Although Phnom Penh is a massive city with lots to do, see and experience, when you only have 48 hours, you need to focus on what the key places are. For us, it was the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison.
Almost 40 years ago, Cambodia was about to suffer hugely at the hands of a fellow Cambodian, Pol Pot. Back in 1975, Pol Pot, leader of the radical Khmer Rouge came to power and straight away he started a systematic purge on his fellow countrymen as he was keen to create a utopian farming society. By all accounts, he stands as one of the worlds most ruthless mass murderers, killing up to 2 Million Cambodians which at a time equated to around 25% of the population.
As soon as Pol Pot came to power he began his “Super Great Leap Forward”. Within days, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2 million inhabitants and marched them to the countryside. Over twenty thousand people died en route. Pol Pot then declared, “Year Zero” and began his notorious reign of terror. He announced that he would rid his society of all impurities including capitalism, western culture, urbanization, religion, and all foreign influence. With this, he expelled or executed foreigners, destroyed embassies, banned foreign language, and destroyed foreign currency. Newspaper, television, radio and mail were abolished and bizzarely, bicycles were no longer allowed.
Worse still, the Khmer Rouge shut down businesses and stopped the use of money. Education, health care and religion were done away with. Parents were no longer able to control their children. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were ruthless and did not tolerate resistance. Every Cambodian city was evacuated and the people were forced into the fields to work. Hundreds of thousands of workers died of over-work, malnutrition, starvation and disease on a mere 90 grams of rice per day.
Pol Pot ordered the death of many other Cambodians in his deadly cleansing of the “old society”. Educated, middle class people, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials were promptly rounded up and executed, often along with their families. Ex-soldiers and anyone accused of unfaithfulness to Pol Pot perished too. Soldiers often shot people on the spot without questioning. Khmer Rouge soldiers also executed ethnic minorities, including Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham muslims. Half of the 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 died. One Khmer Rouge slogan declared, “What is rotten must be removed.”
The Khmer Rouge’s favourite method of execution was the Killing Fields and as such, over 360+ field locations around Cambodia were used for the slaughter of individuals. Many were taken to the fields, and forced to dig there own graves before they were bound / blindfolded and bludgeoned to death with wooden sticks (not many were shot as it was viewed that bullets were expensive). Loud speakers would constantly play Khmer party songs to drown out the screams and cries. Falling into the pits, other prisoners would then have to cover up the bodies with soil.
The Choeung EK Genocidal Center is 40 minutes outside Phnom Penh and today it houses the main memorial stupa dedicated to all the Killing Fields in Cambodia (some of the killing fields have yet to be found and others are too surrounded by unexploded bombs to make them possible to visit).
Entering the memorial park which now has many fruit trees (it’s an Orchard), you quickly sense the calmness and serenity. Most tourists take an audio tour and as such, they walk around a circuit listening to stories and accounts from survivors and relatives of those that perished. Its a sombre place and walking though the orchard, you can still see bones and pieces of clothing rising up through the ground under your feet. It’s not a gory or hugely graphically shocking place (all of the old building were torn down long ago). It’s the stories that you hear on your audio tour which give the place a chill. The Memorial Stupa is a real shock as it contains the skulls over 8000 individuals. It’s quite surreal as you don’t really grasp that these are the bludgeoned skulls of the people that died here.
After the Killing Field, we visited the S21 prison and detention centre in the centre of Phnom Penh. Here we learnt about the thousands of local people who were rounded up by the Khmer Rouge and then forced to sign false confessions before they were taken away to the Killing Fields. Actual pictures of the men, women and children who lost their lives adorn the walls as the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records. This place was pretty graphic and the cells where people had been kept and tortured still had blood on the ground. It was fairly difficult to look at the photos of the poor souls who were about to be despatched off the the Killing Fields. You could see the fear in their eyes.
By the end of 1978, Pol Pot had become a menace to Vietnam and the growing number of border attacks gave the Vietnamese Government some concerns. Launching an invasion on Christmas day 1978, the Vietnamese took two weeks to take Phnom Penh and overthrow Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. They put him on trail for the slaughter of 2 million Cambodians but he fled to the jungles of western Cambodia with a hard core of Khmer Rouge soldiers and vented a guerrilla war against the new Cambodian Government for 17 years before finally he was captured.
Pol Pot died in 1998 at the age of 73 just before he was brought to trial. At this point, he still denied doing any wrong. Many Cambodians were upset that he did not stand trail for his war crimes but most feel that he will get his judgement from a higher power (Hebrews 9:27, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment”).