THE KILLING FIELDS, TONLE SAP MASSACRE AND WHY THE KHMER ROUGE KILLED SO MANY

CHOEUNG EK KILLING FIELD

Choeng Ek Killing Field (15 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh) is where prisoners tortured and interrogated at Tuol Sleng prison were taken to be killed. Many of the victims were forced to dig their own graves and were then shot or bludgeoned to death with steel rods or hoes. At least 20,000 people are buried here among the rice fields, sugar palms and marshes. Choeung Ek was a true Killing Field.

About 9,000 skulls have been excavated and put in display in a glass-walled stupa. Many of the victims still lie in shallow graves. The shallow graves that have been excavated have even marked with signs that the pits which were used fr women and babies. Small pieces of bones and clothing are scattered around. After heavy monsoon rained entire skulls and skeletons are sometimes unearthed.

In a ceremony held at Choeng Ek in 1997, women chanted, "They were hit with spades, they were bound and thrown into wells, without pity. Small babies were dragged from the mother's arms and stabbed, spitted together on sticks, mashed against trees without pity. Young women were raped as if in a game, without pity."

The Killing Field were not just at Cheoung Ek. Helen Jarvis of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University told Newsweek: "Every province. every district, every village that we visited had some physical evidence of the killing regime—in most cases mass graves." In an interview, Pol Pot said the Vietnamese were to blame for the killing fields. He said the skulls at the Choeung Ek "are smaller than the skulls of the Khmer people."

The Killing Fields of Cheung Ek was made famous by the film of the same name "Killing Field". The main feature of Choeng Ek today is a glass-walled stupa that contains the skulls and bones of 8,985 Khmer Rouge victims, arranged on shelves according to age and sex and region. Around stupa are the excavated shallow graves of the victims. Some of the pits have signs that indicate they were filled with women and babies. Others have small pieces of bone and clothing scattered around them. Many of the graves have not been excavated. Some are so shallow that sometimes entire skulls and skeletons are exposed after heavy monsoon rains.

History of Choeng Ek Killing Field

Between 1975 and 1978, about 17,000 men, women, children and infants (including nine westerners), detained and tortured at S-21 prison (now Tuol Sleng Museum), were transported to the extermination to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time long an orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Over 8000 skulls, arranged by sex, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memoral Stupa, which was erected in 1988.

The Cheung Ek genocide museum is located in Cheung Ek commune, Dankoar district, where the Khmer Rouge took their prisoners for execution. The prisoners were made to wait here for 24 hours before they were killed by a blow to the head after which their throats were slit. Babies were killed by bashing their heads against a tree. There were separate graves for men, for women and for children. Former friends of Pol Pot who were executed here had separate graves too.

There were killing fields all over the country, but Cheung Ek was believed to be the largest. Here, the Khmer Rouge had turned the peaceful and beautiful Cheung Ek village into the infamous and miserable killing fields. The Pol Pot regime slaughtered people in the thousands without mercy and buried them in mass graves.

Given the way that the Ultra Khmer Rouge Regime was organized, a decision for murder was most likely ordered by “Brother Number 1" himself, Pol Pot. Everything had to meet with his approval, even thought here is no written proof. However, Son Sen, who was responsible for National Security and Defense and Commandant Duch at S-21, were directly responsible for killing the prisoners at S-21 and Cheung Ek Killing Field and written proof is available. See History.

Process of Killing People at Choeng Ek

At S-21 there were many documents routed to the party center and they all passed through Son Sen’s hands. Dozens of memoranda addressed to him by Duch have survived. Duch’s queries and annotations have appeared on the prisoners’ confessions, often in red ink. More often, Duch denigrated what the prisoners confessed and suggested beatings and tortures to unearth truth that he thought the prisoners were hiding. These documents display how the Upper Brothers, Son Sen and Duch, were responsible for the thousands of prisoners' murders at S-21 and Cheung Ek.

After getting an instruction to kill from the Central Committee of the regime through Son Sen, Duch ordered his deputy, Hor, to produce a "must smash" list .Taking orders from Hor, and Suon Thy who were in charge of the documentary unit, the list was prepared. The list was submitted to Duch for his signature. Then, the signed list was sent to Peng, the head of Defense unit, who seems to have been demoted in 1978 when his duties were taken by Hyu. Peng had the keys to all of the cells in the S-21 prison. Based on the list, Peng ordered the guards to remove the "must smash" prisoners to be killed.

Important and special prisoners like Keo Meas ( a veteran revolutionary), Ney Saran (Secretary of Agriculture), Hu Nim ( Minister of Information), Kuy Thuon ( Secretary of Northern Zone), Cheng An (Deputy Minister of Industry), Von Veth ( Deputy prime Minister), and foreigners were killed and buried at the S-21 prison. As for foreigners including Canadians, Americans, Australians and British, guards were ordered to kill them and to burn their dead bodies so that no bones were left (Nic Dunlop 2005:275).

The majority of the victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock PM, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping. In order to be well prepared for execution, a messenger from the defense unit was sent to the Choeung Ek Killing Field in advance to inform a permanent team about the number of the prisoners to be killed that day. Usually, the messenger went to the Killing Field by motorcycle in the mornings. To ensure that a top secret was kept and also that the execution was carried out properly, Duch, Peng, and Huy were requested to attend by Son Sen, the Minister in charge of defense and security. Often times, Duch sat smoking on a mat near the pit to supervise the executions and to insure their murderous plans.

The number of prisoners executed at Choeung Ek on a daily basis varied from a few dozen to over three hundred. The latter figure was recorded in May, 1978 at the height of the pursuits in the Eastern Zone. On a monthly basis two or three trucks would go from S-21 to Choeung Ek. Each truck held three or four guards and twenty to thirty frightened, silent prisoners. When the trucks arrived at the site, two guards seated with prisoners jumped from the canvas and took prisoners down, shoved them into a small building. The building was constructed from wood with a galvanized steel roof and its walls were built with two layers of flat wood to darken the room and also to prevent prisoners seeing each other. Then, with the electricity light supplied by a generator , Peng or Huy the heads of capturers subunit, verified prisoners? names against a "must-smash" list prepared by the head of documentation unit, Suos Thy. This list ensured that no one prisoner was missed. Prisoners were led in small groups to ditches and pits that were dug in advance by another team stationed permanently at the site.

They were told to kneel down and then they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. They were sometimes stabbed with knives or swords to save using bullets, which were deemed to be too expensive. Duch said: “We had instructions from the party on how to kill them, but we didn’t use bullets and usually, we slit their throats. We killed them like chickens” ( Dunlop 2005:273)Him Huy, who took the prisoners to be killed at Choeung Ek recalled, “They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two.” (David Chandler 1999:140).

Soon after prisoners were executed, the head of inspectors made sure that no one was alive. According to a witness who came to Cheung Ek just 2 days after liberation day, January 7th, 1979, said that at the site there was a small hut with chemical substances. He guessed that executioners scattered these substances over the dead bodies of the victims after execution. This action might have served two purposes: first, to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working near the Killing Fields and secondly, the chemicals would have killed off victims who were buried alive. Unfortunately, these poisonous substances were lost in 1979.

Kong San, an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier of 703 division, recalled at that time he had grown rice near Cheung Ek and when the wind blew strongly sometimes he smelt a stench. He thought the smell was just the stench of decomposing dead pets. But after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, he found out that Choeung Ek was a Killing Field (From winner to self- destruction 2000: 142).At the end, when the execution was completely finished, the killers washed their body and killing tools in a ditch near the site. The list at Choeung Ek was submitted to Suos Thy, to double-check that no prisoners was missed.

Tonle Sap Massacre

Ranachith (Ronnie) Yimsut was 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh in 1975. He and his extended family were removed from their homes in Siem Reap, near the famed ruins of Angkor, and forced to work in collective camps. During the last week of 1977, Ronnie's family was horded up for the last time before being killed by the Khmer Rouge. Of the dozens killed on that December day, only Ronnie survived. Today Ronnie is a landscape architect for the National Forest Service. He lives in Bend, Oregon, with his wife and two children. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

Yimsut reported: “It was a chilly evening of December 22, 1977, when a group of armed Khmer Rouge cadres herded what was left of my family and neighbors to an unknown destination. At the time we were at a forced labor camp in Siem Reap, Angkor Province, in what was then known as Democratic Kampuchea - Cambodia as we call it today. Our group was counted one by one by the armed men, some who were more like boys my age at the time. There were 87 of us all together and 7 of them. None of us knew for sure where we were going. However, after we had experienced similar move many times previously, we didn't really care where we were heading next. We all got used to such relocations. It was almost routine for us. ^

“This time it felt a little different. They seemed to try to accommodate us, to go out of their way to try to please us. It was an act that we were not used to. It made us feel uneasy about the whole plan. Why were they so nice to us this time? The last 24 relocations were miserable and the soldiers were very rough. In fact, they were so rough that some of my family died in the process of relocation. The soldiers' acts were very suspicious, but we didn't really care. It was a nice change, yet a change that we were having a problem swallowing whole. Perhaps their policy had changed? It was yet to be seen. ^

March to the Tonle Sap Killing Field

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “They ordered us to file in a row of four. A small group of soldiers who were to escort us were made up of all ages, some as young as 10. There were only five of them to escort what was left of my original group of family. By then there were only 79 of us altogether. During those five awful days at Tasource Hill, eight had died, including six children and two elderly men. I wondered why there were so few of them if they were going to kill all 79 of us? The oldest soldier came over in front us and spoke loudly so that everyone could hear him. He told us that we were being moved to the Tonle Sap - the Great Lake - to catch fish for the government. He also said that there will be food to eat. Suddenly, people began talking among each other about the news. We were all very skeptical about the seemingly miraculous news. However, it made sense as most of us in this group were at one time commercial fishermen on the Tonle Sap. They told us just what we wanted to hear: the food, the chance to catch and eat fresh fish from the lake, the chance to get away from the misery of Tasource Hill. It all sounded too good to be true. I was completely fooled by the news. Well, perhaps I had a little doubt, but so did the rest of the people in my group. We would have to wait and see what the future would hold for us. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“They took us south through a familiar muddy road toward the lake, which was about six or seven miles away. The last time I walked on this very same road was just last the year before, when I was on another Mobile Brigade project. The longer we were on that road, the more relaxed we were. Perhaps they were telling us the truth? We seemed to be heading in the right direction. There were only five of them. They couldn't possibly kill all 79 of us - Could they? After about three miles of walking, They asked us to stop and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. People were very weak and the three-mile hike took its toll. Another child died on the way. After some hesitation the soldiers allowed the mother to bury her child. It was another 20 or 30 minutes before they caught up. ^

“They wanted us to move on quickly before the setting of the sun. They asked all the able men, both young and old, to come and gather in front of the group. The men were then told to bring their tools, especially any knives and axes they had with them. They said that the men needed to go ahead of the group to build a camp for the rest of us. The men were soon lined up in a single file with their tools in hand. I watched my brother Sarey as he walked reluctantly to join the line after saying goodbye to his pregnant wife, Oum. I told him that I would take good care of my sister-in-law. The group disappeared shortly in the darken sky. That was the last time I ever saw Sarey and the rest of the men again. ^

“The sky was getting darker and a chillier. The notorious Tonle Sap mosquitoes began to rule the night sky. After about 30 minutes or so, The two soldiers that led the men away returned. They quickly conferred with their fellow comrades. One or two of the people from my group overheard something quite unbelievable - the shocking news quickly spread among the people within the group. I learned later that they said something like, "a few got way." It only meant one thing: the men were all dead except a few who managed to escape. ^

“It was about 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening when we were ordered to move on again. By this time the children who still had enough energy to cry were crying and screaming as loud as they could. It was mainly from hunger and exhaustion, but also from the attack by the swamping mosquitoes. Amidst the crying of the children I could hear the sobbing and weeping of the people who lost their loved ones. I still had my doubts about the whole situation, although the odds were stacked against us. If we didn't die of starvation, exhaustion, or mosquitoes bites, there was a good chance that we might be killed by the hands of the soldiers. ^

“The thought of me actually coming face to face with death now terrified me for the first time. I had thought of escaping right then, but could not do it after a long consideration. I didn't have the heart to leave my family, especially my pregnant sister-in-law who was already a week overdue. Besides, where would I go from here? I would eventually be recaptured and killed later on. If I were to die, I preferred to die among my loved ones. There were plenty of opportunities for me to escape, but I just couldn't do it. So I reluctantly trekked with the rest of the group, with my sister-in-law Oum over my right shoulder and a small bag of belongings on my left. Somehow it seemed ironic: we were knowingly walking toward our deaths just like cattle being herded towards a slaughterhouse. We all knew where we were heading; even the children seemed to know it as well. I still had a little doubt despite everything I had seen and heard thus far. Perhaps it was a faint hope - a hope that these Khmer Rouge soldiers were not the cold heart killers we thought they were. Perhaps. ^

“A few miles before we were to reach the Great Lake, they ordered us to turn off to the west instead of continuing down south as planned. It was a very muddy, sticky road. My feet seemed to stick in the mud every single time I put them down to go forward. The progress was slow and cumbersome. A few people got stuck there just like in a quicksand bog and the soldiers would go back to them to kick and beat them up. I still don't know if they ever made it. I was busy helping Oum and myself move forward and didn't really care anymore. All that time I was trying to calm myself down and keeping a clear mind. Oum was beyond help. Her quiet weeping had now became a full-blown scream. She was in bad shape, physically and emotionally. Oum said that she had stomach cramps or was in labor; she wasn't sure. It was to be her first child. She didn't know much about child birth or contractions, and neither did I. All that I could do was drag her across the muddy flats so the soldiers won't come and beat us to death right there and then. It was pathetic. ^

Killing at the Tonle Sap Massacre

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “We were no more than 300 yards off the main road when they asked us to sit down on the edge of a small shallow canal that ran east to west. Both of our legs stretched forward; we had to shut up or they would to beat us up. In a matter of minutes a large group of at least 50 people suddenly emerged from a hidden place in the nearby forest. It was really dark by that time, but I could tell from their silhouettes that they were soldiers with AK-47 rifles, carbines and large clubs in their hands. One of them began to shout loudly at us as the rest surrounded the group with their rifles, aiming directly at us. People began to plea for their lives. The soldiers screamed for all of us to shut up. They said that they only wished to ask a few questions - that was all they wanted. They also said that this was an interrogation and that they suspected there were enemies among us. They claimed there were Vietnamese agents in our group, which I knew was a bogus claim since we all had known each other for many years. It was all a tactic, a dirty trick to keep us calm, weak and under their control. But the tactic had been very effective because all the strong men who could have rised against them were the first ones to go. Those people left in my group were women and children, the sick and the weak. They had us right where they wanted. It was all a premeditated plan. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“A soldier walked towards me, yanking away a cotton towel and shredding it into small strips. I was the first one to be tied up tightly by the soldiers with one of the strips. I was stunned and quite terrified. I began to resist a little. After a few blows to the head with rifle butts, I could only let them do as they pleased with me. My head began to bleed from a wound. I was still semi-conscious - I could feel the pain and blood flowing down on my face. They were using me as example of what one would get if they got any kind of resistance. They quickly tied the rest of the group without any problems. By this time it was totally chaotic as people continued to plea for their lives. I was getting dizzier as blood continued to drip across my face and into my right eye. It was the first time that I had tears in my eyes - not from the blood nor the pain, but from the reality that was now setting in. I was numb with fear. ^

“I was beyond horrified when I heard the clobbering begin. Somehow, I knew that this was it. Oum's elderly father was next to me and his upper torso contracted several times before he fell on me. At that moment, I noticed a small boy whom I knew well get up and start to call for his mother. Suddenly there was a warm splash on my face and body. I knew it was definitely not mud - it was the little boy's blood, perhaps his brain tissue scattering from the impact. The others only let out short but terrifying sputtered sounds. I could hear their breathing stop cold in its tracks. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion; it was so unreal. It happened in a matter of seconds but I can still vividly remember every trifling detail. I closed my eyes, but the terrifying sounds continued to penetrate my ear canals, piercing my ear drums. The first blow came when I was laying face down to the ground with a corpse partially covering my lower body. It hit me just below my right shoulder blade - I remember that one very well. The next one hit me just above my neck on the right side of my head. I believe it was the one that knocked me out that night. The rest of the clubbing, which included at least 15 blows, landed everywhere on my skinny little body. Fortunately, I did not feel them until much later. I do not remember anything after that, except that I slept very well that night, unconscious from the beating. “

Surviving the Tonle Sap Massacre

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “I woke up to the familiar sound of mosquitoes buzzing like bees over my body. Only this time there were tons and tons of them feasting on mine and other peoples' blood. I was unable to move a muscle, not a one. My eyes were opened, but they were blurry. I thought I had been blinded. I was disoriented. I could not remember where I was. I thought I was sleeping at home, in my own bed. I wondered why there were so many mosquitoes. They didn't bother me at that time because I could not feel a thing. Where was I? Why can't I move? I was still tied up with the cloth rope. After a few minutes I was able to see a little, but everything else was still blurry. I saw a bare foot but I didn't know whose it was. Suddenly, reality set in at full blast and I broke into heavy sweat. The memories of the events that happened earlier came rushing back and smacked me right in the head. I realized the sharp dull pain all over my body and head. I was very cold. I had never been so cold in my entire life. Fear ran rampant in my mind. I suddenly realized where I was and what had happened. "Am I already dead? If I am, why do I still suffer like this?" I kept on asking myself that same questions over and over again, but always came to the same conclusion. I was still alive. I am alive! But why? I could not understand why I was still alive and suffering. I should have been dead. I wished then and there that I was dead like the rest of people laying around me. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“The faint light of a new dawn broke through the sky, revealing my shriveled, blood soaked body in the mud. It must have been about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, January 1, 1978. "Not a Happy New Year today," I thought. It was still dark and cold. My motor skills came back little by little until I was able to move with great difficulty. I pushed myself to sit up by supporting myself on the pile of dead bodies. I began to work to untie myself from the cloth rope. I broke the rope after a few painful tries. My eyesight was also back, but I wished then that I was blind after seeing the scattered bodies laying at every direction. Some of them were beyond recognition. Some were completely stripped naked. Blood stains which had already turned to a dark color gave the area a new dimension. It definitely was not a sight for sore eyes. ^

“I wanted to look around for my relatives, but was unable to turn around. My neck was stiff with pain. My head hurt - oh how it hurt so badly. I could only feel around me with my two hands. Everywhere I touched was cold flesh. My hands were both trembling and I could not control them from shaking. I cried my heart out when I recognized a few dead bodies next to me, one of which was Oum and her unborn child. I suddenly remembered the bare foot I saw when I woke up - it was hers. Her elderly father and her two sisters were all piled on top of each other and side by side as though they were embracing just before they lost their lives. I could not go on. My cries turned to a sobs; it was the only sound around besides the mosquitoes which continued to torment my almost bloodless body. I began to fade and feel as though my life was slipping away. I passed out again on top of the dead bodies. I was totally out cold. ^

“I woke up to the sound of people coming toward the killing field. I sat up and listened closely. I began to panic: "They are back to finish me off," I told myself, "They are going to bury me alive!" They might as well. I had nothing to live for. Technically, as far as the Khmer Rouge were concerned, I was already dead. I was ready to give up as the voices got closer and louder, but my survival instinct finally took control. I pushed myself, inching my way towards nearby bushes. I was no more than 20 feet away from where I was earlier but I now commanded a good view of the area. The people soon arrived at the site. I was right - the soldiers were back with a new batch of victims with them. Most of the people were men, but there were a few women. Their hands were all bounded together around the back, but with real rope instead of cloth. "There's no way they can get out of that rope," I said to myself. One of the soldiers gave a command. In the broad morning light, I again witnessed the slaughter of human lives. In a matter of seconds they were all clobbered to death, just like the rest of my family and friends whose bodies were still scattered on the muddy ground. My heart just stopped. My entire body shook convulsively and I wanted to throw up. My left hand squeezed tightly over my mouth so I wouldn't accidentally cry out and give myself away. I felt as though I was going through the same ordeal all over again. My mind just couldn't take it anymore. My mind went blank and I passed out again. ^

Escaping After the Tonle Sap Massacre

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “It wasn't until the next night before I was really awake. A whole day had gone by just like I wasn't there. I remembered waking up several times during the day, but everything was kind of foggy. Soon after I woke up, more people were coming toward me again. I assumed they were more victims to be killed. I did not wait to find out. I decided then that I wanted to live. I began to slip away from the area by crawling on all my elbows and knees. I couldn't walk at all, even if I had wanted to. I was no longer bleeding, but I knew that I was in a bad shape. I was hungry and very thirsty. My lips cracked like mud in the hot sun. My entire body cracked from the layers of mud and blood that had baked in the hot sun. I had to find water soon or I would died of thirst. I worked my way west along the shallow-dried up canal and then turned north. By this time it was really dark and chilly. I found myself in the middle of a forested area. Impenetrable brush. I went back and forth trying to find a way to get through the thick forest and ended up back where I had started, near the killing area. After the fourth or fifth time trying, I found myself in the middle of the forest, lost and frustrated. I knew that I was getting very weak and needed to find my way out of this tangled web of thick thorn brush soon if I was to stay alive. I spent the night right where I was, crying myself to sleep. That night I slept like a log. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“For the next 17 days I found myself hiding out in the forest. I slept only in the daytime and spent my nights raiding one village after another for whatever I can find to eat. My injuries healed quickly and I began to put on some weight thanks to the food that I had stolen from the surrounding villages. I never stayed in one place for long. I kept on the move and always watched out for any sign of danger. I knew that they were searching for me but I was able to keep a step or two ahead of them. They always counted bodies and if one was missing, they always searched and usually recaptured the escapee. It was very difficult for me at first, but I soon became expert in the arts of raiding food and eluding capture. I am sure I must have frustrated a few Khmer Rouge soldiers who searched for me during my 17-day reign as king of the jungle. ^

Khmer Rouge Killing Peaks in 1978

The Khmer Rouge killing peak in 1978. Enemies were purged; people found in the cities were killed simply for being urban dwellers. Urbanites taken to new villages didn’t fare much better, Youk Chhang returned to his village in 1979. "I was really shocked," he wrote. "there were about 1,000 families in that new village when I left. When I returned it was almost empty—like a ghost town. I say people dying and heard people crying. Even the huts were falling down. Hundred of people had been killed, had starved to death or had died from the lack of even the most basic medicine.

"The local Khmer Rouge had killed my sister, her husband and their young daughter," Youl Chhanng wrote. "No one knew how they died. We only knew the soldiers had come to my mom's house and took all three away one night. They never returned. They were killed because they had an education. My brother-in-law had been educated abroad as a mechanic and my sister was a schoolteacher. That was their crime."

Teeda Butt Man wrote in Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields , "We were not allowed to show any grief when they took away our loved ones. A man would be killed if he lost an ox he was assigned to tend. A woman would killed if she was too tired to work....They clubbed the back of our necks and pushed us down to smother us and let us die in a deep hole with hundred of bodies...I wanted to commit suicide but I couldn’t. If I did I would be labeled ‘the enemy.’...My death would be followed by my family’s death because they were the family of the enemy. My greatest fear was not my death, but how much suffereing I had to go through before they killed me.”

Paranoia and Khmer Rouge

Over time, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge grew paranoid and blamed their problems on “hidden enemies, burrowing from within.” The group began purging and executing its own rank and file, starting with members with ties to old regime; followed by communists whose loyalty was deemed deficient. Even high ranking Khmer Rouge cadres and some leader close to ruling hierarchy were executed.

People who had any contact with the Vietnamese or foreigners or who traveled to a foreign country at any time in their lives were executed as spies. Dogs were killed because they were regarded as particularly devious spies, since they never kept their masters out of sight and slept under their beds. There are even stories of dogs being killed so Khmer Rouge spies and informers could take their place under the beds.

Many were killed simply because they had associated with other people that had been killed. Helen Jarvis of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University told Newsweek: "Ultimately....the Khmer Rouge...turned on itself. The notion was that they had to purify society and eliminate 'pests and enemies.' Once they had found one person they tried to find the links to others that person might have known, and they had 'strings' of people, as they would say."

One telegram sent to Ieng Sary in April 1978 referred to “internal enemies.” It said: We are continuing to wipe out the remaining elements. They were against our revolution both openly and secretly.”

Major Purge in the Khmer Rouge

In 1975 Pol Pot concluded an alliance with the party head of the Southwestern Zone, Ta Mok, who was a Khmer Issarak veteran and, like Pol Pot, was strongly anti-Vietnamese. During 1977 and 1978, Ta Mok provided the backing that enabled Pol Pot to liquidate the opposition within the KCP and to initiate new terrorism against the local population. In February 1977, Southwestern cadres went into the Eastern, Northern, and Western zones to purge local Khmer Rouge. Four months later, the same process was begun in the Northwestern Zone. The purges intensified following an abortive coup d'état in August. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

After the fall of the capital, Ta Mok's lieutenant, a former high school teacher who assumed the name Mit (Comrade) Deuch, became head of the secret police, and established the Tuol Sleng interrogation and detention center on the site of a former Phnom Penh high school. In the 1975 to 1976 period, Tuol Sleng's meticulous records show that 2,404 "antiparty elements" were tortured and executed. The terror escalated in 1977, when the number of victims rose to 6,330. In the first six months of 1978, records show that 5,765 people were killed; records for the latter half of that year have not been discovered. The victims who passed through Tuol Sleng from mid-1975 to January 1979 numbered about 20,000. Among those who met death in the infamous prison were Paris alumni Hu Nim and (presumably) Hou Yuon. Similar centers were set up throughout the country (Tuol Sleng's code designation, S-21, suggests that at least twenty other similar sites had been established). Molyda Szymusiak writes that a new wave of terror began in the Batdambang region after cadres arrived from the south. The Sala Som Niat, a school for political education was converted into an extermination center where local communists were tortured and executed. The pattern in these centers was much the same: victims were tortured, forced to write often absurd confessions, and then killed. A young British teacher, captured in a yacht off the Cambodian coast, confessed at Tuol Sleng that he had been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States when he was twelve years old; he was subsequently murdered. Hu Nim was forced to confess that he had become a CIA agent in 1957. *

The Eastern Zone apparently remained largely unaffected by the purge until May 1978, when So Phim led a revolt that provoked massive retaliation by Pol Pot and his Southwestern henchmen. In the bloodiest purge of the entire 1975 to 1978 period, as many as 100,000 people in the Eastern Zone--labeled people with "Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds"--were liquidated or were deported to face certain death in other parts of the country. Most of the victims were political cadres, "new people," and Vietnamese or part-Vietnamese residents. So Phim reportedly committed suicide as he faced capture. Some of his subordinates, including Heng Samrin, the leader of the PRK after 1979, fled to Vietnam. *

Reasons for the Khmer Rouge Mass Killings

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Some have theorized that American bombing drove the people to madness (but why didn't the same thing happen in Laos or Vietnam). Others blamed it on paranoia.

Stephen Heder of the London School of Oriental and African Studies told AP: "A leadership group emerged desperate to catch up, by any possible means, with the rest of the world." These leaders were very much influenced by Stalinist and Maoist doctrines. "Society was unable to resist. If you look astChina and Vietnam, the social structures frustrated the ambitions of the leaders. In Cambodia, the society was so weak it was completely vulnerable.”

The French ethnologist Francios Bizot befriended Duch after he was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1971. Describing him years before he took over Tu Sleng prison, Bizot wrote, “more than anything else in the world Duch yearned to give a pure, upright image of the Khmer resistance...When I met Duch he was not predestined to be killer. He did not know where the revolution would lead him. It’s like young Nazis in the 1930s, who put on brown uniforms and swastikas. They didn’t know what the uniform would come to symbolize...The Nazi, the Khmer Rouge the Rwandan killer is a man who looks like us. That’s my only conclusion.”

A clip from the 2009 documentary Enemies of the People shows Nuo Chea, the chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge, explaining why there were so many purges. “If those treaters were alive, the Khmers as a people would have been finished,” he says, “so I dare to suggest our decision was the right one. If we had shown mercy to the people , the nation would have been lost.”

"One of the sad truths I have come to see is that for this kind of mass violence, you don't need monsters," Craig Etcheson, a genocide expert and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, told the Chicago Tribune. "Ordinary people will do just fine. This thing lives in all of us." [Source: Evan Osnos, Chicago Tribune, March 05, 2006]

Kong Duong the voice of Khmer Rouge radio, said” "It is not hard for a small group to spread hate. Pol Pot educated the poor to hate the rich, so when he got to power, they had hatred in their hearts." "I don't understand, with such cruelty and such savagery, how you who worked here could have gotten used to such acts," Cambodian torture survivor Vann Nath said in the 2003 documentary, "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine." "I had power over the enemy, I never thought of his life. I saw him as an animal," the former guard replied. [Ibid]

When American diplomat Charles Twining listened to Cambodian refugees tell him of Khmer Rouge soldiers suffocating monks with plastic bags and felling farmers with hoes, he thought: "This can't be possible in this day and age. This is not 1942. This is 1975." The massacre continued for three more years. "I really thought that those days, those acts, were behind us," he told author Samantha Power in her book on genocide, "A Problem from Hell." [Ibid]

Pol Pot and Why the Killing Fields Occurred

In a review of ``Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare'' by Philip Short, Ernst-Ulrich Franzen wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Short shows just how the Cambodian tragedy came about, and how the idealism of a man and a movement was twisted into such a horrific parody of itself. Using new information and sound analysis, Short brings new light to one of civilization's darker chapters. Pol Pot's aim, Short argues, was not to slaughter about 20 percent of the country's population, but rather to transform the people into a true revolutionary mass that could then be molded as he willed and build a new nation free of foreign domination. To that end, intellectuals and the middle class were destroyed, the cities were evacuated and the countryside turned into a giant slave camp where starvation and death ruled. The result was a nation that committed a form of suicide between 1975 and 1979. [Source: Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 17, 2005]

Short shows how the Khmer Rouge fused forms of Buddhism, Khmer myth and European Marxist ideology to create an ideology that almost literally turned people into robots. Others played their parts in this, not least the United States and the wars it waged in southeast Asia. Short argues that there is some truth in the notion that without the Vietnam War, there would have been no Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia. But to his credit, in the end he puts most of the blame for what happened where it belongs: with the Cambodians who ruled their nation from 1975 to 1979: "The principal roles were taken by local actors."

In reading "Pol Pot" one is struck by how convinced those in the Khmer Rouge were not so much of their righteousness but of their right-ness. A study document by Angkar, the name of Pol Pot's political movement, said, "The only true freedom lies in following what Angkar says, what it writes and what it does." As Short adds: "Like the Buddha, Angkar was always right; questioning its wisdom was always wrong."

Book: ``Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare'' by Philip Short; Henry Holt & Co. ($30)

Who Ordered the Khmer Rouge Executions

Charlie Campbell wrote in Time magazine: “The debate rages over whether the Khmer Rouge was “essentially a top-down, pyramidal type structure,” as maintained by Prof. Greg Stanton, an expert in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, or whether, as Victor Koppe, a Dutch lawyer who defended Khmer Rouge members, says, there were various and opposing factions responsible for atrocities. [Source:Charlie Campbell, Time magazine, February 13, 2014]

Asked who ordered their execution, Rith reiterated that "in general terms, the upper echelons did not give a green light for killings" by the lower levels (khang loe, niyeay ruom, meun baoek aoy sâmlap te), as "they gave very clear instructions that before anyone could be killed, the decision to do so had to be made at four levels, first district and then sector, zone and centre, only after which could someone be killed" (koat mean kar nae-noam chbas nas, kar sâmlap manus mneak toal tae mean kar sâmrech 4 choan, pi srok, tâmbân, pheak, mochhoem, ban sâmlap manus mneak ban). Their policy was to "go light on killings" (aoy saoe slap) and deposit suspects with the Centre. Thus, it was supposed to "not be the case that just anybody had the right to kill" (meun maen neak-na mean seut sâmlap te), but the lower downs did so. Rith recalled that one female cadre from Kampung Tralach, Maen, who came for a study session in Phnom Penh, bragged proudly of having killed 400 people at the school she was attending. She was killing people who did not to give her their watches and gold, the same kind of thing that happened to Rith's relatives in Sector 25, where people were executed after searches found they had gold or medications. Rith stressed that "such were in fact not ordered by the higher ups, but the lower downs proceeded with them through factional links" (a-neung keu tha meun maen khang loe banhchea aoy sâmlap te, pontae khang kraom neung via tov tam pak tam puok tam khsae). Rith added that the upper echelons were aware this was going on, which was why – in 1976 -- they took the measure of requiring four levels of decision before anyone could be killed. [Source: Interview with Van Rith in Khpop commune, S'ang district, Kandal province, February 20, 2003 by Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia]

Rith explained further that in Sector 25 there was a prison – known as Office 15 – headed by Teng, a former municipal policeman who had joined the urban movement, distributing leaflets, and then was put in charge of security when he came to the countryside. Once there, he arbitrarily rounded everybody up, although a timely intervention on behalf of a relative could resolve in that person not being subjected to punishment. However, Rith said, Teng behaved according to individual whim and pride, settling grudges and taking revenge, while adding that it was the Party's leftist policies that gave him the opportunity to do so because "this was what ensued from leftism" (a-chhveng neung ao vea srâp tam neung tov). It would not have happened under a correct policy, like the previous one of gathering forces for political struggle, as a result of which everybody embraced everyone else, not wanting anyone to be killed or arrested by the enemy. However, as soon as they had power, once there were liberated zones, this kind of thing immediately began to emerge.

“Conceding that many people, including his own relatives, said that they were denied food for their labours, even where sources of food were plentiful, as in Sector 25, Rith attributed this to the leftism of cooperative chairmen who were poor, vengeful trash, who imposed retribution on middle peasants, like Rith's relatives, categorized as such because their homes had tiled roofs, and were accused of having had enough to eat only because they exploited the labour of others. In taking revenge once they were on top, they killed people, acting outside their formal authority, but pursuant to the Party leadership's leftist line, taking their cue from Radio Beijing's accounts of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Rith affirmed that his account of events responded to accusations he was responsible for the deaths of relatives in S'ang because he served the revolution that killed them, but said he was did not know whether everyone found it convincing, and that some still blamed him for what had happened. He added that if he held an official position and had money, such people would be intimidated by him, but in the absence of such factors, the situation he faced remained somewhat unsettled. He also said he believed a historical debate about what had happened should not take place yet, but be delayed until 40 or 50 years after the events. He declared he would not appear on any national or international stage, including any trial, wanting only to live in peace.

Revenge by Khmer Rouge Survivors

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, there were reports of mobs capturing Khmer Rouge fighters, killing them with knives and hammers and the crowd tossing the corpse down a well as children looked on with fascination. There were also reports of villagers confronting Khmer Rouge torturers who they found lived among them. Kassie Neou told the New York Times he vowed revenge until he ran into one of his torturers at a refugee camp in Thailand. "He turned completely white pale when he saw me," he said. "He could not talk because of his fear, and he only said, 'My wife is sick and my baby is dying....Because of his fear, and because his baby was dying, I completely changed my mind about taking revenge through anger.” Instead he gave his former torturer money for cigarettes and took him to a feeding station and secured some help for his sick wife and child.

Tonle Sap massacre survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: Every single day I waited for the moment when I would get the chance to avenge the death of my family and friends. One day that opportunity arrived. I stumbled accidentally on a group of escapees who were also hiding in the forest. I almost got killed because they thought I was a Khmer Rouge spy. The only thing that saved me from certain death were my recent injuries; they believed my story. The next night all of us - over 200 men and women - broke up into three groups and went out to attack a Khmer Rouge garrison for food and weapon. Despite our lack of organization and weapons, we were willing to go against an army with only sticks, stones, a few knives and two recently dug up grenades. The element of surprise was gone when the old-rusty grenades failed to explode. Most of us got mowed down like weeds. There were heavy casualties. Many died or were wounded during the attack and counterattack - it was a total failure on our side. Although we obtained a few pistols and rifles we didn't reach our objective, which was to get food and weapons and take over the garrison. However, many of us were able to hurt or kill quite a few soldiers during the attack. I may have killed at least one and hurt a few others with my homemade "cave man's club." At 15-years-old I was the youngest in the group, but I fought just as bravely or even braver than any of the men or women there. I was burning and boiling inside with hate. I was fearless. Life meant nothing to me. I decided to live only to kill the Khmer Rouge, and that one night I was a savage animal with nothing but rage. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“Most of us were killed or captured during the army's full-scale counterattack. Our hideout in the wood was shelled day and night for three days until hardly anything was left standing. I decided to stick with the three leaders whereever they would go. The four of us managed to get away and head to Thailand. After 15 days of hiking the 150 miles to the border we found ourselves in a Thai prison. The Thai authorities considered us as "political prisoners" simply because we arrived when they closed the border. And the four of us were not alone, as there were over 600 others like us who were kept in a 75x75 meter cell. Living conditions were bad and the treatment we got from the Thai guards was even worst, but I must admit that I would rather be in a Thai prison than in the hands of the Khmer Rouge anytime. At least we were fed and clothed like a human beings - much better than the Khmer Rouge would have done. And because I was the youngest of the prisoners I got better treatment than the others; I even got to know some of the guards really well. I used that privilege to my best advantage. I weighed a little less than 80 pounds when I first arrived in Thailand. Within 4 weeks, I managed to gain over 20 pounds. ^

“We spent five months in the Thai prison before we were eventually moved to a refugee camp near the Thai-Cambodian border. While I was in the refugee camp I waited for a recruitment drive to join the freedom fighters against the Khmer Rouge, but they did not accept me because I was "too young and too skinny." I even tried telling them that I was almost 18, but it was no use. I was stuck in one place and got very frustrated. I could not go back to fight, and staying in the camp would only lead me to commit suicide. My life had no meaning at that time. There was nothing to live for. I thought that I should live so that I may one day avenge the death of my loved ones. My purpose in life was gone when they refused to let me fight the Khmer Rouge. I thought I should end my life just like my fellow refugees who had already killed themselves. But then I thought some more. "That is too easy!" I told myself. "I am a survivor. I will not died so cowardly." ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.