If you went to a school in the Western world, the chances are that in terms of barbaric genocide – the only one that you are aware of in the world is The Nazi Holocaust. It’s often said that the victors write the history books and although I think there’s certainly no smoke without fire regarding that statement, I believe that most countries teach history with a pinch of self-interest.
Rwanda, Armenia, East Timor…the list of barely spoken of genocides in history is heinously long and many of the nations that went through them are still haunted by the ghosts of other people’s cruel making.
I lived in Cambodia for five months in 2011. I wrote an article informing people not to live there if they have an online business and although I still stand by my reasons and words, I have to admit that I felt no joy (and even a heavy dose of guilt) writing that post.
Cambodia’s infrastructure has been set back several years thanks to the dictatorship of one evil man. I’ll do my best to summarise one of the most horrendous and heartbreaking stories in modern history that I’ve come to know about on my travels.
The Khmer Rouge Cambodian Genocide
Pol Pot was born in 1925 on a rice farm in French-ruled Cambodia. As a young man, his father sent him away to be a Buddhist monk – that didn’t work out too well and Pot was said to have held a violent hatred towards the concept of multiculturalism.
Although the foundation of Pot’s hate was reserved for those of higher class, Pot’s family were relatively wealthy – enough to send him abroad to Paris for a scholarship in technical studies in 1949. It was here where Pot fell in love with Stalin’s communism, which he would later use as a vehicle for his vile racism and complete disregard for human life.
Pot returned to Cambodia in 1953 and joined the underground Communist Party of Cambodia (later changed to “Kampuchea” under his rule). The party was outlawed and they fled to the countryside.
On April 17th, 1975 the followers of the Communist Party, under the name Khmer Rouge (lead by Pol Pot) stormed the capital, Phnom Penh and won a 5-year war against a Cambodian government backed by The USA. Within weeks of Pot and his army taking over Phnom Penh, 2 million people (most of them separated from their families) were evacuated into the countryside to perform slave labour in rice farms where they were literally worked to death.
The rice that they produced was exported to the Khmer Rouge party and even the local peasants in the countryside died off due to starvation.
Money and Buddhism were instantly banned and Pot’s peasant Communist utopia was instantly underway.
Pol Pot’s Racism And Classism
Pot’s hatred was for anyone of higher class, wealth, education and also ethic minorities, which he wanted to completely eradicate from existence. It’s said that of Cambodia’s largest ethnic minorities at the time, the Chinese – half of them were wiped out under the Khmer Rouge era. Pot also targeted people with fair skin – as that meant they were privileged and corrupt and only manual labour or death could ‘purify’ them.
Ethnic Muslims also fell prey to Pot’s malice, but his biggest malevolence was reserved for the Vietnamese, where he would get husbands to shoot their own Vietnamese-born wives on the spot. Remarkably, there are no recorded Vietnamese ethnics to have survived the vicious Pol Pot era.
Pay Your Respects at S-21 and The Killing Fields
In Phnom Penh you can go to a place referred to as S-21 and also The Killing Fields to pay respect to the men, women and children who tragically passed under Pot’s spiteful regime. Tuol Sleng (S-21) is an old school that was converted to a customised torture jail for Pot’s ‘political prisoners.’
No trials were given – only torture until a confession of some sort was reluctantly screamed out. Young children were held by their ankles and battered to death off nearby trees. I recommend going and getting an audio tour with headphones on your own, playing it at the poignant times for each area you go to.
After only two years of Pol Pot at the helm, hundreds and thousands of Cambodians lay rotten in mass graves. A temple of skulls of the victims in Choeung Ek is an incredibly eerie reminder of this real-life nightmare.
Pot’s Irrational Hatred For The Vietnamese Lead To His Own Downfall
Back in 1970 the Vietnamese War spilled out into Cambodia as the Americans pulverised the Cambodian/Vietnamese border with massive airstrikes. This gave increased support for Pot as many peasants died due to the attack.
However, Pot got too big for his boots later on. Drunk on his own power, Pot craved a megalomaniacal armageddon against the Vietnamese. Vietnam responded with brute force after repeated attacks over the border in late December, 1977, which resulted in the death of thousands of Vietnamese civilians.
By mid-January 1978, the Vietnamese army had a stranglehold of Phnom Penh. Pot and his mates fled to northern Cambodia and Thailand to continue a war against Vietnam’s new government. Twenty years later, an old and decrepit Pot was found and put under house arrest in Anlong Veng, Cambodia – close to the Thai border.
American investigative journalist Nate Thayer interviewed Pot, who refused to apologise (not that this would have sufficed anyway) and spoke of a clear conscience, affirming that what he did was for the greater good of the people of Cambodia.
Sadly, he passed away peacefully and without punishment two weeks later of natural causes.
Conclusion On Cambodia Travel
Learning about the history of Cambodia will rip your heart into pieces, but personally I don’t just travel for pretty sunsets, peace signs and tasty food – I travel for the truth. Often the truth comes along with the heavy anchor of incredible sorrow, but I feel it’s important to know this poignant part of Cambodia’s history when travelling or living there.
If you’re considering visiting here one day – please do.
Cambodians are among the most friendly, welcoming and fun people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on my travels within the last few years. The people (including newer generations) are still suffering from this dark period, but it’ll be a real struggle for you to find more gorgeous smiles than you are met with over there.