Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Pt. I

Note: Due to internet shortage, I’ve not added a lot of photos. I will add more later.

Yesterday we did a lot of the fun touristy things in Phnom Penh. Today we did the sad things.

Tourism in Cambodia is really taking off, increasing every year since 1998. There’s plenty of reasons for this, like Cambodia proximity to backpacker paradise Thailand, how cheap Cambodia is, how exotic everything seems, and how all backpackers rave about Cambodia (to other backpackers, word-of-mouth is the best research tool and recommendation process). While almost ever tourist visits the iconic Angkor Wat, tourism is also picking up in the dark parts of Cambodia’s history, like the sites and remnants of Pol Pot and his horrific regime, known in English as Khmer Rouge. One source I read said that about 30% of tourists to Cambodia visit Tuol Sleng, the infamous S21 torture detention center used by the regime from 1975-1979.

Paying money and being, well, tourists, to some of the darkest places of human brutality and suffering is an odd thing. It is a little disquieting, if one thinks about it. Visiting Aushwitz and Hiroshima leaves a person feeling troubled, but I think that is as it should be. I strongly recommend anyone in Cambodia not to miss either the Choeung Euk Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng, for two reasons. Firstly, I think an understanding of the 1970s is important to understanding Khmer culture. This is a recent scar in the people’s memory, and it bears looking at. Secondly, I personally think it is important to not shy away from the suffering of others, even if it is from the past. While we all have emotional walls that protect our hearts from the tragedies in the world (and this isn’t a bad thing), it is important that we learn when to lower those walls, to empathize with the hurt around us, and “sit in the dirt with them,” to borrow a term from the book of Job. To me, visiting these sights is a way to honor the innocent, to remember, and to learn how to prevent something like this from happening again. In a small, insignificant way, witnessing the legacy of the tragedies is me saying, “I see you. I stand with you.” Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, especially to those murdered 40 years ago, but it is the only thing I can do.

We hired a tuktuk driver to take us to three places (Tuol Sleng, Killing Fields, and the Russian Market–in that order) and paid 19 USD through our hostel. At the end of the trip we tipped him 2 USD.

Tuol Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge took over the country and closed almost every school, learning institution, hospital, and anything that smacked of modernism. To understand what happened during the Cambodian Genocide you have to look a little further back, to what was happening in the decade previously.


A map of the school/security prison.

Cambodia had been a colony of France for roughly 90 years 1953. This period was, of course, rife with ideological conflict and a mixture of retaining Khmer ways and embracing French culture. The rich sent their sons to Paris to be educated, while the poor labored in rural areas in subsistence farming. During WWII Japan took over Cambodia, but when the war ended France resumed its protectorate. You can imagine what life under martial Japanese law looked like. Communism spread in the 1960s and 70s, and the North Vietnamese set up camps and alliances in Cambodia with the prime minister Sihanouk, ending diplomatic ties with the United States. This wasn’t well received, and there was a coup in 1970. The prime minister (who had abdicated the throne for that title, oddly enough) escaped and a new prime minister, Lon Nol, reordered Cambodia as a republic rather than a monarchy. He also began fighting against the communist Vietnamese at this point.

The Khmer Rouge was founded during this time, with the name the Communist Party of Kompuchea. It grew and developed its ideology, which was a branch of Marxism combined with Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. There was also a worship of the past. French-educated leaders in the political party harshly criticized the country’s reliance on Western, developed states in economic matters. The US led a bombing campaign in rural Cambodia, which lead to the death of around 100,000 peasants. Political scientist and scholars debate whether the campaign pushed the peasants over the edge, to joining ranks with the Khmer Rouge, or if is did destroy key parts of the Khmer and North Vietnamese communist strongholds. Regardless, it did push thousands of poor, uneducated farmers into the urban centers of Cambodia with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Pol Pot (known as Brother Number 1) and the Khmer Rouge came to power through the help of the North Vietnamese, eventually taking the government from Lon Nol. Thousands rejoiced, thinking it meant the return of their former king, help in the farming fields, and hope for their children. They were very, very wrong.

In 1975 and 1976 Khmer Rouge forced the people out of the cities to repopulate the farms, to work as the “Old People” did, without the help of tractors or even horses. Families were separated and sent to live in communal areas, guarded by cadres of the regime, and forced to work on empty stomachs. Those were the lucky ones. Everyone else was killed–around 1.7 million of them.

The Khmer Rouge regime outlawed education, religion, medicine, international travel and interests, and old grammar (in this, they were similar to the French Reign of Terror in calling everyone “comrade”). The old ways were venerated, the new ways obliterated in any way possible, from destroying tractors to breaking eyeglasses to encouraging illiteracy. Anyone that could speak a foreign language, wore glasses, had soft hands, had medical or law training, or worked at an education facility was murdered. They justified these killings by claiming the Khmer people were working for the CIA, when most of these people hadn’t even heard of the CIA before. Ethnic minorities were, of course, targeted just as harshly as anyone with international ties or advanced degrees.  You can learn more about Cambodia’s recent history here and about the Khmer Rouge here. Before they were killed, however, the people were tortured.

That’s where our first stop of the day was: Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S21 (Security-Prison S21). Until 1979, when the regime fell, few people knew what this place was. They assumed it was a meeting place or lodging house for soldiers in the regime. Music blared and people and trucks came and went frequently. Even now, we don’t know that much about the individuals that moved through, because the records were mostly destroyed at the fall. But during the four years between 12,000 to 20,000 people were incarcerated and imprisoned here. There were 12 survivors. Men did anything they could to kill themselves–from jumping off the third-floor balcony to stabbing his neck with a pen to pouring burning Kerosene over his head.


It was a very quiet tour as we looked into the 4×3′ cells, the torture chambers with metal bed frames and electric chargers, and the photos of the prison guards and victims. When a victim entered, they were usually forced to write a short biography, were stripped, and assigned a number. Everything after that was to purposefully dehumanize them, from calling people “it” to making them completely silent. Interrogations, or torture sessions, could happen up to twice a day, and were usually electric shock on metal bed frames, water boarding, or hanging on gallows. Women were raped, though it was discouraged by the prison chief, Comrade Duch. Even if they weren’t raped, their bodies were violated by poisonous bugs in orifices and hot pliers. In short, it was a nightmare.

“When you cut grass, take out the roots,” Pol Pot recommended. In practice, this meant not only killing suspected CIA activists or any “New People,” like railway engineers, but also their wives and children. There would be no one left for revenge, the regime decided. Tuol Sleng was a detention facility, not an execution place. This was where people were tortured for months on end, sometimes up to six months, before being taken away and killed. While there were “mistakes,” or people being electrocuted to death, usually if a prisoner was near dead they were left in their cell and had a medic attend them. These medics had roughly four months of training and no actual medicine. Injections of Vitamin C were a mixture of sugar, saltwater, and vinegar. Pills were hardened vegetable matter. Most of the actual medical professionals were prisoners in S21 or a place similar. The prison guards were young, some not even teenagers yet, and were given only basic education that was mostly brainwashing. At least one guard didn’t know how to count past seven. These were often boys recruited from farm villages, frightened into performing some of the most heinous acts we could imagine, for fear of becoming the tortured rather than the torturer. A few believed in the regime’s goals, many were frightened into compliance, and the few that did defect were hunted down and killed.


Tuol Sleng was only one of around 200 torture sights around the country, though it is the most famous.

As we left (we had to move quickly, we were given an hour by our tuktuk driver and ran out of time) I was on the verge of tears. Actually, I was on the verge of tears through the whole museum. Most people are, by the end, I think. We had purchased one audio guide (3 USD) with our tickets (3 USD apiece) and it was well worth it. Most of the information and signs in English or French come at the end of the museum, and I think hiring a guide (they sit just outside the gate) or getting the audio is a smart move.

As we left, we passed two booths under the shade of some trees in the courtyard. There were several souvenir shops stalls, but these were different and had more writing in English. An old Khmer man sat at a table in the booth on the left, another man in the booth on the right. Both tables had signs that read, “Tuol Sleng SURVIVOR.” Two of the twelve, two of the ones still alive, sitting quietly in the shade selling a books they wrote.

I was surprised. It’s one thing to know this happened. It’s completely different to come face-to-face with someone that experienced and lived through that horror.” My step faltered as I realized what I was looking at. The man on the left saw my gaze and smiled at me. And then he bowed to me.

He clasped his hands under his chin and dipped his head to me, a sampeah, the Cambodian greeting.

My eyes widened and filled with tears again. He bowed to me. Humbled, embarrassed really, I returned the bow (though awkwardly). And then we left. We were out of time, unable to stay and meet the unassuming men that survived hell.

It’s the end of the day and I’m still surprised and humbled. He bowed to me.

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