The Cambodian Genocide

Stupa at Chuong Ek, near Phnom Penh, site of one of Cambodia's "killing fields."

Stupa at Chuong Ek, near Phnom Penh, site of one of Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

March 2009

Chuong Ek is a quiet and peaceful place, a far cry from the noise, bustle, and traffic of the center of Phnom Penh only a few kilometers away. It was a sunny day when I visited a few weeks ago, with just a few puffy clouds in the sky.  The only sounds I could hear as I walked around were birds and, in the distance, the shouts of children playing in a schoolyard nearby.  The other visitors to Chuong Ek – twenty or so of them – walked around mostly in silence.

There really isn’t any other way to respond to a place where more than 20,000 people were killed with machetes, axes, or gunshots, then dumped into mass graves.  Today the mass graves are marked by depressions in the otherwise flat landscape. Some are cordoned off, some bear wooden markers: “Mass grave,” “Mass grave of 450 victims,” “Mass grave of more than 100 victims children and women majority of whom were naked.”

Chuong Ek is one of Cambodia’s many “killing fields,” place where victims were brought to be killed and buried during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979. Today is it a memorial to those who died during this period; a place whose bucolic setting somehow makes it all the more stark and shocking.

Some of the hundreds of skulls in the stupa at Chuong Ek

Some of the hundreds of skulls in the stupa at Chuong Ek

At the center of the memorial park is a stupa, a tall white monument topped with the spire and roof of a Buddhist temple.  A sign asks visitors to remove their shoes before climbing the steps to the glass door of the monument. Inside is a tall set of wooden platforms, extending all the way to the ceiling.  Each platform is filled with skulls, exhumed from the surrounding mass graves. Gashes and fractures in some skulls are evidence of the hammer blows or machete wounds that killed their victims; others have small round bullet holes. On the bottom shelf is a pile of tattered clothes; these too came from the mass graves.

As I walked away from the stupa along a narrow path that leads between the mass graves, I looked down. Beneath my feet, in the brown dirt, I noticed the remnants of clothes. There were also what look like white sticks or splinters; closer inspection reveals that these are bone fragments. When the graves were exhumed, only the skulls of the victims were moved to the stupa; other remains were left here.

Clothes, teeth and bone fragments exposed after the rain at the site of a mass grave.

Clothes, teeth and bone fragments exposed after the rain at the site of a mass grave.

It was when I realized that I was walking on bones and clothes of genocide victims that the real horror of this place – and of the Cambodian genocide – suddenly hit me. Reading about the deaths of two million people is horrifying, but the scale of it makes it incomprehensible. Looking down and seeing that I was standing on a victim’s shin bone, though, made my blood run cold.

A half hour tuk-tuk ride from Chuong Ek is another memorial to the Cambodian genocide, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Before 1975 this place was a high school; after the Khmer Rouge took power it was converted into a secret prison (called S-21) where suspected enemies of the regime were brought to be interrogated and tortured.  Only a handful of the 20,000 or so prisoners brought here survived. The rest either died here or were taken to Chuong Ek to be executed.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh.

Like Chuong Ek, the museum here is stark and simple. Some of the interrogation rooms have been left just as they were when Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.  In one of the former school buildings, classrooms had been converted into interrogation chambers for “high-value” prisoners, many themselves senior Khmer Rouge officials who had come under suspicion.  In each of the first floor classrooms was a single metal bed frame; prisoners were shackled to these frames twenty-four hours a day. A metal bin served as a toilet.  These remain in the rooms today; on the wall of each room is a photograph of the body that lay on the bed when Vietnamese forces arrived.

In another building, classrooms were divided up into cells, separated from one another by crudely built brick walls. Each cell is barely large enough for a person to lie down, but some prisoners spent months here, shackled to the floor.

Equipment used for waterboarding at Tuol Sleng Prison.

Equipment used for waterboarding at Tuol Sleng Prison.

Also preserved at Tuol Sleng are some of the instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge to obtain “confessions” from their prisoners.  Some prisoners were tied to a sloping wooden platform, a bit like a tilted bed. Hoods were placed over their heads and water poured over them to give the illusion of drowning (This practice is known as waterboarding.) Prisoners were also suspended upside down from a piece of outdoor gymnastics apparatus, then lowered head first into large pots of dirty water.

A prisoner, photographed on arrival at the Tuol Sleng Prison.

A prisoner, photographed on arrival at the Tuol Sleng Prison.

The Khmer Rouge were thorough and systematic in documenting who was imprisoned here. Arriving prisoners were each given a number and photographed. Some of the photographs are on display at the museum; row upon row of black-and-white headshots, male and female, young and old. Some prisoners look terrified, as though they knew what lay in store for them. Others look defiant.

Also on display are photographs of Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them children. (Many of the photographs are displayed on the Museum’s website.)

In four years of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, about 1.7 million people lost their lives (more than 20 percent of the country’s population.)  Perpetrators and victims were, for the most part, Cambodian, but outsiders too were complicit in setting the scene for the tragedy, and mitigating adverse consequences to the perpetrators of the genocide. Without the war in Southeast Asia, and more particularly without the wide scale U.S. bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would not have come to power, and the genocide would not have happened. The Khmer Rouge could not have remained in power without support from China.  The United Nations, with the support of the U.S., gave its Cambodian seat to representatives of the Khmer Rouge, even after the regime had been deposed. The trial of someone charged as a result of the genocide began just this week, thirty years after the end of Khmer Rouge rule (The man on trial is former Khmer Rouge official Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch, who has admitted to condemning thousands of people to death when he was head of the Tuol Sleng prison.)

In the wake of the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  Signatories to the Convention affirmed that “genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”  But in Cambodia the world did not live up to its undertaking: the Cambodian Genocide marked the first great failure of this noble convention.

But it was not the last. In 1994, in a one hundred day orgy of killing, some 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in an apparently well-planned and coordinated effort to exterminate the country’s Tutsi population. This was a stark act of genocide, and the outside world knew that it was happening as it took place. But, deliberately, the international community chose not to act.  Once again, the Genocide Convention had failed.

In 1995, Bosnian Serbs systematically killed 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica; the killing was found by the International Court of Justice to have been act of genocide. The Convention had failed to prevent this, too.

Today, in Darfur in the west of the vast African country of Sudan, government backed Janjaweed militia are systematically killing or displacing local black African farmers. According to the United Nations, 2.7 million people have been displaced from their homes in Darfur over the past six years, and some 300,000 have died from the effects of war, famine, and disease. Despite extensive worldwide publicity, governments have again been reluctant to act and the dying in Sudan continues.

Thousands killed in Bosnia, hundreds of thousands in Sudan and Rwanda, nearly two million in Cambodia, six million in the Holocaust. These numbers are overwhelming, so large that they are numbing. How can anyone possibly appreciate what the deliberate killing of so many people means? I can’t. But that moment at Chuong Ek when I realized that I was standing on a shin bone protruding from the dirt helped shock me into realizing the horror of the murder of one person, the person who used to walk on leg of which that bone was part.  A million is a number, one is a person.

All of this is why I think that it is so important for as many people as possible to visit places like Chuong Ek, Tuol Sleng, Auschwitz, Srebrenica, and Kigali.  Standing in the place where such terrible atrocities took place, seeing the skulls and the photographs of the victims, we can begin to comprehend what genocide is. It is a crime against humanity as a whole and a crime against our individual humanity.   Only when enough people comprehend this can we ensure that it does not happen again.

Update, July 2011. A truly remarkable documentary on the Cambodian Genocide has just been broadcast by PBS. In Enemies of the People, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath interviews surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, including Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuan Chea, also known as Brother Number Two. Over the course of ten years of interviews, Sambath gradually gains their trust, and they eventually tell the truth about their involvement in the killings.



  1. Stephanie Lipscomb June 10, 2009
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