The Killing fields of Cambodia- Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh


On 7 August 2011, we headed to the killing fields of Choeung Ek which is just30 minutes outside the centre of Phnom Penh. Prior to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek was actually a Chinese cemetery which became the Khmer Rouge’s prime place for burying people from Phnom Penh city and Tuol Sleng prison without questions being asked. Despite its relative proximity to the city centre, no one knew of the existence of this mass grave until around 2 weeks after the Vietnamese entered Phnom Pehn on 7 January 1979. The smell of decomposing bodies rising out of the soil was what alerted people to the presence of the mass grave. I learned a very important lesson that day:

You may have dirty secrets buried and character flaws unbeknownst to you, but one day, their putrid smell will waft out of the ground against your will and be bared for all to see. The key is to uncover them yourself and work on making things right

It is currently estimated that around 50 to 70 people were killed (here or in Tuol leng Prison) and buried here every night.  In the last two months of the Khmer Rouge regime, as the Vietnamese army approached, 200 people were killed every night. It may be odd to think that the Communist Vietnam declared war on the Cambodian Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodian) government. While both were communists in name, they differed ideologically. The current Prime Minister Hun Sen, at that time a low ranking Khmer Rouge official in Eastern Cambodia who feared of being purged by Pol Pot, fled to Vietnam and alerted them to the atrocities happening in Cambodia He agreed to assist Vietnam in invading Cambodia on the premise that they installed him as the leader of Cambodia.

Of the 86 opened mass graves in Choeung Ek, around 9000 skulls have so far been discovered. Using GPS technology, scientists have been able to identify 43 graves still unopened. There are no plans to open those graves. Current estimates of the total killed during 1975-1979 from the genocide and starvation (due to Pol Pot’s failed plans to build an agrarian society of only farming) is roughly at 2 million people. This was during a time when the total population was expected to be 8million. The current population is 14.7 million people and most Cambodians are in the under 35 year bracket.

While it is easy to blame the Khmer Rouge for these atrocities, researchers of the regime often find it hard to provide exact figures of the number killed during the regime due to the bombing of Cambodia by American forces from 1969 onwards. According to The Irrawaddy, “the US began secretly bombing Cambodia in 1969 in a vain attempt to cut Vietcong supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos. As the conflict escalated, the fighting and US bombing, which peaked in 1973, cut deep into the populated areas of central Cambodia . “If you ask me why I joined the Khmer Rouge, the main reason is because of the American invasion,” said Hun Sen. “If there was no invasion, by now, I would be a pilot or a professor.”

Some estimates place the number of people killed by American bombing at the 6-800,000 mark, although the CIA has often preferred to use lower estimates.  70,000 people are also estimated to have died from the Vietnamese invasion. From Hun Sen’s quote above, it is clear that the international community’s intervention into Cambodia’s domestic affairs over the last 50 years laid the ground work for rising nationalism in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the influence of the international community in Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s has rarely been examined in detail and is not being discussed during the Case 002 trial, despite the defendants’ arguments that they need to be as the American invasion were reasons why the Khmer Rouge gained popularity so quickly. Moreover, questions as to why Vietnam retained its grip of Cambodia for ten years remain unanswered.

Entrance of Cheoung Ek killng field, now a memorial

The entrance to the Choeung Ek Memorial centre, which was formerly used as mass graves and a klling field. While it is now a memorial centre, many graves are still uncovered as there are insufficient spaces at memorial centres to house the bones and skulls of more bodies. A photo below shows how there are still skulls and remnants of clothes found in the ground and that the rain has slowly revealed them.

Standard uniform of Khmer rouge cadres

At the killing fields, there were big holes everywhere. Some ditches had hundreds of bodies, it is believed that there are still graves not yet dug up. GPS technology has been used to help locate mass graves here in the past.

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in 1998 but four of the leaders are still alive and currently awaiting trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It is commonly misunderstood that the ECCC is an international tribunal, when it is in fact a Cambodian court with international characteristics in that international judges and lawyers are involved on the invitation of the Government of Cambodia, along with local judges and lawyers . Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Ieng Thirith are all in their 80s but currently detained next to the ECCC. They are currently being prosecuted together as 'Case 002' but their lawyers are trying to separate their cases. Case 001 was of 'Duch' the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng S21 torture camp

One grave of many. These graves were not very deep as often only a thin layer of soil was used to just cover over the piles of bodies.

A rag from clothing from one of the deceased. Time and the monsoon rains continually reveal hidden bones and rags that have refused to remain hidden. This was just lying near one of my paths...

The photos on page TWO and THREE may shock some, so do not continue reading unless you are certain you will not be traumatized. I have tried to not be too ‘horrific’.

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