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Legacy of the Cambodian Genocide: A Walk through the Killing Fields

Benjamin Jakabek visits the Killing Fields of Cambodia to reflect on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge nearly 40 years later. Reader discretion is advised. 

After just a short drive outside of the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, I was standing in front of the killing tree at Choeung Ek killing field. Cynicism, depression, and humility hung in the air as tourists hobbled from site to site in florescent pink and yellow tank-tops at the request of an audio-guide handed out at the entrance.

The cruelty that took place here accelerated in the late-1970s as the administration sought ever-more efficient ways to kill their innocent victims. Blunt objects, bamboo sticks, and confiscated farmers’ tools became the makeshift instruments of death. The killing tree was just an extension of this madness. Nature gave the tree its spikes to protect its fruit until they ripened and fell to the ground. Now, these spikes were being used to mercilessly and efficiently bludgeon children and babies to death. Today, the tree is covered in memorial bracelets placed there by the grieving Cambodians.

Image of Pol Pot defaced by outraged citizens.  © Benjamin Jakabek

Image of Pol Pot defaced by outraged citizens. © Benjamin Jakabek

It is no wonder, then, that the memories of these events will live on in a perpetual state of yesterday in the consciousness of most Cambodians.

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When visiting Choeung Ek, an audio guide directs you along various dirt paths in one of the hundreds of killing fields that pockmark the Cambodian countryside. At the beginning of the recording, a narrator asks you to be mindful of every step, as the exact position of all the remains is unknown. As the torrential downpours of the wet season slowly erode each layer of dirt, new fragments of teeth, bones and scraps of clothing emerge from the surface. Towering in the middle of the killing field is a memorial dedicated to over 9,000 individuals that lost their lives at this location. Skulls were salvaged over several years of excavations at this site, and placed within the tower. The number of skulls totals over 5,000 and each skull was carefully examined and organized by means of death within the tower.

The story of Choeung Ek is one that was repeated in many of the killing fields. According to officials, it was a military base that was carrying out secret operations, and was therefore not accessible to the public. What happened inside largely remained a mystery. The noise of diesel generators, and loud propaganda music blaring on shoddy loudspeakers, made sure that the sounds of the victims never climbed too far past the perimeter walls, and to the ears of the peasant farmers.

Memorial tower standing in the middle of Choeung Ek killing field. © Arian Zwegers

Memorial tower standing in the middle of Choeung Ek killing field. © Arian Zwegers

This deranged fanaticism first began when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Over the next four years, their tyrannical rule led to the death of nearly 2,000,000 people, or about one quarter of the entire population. Their ideology can be described as one of the most radical strands of Marxist beliefs to date. At the head of this totalitarian system was Saloth Sar, also known as Pol-Pot, and his deputy, Ieng Sary. Both were educated in Paris where they were strongly influenced by communism at a young age. Khmer Rouge politics, however, took a radical departure from their Parisian, or Stalinist counterparts.

Image of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s deputy, defaced by outraged citizens. © Benjamin Jakabek

Image of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s deputy, defaced by outraged citizens. © Benjamin Jakabek

It is difficult to explain the chaos and killing that engulfed Cambodia. An escape into the realm of pure abstract thought, completely divorced from humanist convictions, is the only way to see a method in the madness. In a brief summation, if one believes that he/she has the correct political ticket to paradise, then any individual standing in his/her way becomes immediately dispensable. Intellectuals and urban residents were the hardest hit by these policies of the regime, as they were believed to stand in direct opposition to this man-made paradise.

The belief that intellectuals posed a threat to the revolution stems from the Marxist belief that Bourgeoisie individuals are unable to transform their way of thinking to the necessities of a Marxist revolution; at best they can become part of the liberal Bourgeoisie which is still seen as a threat to the revolution. Moderate versions of Marxism placed varying levels of faith in re-education camps and programs. However, the Marxist-Pol-Pot hybrid chose swift execution as its modus operandi, as they were anything but moderate. They believed that pure enthusiasm and hard labour could achieve nearly anything, much like the early Maoist-era communists in China. As a result, intellectuals were a dangerous and easily dispensable commodity in the newly forming Marxist-Pol Pot State. Intellectuals, and foreigners who possessed non-Khmer values, were therefore executed within the early years of the revolution.

Tuol Sleng Prison, the site of over 20,000 executions during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. © Benjamin Jakabek

Tuol Sleng Prison, the site of over 20,000 executions during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. © Benjamin Jakabek

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Another exacerbating factor for the death of many Cambodians was the Khmer Rouge’s decision to evacuate the entire population of Phnom Penh into the countryside as the result of an intensely anti-urban bias within the Marxist-Pol Pot political ideology. These individuals were forced to return to their native villages in order to aid in agricultural production. However, many had no existing family connections to help with the transition, and so, perished in the process. Yet, Pol Pot believed that with enough hands working on rice production, Cambodia’s rice exports would reach levels high enough to fuel a booming domestic industry. In essence, he fell victim to the same folly that plagued Mao during the Great Leap Forward; a belief that the ‘birth-pangs’ of capitalism could be skipped entirely through propaganda and hard labour, with an era of paradise on Earth soon following. The result was more akin to a living hell, as thousands died from starvation along with being worked to death in the rice fields.

During the early years of the revolution, the exact nature of the Khmer Rouge remained a mystery for most of the rural peasants and urban evacuees. During this time, the government was simply referred to as ‘Angka,’ or ‘The Organization’ in native Khmer, with few knowing the communist nature of the tyrannical rules that governed their village life.

Caption: Translated table listing the rules of engagement, and interrogation within Tuol Sleng prison. © Benjamin Jakabek

Caption: Translated table listing the rules of engagement, and interrogation within Tuol
Sleng prison. © Benjamin Jakabek

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As the years passed, Khmer Rouge control became firmly associated with the execution of any group that could possibly form an opposition. However, when the economy naturally failed to yield the results desired by Pol Pot, economic mismanagement and the lack of intellectuals guiding the economy was not seen as the cause. Rather, counterrevolutionaries were to blame according to the propaganda. At this point, anyone with a distant connection to a counterrevolutionary or an undesirable background was a target for execution.

Many villagers aided in the witch-hunt, which largely targeted the displaced urban residents. Elizabeth Banks, the author of When the War Was Over, argues that many of the victims were targeted for personal reasons, as the urban evacuees were largely seen as a burden by local villagers. This was due to the stress caused by feeding additional mouths with increasingly scarce resources, as well as the urban evacuees’ generally poor farming skills.

© Johan Hansel

© Johan Hansel

During this mayhem, the party did its best to suppress information from reaching the outside world. For years, the best source of information regarding what was happening within Cambodia came from a steady stream of refugees to Thailand and other neighboring countries. The acts they described seemed so extraordinary that most actors in the international community were inclined to think they were outlandish fabrications meant to induce international action.

In the later years of the genocide, the political elites faced a series of systematic purges. The impetus of the purges was a differing in the rice yields amongst the provinces headed by the various commanders. Officials in the prosperous western provinces remained relatively safe, while officials from the eastern provinces faced repeated demotions and executions. This targeting of eastern officials eventually led to defection and growing support for the Vietnamese invasion in the late-1970s that ended the genocide.

As all these factors and fears came into play, the madness of it all was exemplified in the policies of torture and self-incrimination at the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh. The prison was one of over a hundred execution centers within the country, and was formally the location of a girl’s high school prior to the revolution. The forms of torture were largely medieval in nature, although exacerbated with the use of electricity. Individuals were locked within small rooms by the hundreds. In the center of the cell was a long metal bar with ankle braces. Individuals laid on both sides of the bar in neat rows while bound by the ankle to the central bar; much like the victims of the West African slave trade. Victims from lower social or political rank were crowded into tiny make shift brick cells that divided the rooms once used to teach young children.

© Benjamin Jakabek

© Benjamin Jakabek

Individuals of the highest rank, usually political party members that became victims of the latest purge, were placed within semiprivate cells, and were chained to their beds until they were tortured, or in some cases, electricity was merely applied to the metal beds themselves.

© Benjamin Jakabek

© Benjamin Jakabek

Every prisoner was judiciously catalogued, and photographed by the administration of the prison. Each individual was seated in a chair with a back brace to hold them in an exact position. Behind their head laid a curved metal bar that dictated their head placement. The result was a startling uniformity in the composition of every photograph now displayed in the large collages on makeshift wooden displays. Today, the building has been turned into a museum that is mostly filled with the haunting faces of these executed individuals.

© Benjamin Jakabek

© Benjamin Jakabek

In Tuol Sleng, everyone broke under torture. Each victim was subsequently forced to write a hand-written letter discussing how they took actions to counter the revolution. The exact content of the letter was largely dictated by the torturer. The most common charge was acting as an agent of some foreign power. At the beginning of the revolution the victims were mostly charged as agents of the CIA, and later on, as Vietnam became an increasingly bigger threat, they were charged with being Vietnamese agents.

Perhaps the most dreadful part for the victim’s fate was being forced to write down a list of accomplices to their fictional acts. The lists of names they provided were essentially a list of people that they had known prior to the revolution. The government’s policy dictated that if an individual’s name appeared five or more times on these lists, then he/she was, in fact, guilty of the crimes he/she was being accused of by the letter writer, and were subsequently subject to immediate execution.

It was the most twisted game of six degrees of separation ever conceived. Due to this methodology, the murderous lust of Tuol Sleng and other execution centers began to accelerate their killings as the years went by, culminating in a total of 20,000 executions in Tuol Sleng alone. Under the cover of darkness, and inside paneled trucks, the bodies were then dumped in mass graves outside of Phnom Penh. Many of them found their way to the Choeung Ek killing field.

© Benjamin Jakabek

© Benjamin Jakabek

It is no wonder that the scars of the Cambodian genocide run deep throughout the land and people. The legacy of the conflict is inescapable, as ‘silent perfect soldiers’, more commonly referred to as land mines, remain largely intact in all twenty-five provinces. Today, their victims hobble through the touristic centers of cities begging for change. Everyone here has family that was directly affected by the oppressive Khmer Rouge. More remarkably, everyone over the age of 40 experienced the atrocities first hand. Unfortunately, for the Khmer people, collective amnesia is an impossible luxury that can only be granted to the West.

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What I took away from this foray into pure maliciousness is largely summed up by the works of Isaiah Berlin. Any political theory that makes a distinction between the real self and the apparent self, is doomed to lead to failure, and in many cases tyranny. In the case of Cambodia, there was a distinction between what Pol Pot thought Cambodians wanted to be and what they wanted in reality. Much like Rousseau’s philosophy of being forced to be free, the madness was justified in the belief that Pol Pot was bringing the Cambodian people to a higher state of actualization. In other words, the Khmer people were coming to terms with what they would really want if only they were as enlightened, rational, and farseeing as Pol Pot.

However, our intentions, beliefs, and desires, are our intentions, beliefs, and desires. One cannot make the argument that there exists some objective set of beliefs and values beyond your capabilities that you would accept if only you knew the truth. This smug attitude ultimately lends itself to tyranny, as everything and anything can be sacrificed at the alter of these supposedly objective, harmonious, and universal values. If one claims to have the one true value, then all values will be lost. If these views fall upon politicians, then all life will be lost. I choose to close with a quote by Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever formed.” In the case of the Khmer people, they were snapped into twigs.

Benjamin Jakabek is a fourth year Political Science student at Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

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Anders Bretsen is a first-year student at the University of Toronto, in the Trinity One International Relations program. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he frequently complains about the cold.

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