Khmer Rouge History


From April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979, the brutal, ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime (i.e. the Red Khmer) controlled the whole of Cambodia, then known as 'Democratic Kampuchea.' The Khmer Rouge was headed by Saloth Sar, nom de guerre Pol Pot. During their short reign between one and two and a half million Cambodians perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition, neglect and mistreatment. Some of the horrific remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime can be seen at the Choeung Ek Memorial (the ‘Killing Fields’) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Though the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, they retreated to the mountains and border areas, persisting until their final defeat and dissolution in 1998. Surviving KR leaders are only now facing the court. Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch,’ director of the infamous S-21 prison was found guilty by the ECCC in 2010. Proceedings against other defendants are currently underway. Pol Pot died in 1998, never having faced justice.


Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)

(15 km southwest of Phnom Penh - Take Monireth 8.5 km past the bridge at Street 271) Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of ‘killing fields’ that can be found scattered across the country. The killing fields were essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979.) After the Khmer Rouge regime, memorials were set up at many of the sites, some containing the bones and remnants of victims gathered from the area. Prior to 1975, Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was a orchard and a Chinese cemetery. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous killing fields. This particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison (now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. The Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones. The memorial is about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh. Guided tours through the area are available and reasonably priced multi-lingual guides are available at the site. There is also a small souvenir shop as well. For sake of historical context, combine your trip to Choeung Ek with a visit to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 Prison) in Phnom Penh. (See below.) Also see David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices of S-21’ for the most systematic and complete account to date of the history and operation of the S-21 Prison.


Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

(Corner of Street 113 & Street 350 - $2.00 - Open everyday, including holidays, 8AM-5PM - Closed for lunch)

Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school - a set of classroom buildings in a walled compound. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility, administered by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. ‘Duch.’ Inmates at the prison were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured, sometimes over a period of months, to extract the desired ‘confessions,’ after which the victim was inevitably executed at the killing field of Choeung Ek just outside the city. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, less than a score of whom are known to have survived. The Tuol Sleng compound now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was in when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. The prison kept extensive records, leaving thousands of photos of their victims, many of which are on display. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Toul Sleng, are also exhibited. For more on S-21 check out David Chandler’s book, ‘Voices from S-21.


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