Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. These were only two of the sites set aside for the torture and murder of 3 million out of 7.7 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. And while senior policy officers in the western world knew what was happening, they did nothing to stop it. In fact, they funded the efforts and even provided the provisions that led to one of the most massive genocides in living history.
Tuol Sleng was constructed as a high school in the heart of Phnom Penh. The Kymer Rouge (KR) transformed it into a torture chamber and prison for hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians. During the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the KR regime, more than 3 million people were either tortured and killed or were ‘disappeared’ throughout the country. Tuol Sleng was the largest of some 80 torture sites across Cambodia. Some have not been found even to this day because they are deep in the forests and surrounded by landmines.
Choeng Ek was not a prison – it was one of the most active killing fields in the country. Prisoners who were transported the 17 kilometres from Tuol Sleng in downtown Phnom Penh to this 2-hectare killing field on the outskirts of the city were executed swiftly – normally within hours.
Pol Pot, the leader of the KR, was driven by his communist ideal of building a classless society, a ‘pure’ society. His ideal citizens were uneducated peasants who tilled the fields. All others were enemies. He arrested his enemies, tortured them to extract their confessions of treason and then executed them. Enemies of the state included anyone who could read or write or who could speak another language. The enemies were technicians, engineers, doctors, students, Buddhist monks, ministers, the Cambodian diplomatic corps, foreigners and anyone who wore glasses.
Pol Pot led the KR with simple guidelines regarding those to be arrested and slain. When speaking of his enemies, he said, “To keep him is no gain. To lose him is no loss.” His view on distinguishing enemies from supporters was equally clear when he said, “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.” His paranoia even led him to arrest, torture and exterminate the loyal officers and soldiers of his own army. These soldiers received special treatment – they were beheaded. Their heads were not buried with their bodies. When the KR arrested a suspect, it arrested the entire family. This included wives, children, infants and relatives living in the same house. They were arrested and exterminated en masse.
Wikipedia describes the torture quite well:
Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and by hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water and the use of the waterboarding technique. Sometimes interrogators raped the females even though sexual abuse was against Democratic Kampuchea (DK) policy. The perpetrators who were found out were executed. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Kymer Rouge needed their confessions. The ‘medical unit’ at Tuol Sleng, however, did kill at least 100 prisoners by bleeding them to death. Medical experiments were performed on certain inmates; they were sliced open and had organs removed with no anesthetic. Others were attached to intravenous pumps and every drop of blood was drained from their bodies to see how long they could survive. The most difficult prisoners were skinned alive.
Choeng Ek is home to 129 mass graves, 86 of which have been excavated; 8,985 corpses have been exhumed. The largest mass grave contained 450 corpses. Unlike many other execution centres in history, it was very rare to shoot anyone at Choeng Ek. The prisoners arrived well after dark and were blindfolded and handcuffed. They were made to kneel beside a deep pit. The guards then beat or chopped the prisoners to death with clubs, machetes or commonly available farm instruments. They executed one prisoner at a time. The sounds of their screams were muffled to some extent by a combination of blaring loud music and diesel engine noise. Infants were not executed this way. Instead, the executioners held the infants by their ankles, swung their tiny bodies up in the air and smashed their heads against a tree designated for this purpose. The guards were tasked with exterminating all of the prisoners before sunrise. In order to moderate the stench of the decaying bodies in the mass graves, the guards spread DDT and other chemicals on the bodies. This provided a dual benefit – it finished off those prisoners who had somehow survived their beatings, hackings and slit throats.
Today, the Cambodian government has established the Choeng Ek killing field as a significant centre to show the brutal and barbaric activities of the KR. It is a national centre for the consecration of the spirits of more than 3 million people who lost their lives during the KR regime. A memorial charnel house was built in order to achieve this purpose. The centre, open to tourists, hosts the memorial stupa. This stupa is 15 metres high and contains 9,000 skulls.
Eventually, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the KR regime due to the KR’s incessant incursions into Vietnamese territory. During the invasion, the Vietnamese exposed the KR prisons and extermination centres. Surprisingly, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany and the United States cynically continued to recognize the KR as the legitimate government of Cambodia for another 10 years following these revelations. The KR continued to hold their seat in the United Nations in New York City.
After Vietnam overthrew the KR, the war against the remnants of the KR guerillas continued for another decade. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher made the calculating decision to back the KR in order to bleed the Soviet regime economically and end the Cold War. This decision had China’s full support because it was bitterly anti-Soviet. Further, Thailand benefited tremendously by re-supplying the KR. The UK provided military training to KR forces during this time.
Today, the prison and the killing field are national monuments. Tourists are welcome and are asked to show no less reverence than they would show at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved
‘Detention and torture room’ from Creative Commons – some rights reserved