Cambodia: A country torn by war

Cambodia: A country torn by war

28 April 2012 | By Pawel

Topics: Cambodia, Places


“(It is) better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” – Pol Pot.

Before coming to Cambodia I didn’t really know much about the place. Some friends who had visited it earlier told me that it has exceptionally nice people and it’s cheap to travel there. Apart from that I vaguely remembered that it is also said to be the most mined country in the world and that in quite recent past it had the period of Khmer Rouge rule during which a large part of Cambodia’s society was exterminated.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

One of the torture rooms at the prison

Who the Khmer Rouge really were, how did the landmines end up in places where they can still be found even today, how many people really died or even when did all of it exactly happen – I had no clear idea (history has never been my strong subject). As we visited places like the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh where the enemies of the regime were tortured, the ‘Landmine Museum’ near Siem Reap or the ‘killing fields’ the whole story finally fell into place. Even though it’s hardly a pleasant topic I thought it’s interesting enough (maybe even important?) to write a few lines about it.

Mass graves at killing fields Cambodia

Mass graves at the killing fields near Phnom Penh


The Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers)

The communist regime of the Red Khmers came to power in 1975, preceded by the insurgency and bringing down of the former Cambodian government. Soon after obtaining absolute power in the country, the Paris-educated leader of the new regime – Saloth Sar (from 1976 known as Pol Pot) decided to introduce completely new form of self-sufficient, agrarian society. Millions of educated people living in the cities had to leave their homes. They were relocated to the far away villages where they were forced to work on farms (something most of them had no idea about). Along with the supporters of the previous government they were perceived as a threat to the communist movement and were often executed, sometimes based on no better reason than wearing glasses (a sign of their intellectual background). Many Cambodians including women and children were tortured and killed daily in numerous “killing fields” – specially designed execution places.

Killing Fields of Cambodia

Skulls of victims on display at the killing fields museum, Phnom Penh

Even though soon millions of Cambodian citizens were working in the farms growing rice and other plants, famine quickly became the reason for even more deaths. In order to maintain their rule the Red Khmers had to keep importing weapons and other goods from abroad so they traded their food supplies with China, Russia and other countries, leaving not enough food for their own citizens. The situation of the country was deteriorating until 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and made the Khmer Rouge activists look for shelter in the western province of the country, near the border with Thailand, which they managed to control for the next decade.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

Photos of the hundreds of victims that came through this prison


It is hard to precisely estimate the number of casualties of the Khmer Rouge, as the access to the country was extremely limited during the years 1975-1979. Yale Cambodian Genocide Project gives estimates of the total death toll approximately 1.7 million, which means about 21 per cent of the whole Cambodian society. To picture the scale of the Khmer Rouge genocide better, if such a thing happened today (in a different country) it would mean 65 million casualties in USA, 8 million in Poland and in India the death toll would amount to the shocking number of more than 254 million people!

“He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.” – Pol Pot

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh Cambodia

Small children and babies were often swung against this tree to kill them

Interesting facts (source: Wikipedia)

– Despite the regime’s fall from power, the Khmer Rouge retained its U.N. seat until 1993. Western governments repeatedly backed the Khmer Rouge in the U.N. and voted in favour of retaining the Cambodia’s seat in the organization.

– Pol Pot studied radio electronics in Paris but never obtained the final diploma. Some of his closest Khmer Rouge party members (Khieu Samphan and Hou Yuon) studied economics, law as well as politics and earned doctorates from the University of Paris.

– Even though the Khmer Rouge were as far as they possibly could from being a democratic government, ironically in 1975 they gave Cambodia a new name – Democratic Kampuchea.

Mass grave, killing fields, phnom penh cambodia

Mass grave of 450 victims

– In order to save expensive bullets, the Red Khmers who killed people in different “killing fields” scattered around Cambodia rarely used guns. Most of the victims were killed with a strike of a heavy hammer, iron bar, machete or other makeshift weapon. It is believed small children and babies were swung against trees to smash their heads before throwing their bodies into the pits.

– It is estimated that as many as 6 mln landmines could still remain undiscovered in Cambodia (mostly in rural areas). This is an effect of not only the Khmer Rouge period but about 3 decades of different wars and insurgencies the country was involved in.

– Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh


If there is any lesson to be learned from the history of Cambodia, I think it is that even though most of us live in peace right now, it doesn’t mean it will last forever. Sounds like a cliché but apparently even educated people like Pol Pot (probably one of the best educated communist dictators) can cause real horror to their own kind, including their own nation, not only over a very short span of time but also for no good reason whatsoever. And if the political situation doesn’t make it beneficial for the international public – say, your country isn’t perceived as a potential destabilizing factor for the region or the main international players have more important problems at the time – you can probably forget about any help from outside too.

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