“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than leave an enemy”

This simple, yet harrowing, slogan from the Khmer Rouge sums up their ideology. It captures the indiscriminate and all-encompassing nature of the genocide Pol Pot orchestrated – the most brutal in modern history.

The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 and remained there for four terrifying and destructive years. But how? How did such a man as Pol Pot, with such inhumane ideals come into power? Why did people flock to his banner? Looking back further into Cambodia’s sad history reveals the hope with which Cambodia embraced the Khmer Rouge.

For years the surrounding countries – Thailand and Vietnam – took the resources and wealth within Cambodia. The French were able to arrest this when they took control of Cambodia (as part of their empire in the late 19th Century) but in doing so collected all taxes, further draining the country’s wealth. Then came World War II and Japanese occupation. And while the rest of the Western World was rebuilding from the war Cambodia remained in unrest. In 1970, and the onset of the civil war, Lon Nol and the Khmer Republic was in power.

At this time Cambodia became a battlefield of the Vietnam War; it harbored U.S. troops, airbases, barracks, and weapons caches; as many as 750,000 Cambodians died over the years 1970-1974, from American B-52 bombers, using napalm and cluster-bombs to destroy suspected Viet Cong targets in Cambodia.

These actions drove people from Lon Nol to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge movement. Pol Pot’s communism conjured images of hope and tranquility. And so 1975 rolled round and with it the next chapter in Cambodia’s tragic history…

The Khmer Rouge marched into towns all over the country to cheers, laughter and hope. But within days the cities were being evacuated. Pol Pot turned every city into a ghost town as he took Cambodia back to an agrarian society. He abolished money, free markets, schooling, ownership, religious practices and Khmer culture. The national bank was destroyed and; public schools, hospitals, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons or reeducation camps.

And it was with this the genocide began. Everyone, from the intelligentsia to minority tribes, from farmers to shop owners. From men and women to children and the elderly. All were brutally murdered – guns weren’t used as bullets were too expensive! The fate for many who weren’t killed was no brighter – they died of starvation or poor sanitation. All in all, from 1975 to 1979 three million of an eight million population lost their life. More than a quarter of the population. Imagine that in your country.

This history is brought to life – starkly and frankly – through the Tuol Sleng genocide museum (formerly S-21) and the Choeung Ek genocide centre (aka ‘The Killing Field), Phnom Penh. S-21 was a prison and torture centre – one of more than 200 in the country. Choeng Ek is one of more than 300 killing fields.

In each, individual stories and the history as a whole is shared. Each word, sentence and paragraph is as harrowing as it is unbelievable. The oppressive nature of S-21 and the haunting feel of Choeung Ek relay a horror words cannot capture. The sense of death hangs in the air, sticks to the walls and seeps from the wood. It is almost tangible. Please visit.

And what will the next chapter in Cambodia’s history be? I hope that the people and the country can finally be free of control and interference from outside. That the warmth of the common people can radiant from the country. Can it happen? I think not. China is investing heavily in Cambodia and I fear their influence will become the next tragic chapter in the country’s history years from now. A country that may never escape it’s poverty.

But I hold onto hope. Something I have learnt well from my time in this remarkable, resilient and resplendent country.


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