While in Phnom Penh I visited the genocide museum and the killing fields to see the horrific legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It’s hard to comprehend that out of Cambodia’s 8 million population approximately 1.7 million died of execution, starvation, disease or overwork during Pol Pot’s Tyranical 4 year rule between 1975 -1979. It’s amazing that the world was either blissfully unaware or turned a blind eye as this atrocity was taking place and mind boggling that 15 years after their crimes were discovered the Khmer Rouge were allowed hold a seat in the UN and be the voice of the Cambodian people. After rising to power in 1975 Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge immediately set about turning Cambodia into his warped idea of what a maoist-commununist Utopia should be. The population was moved from the cities to rural labour camps where they worked strenuous 12 hour days with little food and no rest. In his effort to create a classless society Pol Pot banned schools, books, money, personal belongings, religion and even western medicine. People who spoke another language, were educated, had soft hands, wore glasses and even those that drank milk were perceived as intellectuals and were seen by Pol Pot as a threat that needed to be eliminated.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide museum is located in what was once a school but was converted into a detention centre by the Khmer Rouge. Known as S21 the prison was so notorious that only 7 of its roughly 20,000 inmates were known to survive, often inmates were just average people who were tortured until they confessed their crimes against the state (often fabricating a story to end the torture) and then murdered. Walking through the prison complex was very unsettling, the cells were on display as they had been found, some with a black and white photo on the wall of the last victim that was found there. Reading accounts from the few inmates that survived about the treatment of prisoners, especially the methods of torture was quite disturbing and the looks on the faces of the other visitors to the museum echoed my own feelings. The Genocide Museum was shocking, but I think it needs to be, so people can really understand the barbarism that went on in this place.
As more and more prisoners came through S21 and other similar detention centres throughout country the body count grew, to avoid suspicion the Khmer Rouge began moving prisoners by truck to the outskirts of cities to be executed and buried. Known as the killing fields, places like this were located throughout Cambodia, the best known being Choeung Ek which now serves as a memorial to those that were murdered there. When you begin the tour of Choeung Ek you can immediately see the very impressive memorial stupa, it’s not until you walk closer that you realise that behind its glass walls the tower is filled with 8000 skulls of the victims that were killed here. The Audio tour informs you of the horror that these poor people went through as they arrived and waited to be executed in the most brutal of ways (The Khmer Rouge preferred beating someone with a blunt object to avoid using precious bullets). The mass graves were very emotional to walk past but without doubt the hardest thing to stomach was the tree, upon which babies and young children were beaten to death and thrown in a nearby pit.
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge have much to answer for, but let’s not forget that China, The United States and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) all supported the Khmer Rouge one way or another after they lost power and that many of its leaders were only convicted of crimes against humanity in 2007 ( Pol Pot dying peacefully in his bed in 1998). I wonder how followers of the Khmer Rouge could have turned on their countrymen so viciously and I’m reminded of an experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority. The Milgram experiment had a volunteer ask a second volunteer (secretly an actor) questions, everytime a question was answered incorrectly an electric shock was administered, increasing in voltage everytime an incorrect answer was given. The voltage went up to 450 volts, labelled “Danger: Severe Shock”, some people were horrified at being asked to do this but the majority continued on the basis that it was part of the experiment and they wouldn’t be held responsible. Even when the second volunteer pled for mercy, complained of a heart condition and fell alarmingly silent 65% of people went all the way. Perhaps this is an insight into what ordinary people are capable of in extreme situations and what we don’t like to consider is the possibility that normal people can participate in such horrible acts