History not only remembers the glory days of a country, but also the ugly face of its wars. Cambodia has had its fair share of violence from the powerful dictatorship of one man, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers. He ravaged the country from 1975 to 1979 and in that short period of time was able to execute 17,000 people or more. Almost 10,000 bodies were dumped in an area in Choeung Ek, more popularly known as the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. According to historians and analysts, Pol Pot’s reign may have killed a total of 1.7 to 2.5 million people in a country with a population of only 8 million.
Located about 17 kilometers from the capital city of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek used to be a well-known orchard and Chinese graveyard. Today, it is marked by a Buddhist stupa and a show area that is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some smashed or shattered, these are actual skulls found in the Killing Fields, each one representing an innocent life that was undeservingly cut short.
The term “Killing Fields” was coined by Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist who was able to escape the genocide and told the world about the horrors that the Cambodian people suffered. His accounts were adopted in the film titled “The Killing Fields” in 1984. The movie was a worldwide sensation, and practically educated the whole world about Cambodia and the resilience of its people. Pran came up with the term as he described his experience escaping through a 40-mile field that was full of human corpses and skeletal remains.
The Cambodian Government encourages tourists to visit Choeung Ek. Until today, there are still human bones scattered in the area. The government has made it clear to the developers as they convert the field into a tourist landmark not to disturb the remains that are still present in the field.
Below is a brief history that led to the Killing Fields.
When the Vietnam War began in the1970’s, the North Vietnamese used its neighboring country, Cambodia, as a military base. The population swelled to 3 million as refugees and the Viet Cong came to Cambodia. While the Vietnam War was still raging, the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Most of the city’s residents, especially the wealthy and educated, were forcibly removed and made to work in the fields. (Dith Pran pretended he was an uneducated taxi driver to avoid being evacuated, but that didn’t work.) The Chao Ponhea Yat High School was converted into a prison camp, where people were tortured and killed. (It is now the site of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.) Pol Pot’s main agenda was for Cambodia to return to an agrarian economy and it is this thinking that drove him to kill so many people. He hated the rich, executives, thinkers, and the educated, and thought of them as lazy people because they did not work in the farms. He ordered the execution of more than 17,000 “lazy” people, but indirectly killed much more as people starved from his failed agrarian reforms. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were made to march to Choeung Ek 15 kilometers away only to be killed and buried in shallow pits. In 1979, the horror ended when North Vietnam drove away the Khmer Rouge, although the Viet Cong soldiers were not the kindest liberators also.
Today, Phnom Penh is a bustling economic center that continues to drive Cambodia to economic stability and international prominence. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek remain to be just a reminder of the country’s violent past, which the modern Khmer people will make sure not to happen again.