Killing Fields and S-21 PrisonApril 7, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C
The scourge of the Khmer Rouge and their impact upon modern life are ever present in Cambodia. In a four year period, the Khmer Rouge killed twenty-five percent of the country’s population, either through execution or starvation. Every person that we met during our time in Cambodia had some story about how their life was affected by the genocide, even farming families who couldn’t possibly have been a threat to the Pol Pot regime.
Sophea, our local guide, spent a great deal of time trying to help us understand both how the Khmer Rouge rose to power, and how the country has been able to move forward after a war that pitted one neighbor against another. The rise of the Khmer Rouge is directly tied to American involvement in Vietnam. During the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong crossed the border into Cambodia, seeking shelter. The Cambodian government, which was deeply connected to the Chinese government at that point in time, agreed to provide shelter, and actually permitted the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In their quest to stop the Vietcong, the American army bombed the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the Ho Chi Minh trail, killing many Cambodians who lived in the area. The Khmer Rouge fomented anti-American sentiment, and presented itself as a force that would oppose further American incursions in the country. Of course, this was completely erroneous, as America had left already Vietnam by 1975, which is when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Phen. But, most Cambodians didn’t know this fact, and were fully prepared to believe that America was planning to engage in additional, deadly bombing attacks.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, the farmers were pitted against the intellectuals, and average men and women were expected to enforce incredibly repressive policies and carry out a genocide. The first step in repressing the intellectuals and reforming the country was to move everyone out of the cities and into the countryside, where they could work on farms. Phnom Phen was emptied of all of this population on April 17, 1975 — which was the lunar New Year. The city was a virtual ghost town for the the following four years.
In order to dispose of the intellectuals, foreigners, and anyone who supported the previous government, the Khmer Rouge began an unbelievably aggressive campaign of rounding people up, and interrogating them until they confessed to some crime (typically collaboration with the Americans). Then, once they confessed, these people were taken to a “killing field,” which was a place for mass executions, which was usually accomplished by burying people alive after they had been tortured and beaten.
Although interrogations were conducted throughout the country, the largest interrogation facility was located in a former school inside of Phnom Phen. S—21 was the site of the interrogation of 15,000 prisoners during the course of the war. The forced interrogations took 7 days, during which prisoners were brutally tortured. Not too surprisingly, everyone eventually confessed. Only 7 people survived detention at S-21. The school is now a museum, which we were able to visit. During our visit, we met two of the seven people who survived after being taken to S-21. We spoke to one of the former prisoners, who shared his story about the torture that he endured, and his survival which is attributable to the fact that he was detained very late in the war, and had skills that the Khmer Rouge needed.
Our next stop was one of the largest killing fields in the country, which is located outside of Phnom Phen. Touring the next site was chilling, but just as devastating was hearing that the executioners were typically 15 year olds, who were prompted to act by the fact that each of the people slated for execution had “confessed” during their detentions. We learned that the executioners were told that they could carry out the executions, or be killed themselves. Today, these executioners are in their mid-40s, and a large percentage are suffering from severe PTSD.
Obviously, many of us asked a lot of questions about how the country was able to move forward after this genocide, as former members of the Khmer Rouge continue to live in the country, often side-by-side with people that they victimized. Sophea explained (as did Phat whom we had taken the food tour in Siem Reap) that there a number of explanations. First and foremost, the Buddhist faith teaches the value of forgiveness and living in the present. Almost 90% of Cambodians are Buddhists, so their strong faith allowed them to forgive, although not forget, what happened. The fact that many of the executioners were given no meaningful choice about whether to participate also helped people forgive. Second, there is a code of silence about those years that is only starting to be broken. Members of the Khmer Rouge were invited to participate in the government. There has been no “truth and reconciliation” commission, and only 4 people have been prosecuted for war crimes. Parents did not talk to children about what happened, because they did not want their children to engage in revenge killings. Third, the government controls the dissemination of information and free speech is non-existent. The government seems to have no interest in revisiting the past, and represses all independent efforts to do so. And, the economic devastation that followed the war led to a complete focus on moving forward, as so much rebuilding was necessary. As Sophea patiently explained this to all of us, I watched as people shook their heads in disbelief. Clearly, our understanding was hampered by our western views.
As Arie and I talked about the day, we were again struck by the role that America played in creating a deadly conflict in another country. Without planning to do so, our sabbatical has taken us to four different countries that suffered devastating internal conflicts fueled by the CIA — Chile, Argentina, Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time, our government lied to us about what was going on, and the truth only came out years later. I can’t help but worry about what else we don’t know, and what ill-conceived policies were continue to engage in.Read more