In the early 1960s the war in Vietnam intensified. Laos and Cambodia became strategically important to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, who build roads through the two countries along the spine of Vietnam allowing them to transport supplies to the south. To disrupt the flow of goods, South Vietnam supported by US airpower ran 580,000 bombing missions, dropping two million tons of ordnance between 1964 and 1973. During this time the Communist Party of Kampuchea gained momentum with support from the Viet Cong and China.
Two weeks before the fall of Saigon, which marked the end of the Vietnam war, the Communist Party of Kampuchea took control of Phnom Phen. They would later be known as the Khmer Rouge. A campaign to turn back the clock to Year Zero was immediately launched, imitating China’s Great Leap Forward campaign. The cities were evacuated and everyone sent to work on farms, where they were expected to meet ridiculous quotas of production. The conditions were appalling and many died of starvation or exhaustion. Anyone seen as a threat to the regime was arrested and taken to secret prisons to be interrogated and tortured into writing confessions of guilt. Doctors, scientists, politicians and people who wore glasses were seen as threatening individuals. Once confessions were signed prisoners were taken to killing fields and caves to be murdered. It is estimated that one and a half to three million people died. 1 in 4 Cambodians.
Phnom Penh has two sites dedicated to explaining the horrors of the regime: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields. I’d suggest going to the museum first and then the killing fields. Visiting these sites is an extremely harrowing experience. I decided to go on my own and use the audio guide rather than a guided tour.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was Security Prison 21 (S21), one of many former prisons across the country. It was a high school before it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented their actions in meticulous detail. Suspected traitors (including foreigners) were photographed regularly. The museum displays the black and white photographs of prisoners with numbered cards around their necks. The most disturbing are the photographs of children and women with babies. Some images and descriptions on the audio guide are extremely graphic and upsetting. There are photographs showing prisoners who were accidentally killed during interrogation, and details of the revolting conditions in the cells.
After the prisoners had written a forced confession they were taken to the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Bullets were too expensive so victims were beaten to death. Towards the end 300 people a day were killed at this one field. There are mass graves all over Cambodia with some still undiscovered. It’s hard to picture the peaceful fields as sites of such unimaginable brutality. As you walk around you’ll pass fenced off areas marking mass graves and the memorial, which houses the bones of some of the victims. There isn’t enough space for all of them.
Towards the end of the regime the Khmer Rouge laid land mines across the country and tried to take over the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam which they saw as part of Cambodia. The Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia in 1979 and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. In the two decades that followed, more mines were laid across Cambodia. Today, many mines have been cleared but millions still remain with most in the rural north-west of the country, especially along the Thai border. The most effected are those working on the land in rural communities.
Charities are working to clear the land and educate communities about the risk UXOs, often poorly equipped and funded. It’s important that if you want to contribute to the efforts to only give money to a listed charity. To learn more you can visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum near Siem Reap.
Visited December 2016
Little Amy Tours @littleamytours