44 Years Since the Annihilation of Two Million Cambodians
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
The genocide that occurred in Cambodia between 1975-1979 at the hands of the the Khmer Rouge regime (Khmer Krahom) led by Pol Pot, resulted in the death of around 2 million people, a fourth of the population. The causes of these deaths were torture, mass executions, forced labor and malnutrition. An actual nightmare that ended with the invasion of the Vietnamese army.
But, why was this atrocity committed?
To answer this question we must contextualize the situation. During the Vietnam War, the United States occupied some Cambodian land bordering Vietnam and bombed the country incessantly, with the support of the Cambodian government of Lon Nol. During 5 years of this political instability and constant conflicts, certain antagonistic feeling towards the imposed system surfaced, creating The Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge.
After the end of the Vietnam War, the withdrawal of the United States Army and the Nol government being overthrown led to the Khmer Rouge taking power on April 17, 1975. Under the idea of "purifying the population", the Khmer Rouge forced the entire population to move from the cities to the rural areas, thus creating a mass exodus with the excuse that the US was going to bomb the cities. They wanted to create a radically agrarian economic system through forced labor, disparaging intellectuals such as professors, artists, who were those "stained" by capitalism and bourgeois life by murdering them and stacking bodies in mass graves. About 20,000 of these horrific graves have been found scattered across Cambodia. A strong military control and a constant "search of the internal enemy" was created, which resulted in the development of extensive methods of detention, torture and assassinations.
Its ideology was a subjective interpretation of Maoism, with the work of the lands as the sole sustenance of the system. The liberation from colonization created a sense of nationalism for the Cambodian people and the need for a new start. The army of the Khmer Rouge took advantage of these needs and decided to create their interpretation of an idealistic Cambodia. All these ideas, mixed with military influence, generated genocide.
While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we visited one of the torture centers that left us speechless. This center was called High Security Prison 21 (S-21), which has now become the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In this prison, between 12,000 and 20,000 people were tortured and killed. Before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a terrifying place, this place was a high school.
The change that occurred in 1975 transformed the once joyful school. Where children previously played in the yard, now there were people hanged from the playground; where classrooms once stood with the future generation, now cells and rooms of torture filled the halls; where children once ran through the corridors, now piles of inert bodies were freed from torture, and new prisoners entered facing the worst. The reason why this regime carried out these practices is that it was under the idea previously mentioned of the constant search of the internal enemy, even among members of the same party. In these rooms, the prisoners were tortured until they revealed information they did not have. Once they produced lies because of the unbearable agony, they were murdered.
The conditions of life were terrible, death reached through starvation and infections. What we felt in the different rooms was a very strange energy; you could still feel the sadness and agony of those people...a darkness still stood within these walls. The beds and shackles are still there accompanied by the blood stains on the floor and the tiny cells.
On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese troops entered this prison without knowing what they were going to find. There were still 14 bodies in the torture beds and some of the documents still present of the atrocity that was committed. The yellow walls were stained with the horror that occurred within it. This center is only one of the 150 that was around Cambodia, but it has become a museum of great importance, which should remind us of the mistakes of the past. To understand and remember history is to create a world that learns from its mistakes and doesn’t repeat them.