So this post is about the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. I’m not posting any pictures because, honestly, I can’t stand to go through them again, but the one I did one back in 2016 has nothing but photos because at the time I couldn’t fathom trying to put into words everything I saw and felt there. This place still haunts me—as I think it does anyone who’s ever been—and I still maintain that there is no way to ever describe what the Killing Fields are. But, two years removed I know that Western-centered education leaves vast swaths of blankness about the rest of the world and there’s probably people who saw that first post and were horrified but didn’t delve any further into the Khmer Rouge or the Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. They were in power for only four years; 1975-1979. I don’t think I ever mentioned how recent the Khmer Rouge was in any of my previous posts. This is something that happened well within living memory, to the point that if your parents had watched the BBC they might’ve seen something about it on the news. It’s that recent. The leader of the Khmer Rouge was a man named Pol Pot. Now, I knew about Pol Pot before I went to Cambodia, because at one point I read a lot about serial killers and crimes against humanity. But even the book I read only briefly mentioned Pol Pot. He didn’t kill as many people as Stalin or Hitler so he was more like a footnote.
Which is pretty messed up. How many millions of people does someone have to kill before they’re worthy of the same level of psychological dissection and obsession as Stalin and Hitler?
After the Khmer Rouge came into power in ’75, they forcibly evacuated all major cities in Cambodia. Why? Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian socialist society. An agrarian socialist society is, essentially, a farm-based economy. There was no need for technological or educational revolutions or research because everyone was going to live life simply and happily on farms, living off the land, sharing what they grew. People were forced into Collective Farms, which is exactly what it sounds like. Communal farms where people were used as slave labor in fields.
Anyone who disagreed with this idea was promptly labeled an “elitist” and killed. Most of the people labeled as “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge were educated people. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, anyone with a college degree. Pol Pot himself was college educated and had spent time abroad in France which is where he’d been introduced to the idea of Marxist and Lenin communism. He was also paranoid, delusional, and narcissistic.
Between the mass killing of his “enemies” malnutrition and horrid living conditions on the Collective Farms, 1.5-3 million people died out of a population of 8 million. 25% of Cambodia’s population at the time. The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh are the most famous, but there are more all over the country and the set up is very similar to that of German concentration camps. People were rounded up and driven to the camps, bound and gagged. Once they arrived they were stripped of all personal belongings and clothes. Mass pits were dug, people—not always soldiers—killed the victims with things like scythes and saws, they used bayonets and axes and dumped the bodies into the pits before covering them with DDT so if anyone managed to survive being hacked at with an axe, the DDT would suffocate them. Infants and small children were swung against trees until their skulls cracked. Women and girls were raped repeatedly before being killed.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge finally fell out of power and had to flee when Pol Pot attacked neighboring Vietnam and started slaughtering people there as well. The Vietnamese army quickly overwhelmed the Khmer Rouge forces and they fled to the border of Thailand. Vietnam established a new government in Cambodia in opposition to Pol Pot. But Pol Pot and the remainder of the Khmer Rouge stayed at their base until the 90s, still internationally recognized as Cambodia’s rightful government. Which is an insult I cannot begin to fathom. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. No trial. Nothing but a slap on the wrist and a stern talking to for murdering 3 million people.
So that’s the history I couldn’t write about two years ago after visiting the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. Writing about it even now brings back all those complicated feelings I didn’t know what to do with back then; horror, disgust, and the sharp edge of anger. Always anger. Because how many of us knew about Pol Pot? We spend weeks on WWII and Hitler but we never talk about how the Nuremburg Laws were modeled after American race laws. We overlook the fact that Hitler praised American genocide of Native Americans.
Pol Pot was an extreme xenophobe and nativist. He set out, much like Hitler, to “cleanse” Cambodia of minorities and religions he found undesirable or subversive. He tried to eliminate religion in its entirety like Mao Zedong in China. Mao is another one nobody every fucking talks about. But we’ll get to that in the China posts. Or, you can look him up now and fill in some of those blind spots our Western-centric education leaves us with.