Killing Fields, the term for Cambodia’s mass grave sites, has become synonymous with the country’s Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In trying to reach its ambitious agricultural production goals and to protect itself against opposition, the regime worked large numbers of people to death and slaughtered its perceived opponents, resulting in the deaths of between 1 and 1.7 million individuals of a pre-1975 population of 7 to 8 million.
Agricultural production was key to the Khmer Rouge’s plans for Cambodia’s transformation. The entire population was transferred to state-run farms where food was inadequate, medical attention sparse, and working conditions harsh. The population was exhorted to produce the unrealistic quantity of “three tons [of rice] per hectare.” Many of those who died under the Khmer Rouge died from overwork. Failure to work hard enough or “feigning” illness could transform one into a perceived enemy of the regime, and the regime resolutely hunted its enemies.
Reasons for torture and execution included expressing doubts about the government; having a prerevolutionary past as an intellectual, professional, teacher, or servant of the old regime; or growing one’s own food. The Khmer Rouge also gorged on its own with frequent brutal purges within the Khmer Rouge ranks. Soldiers, fellow workers, even one’s own children were encouraged to report on one’s incorrect thoughts or actions. The Khmer Rouge did little to engage in re-education of those found to have erred. Interrogation involved torture meant to elicit confessions of wrong-doing, thus proving the party’s correctness in arresting the person; death came during torture or soon thereafter. Fewer than ten persons are known to have survived the regime’s most notorious torture camp, S-21 in Phnom Penh.
It was from the S-21/Tuol Sleng facility that victims were taken to Cambodia’s most well-known killing field site at Choeung Ek, nine miles outside the capital, where victims were killed by blunt-force trauma (a rifle butt or farm implement to the base of the head), stabbing/hacking, or shooting. In the early twenty-first century, at Choeung Ek, a stupa (Buddhist shrine) of human skulls and a map of the country made of skulls and other bones remind visitors of the horror once meted out there. Almost 9,000 sets of remains have been excavated from the Choeung Ek grounds. Many more bodies remain buried, though, as tens of graves at the site have been left undisturbed.
The regime crumbled in 1979 due to a Vietnamese invasion, after which S-21 was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Following a United Nations (UN)–brokered peace plan in 1991 and elections in 1993, the Khmer Rouge was gradually sidelined. In conjunction with the United Nations, Cambodia agreed in 2003 to set up a mixed Cambodian/international tribunal to bring remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for their crimes while in power.
SEE ALSO Communism; Genocide; Khmer Rouge; Military Regimes; Pol Pot; Underclass; United Nations
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Paige Johnson Tan