Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia—The white monument juts up 40 feet or so, dominating the surrounding fields and trees. From a distance it looks like it could commemorate most anything—a military victory, important statesman, or historical event. But this monument is different. It is filled with skulls.
On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. As in Vietnam, an American-backed regime—corrupt, undemocratic, leaderless—collapsed in the face of determined nationalistic communists. In Vietnam the result was repression and poverty. In Cambodia it was slaughter.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Brother Number One, or Pol Pot, summarily executed leaders of the old regime, emptied the cities, forced everyone into communes, and launched social engineering on a vast scale. Before being ousted by a Vietnamese invasion less than four years later, the Khmer Rouge had killed as many as two million people, an astonishing one-quarter of the population.
The number numbs. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao each murdered more people. But none managed to slaughter one-quarter of his nation’s population.
Pol Pot’s reign of terror filled the country. Some regions, particularly Ratanakiri province, the home base of the Khmer Rouge, suffered less than others. But four in ten residents of Phnom Penh are thought to have died.
Yet mass murder seems more a statistic than a tragedy. A thousand, a million. What do such numbers mean without individual victims?
Those victims are evident at Choeung Ek, known simply as the Killing Fields. Fifteen kilometers outside of Phnom Penh—down a country road, past shacks and homes, next to a school—are the grounds in which some 20,000 people were buried.
Only 86 of 129 mass graves have been excavated. The 86 have yielded 8,985 victims, whose skulls and bones are stored in the 17-level monument. Atop the large holes are signs listing the number of bodies—450 in one about 20 feet long by ten wide, for instance. “Many holes, same, same,” explained my guide.
But there’s more. Stub your toe on the path in between holes and you’re not likely to find stones. It is more likely the tip of a leg bone or a jaw poking through the dirt.
The Khmer Rouge didn’t just murder. They did so as painfully as possible, using axes, poles, hammers, and knives. Babies were simply swung against a tree. No one was immune from revolutionary “justice.”
However, Choeung Ek was the end, not the beginning. Most of those buried here started in Phnom Penh, at Tuol Sleng prison.
Tuol Sleng sits in an area scarcely bigger than a football field and began life as a high school. But in May 1976 the Khmer Rouge established Security Office 21, or S-21. Its purpose was to expose and exterminate enemies of the regime.
Photos of the Living
Choeung Ek brutally overwhelms through its pile of skulls. Tuol Sleng is even more powerful. It features photos of the living as well as of the dead.
The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not meticulous. They kept arrest and execution records and filed confessions; they also numbered and photographed incoming prisoners, often in profile as well as in front.
It is the images of the living that haunt. Men and women. Boys and girls. Babies. The photos line the walls. Four roomfuls. Faces of people. Once alive. Now dead.
A few look defiant, smoldering hatred evident in their eyes. Others look bewildered. Many radiate fear, eyes wide at the fate they knew to be before them. One seemed to be crying, almost begging for his life.
But most look dead. Their hearts beat, blood flowed, and nerves transmitted pain, but their eyes were lifeless. Empty. Their humanity had been wrung out of them and casually tossed aside.
One picture is particularly unnerving. A man sporting the number 162 sits with a vacant stare. He knows only too well that his life will soon be over.
Tuol Sleng was, first and foremost, an interrogation center. Khmer Rouge interrogation meant torture. And torture often meant death.
Tools on Display
The tools are all on display. The metal bed frames and wooden slab to which inmates were shackled, then beaten. The metal and wooden tubs in which people were drowned. The high bar from which inmates were dangled. The boxes that housed the scorpions that were set on prisoners. The electrical wires with which shocks were administered. And the clubs, axes, hammers, shovels, and knives used to punish and kill.
Although death was the ultimate end, the Khmer Rouge thoughtfully strung barbed wire around the cellblocks to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. You would die, but only when the party thought the time was right.
And that time was only after you confessed. As Martin Stuard-Fox and Bunheang Ung explain in their book, Murderous Revolution, enemies “were never simply arrested and shot: authorities had first to obtain confessions which would justify their arrest, and thus confirm the omniscience and justice of Angkar [the Communist Party] in arresting them.”
If there was any justice at Tuol Sleng, it was that Khmer Rouge cadre were among the victims. This revolution, like so many revolutions before it, consumed its own.
These memorials in Phnom Penh reflect only the small tip of a pervasive system of murder. Reports French scholar Henri Locard, “From 17th April, the entire country was to become in a way one big prison.”
There were three waves of imprisonments and murders. The first was directed against almost anyone associated with the fallen Lon Nol regime. In general, the victims were murdered outside of any formal prison.
The second bout of repression began in the latter part of 1975 and was directed against the same classes of people, including professionals and civil servants. Many of these victims had either been denounced by enemies or prisoners, or had revealed incriminating details of their pasts when writing their autobiographies for the new rulers. These arrests coincided with establishment of a national prison network.
The final round of brutality began in 1976 and, explains Locard, “swept through all classes of the new society,” including “the Khmer Rouge cadres and military personnel themselves. All categories of the revolutionary society were soon engulfed in the maelstrom of repression as the regime was getting more and more deranged and saw ‘enemies,’ khmang, everywhere.” Even at the information and foreign ministries in Phnom Penh.
But most of Cambodia’s dead, at Choeung Ek and elsewhere, were innocent—the victims of totalitarian egalitarianism, in which life means nothing and the collective means everything. Alas, the world is full of monuments to incredible evil cloaked with the rhetoric of humanity. Few are more moving than Cambodia’s Killing Fields.