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Life Lessons from Cambodia

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I had always watched movies about Cambodia and heard of Pol Pot and the genocide but nothing prepared me for the reality behind the dark history of this country. When I travelled to Phnom Penh last month, I took a Historical Tour covering the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Killing Fields. – Elisabeth Amanya.


The next day, after an early breakfast, I met the tour guide at the reception and alongside 10 other tourists, we departed the city in a comfortable, air-conditioned minivan first to the Choeung Ek, one of the many killing fields, 17 kilometres away from Phnom Penh.

To understand this tour, let me give you a brief history of Cambodia genocide: Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime took between 1.4 million and 2.2 million lives accounting for 10 – 20% of the Cambodian population, leaving Phnom Penh a ghost town. It was only in recent years that people had started returning to the city. The Khmer Rouge had emptied it out within a week of taking power.

But why kill so many people, I wondered…

Government officials arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies” including:

  1. Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments.
  2. Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they spent too much time reading books instead of working). Ironically, Pol Pot himself was an educated man with a taste for French literature and spoke fluent French. Many artists, including musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
  3. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands, Cambodian Christians (most of whom were Catholic, and the Catholic Church in general), Muslims, and the Buddhist monks. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (haram). Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
  4. “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.

Mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, earning the name – The Killing Fields. This location used to be a Chinese Cemetery before it became one of more than 200 Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields. The remains of the dead bodies have been excavated from mass graves in this area and a memorial stupa was erected in 1988 built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims with acrylic glass sides and filled with more than 5,000 human skulls, bones and clothes of the victims.


The tour guide (who is in his mid-30s) described the darkest period in Cambodia’s history as we walked around over a small bridge, erected to walk on to avoid walking all over the fragments of human bone and bits of cloth scattered around the disinterred pits. The utmost respect is given to the victims of the massacres through signs and tribute sections throughout the park. Many dozens of mass graves are visible above ground, many which have not been excavated yet. Commonly, bones and clothing surface after heavy rainfalls due to the large number of bodies still buried in shallow mass graves. It is not uncommon to run across the bones or teeth of the victims scattered on the surface as one tours the memorial park. If these are found, visitors are asked to notify a memorial park officer or guide.

After paying our respects to the victims, we were transported back to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The museum, a grave reminder of what took place here where a former high school was used as the notorious Tuol Sleng Security Prison 21 (S-21) where prisoners were rarely given food, and as a result, more than 20,000 prisoners died of starvation while others died from the severe physical mutilation that was caused by torture. Though a small percentage of the prisoners were female; women were frequently raped by their interrogators.

Tuol Sleng, in Khmer, means “hill of the poisonous trees” was one of at least 150 execution centers in the country. The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. Several of these workers were children taken from the prisoner families.

Only 11 people survived this prison, 7 adults, 4 children.

There was a large sign out front as soon as you arrive, with the rules that the Khmer Rouge had imposed upon the prisoners here:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that; you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.


After being arrested for belonging to the categories mentioned earlier in this article, prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and ultimately sent to the Killing Fields to be executed. Life in this prison was so horrible that most prisoners attempted to commit suicide.

The prison cells have been well preserved as in 1979 when the Vietnamese army invaded, the prison staff left here in a rush, leaving corpses still chained to the beds in the interrogation rooms.

Vietnamese photographer Ho Van Tay was the first person to enter S-21 with a camera. Supposedly he and his colleagues followed the stench of death. His photos, of mutilated, rotting bodies are posted throughout Tuol Sleng.

The first floor was occupied by interrogation rooms, the second floor was filled with cells, and the top floor was administrative offices (a detail which I find particularly perverse; that people were upstairs doing paperwork while people were dying below).



Editor with Chum Mey for a book signing

Prisoners were shackled directly to the metal bed frame. The metal ammunition box at the end of the bed served as a latrine.

One the second floor was where prisoners were held when they weren’t being tortured. Brick walls had been erected inside, dissecting the classrooms into small cells, roughly 1m wide by 2m deep. Prisoners were locked in close to one another, but forbidden to speak or interact. They were shackled at all times, forced to sleep on the ground. Their lavatory was a bucket, placed in the corner of their cell. They had to ask permission to use it.

Two of those adult survivors, now old men, and one of those children, now grown, are believed to be the only former inmates of Tuol Sleng who are still alive. The two older gentlemen were there that day – Chum Mey, a mechanic, and Bou Meng, an artist. Both adults at the time of their incarceration, they were each kept alive because of their value to the Khmer Rouge. Chum Mey was able to fix machinery, and Bou Meng, like Van Nath, was forced to paint portraits of KR officials. Both men lost their families to the Khmer Rouge. Chum Mey’s wife and infant son were shot in front of him.

Each was there, signing books they’d written, and taking photos with guests. They would pose for the cameras, but their eyes never really changed. They remained heavy and profoundly sad.

I was later dropped off back to my hotel, and although this was an extremely emotional and heart breaking tour, it was important to learn of the sad and barbaric history of this amazing country.


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