Between 1975 and 1979, two to three million people were killed in Cambodia by the extreme communist guerilla group the Khmer Rouge. This was genocide in its purest, most evil form.
Since the end of the 1960s the Khmer Rouge had been forming guerilla armies in the jungles that lined Cambodia's border with Vietnam. They believed they were in a class struggle, a war against the forces of capitalism. They supported the communist led North Vietnamese Army and South Vietnam's National Liberation Front, the Việt Cộng.
Ethnic, educated, urban, professional people were targeted. Basically, anyone who was vaguely connected to capitalism and linked to the US backed Cambodian Government, the Khmer Republic, which had taken power of Cambodia from King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Although reputedly neutral, politically speaking, Sihanouk had allowed the Việt Cộng access to Cambodia which helped the North Vietnamese against the Republic of Vietnam, in the south.
The US troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. On 30 April 1975, the North Vietnamese wrested control of Saigon, 13 days after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.
The people of Phnom Penh had been subjected to continuous shelling by the Khmer Rouge for more than a year before they were finally defeated. Refugees fleeing the fighting in rural areas of Cambodia had swelled the capital’s population from 600,000 to two million. Supplies from South Vietnam ceased as the Khmer Rouge strangled the banks of the Mekong River with mines and bullets. Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was now known, had been formed after five years of fighting. However, the atrocities attributed to the Khmer Rouge were only just beginning.

A utopian agrarian society

Immediately after seizing control of Phnom Penh, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), supported by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sent city dwellers into the countryside. Religion was completely repressed; Buddhist monks were murdered, temples and monasteries were ransacked and destroyed.
All traces of capitalism were abolished. Hospitals, schools, factories, shops, market places – shut down. Entire communities were relocated to hastily erected rural villages. Food, medical aid, farming tools and basic facilities were non-existent. Thousands died through exhaustion, disease and starvation.
All who opposed the CPK and Khmer Rouge were executed. Former business people, bureaucrats and teachers were sought out and killed, along with their families. Anyone with knowledge of a foreign language, anyone wearing glasses, anyone scrapping around for food or crying for loved ones.
Allegiances with North Vietnam quickly dried up and rebel socialist Cambodians living on the Vietnamese border were exterminated in one of the most horrific episodes of the campaign. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese were also hunted down and killed.

S-21 security prison

Torture, imprisonment, interrogation and execution centres were set up in places like Tuol Svay Pray High School in Phnom Penh. Classrooms were turned into cells; gymnasiums to torture chambers; dining halls to execution rooms. The school became known as S-21 Security Prison. In 1976, more than 17,000 people were questioned, documented and photographed in S-21 by Khmer Rouge operatives. Only seven of those incarcerated came out alive. At the time, there were thought to be around 200 similar types of prisons operating across Cambodia.
Today, sections of S-21 have been kept in much the same state as they were found in 1977, and they serve as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. No trip to modern day Phnom Penh is complete without paying your respects. Walk around the rooms, the grounds. Look at the photos of the prisoners; read the captions on the walls. It's an eerily quiet and almost stifling experience – and not something to be ignored.
Documentation and photos of torture, interrogation and execution were taken by prison staff to ensure leaders of the Khmer Rouge knew that their bidding had been carried out, to the letter. Guards, staff and prison integrators were just kids, under 20 years of age. They came from peasant backgrounds and their own families were incarcerated elsewhere. Certain death would befall them just as easily as the prisoners they guarded.
The Khmer Rouge chain of command stemmed from Saloth Sâr, aka Pol Pot. Alongside him other notorious Khmer leaders included Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Son Sen, Kang Kek lew and Khieu Samphan.
Sâr came from a prosperous farming family and received a privileged education both in Cambodia and in Paris, France. He returned from France an extreme nationalist, communist and xenophobe, fearing his country's colonisation by Vietnam, China, the bourgeois. While he found Marxist-Leninist doctrine a bit heavy going, the more simplistic Stalinist and Maoist approach to self sufficiency and agrarianism suited him well. Violence was merely a factor of revolution. City life and any form of capitalism were outlawed in favour of extreme agrarianism.

The Killing Fields

Millions of Cambodians were put to work in the countryside without mercy, and agrarian socialism was taken to its extremes. Labour camps were set up. Starvation, disease and exhaustion were rife. Birth records were destroyed. Mass executions were commonplace. No bullets were wasted; they took place with pick axes, bamboo, knives.
An orchard in the village of Choeung Ek, just 10km outside Phnom Penh, was one of hundreds of sites that served as mass graveyards. Prisoners from S-21 Security Prison would be transported to Choeung Ek and forced to dig their own graves. Often, people were so frail and weak with hunger that hardly any earth was removed. Shallow graves were all that could be formed; the dead barely covered.
Choeung Ek is one of many 'Killing Fields' in Cambodia. Human bones can still be seen sticking out of the ground. A Buddhist stupa, packed with thousands of skulls, serves as a memorial to the dead.
The name 'Killing Fields' was first termed by Dith Pran, a Cambodian photographer who worked with American journalist Sydney Schanberg. Together, Pran and Schanberg covered the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 for the New York Times. Schanberg would be allowed to leave the country; Pran would not. Pran's escape attempts and his relationship with Schanberg, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge take over, are what formed the basis for the book and the film of the same name.
Confronting Cambodia’s all too recent past by visiting the Killing Fields is just as important as visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Although you are not obliged to visit either site as part of an organised tour we implore you to do so no matter how hard it might be. Visiting both sites with a local guide can be an incredibly moving experience, one never to be forgotten.
Cambodian people have been through hell and back. Paying your respects is the least you can do before continuing your travels from, perhaps, a more thoughtful and deeper perspective.

Visiting the Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng

Visiting both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng can be highly charged, emotional experiences. Each location demands reverential respect and it’s hard not to be moved when looking at the photographs or reading about the atrocities, whilst standing on the sites where they took place. The former school buildings of Tuol Sleng are in the centre of Phomn Penh, whilst the Killing Fields, in the village of Choeung Ek, are about 17km outside of the city.
Visiting both locations with a local guide or an audio guide is best advice if you want to truly understand what you're seeing. There are also several information points that make for somber reading. Fragments of bones, clothes and untouched communal graves are all visible at the Killing Fields, with a Buddhist memorial stupa, filled with skulls, the site's central focus. Fact based books are available at Tuol Sleng, which now serves as Cambodia's Genocide Museum. Small group tours of both sites will usually take an entire morning or afternoon whereas self guided travellers can spend as much time in each site as they wish. Although these are open tourist locations you're reminded to show the utmost respect by not smoking, eating, drinking, talking too loudly or taking selfies during your visit.


The Killing Fields Museum Website:

Further reading

First they Killed my Father
- by Loung Ung, published in 2000

The Killing Fields
- by Christopher Hudson, published in 1984

Films to watch

The 1984 film The Killing Fields
- directed by Roland Joffé
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: istolethetv] [Intro 1: istolethetv] [Intro 2: manhhai] [S-21 security prison 1: Christian Haugen] [S-21 security prison 2: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène] [The Killing Fields 1: Rob Young] [The Killing Fields 2: Allie_Caulfield] [Visiting 1: Christian Haugen] [Visiting 2: shankar s.] [Sources: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène]