriter, which was used to type prisoners’ confessions. Nevertheless, he was not excempted from the brutal tortures and his living conditions were no different from the rest – inhumane.

Chum Mey, One of the Few Survivors of Tuol Sleng
Chum Mey, One of the Few Survivors of Tuol Sleng

In the afternoon, I took a tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek Killing Fields, which was some distance away from Phnom Penh city. The Khmer Rouge usually did not kill the inmates in the prison camp. Rather, they would transport them to a designated open field and shoot them there. Choeung Ek Killing Fields was one of them and was in the sense a mass burial for the Communists.

The mood in Choeung Ek was even moodier. Visitors are given a pair of headphones and audioguide that explains the how mass killing and burial were carried out. On display were the clothing remains of the victims. A memorial was erected in the middle of the museum and stores the human skulls that were collected from excavation. Even children were not spared. It was a sad, sad sight.

The saddest part was, Pol Pot was never tried by an international court. He died of heart failure in the late 90s.



On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series. 

I was in Cambodia from March 4 to March 20. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone. 

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