Never Again? The Cambodian Genocide

Growing up in a Jewish household there are some inevitable: going to summer camp, bagels and lox at family events, spending the entirety of 7th grade weekends at bar or bat mitzvahs. Every Jew is also raised knowing that our people have a very painful and important past. That the hardships of war after war, exile after exile, genocide after genocide, has all lead to a community rooted in strength. I was told that the Jewish people are survivors and that I should feel blessed that I was born in a time where I can openly embrace my Judaism. I am proud and I do feel lucky. The world knows about the Holocaust and the horribly injustices that took place during this dark place in history. The world will never forget and the Jewish people say, “never again.” Unfortunately, walking through the Cambodian Killing Fields it is very clear that the injustices that the Jewish people faced did indeed happen again. 

The Genocide

The Cambodian genocide took place between 1975 and 1979. It is estimated that 25 percent  of the population (roughly 2 million people) died because of torture, mass execution, forced labor, malnutrition, and disease. The genocide was carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. A man who had a vision of a Cambodia that was solely agrarian. The Khmer forced relocation of the population from cities to the forest. Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into a farming society virtually overnight, to mimic the Chinese Communist agricultural model.

The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, murderous revolutionary group intent on revolutionizing Cambodian society.  On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh, the capitol.  Khmer Rouge soldiers swept through the city, removing everyone from their homes, shops, even hospitals. These soldiers tended to be young peasants that Pol Pot had brainwashed, making them believe that he would take care of them and give them a bright future. The soldiers tended to be mostly uneducated teenage boys who had never been in a city before.  They set to their job right away, evacuating Phnom Penh and forcing all of its residents to leave behind all their belongings and march towards the countryside.

The relocation of Phnom Penh. Source: BBC

The Khmer Rouge movement was small at first, but grew quickly during the Vietnam War. Many Cambodians were turned off of western democracy after so many Cambodians died as a result of the US trying to involve Cambodia in the war. Many bombs were dropped in Cambodia because of “spill over” from the Vietnam War. In my opinion this is an embarrassment to the United States. The US would bomb Cambodia, not because we were fighting a war with them, but because it was unsafe to bring bombs that weren’t dropping in Vietnam back to the US… so they would let them go over Cambodia. So naturally, the locals were looking for some leadership to give them guidance and hope of a safer, better future. Unfortunately, Pol Pot took advantage of those individuals.

Khmer Rouge soldier (AP Photo: Christoph Froehder)

Pol Pot’s communism brought with it images of new hope and national tranquility.  By 1975, Pol Pot’s force had grown to over 700,000 men. Within days of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Phen, Pol began implementing his extremist policies. The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to deconstruct Cambodia back to a “Year Zero,” wherein all citizens would participate in rural work projects, and any Western innovations would be removed.  Pol Pot ran his regime by fear and if anyone, or anything (like religion or culture), was a threat to his vision of a agricultural Cambodia, they were eliminated. 

khmer4.jpg

So who was a threat to the regime? Any educated person that could question the leadership, like: journalists, lawyers, doctors, professionals, intellectuals, students, andmembers of the upper class. All killed.

Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered along with their extended families.  It was very common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language or wearing glasses as these were traits that were associated with the West and/or intellect.

The Khmer Rouge also targeted various religious and ethnic groups. Religious enthusiasts, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry, were all persecuted.  Leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned.

“Better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party.”- Pol Pot

The Khmer Rouge also vigorously interrogated its own membership and frequently executed members on suspicions of treachery or sabotage. Pol Pot killed his high up officers and their wives. If you questioned, you were killed. At one of the killing fields there was a grave found with dozens of headless Khmer Rouge officers who were accused of treason.

The Killing Fields

So what are the killing fields? There were dozens of killing fields throughout Cambodia. These spots where were the Khmer Regime would put the dead bodies of the millions that they killed.

Killing fields

While in Phnom Penh, I went to one of the largest killing fields that was turned into a museum and memorial for those who lost their lives there, Choeung Ek. You can rent an audio guide that leads you through the killing field. And wow. I had never experienced anything like the killing fields before.

A soccer-field-sized area surrounded by farmland, the killing fields contain mass graves, slightly sunken, for perhaps 20,000 Cambodians, many of whom were tortured before being killed. As you walk throughout the fields, the audio guide tells the horribly stories of what happened here. How people weren’t shot (bullets cost too much), but were beaten. How babies were thrown against trees to kill them. How they would blare propaganda music through the grounds to drown out the screams of people dying.

Many skulls were found with blindfolds over them. (Source)

To this day, once a month, people have to go through the grounds and pick up teeth, bones, and clothing that have raised to the surface of the graves because of a heavy rain. The sight of the killing fields in chilling and horrible. It has also become one of the Cambodians largest tourist attraction, which I think is extremely important. I hope by people witness the hard history of the Cambodian people that we, as a global family, can learn.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After I went to the killing fields, I went to Tuol Sleng (S21), which was one of the torture prisons. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000-20,0000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. People had to admit to crimes that they did not commit. If they could no longer think of a lie, they were immediately killed.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Source)

Again, this museum had very good audio guides that lead you through the grounds of a once high school, turned prison camp. Everyone that entered the camp as a prisoner was documented and the halls are lined with blown up black and white photos of these innocent people. Walking through the halls you see women, children, young men, old men, even party leaders staring at you.

“He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.” -Pol Pot

I was already emotionally exhausted from visiting the killing fields by the time we got to Tuol Sleng. I was so overwhelmed. By the time I got to the room that held the torture equipment I had to sit outside and listen to the audio guide without actually seeing what I was hearing about. I had reached my limit.

The prison cells (Source)

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army, who ended the genocide. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia Post Genocide

After the genocide ended in 1979, the world did not come to Cambodian’s rescue. Pol Pot and his army were not imprisoned and no justice was served. In fact, the Khmer Regime was recognized by the United States, the United Nations, and many other first world countries, as the Cambodian government officials for almost twenty years post genocide. Let me say that again. The Khmer Regime was recognized as the Cambodian government for two more decades. They had a seat at the United Nations.

It took until 2011 for anyone to be sentenced for what took place in Cambodia in the 70s. Only a handful were arrested and only three individuals were given life imprisonment.  Pol Pot lived quietly with his family and died in his mid seventies; he was never tried. Some of the people he killed didn’t even live until two.

A monk at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

It is strange walking through the streets of the beautiful small cities of Battambang and Kampot, and the big cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap… you realize something is missing. There is no one old. You don’t see old women sitting outside their homes watching their grandchildren. There are no elder men smiling and playing cards with each other. The oldest generation was exterminated. When I rarely do see an elderly person, I smile and they smile back. I can’t help but wonder how they survived and what horrible things they must have witnessed and gone through as a child.

Never Again. That’s what the Jews say. But here I am, walking through the streets, feeling the affect of what happens when the world turns a blind eye to injustice. At the killing fields I stood there and stared at bashed in skulls, thinking that these were my people just a few decades before.

Why did nobody do anything? Why did it take so long for a trial to take place? Why do we keep making false promises? What can I do to help?