Its impossible to escape the legacy of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It is an extremely dark and disturbing history, which reminds of us how cruel humans can be to their fellow humans. In general Cambodians are an extremely friendly and hospitable people who are rarely seen without a smile on their face, which makes the Khmer Rouge era more confusing.
The Khmer Rouge regime came to power in 1975 after the Lon Nol regime, which overthrew the post-colonial monarchical government of Sihanouk. Sihanouk was quite a popular king so his overthrow in a military coup by Lon Nol, was not popularly supported and Sihanouk took exile in China. A lot of the Khmer Rouge leadership were educated in France and this was where they were introduced to communism. On their return they joined the Communist Party of Cambodia, nicknamed the Khmer Rouge, which was aiming to seize power through a Maoist revolution and a rurally led guerilla war.
Their power base was among poor rural peasants and they held their own in some rural areas, but never really threatened the central power base of the government. However this mostly changed in 1973 when Sihanouk seen the Khmer Rouge as his best route back to power, and probably because Chinese persuasion, he felt that he could control the Khmer Rouge when they took power. Thus he broadcasted a message over the radio where he encouraged Cambodians to join the revolution and fight for the Khmer Rouge.
Acting on this message people began flooding into the ranks of the Khmer Rouge and they went on an offensive against the government. Another major recruiting tool for the Khmer Rouge was the heavy bombing of eastern Cambodia by the American army, who were attempting to disrupt supply lines to Viet Cong fighting in southern Vietnam. However, the bombing largely failed and only served to heap massive destruction on a poor, rural and innocent population. Recently released American military files show that America dropped over 2.7 million tons worth of explosives on Cambodian territory. To put that in perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons worth of explosives in ALL of world war two!! The Khmer Rouge had a strong anti-imperialist and anti-western ideology, and thus became increasing popular after Cambodians seen their fellow citizens coldly butchered by the American army.
Initially when the Khmer Rouge conquered Phnom Penh and seized power people were celebrating in streets, primarily because it was the end of the long bloody civil war. But soon the Khmer Rouge turned on the citizens, particularly educated urban people. First it evacuated everyone from Phnom Penh, telling them that the Americans were going bomb the city and they would go back in a couple of days when it was safe. In reality everyone was sent to work and ‘education camps’. While here everyone was stripped of their clothes and everyone had to wear identical pajama like clothes. They were forced to work incredibly long hours doing agricultural work, particularly in rice fields. However they were fed very little and most died from hunger, exhaustion, or disease or all three.
They were informed that it was now Year 0 and all the history that preceded this day didn’t matter and they were building a new more equal society, when in fact it was a type of social engineering. In order to do this the leadership decided to kill all formally educated Cambodians. So all doctors, teachers, artists etc. were executed, even if you spoke English or French, or had glasses it was enough to raise the suspicion of the Khmer Rouge organization, and this always meant death. The Khmer Rouge taught that love was unnecessary and separated couples, they performed forced marriages only so people could produce children for the revolution. The Khmer Rouge knew children could be more easily indoctrinated and controlled, and thus used them to spy on their parents and torture prisoners.
Two of the darkest places under the Khmer Rouge were the Killing Fields and S-21 prison. The Killing Fields was where thousands upon thousands of Cambodians were brought to be brutally murdered and dumped into mass graves, most just beaten to death with blunt instruments. Having visited S-21 I can attest to its disturbing and revolting past. Here over 21,000 people were locked up in the most inhuman conditions imaginable and tortured with the most brutal of instruments. Some died under the torture and others were randomly transported to fields and beaten to death. The conditions were so bad in S-21 that they placed barbered wire over the front of the three story buildings so that people could not jump from the top and commit suicide. Of the over 21,000 men, woman and children that entered S-21 only 7 survived and only 2 are still alive today.
I met one of these survivors on my visit, his name is Bou Meng. He originally joined the Khmer Rouge because of King Sihanouk's radio message. He soon became disenfranchised with the Khmer Rouge after the took power but kept his head down and worked hard at odd jobs in order to survive. One day Bou Meng, his wife and two children were rounded up and thrown into S-21. He never seen his wife and children again, and it is believed they were brutally murdered soon after entering. He was placed in the disgusting and inhumane prison, and tortured so much he lost consciousness many times and nearly died. This was all done to try force him to sign ludicrous confessions that he worked for the CIA and KGB to try overthrow the Khmer Rouge. In reality he was just working in a engineering school and as an artist.
One day he was dragged into the office of Duch, the man who ran S-21 and has just received a life sentence for his crimes, and asked to draw a painting of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. Bou Meng was a very talented artist but he was told that if he didn’t draw the picture well enough he would be killed. He done a good job and after this he was moved to better living quarters and was kept alive so he could continue to draw iconic pictures of the Khmer Rouge leaders. He stayed there long enough so that when the Vietnamese attacked Phnom Penh to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime he was transported away with guards and could soon escape. Today he earns very little on a state pension and travels to S-21 nearly every day to tell his story to visitors and sell his autobiography, as well as to visit the photo of his wife in the museum and kiss and touch it.
Bou Meng’s story is harrowing but not uncommon. During the Khmer Rouge regime 2 million people died from murder, starvation, exhaustion, and preventable diseases, and this was one-quarter of the population. Every family experienced massive tragedy and some had to go through harrowing experiences to survive. This has created a massive loss of trust between Cambodian people and many psychological problems within the population which has never been treated.
All this happened while the west sat back and done nothing. It took the intervention of the Vietnamese to overthrow the despicable Khmer Rouge, both because of their crimes and no doubt for their own benefit. The Khmer Rouge were not totally defeated and fled to countryside to continue a civil war until the 1990s. While they continued to attack and murder people, western countries used their influence in the UN to insure the disposed Khmer Rouge leadership maintained Cambodia’s seat in the UN and not the new government installed by the Vietnamese. While one can appreciate the Vietnamese for their intervention they continued to colonalise Cambodian for 10 years until 1989, but keeping the UN seat for the Khmer Rouge is a ludicrous act.
Most of Cambodia’s population is under 25 and haven’t lived under the demented Khmer Rouge regime, but the legacy of a lack of trust as well as the reality that most of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were never brought to trial still hurts. In Ireland we talk a lot about An Gorta Mor and the legacy it left. That genocide (not a famine as there was enough food in the country) killed 1 million and forced 1 million to emigrate, also one quarter of our population. But this happened over 160 years ago and under a brutal colonial regime so it is easy to explain. For Cambodians it is extremely difficult for them to explain how their fellow Cambodians, who were overwhelmingly the same ethnicity, who had the same religion and who spoke the same language decided to brutally exterminate about one quarter of their population just over 30 years ago. Most crimes against humanity occur by whipping up a hatred of other ethnic or linguistic groups, nationalities and/or religious groups. While obviously still a brutal act its explanation as radical racism/sectarianism can give some sort of closure after peace and reconciliation programmes. Cambodians can't get this type of closure and no such peace and reconciliation programmes were initiated.
Thanks for reading.