KHMER ROUGE IN PHNOM PENH
Before the American bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, Phnom Penh was home to about 600,000 people. After the bombing and during the Cambodian civil war refugees from the countryside poured in and its population swelled to two million.
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh after a prolonged rocket attack and forced all the city's inhabitants to move out into the countryside. The city was emptied within days; schools, post offices, telephone services, pagodas and businesses were closed; colonial buildings like the French-built Catholic cathedral was destroyed; and banks were dynamited, raining worthless currency on the city streets. See History
After that Phnom Penh was a ghost town with a few Khmer Rouge officials—for four years. The National Museum was left to gather bat guano. Buildings decayed and crumbled. Schools were turned into torture and execution centers. The first ordinary Cambodians to return to Phnom Penh were political prisoners brought to the city to be interrogated, tortured and eventually killed.
Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The nightmare began April 17, 1975, when Cambodian communists defeated the nationalist forces of U.S.-backed dictator Lon Nol and entered Phnom Penh. Like phantoms, they came out of the countryside where they had waged a five-year-long guerrilla war, most of them hardened teenagers wearing sandals made of tire rubber, baggy black shirts and trousers and red-and-white scarves still sold as souvenirs. By that time, war refugees from the provinces had streamed into the city, swelling the population from 600,000 to as many as 3 million. Food, housing and medical supplies were scarce. People welcomed the Khmer Rouge, never imagining that in a matter of days they would be herded onto roads with only what they could carry. [Source: Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011]
“The mass evacuation of Phnom Penh, a Khmer Rouge "extraordinary measure" intended to expedite the country's transformation into an agrarian communist state, took the lives of 20,000 people and left the capital a ghost town. On my way into Phnom Penh from the airport my car passed the French Embassy on Monivong Boulevard. The walled compound has been reconstructed since 1975. But at the gate I heard echoes from "The Killing Fields," a 1984 movie based on a celebrated New York Times Magazine article by Sydney Schanberg, about the fate of foreign nationals and officials from the fallen regime who sought shelter at the embassy when the communists took possession of Phnom Penh. Most foreigners were allowed to leave the country, but the French were forced to surrender the Cambodians, including Schanberg's research assistant Dith Pran, to all but certain death. (Pran escaped, later moving to the U.S., where he died in 2008.)
Khmer Rouge Sites in Phnom Penh: M-13, S-21 and Choeung Ek
Former M-13 prison/ Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former S-21)/ Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (former Execution Site of S-21) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center are the only historical sites that have so far been established as museum institutions in Cambodia to represent the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime, although several smaller local memorials have been established, including the former prison M-13. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
The three crime sites (KR prison M-13/ KR “Security Office S-21”/ the Execution Site of S-21 “Choeung Ek”) are strongly linked to each other. In M-13 the later head of S-21, Kaing Guek Ieu, known as Duch, tested methods of interrogation and torture, before he later practiced and further developed them at S-21. After many prisoners were initially killed at S-21, the site Choeung Ek outside of the city was later chosen as a more appropriate site for mass execution. The vast majority of more than 18,000 prisoners of S-21 were killed at Choeung Ek.
As it has been possible until today to safeguard all three sites, they can represent together an escalation of violence, which can help to understand, how happenings like at Choeung Ek were possible. All three sites should be seen together as a single sequence of serial memorial sites for remembering and historical learning. Together they can represent with high authenticity and integrity a chronological chain of extreme mass violence. Of particular significance as an extremely rare practice in the world, is this example of a society memorialising crimes committed by its “own” people. In addition to that, the three sites are three out of very few sites of remembrance of mass crimes in a Buddhist society, located in Southeast-Asia.
As all three sites are still existing – former M-13, former S-21 and its former killing site at Choeung E, a serial sequence of sites presents a unique chance to explain how violence can escalate - a process that is represented by the sites, the buildings, the documents, bureaucratic structures, the practice of torture, the killing tools, etc.
Why the Khmer Rouge Sites in Phnom Penh Are Important
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The three sites are the principal sites in Cambodia, which have been turned into memorial site museums (institutions) to remember the crimes of the “Democratic Kampuchea” regime. As S-21 was unique – being the interrogation and torture site of the Central Committee – it is representing together with Choeung Ek a unique historical site in Cambodia. None of the so far identified 196 prisons had this outstanding importance for the regime and also since its overthrow in 1979 as the principal locations to represent the crimes in total for the overall country. As Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek are representing the crimes in total of the Khmer Rouge regime, it is at the same time the place to remember the attempt to kill entire minorities, like the Cham, the ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese inhabitants. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
The fact that all three sites still exist, are protected and managed by the government give the chance to present them together as an ensemble which illustrates a significant stage of inhuman history. The history of this ensemble marks the outstanding significance. It might not be outstanding, that school buildings are transformed into prisons or hidden spots in nature used as prisons and killing sites, but the the fact that the details of how Duch (head of prison M-13 and later S-21) developed his techniques of interrogation and torture, later accompanied by an extreme bureaucratic procedure, can be shown in the entire length of the history – pre-prison – central prison – killing site – in this series of three sites.
There have been mass crimes and attempts of genocide all over the world. But still not all crimes are the same. It is of universal significance to understand what was specific and outstanding in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge (see explanation above) and to acknowledge, that these three sites are the sites in Cambodia to remember the victims of the regime. The thousands of photos of prisoners together with the photos of mass graves and skulls have been endowed with an iconic status internationally to represent the image of the Khmer Rouge crimes. Without the institutions Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek, the link to the real places, where these photos were taken, would not be possible. The buildings and landscapes (Choeung Ek and former M-13) provide the physical evidence that these crimes were committed.
These sites have also held particular significance in the evolution of international criminal justice in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The then just established museum Tuol Sleng played already the pivotal role in the world’s first trial against genocide, the People´s Revolutionary Tribunal in August 1979 and all three sites were examined intensively by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) established in 2006, the first hybrid court, initially termed “the Cambodian model”.
Visiting the Khmer Rouge Sights in Phnom Penh
Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The standard sightseeing itinerary is short, usually ending with a pilgrimage to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, established after the 1979 Vietnamese occupation. The museum was a school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a detention center for purported enemies of the state. It was run by Comrade Kang Keck Ieu, alias "Duch," who had been a math teacher at the school. Purges that filled Tuol Sleng began almost as soon as the communists took power, inspired partly by the paranoia of leaders such as Pol Pot and partly by the Cultural Revolution in China.”[Source: Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011]
There were no trials for the men and women imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. All Duch's staff had to do before packing the prisoners into trucks, headed for the mass graveyard in the nearby village of Choeung Ek, was to get them to admit their crimes and name fellow saboteurs. Mug shots and detailed, largely fabricated confessions kept by prison clerks are displayed in cellblocks, along with forensic reports on skulls unearthed nearby.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia, a research institute founded in 1997, estimates that the Khmer Rouge regime operated 189 similar prisons around the country, filling 380 mass graves. The most infamous of these killing fields at Choeung Ek, where about 20,000 prisoners from Tuol Sleng were beaten to death and dumped in trenches across the soggy plain. The biggest trench contains 450 victims, another has 166 headless corpses and another was reserved exclusively for the bodies of women and children. In all, the remains of about 9,000 people have been uncovered at the site, though more bones and teeth turn up almost every time it rains.
The small museum at Choeung Ek has a display on Duch. Brought to the killing field while awaiting trial by the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2008, he reportedly cried for forgiveness. Two years later he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, murder and torture, then sentenced to 35 years in prison. There he remains, the only high-level Khmer Rouge official brought to justice to date.
TUOL SLENG PRISON
The Museum of Genocidal Crime at Tuol Sleng Prison (Street 113 and Street 350 in southern Phnom Penh, reached by taxi) is a painful reminder of horrors that took place in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge occupation. Located in a former high school, this torture, interrogation and execution center was known to the Khmer Rouge as S-21. Many people who have worked at Tuol Sleng insist that it is haunted by the ghost of people who were killed. Some who have spent the night there said that ghosts came by their cots in the middle of the night.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The core of S-21 prison was established in two adjacent former schools, built in the 1960s. Although the prison and its related administrative and support department were spread over a significant section of the city area (today known as BKK III), the TSGM site today occupies only the core of the former prison, the main site where the prisoners were brought, photographed, detained, many tortured, interrogated and executed or taken away to be killed at Choeung Ek. Current research estimates that 18.063 men, women and children were detained in S-21. Considering that many more houses in the neighborhood were part of the prison complex (work and accommodation places for the guards and other staff, kitchen, interrogation and torture houses, offices etc.), the museum took the initiative to seek limitation of nearby construction activities. Zones around TSGM have been defined and accorded legal status. (See master plan Phnom Penh 2019) [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
The Museum today is the core of the former S-21 detention and torture center, located in five former school buildings. It is the only prison from the Khmer Rouge period to have been converted into a museum by the government and — very importantly — this was done immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. That is why the vast majority of the rooms were kept in the same condition in which they were found in 1979. Only for the use of the permanent exhibition and office needs, rooms were partly changed. In most of the rooms the traces of the former cells are still visible on floors and walls and thousands of graffiti inscriptions have been registered and photographed. The premises (former high school) itself has not changed structurally (no buildings have been taken away or were added, only in the two courtyards, pathways have been added and trees planted, and memorials have been erected. The only new building is a small ticket office constructed in 2010 in a corner of the site.
Altogether, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. There is something about the sheer ordinariness of the place that make it even more horrific; the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where several children kick around a ball, rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of harrowing black-and-white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst. Tuol Sleng is not for the squeamish.
Tuol Sleng Museum serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rough. Location: Street 113, BKK III, Phnom Penh, 2019: 1,19 ha/ between street 350/320/113/131. The museum's entrance is on the western side of 113 St just north of 350 St. Hours: open daily from 7:00am to 11.30am and from 2:00pm to 5.30pm; entry is US$2. Tel. 855-12-457-677.
History of Tuol Sleng Prison
In 1975,Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security force and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) It soon became the largest such center of detention and torture in the country. Over 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek to be executed; detainees who die during torture were buried in mass graves in the prison grounds.
As the Khmer 'revolution' reached ever-greater heights of insanity, it began devouring its own children. Generations of tortures and executioners and were in turn killed by those who took their places. During the first part of 1977, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. When Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese army in early 1979, they found only seven prisoners alive at S-21. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their decomposing corpses were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard.
Tuol Sleng was made into a museum during the Vietnamese occupation in part to show how benign their rule was compared to that of the Khmer Rouge. The museums's director, Ing Pech, was one of the handful of inmates, out of 14,000 to 20,000 who entered, who survived. His life was spared because he possessed some mechanical skills that were useful to his captors. The photographs of the victims come from 7,000 negatives discovered by American photographers in the early 1990s in metal cases in an office on the prison's second floor. They were cracked, covered with dust and mold, but many were in good enough condition to be restored.
Rooms and Objects in Tuol Sleng Museum
Visitors to Tuol Sleng can examine the shower-size cells, where the prisoners were kept and fed starvation rations; the barren and stained rooms used interrogate them; some of the instruments used to torture them; and the offices of the Khmer Rouge paper pushers who recorded their deaths. In the interrogation rooms you can see the metal shackles used to tie prisoners to their cots. Some had a small box the prisoners could use as a toilet. Dried blood can be seen in the cracks of the floor.
The most compelling rooms of the museum are covered with several thousand black-and-white photographs of the victims who were condemned to death. They include a 12-year-old boy with a chain around his neck, a mother with the arm of a child reaching upwards into the picture, young girls, old men, rich people, peasants and Westerners whose yacht accidently drifted into Cambodian waters. Looking at the pictures it is said is as close as you'll ever come to staring death in the face without dying yourself.
The museum also contains rare photographs of Pol Pot, a defaced bust of the Khmer Rouge leader and photographs from the emptying of Phnom Penh. In several rooms there are paintings that depict the methods of torture used on the prisoners: some had electric shocks administered to their tongues; some had their fingernails pulled out with clamps; and others had their heads plunged under water until they passed out.
In one room there used to be a 12-meter-square map of Cambodia made with 300 human skulls held together by wire. The skulls and bones were from victims dug up at the Choeng Ek Killing Field. A few years ago the map was dismantled in a Buddhist ceremony A Buddhist shrine now is situated at the site.
On the list of ten “security regulations” are: No 3: “Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution; No. 6: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all”; and No 10: “If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shock of a electric discharge.” The regulations also said: “Answer exactly what you are asked. Never try to dodge a question. “Answer immediately without taking even a moment to answer.” “Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I give a command obey immediately without a protest.”
Photographs of Tuol Sleng Prison Victims
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rough was meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after being tortured. Documents and files with pictures and written confession were kept on most of the prisoners. After the prison was abandoned researchers uncovered documents with jotted-down notes like "Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed" on instructions to "Kill them all."
The museum displays include room after room in which such photographs of men, women and children cover the walls from floor to ceiling; virtually all the people pictured were later killed. You can tell in what year a picture was taken by the style of number board that appears on the prisoner's chest. Several foreigners from Australia, France and the USA were held here before being murdered. Their documents are on display.
The photographer who took the pictures, a member of the Khmer Rouge named Nhem Ein, told AP the prisoners were brought in blindfolded one at a time. When the blindfold was ripped off, they often asked, "Where Am I." Nhem Ein said he ignored them and told them "Look straight into the camera." "Those that arrived at the facility had no chance of living," he said. "I took pictures of the prisoners just after they had a number pinned on them. The photos were taken before they were interrogated or tortured."
Documents and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Former “Security Office S-21”
S-21 was one out of so far identified and documented 196 prisons throughout the country during the Khmer Rouge regime. The particular significance of S-21 and its distinction from the other prisons (some of them of the same size as S-21 and may have had even more victims) was that it was the apex of the nation-wide security system, and that prisoners were sent to S-21 from all around the country under the command of the Central Committee. Furthermore, these prisoners were destined to be killed. With very, very few exceptions nobody was to survive S-21, whose death rate was more than 99%. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
As the huge amount of documents produced in the S-21 prison institution (“confessions”, “biographies”, lists, notes, etc.) manifestly represent the ideology and hierarchical decision making process of the Khmer Rouge, the Tuol Sleng Archive’s more than 50.000 documents from S-21 were successfully inscribed into the UNESCO “Memory of the World” International Register in 2009, following inscription on the Asia Pacific Regional Register in 2008.
In addition to the site and the buildings an enormous amount of original documents and objects are preserved from the prison time, as documented in the nomination for Memory of the World registration. Furthermore, a wealth of documentation in the form of film and video recordings and journalistic rapportage and research findings, including several PhD theses, have been produced from the very first days of the prison’s location in January 1979 until today, as summarised in the Museum’s 40th anniversary exhibition and catalogue all substantiating the historical authenticity of the site and its role.
As mentioned above, the original scope of the site during the Khmer Rouge regime was substantially larger, encompassing a whole section of the city. As the city was reoccupied following the overthrow of the regime, inhabitants moved into the residential houses and the area managed by the museum was progressively reduced. However, today’s Museum indubitably maintains the core of S-21’s detention and administrative facilities.
Conservation Information: Historical period of interest: March 1976 – Jan 1979. Protected site since: Jan 1979 and converted into a museum the same year. UNESCO Memory of the World Register: The archives of TSGM were inscribed on the MoW Asia Pacific Regional Register in 2008 and on the International Register in 2009. Under control of: Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA) Public Access: open to public daily, in 2019: 500.000 visitors per year
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: M-13 is the Former early Khmer Rouge Prison and experimental site on detaining, torturing and killing including training of young prison guards by Duch. M-13 is one of the early prisons which the Khmer Rouge established before they gained control over the entire country in April 1975. Although there were other such prisons around the country, this appears to be the only one that has been identified and converted into a site of remembrance and learning. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
Although M-13 moved three times in the area, this site in Prei Chrao Village, was its location for the longest period. Duch, the head of M-13, moved to Phnom Penh and was later appointed as head of S-21 (known today as TSGM), and it is unknown whether M-13 continued to be operational 1975-1979. The number of victims of M-13 is unknown too. However, in January 1979 it was abandoned by the retreating Khmer Rouge and since that date was not used anymore and left empty. While nature gradually covered over the most of the former above-ground traces during the past 40 years, no agriculture activities were undertaken here to destroy the underground traces. Furthermore, knowledge about M-13 is still vivid in the surrounding villages.
There are very rare cases, where a prison in the countryside (constructed only out of natural material without permanent buildings) has remained with visible traces after nearly 50 years. This site gives the unique chance to show that any prison (like the much better known S-21) has its pre-history, where guards were trained and the head of the prison invented and tested various methods of interrogation, torture and killing.
M-13 is located in the countryside. During the prison time no buildings were constructed. The prisoners were kept in pits, fenced by bamboo walls and the guards including Duch slept and worked under the trees. The traces of the pits are clearly visible and nothing has been planted or constructed at this site since 1975. Although everything that was built out of natural material has decayed the soil still shows the traces; objects from the prison time were found; and interviews, testimony and even publications from former inmates and guards exist. Due to its untouched character, the site’s authenticity is considered to be high as corroborated in sworn testimony at the ECCC by surviving prisoners and guards well as in several written autobiographies
Location: Prei Chrao Village, Kbal Tek Commune, Tek Phos District, Kampong Chhnang provincel Size: about one hectare. Conservation Information: Historical period of interest: 1971 - 1975; Protected site since: 2019; Under control of: Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA). Public Access: via Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
CHOENG EK KILLING FIELD
Choeng Ek Killing Field (17 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. The Killing Fields of Cheung Ek was made famous by the film of the same name "Killing Field".
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Since 1950s and 60s, Choeung Ek compound was (in part) a Chinese cemetery before it was transformed into the execution site by Khmer Rouge as a part of S-21. Over a period of several years, nearly every night prisoners were taken there by trucks to be killed at Choeung Ek. In 1980, after Democratic Kampuchea was overthrown, the site was discovered and many remains of the victims were exhumed and examined, later to be preserved in a large Buddhist stupa. Thousands of Cambodian people and foreigners daily visit Choeung Ek to see the site and to organize religious ceremonies. It is the main site to celebrate the “Day of remembrance” each year on May 20. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]
Choeung Ek is one of thousands of killing sites throughout Cambodia. It was turned into a memorial site (including a small museum) and is the best known and is widely visited, as it was the killing site of S-21. The government (now since over 40 years) has not buried or cremated the remains, which are visible in (a religious building) a stupa - although not in keeping with the religious beliefs and traditions of the Buddhist majority.
The site had long been a Chinese cemetery before being used as the execution site of S-21, where it is estimated that the vast majority of the more than 18.000 victims of S-21 were killed. When the site was discovered, a large number of bodies were exhumed, but other mass graves stayed untouched until today, some of which are now submerged under the nearby lake. At the end of the 1980s a stupa was erected beside the mass graves and the bones were stored (and remain on display in the stupa since). As more and more visitors came, pathways were constructed through the mass graves that until today still reveal traces of bones and textiles, but aside from this minimal intervention, the site has remained its former landscape. Besides the large stupa, a small museum, an entrance building and other facilities for tourists have been added.
Visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre: the former Execution Site of S-21
Cheung Ek is a chilling reminder of the brutalities of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The glass stupa is 17 stories tall. Visitors can walk along 86 mass graves from which the remainders of 8,985 men, women and children were unearthed after the liberation from the Khmer Rouge. No matter how much visitors have read or been told about the Khmer Rouge brutality and the number of people killed all visitors shall understand the full process of how the tens of thousands prisoners were executed here. More importantly, visitors can learn about the chain of command established by Pol Pot. Both Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields exhibits may be disturbing for some and aren't suitable for younger children and adults who are easily shocked. Every year on May 20th a ceremony is held around the stupa to bring peace to the spirits of the deceased. A memorial ceremony is held annually at Choeung Ek on 9 May.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are open daily. Admission is $2. The site is 15 kilometers from Central Phnom Penh. To get there, take Monireth Blvd south-westward out of the city from the Dang Kor Market bus depot. The site is 8.5 kilometers from the bridge near 271 St. Choeng Ek is the name of small village near the killing field, which is set among fertile rice fields near a wide river. Most people get the to the site by taxi, motorcycle taxi or a tour agency minibus. The government has discussed taking the glass stupa down because it is thought that it might frighten away visitors to Cambodia. Ironically, it is one place that almost every tourist visits.
The main feature of Choeng Ek 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. Public Access: Open to public daily
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.
Conservation Information: Photographic and written reports of exhumations in 1980 and later forensic examination of the remains provide extensive demonstration of the authenticity of this execution site, whose present extent substantially represents the whole. Historical period of interest: after March 1976 – January 1979. Protected site since: Discovered after Jan. 1979/before Sept.1980, opened as museum on 7 January 1989. Under control of: Municipality of Phnom Penh.
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.
People Killed at Choeng Ek
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.
Kraing Ta Chan, One of the Khmer Rouge’s Biggest Killing Fields
Kraing Ta Chan (Tram Kak District, Takeo province 75 kilometers south-southwest of Phnom Penh) was the main Khmer Rouge security center in the district 105, between 1973 and 1979. It was located in the Southwest region, a region managed by Ta Mok, one of the cruelest Khmer Rouge leaders. The location was deep in the jungle, near the mountains, far from villages. It functioned in a similar way like M-13, later S-21 and Chouerng Ek. Suspects were imprisoned, interrogated, and killed. Kraing Ta Chan was one of a biggest killing fields in Cambodia where at least 10,045 persons were killed. Besides S-21 it is the only (known) prison were documents about the prisoners were produced and later found. In difference to S-21 it only had a local function and most prisoners were brought from nearby communities.
George Wright and Phorn Bopha wrote in the Cambodia Daily: “One of the first areas to fall to the communist fighters was Tram Kak district, the home base of the brutal Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok. Communal dining halls and other hardline measures were imposed on the population starting in 1973. That same year, when Soy Sen was 14, he was abruptly taken from his grandmother’s house by Khmer Rouge soldiers and imprisoned in the newly established Kraing Ta Chan security center, where he would remain for over five years. He believes he was targeted because of his father’s position in the Lon Nol regime, despite the fact that he had barely had a relationship with the man. [Source: By George Wright and Phorn Bopha, Cambodia Daily, August 30, 2014]
“Located in Kus commune, Kraing Ta Chan was first set up as a meeting and education center by the Khmer Rouge in 1972,but was quickly transformed into a vital “security center,” where perceived enemies of the regime and its ideology were jailed, tortured and executed. “I just lay there shackled with no food other than a little porridge. I was so skinny you can’t even explain,” Mr. Sen said, lifting his trousers to reveal large scars around his ankles. After laying in isolation for four months, Mr. Sen, who is one of only a handful of known survivors of the prison, was taken out of solitary confinement and trusted with tending buffalo, burying bodies and making alcoholic palm juice for Ta An, the prison chief. “I saw people killed every day and I would be responsible for burying the dead prisoners, taking clothes from the bodies, cleaning them, drying them and taking them back to the community to be worn. Ta An trusted me to take care of burying the corpses. They all trusted me, even Ta Mok,” said Mr. Sen.
“The prison was split into four sections with about 100 people crammed into each cell, Mr. Sen said. He said it is difficult to estimate how many prisoners would be incarcerated at one given time due to the high level of arrivals, executions and deaths from starvation, but puts the number at 300 to 400, including entire families. Mr. Sen believes about 20 to 30 people died at the prison every day, including women and children, with prison guards often putting the children’s livers in alcohol to drink after killing them.
”The majority of the bodies Mr. Sen was forced to bury and strip on a daily basis belonged to members of the Lon Nol regime. Soon after being assigned his new job, Mr. Sen said he witnessed the murder of his father along with around 100 other people. “They marched them in a line and my father was at the front. They tied his hands back, blindfolded him, and then hit him over the head with a hoe. I watched it all from the top of a coconut tree,” he said.
”Later that day the teenager went to strip the bodies, but managed to secretly smuggle his father’s clothes into his cell. “I took his white T-shirt and sarong he always wore that he got from Kompong Cham. I used it as a blanket every night.” After fleeing the prison when the Vietnamese pushed the Khmer Rouge out of the area in late 1978, he returned to his village, while a slow trickle of his Khmer Rouge tormentors began moving back into the area. To his anger, many of the lower ranking cadre at the prison still live close to Mr. Sen. One prison guard, known as Duch, lives about 2 km from Mr. Sen’s home. Mr. Sen said the prison guard was notorious for raping, killing and mutilating women. Duch denied these claims to a reporter, saying he had only been assigned menial tasks.
”Crimes that took place at Kraing Ta Chan will be examined in court during the second phase of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 002 against senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which is scheduled to begin later this year. Andrew Johnston, a researcher who focused on Kraing Ta Chan in his PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said that there is clear evidence that prison chiefs had regular contact with the highest-ranking officials about the confessions that were extracted from prisoners upon arrival. “Confessions from Kraing Ta Chan have been recovered and there is a plethora of data that illustrates that the chief of the prison, initially Ta Chen and after his disposal, Ta An, was in regular contact with the party center,” Mr. Johnston said in an email. “The prison was instrumental in the perpetuation of the paranoia harbored by the Khmer Rouge and was ultimately part of the centralized murdering machine,” said Mr. Johnston.”
MACHINE GUN SHOOTING RANGES NEAR PHNOM PENH
Machine Gun Shooting Ranges Near Phnom Penh (about 20 kilometers form Phnom Penh) offer visitors a chance to shoot an AK-47, Uzi, M-16, grenade launcher, tripod-mounted field machine gun, M-60 or K-57 machine gun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, pistol, bazooka or even a B-40 rocket. You can also toss a grenade. Bullets costs as little as 30 to 40 cents each.
There are two main shooting ranges in the Phnom Penh area. The smaller of the two is run by the government. The other is a private facility. It is father away but has a better selection of weapons. The government one is about a kilometer off the main road past the airport. There are no markings but most motorcycle taxi drivers know where it is. Customers shoot from a shed where the weapons are stored at a hill about 100 meters away. The weapons available here include an AK-47, M-16, grenades, a grenade launcher and some machines guns. The staff isn’t very helpful and pretty much leave you up to your own devices after you pay,
The Marksmen Club, the name of the private facility, is a modern well-run shooting range. Operated by a Taiwanese- American, it is six kilometers further than the government shooting range on the main road past the airport and five kilometers off the main road. There is a large sign on the main road that tells you where to turn.
The Marksmen Club is surrounded by a thick concrete wall and has a 500-meter wide buffer zone of rice fields around them. The staff that works there dresses in black uniforms. They thoroughly check every one who comes in and keep an eye them and provide instructions on how to use the weapons they choose. There is a wide selection of weapons here, including some machine pistols and futuristic-looking weapons with laser light sights. Customers shoot from inside padded stalls (the padding reduces the noise) at metal targets The cost of shooting off 30 rounds from an AK-47 is about $20 ($10 for the weapon and $20 for a clip with 30 rounds). The prices vary for the other weapons. The biggest cost is ammunition.
Shooting a K50 and an AK47
Describing his experience at the shooting range,Kevin Doyle wrote in The Times, “It’s a mean, dirty little gun, the K50: the Soviet version of Al Capone’s notorious equaliser of choice — the Tommy gun. It should really have been decommissioned years ago. Instead it is set on full automatic, spitting sparks, chattering like a banshee and gripped hard in both my hands. Firing from the hip in Prohibition-era style, I watch, fascinated, as flying shell-casings ker-ching off the brick walls of the brick shooting alley. About 20 meters in front of me, bullets rip satisfyingly through a paper target pinned to an already very shot-up wall of sandbags — and stop only when a round jams in the drum-shaped magazine. Designed by the Russians to deter the Wehrmacht, this particular sub-machinegun is one of the most venerable models on the menu here at what is a uniquely Cambodian tourist attraction. As one bullet-happy tourist notes, ‘My lasting memory of Phnom Penh is that it’s the only place on the planet where you can get a beer and a machinegun at the same time.’ [Source: Kevin Doyle, The Times, January 31, 2006]
“The frosty Anchor beer is, indeed, readily available — but not advertised on the laminated “menu” presented to visitors at the Cambodian Special Forces base 20 minutes drive from downtown Phnom Penh. Instead, the menu is used exclusively to detail the comprehensive array of guns for hire. The AK47 is much, much easier to handle. Compared with the Tommy gun there’s barely any recoil at all. Even from 50 meters away, the full length of the range, it’s far more accurate, too. Also hung up on the bamboo display wall are Uzis, M16s, and 12-gauge, semi-automatic combat shotguns — the type christened ‘trench clearers’ by US troops during the war in Vietnam. Its report is so astoundingly loud that every other shooter on the range stops and turns. The target is decimated with one cartridge, and the next four serve simply to churn up the mangled sandbags behind it even more. I can already feel the bruises flowering on my shoulders — the 12-gauge is absolutely terrifying, a wicked, horrible weapon.
“Yet this is far from the most destructive item on the menu: visitors also have at their disposal light and heavy machineguns, hand grenades, M79 grenade launchers and the devastating, shoulder-fired B40 rocket-propelled grenades. Once named the “Thunder Ranch”, the wood, brick and bamboo shooting range is run by Cambodia’s 911 Paratrooper Commandos and allows Rambo fantasies to be played out daily by young backpackers and middle-aged upmarket tourists —at fixed, per-bullet price. Thirty rounds for an AK47 or M16 cost $30. One hundred for a US-made M60 light machine gun and the similar Russian-made K57 LMG costs $100. Then prices jump for an M79 launched grenade, which cost $100 per shell. However, you certainly get more bang for your bucks — an M79 can knock down a small building. A B40 rocket propelled grenade costs $200.
High-End Items on the Weapons Menu and Shooting Cows
Kevin Doyle wrote in The Times, “Presenting the ‘menu’, a helpful staff member explains that if a visitor wants to fire the grenade and rocket launchers, it means a trip to another shooting range about 40 minutes drive away. To enhance the experience, he adds, old cars can be procured for target practice. Furthermore (although this particularly unsavoury offer was supposed to have ended years ago) live animal targets are also available — at a price. ‘We can do it, we can do it,’ he smiles. Of the 30 or 40 visitors to the range each day, at least three groups each week opt for the heavy weapons, he says, although he won’t divulge just how many groups use live animals for their rocket practice. [Source: Kevin Doyle, The Times, January 31, 2006]
“In 2001, Cambodia’s then King, Norodom Sihanouk, made a public appeal for the slaughter of animals to end on the nation’s shooting ranges, noting that such practices were not only tarnishing the country’s reputation but were also diametrically opposed to the philosophy of the national religion, Buddhism. The King stepped in after it became common knowledge that staff at the shooting ranges had at times spiced up the experience by allowing particularly sick tourists to shoot chickens with assault rifles, reportedly for $5 a bird — and to fire rockets at goats and water buffaloes reported to cost between $100 to $300.
“It is not just livestock that has perished at this range. In 2004, a 25-year-old American tourist turned up like any other visitor, chose a K54 handgun and 80 bullets. He fired 79 at the target. With the last bullet in the chamber he committed suicide. Although the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia firmly discourages people from visiting the shooting range — and explains that this once war-torn country is trying desperately to reduce its own weapons stockpiles — trying out military hardware is still irresistible for many backpackers. A staple day-tour includes a trip to S-21 prison museum and the Choeung Ek ‘killing fields.’ followed by a bracing session of shoot-em-up action at the 911 base range, just a few kilometers away from the killing fields.
“Daniel Deutsch, 22, from Sydney, and three friends were doing just this — and they readily volunteered that ending the day at the range was a rather odd way of capping off their tour of Cambodia’s genocide memorials. After firing his first M16 rounds, Deutsch turned to suggest that the gunplay was lifting his mood after the deathly intensity of the killing fields. ‘You don’t want to go back to the hostel all tense,’ he said. “We heard we could shoot a chicken. But that would be pretty full-on.’ Charmaine Patel, a diminutive 24-year-old London recruitment worker, needed considerable coaxing from her friends before she decided to try out an AK47. Then she stood on an ammunition box, took hold of the assault rifle set on a bi-pod and let loose. Alternating between single shots and short bursts, she emptied the 30-bullet magazine in no time. ‘It’s a real adrenalin rush,’ she confessed, out of breath, happy that she had hit the target. It was, however, the last time she planned to shoot a firearm. ‘It is fun — but in a messed-up way.’
Phnom Ta Reach (Kampong Chhnang Province, 101 kilometers from Phnom Penh) is a natural and historical site related to the Khmer Rouge era. It is here that Pol Pot forced prisoners to carve a tunnel through mountain rock that was 200 meter long, 2.8-meter wide and six-meters high. Phnom Ta Reach is located at Phnom Touch village, Pong Ro Commune, Ro Lea Pha Ear District, about 10 kilometers from the provincial town of Kampong Chhnang. It can be reached from Phnom Penh by the National Road No 5, turning left by the road via the new airport. In a large space, there are many small concrete apartments. There is also a big and small hill covered with palm trees.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, 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, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
Last updated August 2020