Khmer Rouge Prisons and Mass Graves

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Khmer Rouge Prisons and Mass Graves

"They say that dead men tell no tales," but in fact they do. Many stories have been told by investigators unearthing mass graves in the Balkans, Central America, and elsewhere. Information gathered from mass graves can help resolve disputes about the nature of communal or international conflict, and shed light on historical facts. With modern forensic science, mass graves yield evidence that can be used to prosecute war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law. Mass graves may even help to relieve the anguish of families whose loved ones disappeared in a time of war. In Cambodia mass graves dating to Cambodia's 1975 to 1979 revolution have told all these tales, and more.

The Communist Party of Kampuchea, popularly known as the Khmer Rouge, led Cambodia's revolution. It was one of the most violent revolutions of the twentieth century. Demographers estimate that two million or more lives were lost in the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, from a population of around seven million before the uprising. This scale of violence earned Cambodia a dubious title, the Killing Fields.

Between 1995 and 2003 researchers from the Documentation Center of Cambodia identified 19,471 mass graves at 348 sites located throughout the country. Investigators believe that these mass graves contained the remains of more than 1.1 million victims of execution. Virtually all these mass graves were located within 2 kilometers of what the Khmer Rouge euphemistically called security offices, but which might more accurately be labeled extermination centers. More than 185 such extermination centers have been discovered. At most of these sites witnesses have testified that the mass graves were created during the years the Khmer Rouge held power, and that the victims were detained in the so-called security offices prior to their execution. Although the Documentation Center's figures are only estimates, it is clear that whatever the actual numbers may be, they are large.

Senior Khmer Rouge officials have attempted to explain the existence of the mass graves by asserting that they were created by Vietnamese spies who had infiltrated the revolution. However, the uniform distribution of the mass graves throughout populated areas of the country casts doubt on this claim. More tellingly, senior Khmer Rouge officials are contradicted by many lower-level Khmer Rouge cadre who have testified that they carried out the executions at the mass grave sites on the orders of senior officials within the Khmer Rouge organization.

The vast number of mass graves in Cambodia, along with their uniform distribution, are in and of themselves legally probative facts. In order for acts such as murder to qualify as a crime against humanity, the acts must be mass and systematic. Some twenty thousand mass graves distributed relatively evenly across Cambodia clearly meet these criteria.

Forensic work at the Documentation Center of Cambodia has demonstrated that the individuals interred in the mass graves were not merely soldiers killed in combat nor victims of nonviolent causes of death such as disease or starvation. Many of the remains—bones of men, women, and children—exhibit evidence of trauma, including blunt force trauma, sharp force trauma, and gunshot wounds. This physical evidence confirms the testimony of former Khmer Rouge who have described in detail the methods they used to execute their victims.

The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has ruled Cambodia since the 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. The CPP has systematically exploited the mass graves as a mechanism to aggregate political support ever since they came to power. Memorials created at many mass grave sites are the locations for annual national observances: the Day of Liberation on January 7th, marking the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the Day of Hatred on May 20th, intended to remind the population of their suffering under the Khmer Rouge, as well as the ruling party's claim that it delivered Cambodia's people from that suffering.

Many ordinary Cambodians have come to view the mass graves not as a focus of political activity, but rather as a locus for ancestor veneration. With some two million people missing and presumed dead after the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian traditions of ancestor veneration were severely challenged. Cambodians consequently adapted traditional ceremonies for paying respect to their dead, and commonly perform these rituals with the remains of anonymous victims at genocide memorials serving as a proxy for missing relatives.

In one variation of this practice, at Wat Skoun in Kampong Cham Province, a genocide memorial now contains only femurs and tibia exhumed from nearby mass graves. The crania were gradually consumed as religious officials permitted bereaved families to claim one exhumed skull for each missing relative. Those skulls were then used to represent lost loved ones, allowing families to perform ritual cremation and thereby possess symbolic remains with which they can conduct Buddhist ceremonies for their dead.

Although Cambodia's thousands of mass graves are thus seen by the country's ruling elite as rich in political symbolism, and by the country's ordinary citizens as rich in religious symbolism, the mass graves also convey historical facts crucial for any process of legal accountability. Whether or not the Killing Fields will be found to constitute genocide or crimes against humanity in a court of law depends in significant measure on how that court understands the origin and nature of Cambodia's mass graves.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, Cultural; Archaeology; Cambodia; Forensics; Khmer Rouge; Statistical Analysis


Etcheson, Craig (2000). "The Number"—Quantifying Crimes against Humanity in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Heuveline, Patrick (2001). "The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia." In Forced Migration and Mortality, ed. Holly E. Reed and Charles B. Keely. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Pollanen, Michael S. (2002). "Forensic Survey of Three Memorial Sites Containing Human Skeletal Remains in the Kingdom of Cambodia." Mission Report to the Coalition for International Justice, Washington, D.C.

Sliwinski, Marek (1995). Le Génocide Khmer Rouge: une analyse démographique. Paris: Éditions L'Harmattan.

Craig Etcheson