What Cambodia's killing fields reveal about dictators and totalitarian regimes

Anyone in opposition to the system, or suspected to be so, was picked out and eliminated.

 |  12-minute read |   22-03-2017
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In Cambodia, 40 years ago, one could get hacked to death or dismembered and buried alive for wearing glasses. I digested the information with a gulp, uneasily fidgeting with my own purple glasses.

My husband and I were standing in the killing fields of Phnom Penh, staring in horror at the mass graves surrounding us, listening to an audio tape narrate the brutalities that former schoolteacher-turned-dictator Pol Pot inflicted on his own people.

People know graphic details of the Holocaust but very little about the Cambodian genocide. So here goes.

Known as the Khymer Rouge, also the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Pol Pot's regime ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, starting from the jungles in the 1960s.

The guerrilla group came to power at a time of civil war (an outcome of US bombing — Operation Menu — of the country during the Vietnam War), presented itself as a party for peace and drew the public with the professed aim of establishing an egalitarian, agrarian communist-Marxist society.

So far so good. But then that's how dictators are born, on the promise of peace or prosperity or development.

"Declaring in 1975 that the nation would start again at 'Year Zero', Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities and setting up rural collectives," the voice in the tape told us, as we walked among signboards asking us not to step on pieces of bone and clothing littering the grass, thrown up frequently from the shallow graves by wind and rain.

Pol Pot's "utopia" had no place for the rising middle class — professionals, journalists, doctors, basically anyone educated or wealthy or living in the city was considered unproductive and a parasite on the system. Workers joining the group were told to forget their families and think only about the "revolution".

Anyone in opposition to the system, or suspected to be so, was picked out and eliminated at the Choeung Ek killing fields — just one among the 2,000 dotting Cambodia — after being tortured into signing confessions for crimes they did not know of, and often for being agents of the CBI or KGB.

The prisoners came by truckloads and men, women, infants — no one was spared, for the Khymer Rouge believed "it is better to kill an innocent person than to leave an enemy alive".

mass-grave-embed_032117024323.jpg To save ammunition, victims were hacked to death by crude objects. Photo: Reuters

“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss” was adopted as the slogan of the brotherhood, for “brothers” they called themselves, building their society towards the nightmarish reality described in Orwell's 1984 (published 1949).

Glasses signified intellect and affluence to the Khymer Rouge, hence people wearing them were picked to be slaughtered, along with those knowing a foreign language — many were murdered for “thoughtcrimes”; children were taught to spy on their parents and denounce them.

The Cambodia Tribunal Monitor notes: "They abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted."

To save ammunition, victims were hacked to death by crude objects. Even the executioners — Pol Pot’s foot soldiers, often teenage boys — were routinely “purged” over fears of knowing too much or for failing to follow orders.

As one survivor of the killing fields put it later: “I condemn the killers but I also understand why they were executing the orders. You don’t know what you or I would do if our survival depended on our willingness to kill another human being.”

Over the next few years, the country was turned into a graveyard as hundreds of thousands were executed or worked to death in forced labour camps. At least 2 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population — was senselessly wiped out or died of disease, starvation and overwork, the voice in the audio informed the silent onlookers, numbering 200-300 in the killing fields.

In the 1970s, without internet and without the kind of reach journalists have today, the world was unaware of the goings-on — even villagers and workers near the killing fields did not know the Khymer Rouge were butchering people in the dead of night, drowning their cries under the hum of generators and loud songs of revolution.

We stopped at a mass grave of 450 victims, another where women and infants were buried, and yet another shallow grave where corpses without heads had been dug up. "You will see the skulls later, broken from impact," the tape told us.

We were asked to stop by a large tree with a broad trunk. We gazed up in silence, waiting for the voice to reveal what tortures it had been used for.

Genocide in Myanmar, Yemen, Syria

Now imagine visiting Syria, Myanmar or Yemen some 40 years hence and discovering the dead, mass casualties in graves — the remnants of civil war and foreign interventions. Imagine tourists, walking ruefully amid the remains of people, collective in-taking of breath, sighing in disbelief, the world drawing the lesson that "this must never be allowed to happen again".

It's an old story. Done to death. Confining oneself to just some cases of genocide in the 20th century, first they came for the Armenians, then the Jews, the Cambodians, Hutus, Tutsis, the Bosnians, the Yazidis, the Muslims, and hardly any one spoke up.

In many nations, this is still happening and hardly making news. In Syria, the death toll from the ongoing bloodshed touched 4,70,000 as of February 2016, according to the independent Syrian Centre for Policy Research.

The country is embroiled in a civil war between long-time dictator Bashar-al-Assad's army (backed by Russia, Iran and allied forces) and Sunni Arab rebel groups (backed by Saudi Arabia) calling for his removal. Also in the fray are the "moderate" rebels backed by the west; the Kurds; and the Islamic State. The mass casualties include innocents not part of the war at all.

syria-embed_032117035143.jpg Mass graves have reportedly been found in Syria. Photo: Reuters 

In the Arab world’s poorest country Yemen, government soldiers and Houthi rebels are killing each other as well as civilians. A Saudi Arabia-led multinational coalition backs the president while the Houthis are backed by Shia Iran. The violence has claimed 10,000 civilian lives so far and led to a humanitarian disaster with 80 per cent of the population in need of aid after a blockade was imposed by the coalition.

Meanwhile, the US continues to bomb Islamic State targets in the country and the collateral damage is again the common people.

The conflict in both nations has its roots in the much lauded “Arab Spring” of 2011, and the West’s delight in ushering in “democracy” in what they saw as lands of dictators. But the political transition that was supposed to bring stability to Yemen — as well as Syria as well as Egypt as well as Libya — failed. Throw in the Shia-Sunni conflict and you have a long-running feud.

In Myanmar, the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims, an isolated minority in the country’s Rakhine state that has been denied citizenship and hence political representation, are being persecuted as the country’s army carries out what it calls "clearance operations" or “counterterrorism operations”, what Human Rights Watch is calling “ethnic cleansing”, and what others are claiming is the groundwork for genocide by the Burmese government, headed by, ironically, a human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The violence against the Rohingya by the military allegedly comes in the form of rights abuses, confiscation of land, forced labour, rape, torture, and executions. Till January 2017, about 1 lakh Rohingya have been displaced and thousands have fled for refuge in neighbouring countries where they are of course not welcome. Lakhs continue to suffer in Myanmar while the world goes about its business as usual.

The Myanmar army calls these charges false. Humanitarian workers and independent journalists have been banned from the affected areas, but if the army is innocent, why?

Suu Kyi, who fought for democracy and reform for years, has been beating around the bush, turning a deaf ear to calls for help from the Rohingya community as well as to feeble protests from the international community.

Everybody knows

Dictators in strife-ridden countries are crushing anyone in opposition to their belief system and stifling independent thought, just like Pol Pot did. And it's not always religion or race — sadly, Muslims are fighting Muslims in most West Asian nations.

At home here in India, the Hindutva brigade — I am not just talking about the extremist fringe (whatever that is now) but the ordinary educated bhakt sitting among us in posh homes and comfortable offices — need not rest assured that the powers-that-be are just targeting the mussalman. Once the "Muslim outsider" is taken care of, the extremist will turn upon his own people, anybody in opposition to his scheme of things. The best example of this happening is Pakistan.

We are in the age of Twitter. The world knows about the crises in Yemen, Syria and Myanmar, in numbers, photos and videos. Smartphones have robbed us of the refuge of ignorance. Perhaps we are not protesting enough, or loud enough, because we have become insensitive to suffering, specially that happening far away in some distant land. Or we are just too involved in ourselves, our lives, our immediate reality. Or perhaps because we have the same darkness inside us that gives rise to monsters such as Hitler and Pol Pot.

Ironically, the current PM of Cambodia, Hun Sen, who is a former Khymer Rouge commander and in power since 1998, recently assured the president of Myanmar, Htin Kyaw, that his government would not interfere in the Rohingya crisis as it was an “internal issue” of Myanmar.

The school turned into a torture house

The voice in my ear warned the listeners against the dangers of totalitarianism, as we braced ourselves for fresh horrors at the Tuol Svay Pray High School-turned-S21 torture house-turned-Genocide Museum. During the Pol Pot years, it held some 12,000 captives and only a handful stepped out alive.

The Cambodians have preserved the chambers of the building to serve as a horrifying reminder. The small jails still have blood stains, chains and marks of prisoners being dragged. The graffiti on the walls and the stench of death make the onlookers shudder and huddle together.

s21new-embed_032117024342.jpg During the Pol Pot years, S-21 prison held some 12,000 captives and only a handful stepped out alive. Photo: Reuters

The torture equipment — rods, axes and wires used to thrash victims, pliers for ripping out fingernails, electric shock apparatus, various poisons, whips and needles, photos of attempts at waterboarding — long before the Americans perfected the technique — is testimony to the atrocities carried out in the school, along with rows of headshots of victims, many of whom were used for medical experiments. Documents reveal the forms of interrogation used, such as questions revolving around charges of sedition, many with no correct answers.

The last photo that stares at the visitors is of Pol Pot, Brother Number One.

In 1979, when Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge — given recognition by the UN in the 1980s, reportedly with help from the US and Britain — was toppled and Pol Pot and his henchmen fled to the forests. A year later, the killing fields of Phnom Penh with over 8,900 bodies were unearthed.

The Khmer Rouge existed till 1999, by which time its leaders had either defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, or been arrested or died.

polpot-embed_032117024351.jpg Pol Pot was never tried for genocide. Photo: AP

In the last few years, Brother Two aged 90 and Brother Four aged 85 were sentenced to life in jail — with 3,500 victims participating in the trial — along with Comrade Duch, the S21 prison chief. It was the first time senior leaders of the regime faced justice. Brother Three died during trial.

Pol Pot himself, as notorious as Hitler and Stalin, lived to a ripe old age of 74 and died of heart failure in 1998 in the comfort of his bed, never having been tried for genocide.


The beautiful tree we were standing under was used by the Khymer Rouge soldiers to bash the brains of infants before tossing their torsos into the freshly dug pits, all before the eyes of the mother. The trunk was found with pieces of hair, skull and flesh on it as proof of what it was used for.

The Choeung Ek killing fields have one last stop — a memorial stupa dedicated to the victims that houses over 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age behind glass panels, marked with notes on forensic evidence about how the person was killed — some skulls are clearly battered or show “signs of chemical treatment”, others have bullet wounds or signs of being struck with a bayonet, hoe, iron rod or hammer.

cambodia-embed_032117024305.jpg The Choeung Ek killing fields have one last stop.

I wondered, as we walked out of the stupa, whether the killing fields were haunted. The skeletons of so many victims, not resting in peace and being thrown up ever so often by wind and rain, even after 40 years. And their murderers still alive, the killer and victim both awaiting justice.

I remembered to look up this tidbit of information later. Were the killing fields haunted? I asked, I googled.

Apparently yes. People living nearby have reported hearing cries for help from the site of the massacre as well as screams from the graves when they were dug up, often for the gold jewellery left on the bones of Cambodia's massacred millions.

PS: Totalitarian regimes do not last. Orwell didn’t have hope, but there is.

Also read: Why the killing fields of Kerala only draw collective silence (even from BJP)


Nida Fatima Siddiqui Nida Fatima Siddiqui @justamuggle02

The writer is a bundle of contradictions.

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