Skip to main content

Where Cambodia's shocking past is on show

By Jim Algie, for CNN
updated 11:06 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
Some of the 8,000 human skulls at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center sit in a glass case. Some of the 8,000 human skulls at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center sit in a glass case.
HIDE CAPTION
Gory evidence of Cambodia's dark past
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Rouge rule
High school to prison
Deadly tales
Empty inside
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cambodia doesn't hide from its brutal past, with evidence of Pol Pot's regime on show at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields
  • Khmer Rouge attempt to create an agrarian utopia left an estimated 1.7 million people dead
  • Tuol Sleng's former chief, Comrade Duch, already sentenced to life in prison, other senior Khmer Rouge officials await trials

(CNN) -- Few countries in Asia have suffered as much turmoil and internecine warfare in recent decades as Cambodia.

The "secret bombing" campaign in the early 1970s, orchestrated by the soon-to-be-impeached President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, the most contentious of Nobel Peace Prize winners, pushed many moderates towards the Khmer Rouge, who stormed into Phnom Penh in April 1975 to declare victory and begin a reign of tyranny that some historians have called the most radical experiment in communism ever conducted.

With an agenda of half-baked Maoism and class warfare that included emptying cities, banning money, and executing intellectuals -- or anyone wearing glasses -- the Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia.

Instead, they wound up masterminding a genocide that left an estimated 1.7 million Khmers dead.

That legacy is on grim display in Phnom Penh's most popular dark tourism sites of the secret prison at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.

Textbook tortures

Known by the code name S-21, the former high school of Tuol Sleng became the Khmer Rouge's secret prison and the most potent symbol of its brutality.

Over the course of four years as many as 20,000 prisoners passed through here, including four Frenchmen, one Brit and two Americans.

INTERACTIVE: Five faces of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge

Only seven survived.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is set in a former high school, later used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and interrogation center.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is set in a former high school, later used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and interrogation center.

Upon arriving at the prison, each inmate was photographed.

These black and white portraits hang in the second of four buildings. They are the most haunting part of this memorial site.

Some inmates are wide-eyed with fright. Others appear resigned to their fate.

Some are mere children. Others are women with babies.

All of them put a human face on what was an inhuman regime hell-bent on extinguishing every last spark of individuality and family loyalty from its citizenry, for the Khmer Rouge referred to itself only as "Angkar" (the Organization).

Its leader was a paranoid megalomaniac whom, as Philip Short recounted in his comprehensive biography, "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare," believed in preserving secrecy at all costs, to the point where his handwriting has never yet been identified.

An ongoing struggle for justice after Khmer Rouge

Building A has been preserved exactly as the Vietnamese invaders, weary of Khmer Rouge attacks, found it in early 1979, right down to the bloodstains on the floor and the implements of torture left on the bed frames scabbed with rust.

In another building, paintings by Vann Nath, one of the seven survivors, illustrate in living colors how the prison's torturers went about their deathly business, extracting the most trumped up confessions through the most barbaric of means.

Far from being a museum piece, the tragedy of Tuol Sleng continues to play out in the last act of a UN-backed genocide trial.

The prison's former chief, Comrade Duch, the alias of Kain Guek Eav, has already been sentenced to life in prison for war crimes, while two other members of the Khmer Rouge top brass, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan wait in the wings for their trials to begin.

Cambodian civilians and Vietnamese soldiers open mass graves in 1979.
Cambodian civilians and Vietnamese soldiers open mass graves in 1979.

Burial grounds

The first time I visited the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh in 2003, I was transfixed by a tree with a sign that read in Khmer and English: "Chankiri tree against which executioners beat children."

That was done to save bullets.

My driver pointed at nails sticking out of the tree -- they had been used to drive home the regime's barbarity and speed up the executions.

Just then, a little girl appeared beside the tree, her face peeking over an urn stacked with bones that went up to her neck.

She looked like a ghost, but in fact was one of the child beggars in the area.

The tree still stands, but the urchins have been evicted.

When local authorities renovated the Killing Fields in 2011, this series of mass graves, where the Khmer Rouge executed and buried the prisoners trucked in from Tuol Sleng, they turned it into a site that documents, with painstaking accuracy, the ultra-Maoists' atrocities.

Complete with a pagoda of skulls for an epicenter-piece, these burial grounds have a concussive impact on visitors.

Thanks to the refurbishments, you can listen to the strident battle hymns of the Khmer Rouge once blasted from speakers to drown out the cries of the condemned men and women being beaten to death with the axles of oxcarts, or having their throats slit with the serrated edges of a palm frond.

To really come to grips with Cambodia's dark past and understand why 70% of its populace are under 30, these two memorial sites stand as tombstones to those times of turmoil and the Khmers' courageous resilience in the face of peril.

READ MORE: 35 years on, top Khmer Rouge leaders face justice in Cambodia

Jim Algie has worked as a writer and editor in Bangkok since 1992. His books include the acclaimed non-fiction collection, "Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic" and a collection of short fiction, "The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:56 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Nonprofit Ethical Traveler has released its annual list of the developing countries doing the most to promote human rights and preserve their environments.
updated 5:36 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
These waterfront watering holes have killer ocean views, creative drinks and the mahalo vibe we demand.
updated 3:38 PM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Can't wait to book your ticket to Indianapolis and Oakland? The venerable guidebook is right there with you
updated 1:25 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
By helicopter, snowmobile and big-wheel truck across some of the world's most volatile landscapes.
updated 4:42 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Construction begins on a new Singapore airport complex that could make delays and layovers a pleasure.
updated 9:41 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Inflight chatterboxes are annoying but they're not the worst violators of onboard etiquette, according to an Expedia study.
updated 5:32 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
These statues are awe-inspiring even for the strongest of non-believers.
updated 11:59 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
The Palace of the Parliament, built by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
25 years after the death of Romania's communist dictator, tourism is helping heal old wounds.
updated 6:52 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Photo sharing website names the top 10 destinations for geo-tagged snapshots.
updated 5:05 AM EST, Wed December 3, 2014
New York may be a paradise of Zagat-rated, Michelin-starred restaurants, but some of its best food can be found on the streets.
updated 1:01 AM EST, Tue December 2, 2014
Guide Lebo behind the wheel of Chobe Game Lodge's first electric game viewing vehicle, at Chobe National Park in Botswana.
Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana ups the eco stakes with what it claims is world's first battery-powered safari fleet.
updated 8:18 PM EST, Sun November 23, 2014
The interior of the Formosa Boulevard Mass Rapid Transit Station in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan.
These quirky and beautiful subway stops make standing cheek-to-cheek with 45 strangers almost seem fun.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
A scene from a desert safari in Dubai
Luxury vintage Land Rover tours explore Bedouin backwaters without bashing up precious dunes.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT