A lesson on Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime


The next day, I spent taking in a much darker aspect of Cambodia – what Cambodians refer to as “The Pol Pot Time”. Pol Pot (real name, Saloth Sar) and the Khmer Rouge, like Hitler and Stalin, is a testament to the genocide that results from a doctrinaire ideology in the hands of a homicidal psychopath. During the upheavals and civil wars in this area after the demise of French Indochina, Pol Pot because an ardent devotee of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When his army, many of whom were child conscripts, marched into Phnom Penh, he completely evacuated the city under the guise that the Americans were going to carpet bomb it (baseless, but believable, given the times). Instead of allowing people to return after three days like he originally told them, they were forced to re-locate in the countryside. Thus began Pol Pot’s attempt to implement a Communist Peasant Utopia. City folks, always suspect because of their tainted backgrounds, were executed if they could not master new agrarian skills. Intellectuals and teachers, useless on the farms and always a threat to a dictatorship, were executed. People who wore eyeglasses or spoke French, both clear signs of effete intellectualism, were executed. Buddhist monks, as well as open Muslims and Christians were executed. Anyone connected with the old regime or the middle class was obviously executed, but so were their children and anyone who had known them or worked for them, even as servants. Ironically, Pol Pot and his “cronies” (as they are referred to in Cambodia) were middle-class intellectuals and school teachers who were educated in Paris and spoke fluent French! Finally, because dictators need enemies to justify their existence, Pol Pot manufactured a threat of invasion by Vietnam and fired artillery across the border. This did bring an invasion by Vietnam that ended the madness, with the United States in the unenviable position of defending Cambodia’s national sovereignty (which meant Pol Pot’s murderous regime) against its old enemy, Vietnam. (And, in another twist of Southeast Asian irony, put the U.S. on the same side as Communist China.) Before it was all over, Pol Pot had executed or starved to death an estimated two million Cambodians. Then, in the desperate attempt by families to search for survivors, the crops were neglected and more millions died in the resulting famine.

I started off at the Choeung Ek Killing Field. There were killing fields all over Cambodia, but this is the famous one where prisoners from the infamous Tuol Sleng prison were taken for execution. They were brought by truck in the middle of the night, made to kneel beside the mass graves, and killed by a blow to the head from an axe or shovel in order to save bullets. If they died quickly, they were lucky – many died slowly among the corpses. Young children were held by the legs and swung against a tree until they were dead, or almost dead. Today, Choeung Ek looks like a pleasant park, with the sounds of laughing children from the school next-door filling the air – one can only hope that the school was not there during the period of the executions. The only things that indicate that anything was ever amiss here are the simple signs, more dramatic than any lengthy explanation would be. Oh, those and the shrine in the center of the “park” that is filled with the exhumed bones and clothing of the victims. The piles of skulls clearly show the damage that caused the death of each individual. A very sobering place, indeed.

From here, I went back into town to the place where it all began: Tuol Sleng prison. In another ironic twist, the prison was a converted high school – in fact, it still looks like one. But this was a place of unspeakable horrors. Again, the presentation is very simple and very dramatic. One set of concrete rooms is bare except for a metal cot in each room, and a photograph on the wall. Very high level political prisoners were handcuffed to the metal cots and tortured with jolts of electrical current. The photograph is a shot of the last burnt, decayed corpse to occupy the bed, the one that was found there after the Khmer Rouge were driven out. The remains are buried outside the rooms where they were found. Another set of rooms contains thousands of photographs, “mug shots” taken when the prisoners first entered the prison. (In a touch that is eerily reminiscent of Nazi efficiency and order, there are even mug shots of people who were already dead when brought in.) There are no explanations, leaving the viewer to connect directly with each photograph. There were a few looks of defiance, but mostly fear and bewilderment, especially in the heart-wrenching photographs of the children. Another set of rooms was just left as it was found, with the classrooms divided into tiny cells for the prisoners. There was one room with diagrams and models to show how the prisoners were tortured. And there was a really interesting photography exhibit. A Scandinavian group had come to see the Agrarian Utopia and went home to write a glowing report, complete with photographic documentation. Their visit, of course, was carefully guided and choreographed by the regime; and now, older and wiser, they re-wrote their commentary, with copious apologies for their former naivety that allowed the Khmer Rouge murderers to use them for propaganda purposes.


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