When a Country Becomes a Prison

When a Country Becomes a Prison

Upon capturing Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of society ever attempted, evacuating the citizens in the capital to the countryside where they were put to work as slaves for 12-15 hours a day.  Their goal was to turn Cambodia into a “pure” peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.  The local high school was transformed into Security Prison 21 and a fruit orchard became it’s killing field.

Visiting these sights can only be described as profoundly disheartening and it is hard to leave not depressed.  A visit is required for those that want to get a true sense of how the Khmer Rouge turned not just these sights, but the entire country, into a prison and killing field.  Both sights are far from pleasant and not for the squeamish.  However, as the brochure to Tuol Sleng provided to tourists states;

“Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive is the key to build a new strong and just state.  Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman regime of Khmer Rouge public, plays a crucial role in preventing a new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on earth.”

Visiting the S-21 prison or the Killing Fields is not something to smile about. This sign is actually posted at S-21 prison.

Like Hitler and the Nazis, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of their barbarism.  Each prisoner that passed through the doors was photographed, sometimes before and after the torture that led to a confession and later death.  These haunting photographs are now on display throughout the Tuol Sleng Museum.  Looking into the eyes of the unfortunate victims, even if it is through a faded black and white photograph, brought back memories of my high school trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  Upon entering the museum in DC you are given a story of a person held in the concentration camps; at the end you learn their fate.  I felt lucky that I had been given the story of a survivor.  It was such a powerful way to present the realities of the Holocaust, but I realized if they had employed this technique at Tuol Sleng Museum only 7 people would have received a story with the outcome of mine.  Only seven of every 17,000 people would receive the story of a survivor, representing the true fate of the prisoners.

One of many of the boards of pictures of people detained at S-21 prison

We spent the better part of our day at the prison trying to get our heads around the atrocities that took place within the walls of this former school.  One of things that was most difficult to come to grips with for me was that this all took place in such an ordinary setting, out in the suburbs in a plain school building.  People were tortured and killed in classrooms outfitted with glass windows so that their screams of terror would go unheard.  Victims were hung upside down and interrogated in the green grass of the schoolyard where children used to play.  The outer-hallways of the school are still outfitted with the barbed wire fencing that prevented prisoners from committing suicide by jumping to their deaths.  The bloody evidence of the horror that took place in the former school has mostly been washed from the walls and the schoolyard, leaving your imagination to fill in the details.  Now all that remains are a few old beds, torture tools and the graves for the 14 people whose bodies were found, tortured to death, when the Vietnamese took control in 1979.  The eerie silence and contemplative mood that permeates S-21 still gives me the chills.

Due to the intensity of S-21 we opted to visit the Killing Fields on a separate day to give our minds some time to process everything.  The day that we visited the Killing Fields was bright and sunny, which didn’t match the somber mood felt throughout the former fruit orchard, which had held the remains of 8,985 people before they were exhumed from 43 of the 129 mass graves in 1980.  Fragments of human bone and bits of clothing are scattered around the gravesites lending a ghostly feel to the already disturbing surroundings.  Knowing that many of the victims whose bones and clothes you see were bludgeoned to death or buried alive to save bullets makes the entire experience even more harrowing.  The skulls and bones of the many victims of the Khmer Rouge are on display within the glass walls of the Memorial Stupa.

The peaceful nature of the Memorial Stupa with its bouquets of white flowers and chains of origami peace cranes hung inside are the memories I chose to take with me.  I hope that these images will be the lasting impressions that Cambodians have as they try to move on from the horrors that unfolded there less than three decades ago.  If visitors and citizens can learn from the past and focus on peace hopefully an atrocity of this magnitude can be avoided in the future.

The colorful origami cranes symbolizing peace that are found inside the Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields.


Hire a tuk-tuk, you will need transportation to get to the Killing Fields as they are 15 km. out of town.  If you can handle doing both places in one day it is the most economical option and your driver can easily add other destinations for one power-packed sight seeing day if you’re short on time

Hire a guide, if you want true stories about the years that Khmer Rouge were in power pay the extra few dollars at Tuol Sleng to get a guide who will share stories about the people in the pictures on the walls of the prison.

Take your time, you will want to dedicate some time to absorbing the sights and information of both the prison and the killing fields.  I would also recommend the videos at both sights, which you may have to wait for a showing.

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» Sam Spears :
May 17, 2011

Thank you so much for the postcard! It got here safe and sound.


» bka :
May 20, 2011

Without a doubt this is /was the single most disturbing/difficult travel day/experience of my life……your words and those of others could never capture the horror and violence we observed…….it haunts me to this day……i was 26 in 1975 and have no recollection this was taking place, that bothers me deeply as well……we were with 12 others in our group and not a word was spoken for the entire day by any one……..peace……love dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, you’re right it is impossible to describe the horror of the Khmer Rouge. I do believe that it is a mandatory visit if you’re in Phnom Penh as it is such a huge part of Cambodia’s history.

» Le Duc :
Sep 5, 2011

You are just succumbing to propaganda from the American Imperialists. The information presented at that museum is designed by the American Imperialists to discredit Socialism. Please read the article below: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1976/2/28/red-scare-over-cambodia-pbpbress-poison/


By R. LEE Penn,
Published: Saturday, February 28, 1976

PRESS POISON. Do not swallow!” was a leftist poster slogan in the May 1968 French uprising. We Americans could well heed this warning. Newspaper owners and Voice of America broadcasters love to brag about this country’s free, objective press. Meanwhile, news management–a genteel euphemism for lying–is often the order of the day.

The lies don’t happen accidentally. Those who own and run newspapers, like most businessmen and bureaucrats, have a large stake in convincing Americans that challenges to capitalism are threats to our lives and freedoms. Publishers and editors don’t need to deliberately lie or censor, although that does happen. Misinformation may be as natural as deciding that certain stories should stay on page 57 (or not run at all), and failing to use radical news sources while regularly printing the latest State Department press release. Status-quo bias is almost everywhere, from a rightist local Daily Monopoly up through the New York Times.

The press treatment of Cambodia since the fall of the Lon Nol regime last April is a prime example of news distortion. An editorial last summer in The New York Times, titled “Cambodia’s Crime,” summed up the official view of events there. It spoke of millions of people from Phnom Penh and other cities “forced by the Communists at gunpoint to walk into the countryside without organized provision for food, shelter, physical security, or medical care.” It concluded that Cambodia “resembles a giant prison camp with the urban supporters of the former regime now being worked to death on thin gruel and hard labor…the barbarous cruelty of the Khmer Rouge can be compared to Soviet extermination of the Kulaks or with the Gulag Archipalego.” William Shawcross’s article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books is more restrained, saying, “The Cambodians are suffering horribly under their new rulers. They have suffered every day of the last six years–ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States ever pursued.” He, at least, connects Cambodia’s travails to the Indochina War, an embarrassing event which the Times would rather forget.

This lurid interpretation of events in Cambodia seems designed to shock readers and increase their fear of socialism. But the Times editorial version of events is based on liberal amounts of prejudice and half-truths–they even forgot to read some of their own news coverage of Cambodia. Also, the Indochina Resource Center, a U.S. group, recently released an exhaustively-documented report, The Politics of Food: Starvation and Agricultural Revolution in Cambodia, which sheds more light on events in that country.

The U.S. press usually describes the evacuation of Phnom Penh as a vengeful, irrational act by the Khmer Rouge, designed mainly to subdue and redirect the population. But less biased observers say that, in fact, if the Communists had not evacuated Phnom Penh in April, many thousands would have died of cholera, plague and starvation. The city’s pre-1970 peacetime population had been 600,000; by last April, it had been swelled by 3 million refugees from the war. The U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime had lost control of the whole countryside, so it depended completely on American food shipments. These were inadequate; the U.S. was continuing a policy described by the Government Accounting Office in 1971: “Not to become involved in the problem of civilian war victims in Cambodia.” While the U.S. stinted on food, it provided Lon Nol’s regime with 95 per cent of its total revenue–for guns, to keep the Reds out of the capital. So the food shortage worsened. Rations were only sixty per cent of normal human requirements. Prices soared and black marketeers prospered. Corruption was so severe that the Lon Nol regime could not administer a relief program with the food it did have. Death by starvation and epidemic became common by mid-April because of the collapse of the water supply, transportation, power, and medical care systems.

By contrast, in the Communist-controlled countryside, land reform and collectivization, water conservation and increased use of fertilizer had raised food production well above the hunger levels of 1970-1973, when these areas were under heavy U.S. bombing. There was enough extra food in the country for city residents, but the only way they could get it was to go where the food grew; there were too few trucks to carry the food into the capital. Other considerations, such as the Khmer Rouge’s fear that the U.S. would bomb Phnom Penh off the map, only added to the urgency of the evacuation.

The evacuation itself does not deserve the Times’ anathema of “death march,” either. Most residents of Phnom Pehn had left rural homes because of the war; the Communists had planned for their return. Several U.S. reporters saw the march in progress as they traveled out of Cambodia in May, and said there was sufficient food for those on the road. Most evacuees walked, covering roughly 2.5 miles per day and many of the old and sick went by car or truck. People did die on the road, but not by the thousands as U.S. government sources said; most deaths were from cholera caught while in Phnom Penh.

The evacuation of the hospitals is more difficult to explain. Phnom Penh’s hospitals had become grossly over-crowded pest-houses by mid-April; after the evacuation, the Communists did clean them and resume their operation with Cambodian doctors. The Khmer Rouge had developed a system of rudimentary clinics and hospitals in the countryside; evacuees may have gone to these. Whether or not the Khmer Rouge had won in April or not, the sick would have had a hard time, due to the general shortage of medicine and supplies for both sides in the civil war.

On the accusations that the Cambodian Communists have carried out mass murder since April, the observation made last May by Richard Boyle, combat reporter and eyewitness to the seizure Phnom Penh, still stands: “Stories of a bloodbath, as reported by other news agencies, cannot be verified and there is every indication that these accounts are lies.” Proof of alleged executions usually comes from refugees in Thailand, who “knew” of such killings without having seen them. Many actively backed the Lon Nol government, and the Thais restrict access to refugee camps to some U.S. officials, who may steer journalists toward handpicked refugees. Until more foreigners enter Cambodia and bring back independent reports, events there will remain cloudy.

If reports of mass executions of Cambodians are true, why are many of them who lived in the West going home? Recently, according to the Guardian, seven planeloads of Cambodians left for that country from France, while in the U.S. on January 26,114 Cambodians publicly announced their desire to return. The radical press covered these news conferences in Philadelphia and Washington; the orthodox press blacked them out. Many of these people are ex-Lon Nol soldiers; the Cambodian government says that it welcomes such people back, if they are willing to work and to defend the country.

But is there any freedom in Cambodia? Ieng Sary was not joking last summer when he described Cambodia as a “giant workshop.” After a devastating war in which a tenth of the population died and another tenth was wounded, the government seeks rapid reconstruction and industrialization. These policies do have support in the countryside; Times reporter Schanberg said “Although recent refugee reports from newly settled areas are almost uniformly dark, the villagers the Westerners met in long-organized districts tell of the advantages of the system. They said they were getting better education and eating better, and were immensely proud of their victory.” Life is hard in Cambodia. Poverty, forced industrialization, the after effects of a brutal war alone would see to that.

Last May, liberal Times columnist Tom Wicker and conservative columnist William Safire agreed that socialism was cruel and against human nature. Safire damned socialism as “anti-city, anti-civilization, anti-freedom.” But using the rigors of Cambodian socialism to warn Americans away from considering alternatives to capitalism here is dishonest; we face vastly different–and potentially far better–conditions for changing our economic system. But the press’ treatment of Cambodia is no isolated instance; coverage of Allende’s Chile, and of Portugal today would reveal similarly distorted coverage. Why? A.J. Liebling once said, “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.” And that s the way it is for now.

LOCAVORista Reply:

Le Duc, while I appreciate your sharing the other side of the story, your article is 35 years old. It may have seemed at the time that the Khmer Rouge was relieving a corrupt Lon Nol regime, however regardless of how “sketchy” information about the Khmer Rouge may be, there is no excuse for the way that they went about making the change from urban capitalism to peasant socialism in Cambodia. Even the Harvard Crimson could not agree with the Khmer Rouge’s means as stated in an article just three years later . The article states “…And how could we praise them [Khmer Rouge] for policies that bordered, or seemed to border, on mass murder?… The Khmer Rouge can certainly no longer meet with our approval on our own terms, because they violate our feeling that anything worthy need not be accomplished through violence and cruelty.”

» Matt Johnston :
Sep 5, 2011

Sad to see how after visiting Cambodia (and having visited S21 and written quite thoughtfully about the horrors of those times and the trauma that continues for Cambodians today) you manage to switch so quickly into thinking that your privilege and wealth allows you to take a “keepsake”of the culture you admired back to your home in the States.
That you didn’t buy what may or may not have been an actual looted relic makes no difference, your intent seemed to be to excuse your greed through some fairly amateur and specious arguments.
To have kept your thinking would have meant at the end of your sojourn your partner would have a lovely Mountain Gorilla Vest, you could have trodden around the house in some Kouprey skin shoes whilst gazing at your looted artifacts.
All quite lovely for a 19th C explorer but unbelievably shallow in this age.
Here’s is hoping you think about the consequences of your choices while you enjoy your travels, and take back memories and pictures not the heirlooms of another country.

» Le Duc :
Sep 7, 2011

Read the article written below by Richard Dudman who spent 40 days captured with Vietcong and Khmer Rouge troops as they trained the Khmer Rouge. He had nothing bad to say about the Cambodian Communists or the Vietnamese liberators at that time. The glorious North Vietnamese are the ones who trained the Khmer Rouge and were under our control until 1973 when Pol Pot broke apart from us. We trained some 5,000 in political education in the 60’s and 70’s.

Many people believe those skulls were the leftovers of South Vietnamese troops. The Imperialist Americans CIA gathered the corpses of the 175,000 Vietnamese traitors and placed them in those mass graves in Cambodia to discredit Socialism. The Cambodians now use this as propaganda to get money and support from the International community. And they’ve been successful getting some $17 billion dollars while Vietnamese have had to rebuild our country by our own hands.

Pol Pot was brutal, but no mass murder. By Richard Dudman.


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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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