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Decades after the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia refuses the comfort of forgetting

WARNING: Graphic images and details

Story published on

 March 21, 2019

When you manage to rule by asolute, pure, paralyzing terror, that keeps people from doing anything to oppose you, it is shocking the amount of cruelty and dehumanization a country can bear. That is the Cambodian lesson to the outside world. The Khmer Rouge murderous regime, which, in less than 4 years, killed up to 3 million people, a quarter of the country’s population, is a warning sign for centuries to come. We have to always be vigilant faced with nationalistic rhetoric. We need to be careful when politicians sell us a long-gone glory of the past and talk less about the future. We must always reject a xenophobic narrative, one that puts our country versus ‘them’, the foreigners. These are all lessons of the national tragedy of Cambodians, but lessons which serve us well when facing the nationalists of Europe, Russia’s Putin or America’s Trump. 

Although my stay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, was brief, I decided I would skip visiting the city. There had been something else on my mind for a couple of weeks, since I started reading Elizabeth Becker’s extraodinary book on the Khmer Rouge, “When the War was over”. So, on my only full day in Phnom Penh, I immersed myself in one of the greates tragedies of modern history, one for which the West also bears its fair share of the blame. 

First, there was torture

My first stop was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Once a former French Lycee, this was the center of torture and terror during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the late 1970s. It’s where people were detained, tortured and made to write fake confessions of CIA plots against the Communist Party and the executed. The fact that they had been arrested was considered as the only needed proof of their guilt. The party’s guiding philosophy was that it was better to arrest and kill an innocent individual than an enemy of Angka (The Organization) to remain alive.

Up to 20.000 detainees in Tuol Sleng, only 12 known survivors

It is believed that up to 20.000 people have been detained in Tuol Sleng in the Khmer Rouge’s 3 years, 8 months and 20 days in power. There are only 12 survivors of Tuol Sleng. Throughout the country, there have been around 200 such prisons, but Tuol Sleng was the deepest pit of the Khmer Rouge Hell. 

You walk through the cells, see pictures of the last bodies found there when the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh. You see the pictures of the prison staff, the people who tortured tens of thousands of innocent human beings. They are all so incredibly young, teenagers even. You then see pictures of the victims – so young, so terrified, so many children.

But nothing prepares you for the gruesome details on how they were tortured into writing absurd confessions. You sit there, watch the instruments, the pictures on the walls and can’t grasp the amount of cruelty and dehumanization. You hear the stories told by the handful of survivors, you hear the statements of the former heads of the party and you are just lost for words.

Then, there was death

But the people who did in Tuol Sleng were the exception. The rule was that, once they had written what the Party wanted them to confess, they were stashed in trucks, even hundreds of them at once and taken to Choeung Ek, a former Chinese graveyeard outside Pnom Penh.

This was my next stop as well, to the place now known as The Killing Fields. There are 120 mass graves here.


8.000 skulls to warn the world

The Khmer Rouge Regime

They ruled from April 17, 1975 – January 9, 1979.

They wanted a utopian, class-free communist state.

“Brother Number 1”, Pol Pot

The Khmer Rouge Death Machine

Up to 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge – a quarter of the country’s population.

They died either from starvation, exhaustion and disease or they were exterminated by the party.

The terror center of the Khmer Rouge was a prison they set up in a highschool in Pnom Penh. Up to 20.000 people were detained in Tuol Seng. There are only 12 known survivors.

This is where up to 20.000 Cambodians have been executed. They suffered a cruel death. Bullets were in short suply for the party. The prisoners would be instructed to kneel in front of a newly dug mass grave. Then their throats would be slit or their heads smashed with anything the guards found around. There is even a tree where small children would be tied and smashed. 

Even today, when most of the mass graves have been dug out, you walk through the Killing Fields and see pieces of cloth or even fragments of bones coming out of the ground. Every few weeks, they are carefully gathered and stored. And then, the day of misery ends in front of a stupa where 8.000 skulls are arranged by age and sex and spread over 17 stories. You sit there, look at this death memorial and you keep telling yourself that this was all to real.

There are 120 mass graves in the Phnom Penh Killing Fields. Throughout Cambodia, 200 Killing Fields have been found. I also went to see one in Siem Reap.

The Khmer Rouge, in brief

For those of you unaware with the Khmer Rouge history, they were a very brutal communist movement which came to power in Cambodia in 1975, after a guerilla war against the fascist dictatorship of general Lon Nol. 

The Khmer Rouge and their hidden leader, Pol Pot, wanted to build a “perfect” communist state, where class didn’t exist. Exploiting the people’s resentments against the French colonialists, the Americans who bombarded them during the Vietnam war and Vietnam, the neighbor they always feared would attak them, the Khmer Rouge also vowed to create a country completely isolated from the outside world. 

When they were fighting in the jungle and were still a shadow group, lead by young people educated in Frane, they had a nationalistic rethoric which appealed to the pride of the Khmer civilization. 

A country destroyed in 3 years, 8 months, 20 days

When they came to power, they ruled by terror, pure terror. Families were forbidden, even though the party decided the Cambodians needed to produce more children. Religion was forbidden. The only loyalty was towards Angka (The Organization or the Party). Everything outside work in the cooperatives was forbidden. 

They outlawed all the other trades. You could be a peasant working in cooperatives, a Khmer Rouge Cadre or a soldier. That was it. Doctors were either killed or sent to the countryside to plant rice or dig up irrigation canals. The Khmer Rouge leadership gave their children or relatives a 3-week training to be doctors and that was their new medical system. It was so absurd and incompetent, that they ended up killing people. Since they were taught to perform injections on pillows, when they did transfusions on human beings, they killed them. 

Every now and then, when the miracle of Angka didn’t materialize, there would be purges, until the Khmer Rouge started to purge their own cadre. Similar to the Nazis, they documented everything in detail. There is an exhausted death birocracy at Tuol Sleng. This is why we now know so much about their cruelty.

Lessons for the future. And for us

The Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979, overthrown by the Vietnamese and the former Khmer Rouge members they recruited. Pol Pot never paid for the genocide against his own people, he never admitted anything, he never showed any sign of remorse. Only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders went to trial, but that was in late 2000’s.

 Unlike in Sri Lanka, where I found that the government and the people would rather not talk of the war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, Cambodians took the opposite approach. With 70% of the population born after this dark episode in the country’s history, Cambodians try to keep the memory of this chapter as vivid as possible, as a warning  sign for days to come, a warning sign for the rest of the world. 

Coming from a country that still struggles with the ghosts of the past, I understand why this is so important. 

 Since 1985, Cambodia has been led by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge himself and the world’s longest serving prime-minister. He has vowed to stay in power for eight more years, until 74.


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