top of page
  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

Why it is important to visit Cambodia's "KILLING FIELDS"

The question of genocide by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge continues to be debated 40 years after the end of the Regime. So what is the issue about, and why is it important to visit Cambodia's Killing Fields Museum.

"It wasn't genocide, I wish people would stop calling it that."

"That's what they call it at the museum."

"But that isn't what happened."

"What was it then?"

"They were crimes against humanity."

"What's the difference?"

"Genocide is a subset of crimes against humanity."

"Okay, trust the lawyers to get technical."

It's a funny discussion to have half an hour before midnight on NYE but you can't be in Cambodia and it not come up, especially if your out on the town with a couple of lawyers, one of whom is working at the tribunal. And why not New Year's when Pol Pot determined his regime would restart the calendar at zero.

Getting Technical: What is Genocide?

'Genocide' is the killing, or various other acts, 'committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group'*.

Though there were aspects of this in Cambodia, particularly against the Cham muslim people, for a large portion of Pol Pot's victim's what happened to them doesn't qualify as 'genocide' on the pure technicality it wasn't against an identifiable 'other'. It was against perceived political opponents, social classes, urban dwellers, out of favour cadres and, well, pretty much anyone.

Pol Pot was a deranged psychopath who instigated and oversaw the imprisonment, torture, forced labour and mass murder of his own people, but it wasn't entirely a 'genocide' anymore than it was a 'genocide' that occurred to the millions who died in Stalinist Russia.

That isn't to take away from the atrocity of it. As a descriptive noun genocide aptly conjures up the murderous, terrifying 4 years that took a quarter of the population. If not 'genocide' then a word just as powerful is needed. Something that matches the significance and doesn't sound as indifferent or vague as 'crimes against humanity'.

But what does a word matter really?

We need to define what happened, not only to hold perpetrators responsible, but in order to comprehend the magnitude of the offence and to identify it as wrong. Too easily we accept the slaughter of the 'different'; too easily we ignore what a nation does to itself.

It was Stalin who limited the definition of 'genocide' under the Convention in order to make allowance for his purges. And it was other powerful nations such as the then McCarthyist United States that agreed to it. But if leaders are allowed to get away with murderous rampages then more will be inclined to do it. They must be held to account to face their actions and be judged for them.

Holding to account

Unlike the Nuremberg trials that came immediately after Germany's surrender, the Cambodian "Khmer Rouge Tribunal" wasn't set up until a generation after the slaughter ended. Pol Pot was already 10 years dead and the other surviving perpetrators are now old men and women with questionable capacity to stand trial. Handing out life sentences to them seems punitive.

For that reason, as well as the associated cost and the fact key government decision makers are themselves former Khmer Rouge cadres, there is a question mark over whether there will be more than the 5 indictments so far achieved.

Why more sympathy for the criminal rather than his victim? Without justice victims have no closure. Whether that justice is imprisonment; monetary or moral reparations; or simple acknowledgement and truth finding depends on what the victims need. But age shouldn't relieve the guilty any more than a word can hide the horror.

Stepping out of the theory and into the real - Visiting the Killing Fields

I was studying law, majoring in international law, when the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was almost, finally, established. It was something we studied, discussed and wrote essays on. So I probably know a little more than the average tourist about the legal parameters of it. But of course all my knowledge is 'academic', I'd never stepped into the physical space.

It's remarkable how much Tuol Sleng Prison still looks like a school. Classrooms were used as holding cells and torture rooms. Blood is splattered on the tiles but blackboards still hang on the walls. The 3 storey building encloses a courtyard where childrens' play equipment was used as tools of torture. Pol Pot and a few of his cadres had been school teachers so you can't help but think how they must have masterminded this over recess.

In an effort to try to trace the prisoners their mug shots wallpaper the rooms. Some are resolved to their fate, some looked annoyed, defiant, a few full of contempt with mocking smiles at their captors, others confused, and many terrified, their eyes white with fear. A soldier stands tightly straight, summoning his courage his jaw clenched like the shirt buttoned at his neck, his shoulders are thrust back, in part because of the way his hands are tied. He's afraid, he knows what will come as he was caught in the wrong army but he refuses to show his fear.

They are of all ages from small children to old women. Most were soldiers and intellectuals or artists, people who posed a 'threat' to the regime. But many weren't so significant, ordinary workers who held no politics and arrested without reason but accused of treason. Their children were arrested also. The organisation didn't want child avengers. Babies were cruelly dashed against trees and thrown into the pit grave with their mothers.

"To cut the grass you need to dig up the roots." Khmer Rouge

Up to 20,000 prisoners went through Tuol Sleng**, the prison that is now the Genocide Museum. Only a tiny number survived**.

One survivor, Chum Mey, was in the grounds signing his book at the time I was visiting and is regularly there. In 1977, when he was arrested, he was just a simple mechanic working for the government. In the end it was, ironically, his ability to fix their interrogation typewriters that saved him. He testified at the tribunal but to this day doesn't know why he was arrested or why his wife and children were killed.

"To lose you is no loss. To keep you is no gain." Khmer Rouge

Following the visit to Tuol Sleng the tour continues to the Choeung Ek Memorial Park. This is the location where many of the S21 prisoners met their deaths. The grassy ground undulates with the indentations of mass graves and in the centre of the field is a monument which is filled, like a catacomb, with the skulls and bones of those they have recovered so far.

It's a sombre, reflective place. Visitors walk through the memorial park, pausing to sit on seating and listen intently to the stories on the audio guide. There are no group guided tours here, virtually no talking at all; everyone is lost in their own thoughts. There is little to see, it is a lonely clearing on the edge of town, as it must have been then for those that were brought here. Yet it is raw, confronting, and our silence makes it an incredibly moving experience. These people didn't belong to any identifiable 'group', not that that we can dismiss or justify any genocide, but it's impossibly hard to do when you can so starkly see it could have happened to you. We should all reflect on how easy it is for our governments to fail us and the world to stand by.

There were Killing Fields all over Cambodia, not only the one 15km outside Phnom Penh CBD. 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed. There wouldn't be a person who didn't have a friend or relative or neighbour directly or indirectly murdered by the Khmer Rouge. When the rains come, all over the country bone, teeth and clothing surface like ghosts who want to be found.

Entire cities were emptied to work the fields with many labourers starving to death. Everyone over the age of 40 has a story to tell and no single person hasn't had family touched by it. The legacy it has left is a generation of displaced orphans and a country crippled by the loss of its educated and skilled. Millions have struggled to regain their lives without any explanation or accountability for what happened to them. How does justice help get them back on their feet?

Since forming in 2006, the ECCC has spent an estimated $400 million dollars but convicted only 3 people (a fourth died before proceedings were completed). Others have been indicted but not yet sent to trial. Whether they will or not remains in question. The jurisdiction of the Tribunal is to try only those "senior leaders" who were "most responsible". Those put on trial include Pol Pot's right hand man "Brother No.2" Nuon Chea; former regime President Khieu Samphan; and Kaing Guev Ek "Duch" who operated S21 prison. All three are elderly men and, supposedly, the last of the senior regime leaders still alive.

In late 2018, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister, Sar Keng, declared that there would be no more trials after the current appeals process took place. However, the Cambodian government has limited control over the Tribunal and the nation's political interference is not welcomed by the international human rights legal fraternity. At the same time, the Tribunal's mandate seems extraordinarily limiting and with 70% of Cambodia's population under the age of 30 the majority of citizens weren't even born during the regime, let alone of senior rank within it.

However, almost everyone's life continues to be touched by that era. The nation's society all but collapsed because of it and the ramifications of that loss, and efforts to rebuild it, continue to have an impact on ordinary citizens. The fact that so few persons involved with the regime have been put on trial is disappointing, particularly given the apparent ability of the Khmer Rouge's less senior leaders to rise to the front line of Cambodian politics today.

Visiting sites like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek may seem like a morbid 'must do'. But it's important for us outsiders to understand the magnitude of what occurred here and gain some empathy with the population. There are many people in the West who are unaware of what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s, who have limited understanding of that regimes impact on the community today and the importance of holding people to account, not just through the ECCC but through our own consciousness of events. It is not only for our own education that we go, we go to acknowledge those who are lost and those who survived and so that we do not stay silent in the future.

"If the court can't find justice for me and other victims then our lives have no meaning," Chum Mey stated prior to the 2009 trial of Duch. "We just die."


*Article 2

**The exact number of persons arrested, released and executed are unknown. Estimates of arrests range from 14,000-20,000. 7 people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng, including 3 children found at the prison by Vietnamese soldiers. There is some evidence suggesting approximately 150 other people may have been released, however many have disappeared since.

Find Out More:

THE KILLING FIELDS MUSEUM: The Killing Fields Museum is made up of Tuol Sleng S21 prison and Choeung Ek Memorial Park located in/near Phnom Penh. Your hotel/hostel can make arrangements for a semi guided tour or you can make your own way to the sites. For information on opening times and current costs go to the Killing Fields website





Recent Posts

bottom of page