South East Asia

A cultural wound: The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng

This will not be a pleasant read. I promise the next entry is much nicer, and if you go back to the last one there’s a lovely picture of a bridge. Trigger warnings for everything.

We left Kompong Cham in the morning for Phnom Penh, arriving at about lunchtime. After a nice lunch (I’ll talk about that later) we boarded a bus for our tour to the killing fields. To understand this, we need to talk about Pol Pot and King Sihanouk, and do a little bit of history.

Cambodia was a French colony, like Vietnam and Laos. Like many colonial regimes, it was oppressive and cruel, trying to destroy local customs and languages, and the French influence is visible everywhere. Finally, Cambodia became independent in 1953 as a Constitutional Monarchy with a western style parliament. It was corrupt, and torn between competing American and North Vietnamese interests, and turbulent politically.

Pol Pot was a teacher, originally. Born as Saloth Sar and from a decent family, he was educated overseas in Paris in the 50s and while there him and his contemporaries became committed Maoists. A crap student, he returned to Cambodia and taught French Literature and history, all the while spreading and converting people to Maoist ideals. Pol Pot would travel to country areas with cash from foreign backers and claim they were the spoils from communist countries, and that only through communism could Cambodia prosper. The country people were poor, and poorly educated, so of course they believed him.

Sihanouk was the King of Cambodia, also very educated. In 1955 he abdicated in favour of his father and ran for Prime Minister, running an anti-western campaign and succeeding, so for a while one family controlled all of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s mistakes, according to our guide, was trying to have his cake and eat it- he accepted aid from the Americans and even let them build the main road from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh- then let the Russians move military hardware along it. Sihanouk repressed opposition and was unpopular but powerful

Eventually there came a regime change. In 1970 an American backed coup installed a new government, the Lon Nol regime. Saloth Sar fled to the countryside, amassing a force and controlling districts along the Vietnamese border, which would act as test beds for several of his regime’s programs. Sihanouk lived in exile in China, biding his time and entering an alliance with Saloth Sar to overthrow Lon Nol. The regime branded the communists in the north as enemies of the state, and these “Red Cambodians,” these Khmer Rouge, must be destroyed. Many of the peasants supported Sihanouk, not communism, and his imprimatur caused the numbers under Saloth Sar’s command to grow massively

So, come 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Following the takeover, very quickly they called the residents of the city to meetings. They told the people that Americans would bomb Phnom Penh in retaliation, so it’d be much safer to leave the city for just three days until it was over. Of course, the people were never allowed back, sent to labor camps and work farms, no belongings left. Separated from families. Work or die.

If you were suspected of being disloyal to the Pol Pot regime, you were imprisoned. Also, if you were suspected of being educated, you were sent to a reeducation centre, ostensibly so that you could be given training to better use your skills in the new regime. Of course, these centres, such as Tuol Sleng, were certainly not for education. Once there, you were interrogated and tortured relentlessly. Electrocution. Fingernails. Heads immersed in sewage. Beatings. Men and women- women were raped and their babies threatened, their breasts mutilated. You were kept in a tiny brick cell and hosed down once a week.

Our tour guide for this tour worked in the forced labor farms. As a 5 year old at the time, he had to scare birds from the crops, and go to sessions with the officers every week for brainwashing. He’d get a few spoonfuls of rice, while all the crops they’d farmed were eaten by officers or officials or exported. Our guide remembers that the youths at his camp genuinely believed that if they joined the army they’d get fed, and have a better life- they believed the propaganda. These child soldiers had to swear loyalty above all else. Some had to kill their own relatives as a test of fealty.

So, the Killing Fields. When you had outlived your usefulness from interrogation, when you had been “reeducated” as much as you were ever going to be, you were loaded on a truck and taken to the fields. They told you this was where you’d get your new job, now that you’d proven your usefulness You were held in a shed, and then the officers at the fields took you to the edge of the pit. They played games. They raped the women. They dashed the skulls of babies against trees, in front of their mothers. Then they killed you. They didn’t shoot you, waste of a bullet. They beat the back of your head in. They cut your throat. They disembowelled you. Then they threw you into a mass grave, and if you weren’t already dead you died there

They weaponised the trees. Theres a palm tree that grows near the fields with a serrated edge to the fronds. For a laugh, they’d use that to kill you.

Today the fields are a quiet place, covered in grass. Many of the mass graves have been excavated, but of course the remains are impossible to match to specific people. The Chuong Ek centre, where we went, one of many, is a small area. Everywhere you walk, there are pieces in the soil- bones, clothes. They’ve excavated many of the pits, but the Prime Minister has stopped the process as he states that they’ve dug enough and bringing up more won’t help the nation heal. You walk through this place and feel the grief. It’s sad, and moving, and mundane- like much evil, it’s banal and mechanical in its efficiency.

At the centre of the Chuong Ek centre there’s a stupa, containing many of the remains. Some of the skulls are fractured. Some of the legs and wrists are still bound in wire. Young. Old. Men. Women. Children.

There is one grave separate from the others. All the bodies within were headless. In Buddhist mythology, a spirit cannot rest if the body is not whole, and the spirits must wander restlessly until they are reunited or hopefully pass on themselves. All of the bodies in this grave are for Khmer Rouge, perceived traitors or dissenters or “lazy” or those that had simply outlived their usefulness. The heads have not been found.

We left the Killing Fields for Tuol Sleng. The Sleng is a poisonous native nut, and Tuol Sleng is therefore poison hill. The name predates the Khmer regime, and indeed so does the building- it was originally a school. Following the evacuation of Phnom Penh the building was repurposed, walled with barbed wire and began its new life. Across the four buildings, over the course of the Khmer Rouge regime more than 17,000 people were processed in this centre. Not just locals either, international prisoners including an Australian journalist were held and accused of colluding with the CIA.

The Pol Pot regime ended in 1979, when a Vietnamese backed force assisted by Cambodian generals invaded the country. They reached Phnom Penh on Christmas day, the Khmer Rouge forces withdrawing from the city. About nine days later, several Vietnamese journalists attached to the invading force were scouting the cleared area when they noticed a barbed wire fence. Investigating the abandoned building, they discovered on the ground floor, in the “VIP” section, the final victims of Tuol Sleng, executed during the evacuation and left to rot. They called the Vietnamese forces, and they secured the facility.

And found survivors. Hiding in the kitchen were 5 children, including two babies, who had survived the withdrawal. The babies were adopted by German couples, and most of them are still alive today. One even works at the facility.

Other than the children, there were 7 other survivors. The withdrawing Khmer forces took 7 prisoners with them who they deemed useful. This squad was intercepted by the Vietnamese forces, and freed. Of those seven, two survive today. One, Bou Meng, was an artist who was forced to paint propaganda pictures, and Chum Mey. Chum Mey was a mechanic, and had worked in a western factory before the regime. Brought to Tuol Sleng in late 1978, he spent 2 months at the facility before the fall, being beaten and interrogated. Following the fall of Phnom Penh, Chum Mey and the Khmer Rouge officers had a chance encounter with Mey’s wife and fourth son, who were added with others to a prison. Following two days march, they were marched into a field and the soldiers opened fire.

Mey survived. His wife and child did not.

We met him. Now an old man, Chum Mey supports the museum and runs an association to help the people who were imprisoned, and has testified in trials of Khmer Rouge officials. I bought his book, autographed, but I’m not convinced I have the strength to read it.

Following the Vietnamese occupation, Pol Pot and his senior leadership fled to the Thai border, attempting to fight a rearguard action and consolidate his power base. Pot received support for this from the Chinese and the Thai and, indirectly, the west, who wanted them to check the power of the Russian backed Vietnamese and stop a “red tide” sweeping through Thailand and further south. All those countries of course decried the killings, but still.

The Vietnamese occupied the country until 1989, when UN peacekeepers took control and oversaw the transition to the current democracy. Sihanouk, having been used by Pol Pot as a puppet and a prisoner and had fled in 1976 to China, assumed the throne again in 1991, his role written into the constitution. The Cambodian general, Hun Sen, who had lead the forces that unseated the Khmer Rouge and had been administrating the country on behalf of the Vietnamese, was elected deputy prime minister (though really controlling all of the power) and then Prime Minister outright in the following election in 1998.

He is still Prime Minister today. His rule is corrupt, he surrounds himself with essentially a small private army, and the elections have been plagued by allegations of fixing, to the point where the previous election he lost, but his corrupt control of the electoral agency meant he “won” a large number of seats and strong-armed another party into letting him form minority government. He brutally represses protest and dissent. His time is, one hopes, nearing an end- with a large number of Cambodians coming of voting age before the next election, he will not be able to cheat his way in again. What happens to his corrupt system though is anyone’s guess.

Sihanouk died 3 years ago, having abdicated in his son’s favour in 2004.

Pol Pot died in the western area of Cambodia in 1998. The Prime Minister declared a general amnesty to former Khmer Rouge who would join the government, and many of the prominent figures in the government today were former Khmer Rouge. Our guide said that one of his neighbours was a Khmer Rouge official, living openly over his back door. He said that he and his neighbours had been angry at finding this out, and had plotted revenge…but where would it stop? It is not the Buddhist way.

5 senior Khmer Rouge officials have been tried for crimes against humanity. One, Khang Kek Lu, nicknamed Comrade Duch, was the chief administrator of Tuol Sleng. He had been a mathematics teacher. He was convicted and is now in prison. 2 have escaped trial, as one died of a heart attack and another, his wife, is suffering severe dementia. The remaining two have received life sentences but are still under trial for other charges.

Bou Meng and Chum Mey testified at Comrade Duch’s trial.

The total cost of the trial, largely foreign aid backed, is over 200 million.

Millions dollars were also found in the bank account of dead Khmer Rouge officials, so who knows where it all is now.

Over the course of the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, between one and a half and three million people died. If not directly executed, they died due to starvation or illness.

So that’s the killing fields. It’s horrible, and unpleasant, and really fucking upsetting.

It’s also important, and should be remembered, and never repeated.

Stray Observations

-Lunch in Phnom Penh was at the Friends restaurant, another charity run restaurant supporting hospitality education for orphans and supporting a couple of orphanages, including one next door to the restaurant. They serve a number of great dishes, I had the ant dish I mentioned in the previous entry, and on our second visit to Phnom Penh Kayla and I went there again. They also have a charity ship selling handicrafts, several of which we bought as souvenirs. Total guilt free purchases, given the cause.

– The history here is of course brief and simplified. Any errors are mine alone.

Next: a remote village and a tropical beach.


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