Cambodia’s Dark Past

Photos of the prisoners in Tuol Sleng Prison.

In the early 1970’s, civil unrest and political turmoil had reached a peak in Cambodia and the surrounding region. With Vietcong soldiers using Cambodia as a pipeline for troops and armaments in their fight against the Americans, and the Americans retaliating with carpet bombings of their country, the Cambodian people were looking for a solution to a situation that seemed to be getting worse and worse. The first victim of the political unrest was Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who in 1970 was deposed in a military coup. The country quickly fell into civil war which opened the door for an extreme communist group to slip in under the guise of a party seeking peace. This group was called the Khmer Rouge, and their time in power would change the country and the lives of the people forever.

Lead by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to radically reform the country, envisioning a pure communal, agrarian-based society led by land workers. For years, the Khmer Rouge gained support in the countryside, plying poor farmers and peasants with the idyllic notion of a fair and equal society led by peasants (or the “the old people” as Pot termed them) . Uneducated young farmers were enlisted, indoctrinated, and armed as the Khmer Rouge slowly began taking over the country. With the surrounding country in their hands, Pol Pot’s army finally marched into Phnom Pehn in 1975. Though welcomed by urbanites hoping that peace was finally coming to the country, joy quickly turned to horror as the revolutionary army quickly began enacting their agrarian revolution. Within days, millions of men, women and children were evacuated from of the city and into the countryside. These forced evacuations occurred in all other cities throughout the country. Every single non-military man, woman and child were made to work on collective farms, despite many of them having no formative knowledge of how to work the land. They were forced to work day and night with no rest and little food.

Tuol Sleng (S-21)

In order to dissolve any attempts to overthrow the Khmer Rouge (or on simple grounds of suspicion), various “security offices” were created and used to detain and interrogate individuals. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, those who were educated, spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, had ties to the previous government, were all considered enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Under such parameters, anyone could fall victim to suspicion. No one was safe, even Pol Pot’s own family. These “enemies” were brought to the security offices, interrogated, cruelly tortured, and forced to admit false crimes. Many of them died from the daily punishments they had to endure.

One of the buildings at Tuol Sleng Prison.

One of the security offices was Tuol Sleng Prison (or S-21), located in what had become the vacated capital city of Phnom Pehn. The buildings that made up the prison were originally used for a primary school and later a high school. The classrooms were crudely converted into group and individual cells, and the wooden pole in the yard, which was once used for physical education, was now used for physical punishment. In 1975, around 175 prisoners were kept in Tuol Sleng, but by 1978 the number drastically rose to almost 6,000 prisoners. It’s estimated that over 10,000 prisoners were at one time kept at Tuol Sleng (that number doubles with the inclusion of children). Imprisonment usually lasted around 2-4 months, though political prisoners were kept longer, between 6 or 7 months.

Today, the buildings have been kept in the exact same state as when the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea entered the facility on January 7, 1979. The building has been renamed the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum where local and foreign visitors can learn more about the terrible circumstances and acts that occurred there. Visitors can walk right into the same rooms and cells that were once occupied by innocent Cambodians, look at the very same torture instruments used against them, and see remnants of blood smears on the individual-cell floors. In the larger group cells, a photo hangs on each wall showing exactly how the room was found, decomposing carcass and all. It’s an upsetting visual and an unsettling feeling walking through the rooms, taking in the inhumane behaviour and trying to comprehend the justification for it all.

One of the rooms where prisoners were kept.
Individual cells built in a former classroom.

The Khmer Rouge were fanatical documenters, taking photographs of each and every person that was detained in their facilities and filing their “confessions”. The pictures are now on display in the Museum and cover dozens of display boards throughout the rooms. The faces of emotionless individuals stare back at you as you move from room to room. It’s incredibly haunting and disturbing looking at these photographs and being able to put a face to the suffering, innocent people who basically fell into the wrong societal category of a distorted political agenda.

Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields

After the prisoners were interrogated at the security offices and “confessed” to their crimes, the Khmer Rouge had to do something with them. In the middle of the night, prisoners were blindfolded, piled into trucks, and told they were being moved to a “new home”. In 1975, the trucks would transport 50-70 people in two to three trucks each week. But just like in Tuol Sleng, that number dramatically increased to as many as 300 people every day by 1978. After enduring months of imprisonment and torture already, some may have actually believed they were going somewhere better. Others were probably praying that the suffering would just end. And it did.

The Khmer Rouge, with their dedication to efficiency, devised a way to mass exterminate their enemies as cheaply and quickly as possible. The blindfolded prisoners were led out into fields and were brutally murdered. Bullets were considered too expensive to use, so the prisoners were actually beaten to death with whatever was cheap and available (mainly agricultural tools), including serrated plant leaves to slit throats. Loud music was played throughout the compound to drown out the screams of the victims so those who were next in line had no idea what was coming. The dead bodies were then thrown into mass graves, and covered with DDT to mask the smell of the dead bodies, as well as finish off those who were still clinging to life. All members of a family were killed so no one was left to seek revenge. In the words of Pol Pot, “to dig up the grass, one must dig up the roots.”

The Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

The killing fields at Choeung Ek (located about 15 km from Phnom Pehn) are the most well known of over 300 killing fields in Cambodia. 129 mass graves cover an area of over six acres with an estimated total of close to 20,000 remains. Just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, 89 mass graves were excavated and close to 9,000 bodies were exhumed, with the largest mass grave containing 450 bodies. The remaining bodies have been left undisturbed, buried in the ground. The pits were originally 5 metres deep, but with shifting lands and rainfall, the pits are now shallow and bone fragments are discovered everyday.

Today, the area has been made into a memorial site with a large Buddhist Memorial Stupa located on the grounds that displays more than 5,000 human skulls. An audio guide helps visitors navigate their way through the grounds, providing chilling and alarming details of the events. It’s quite a disconnect listening to the audio guide describe the brutal acts, while standing in the very same place where they occurred, now surrounded by beautiful green fields, with the sounds of laughing children echoing from the school nearby.

Trying to comprehend the brutality at such a place.


Our day learning about this dark period in Cambodia’s history was extremely tough. It’s unfathomable how people are capable of inflicting so much pain and terror, especially against their own countrymen. Similarly to the Nazi controlled concentration camps during WWII, the heinous activities in Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields went unnoticed until the regime was finally toppled in 1979. Farmers in the nearby fields of Choeung Ek even claim to have not known anything about the nearby fields.

During the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days the Khmer Rouge were in power, an estimated 3 million people lost their lives (including those who died of hunger and disease), approximately 25% of the population at the time. This was an unprecedented tragedy and extreme loss of human life.

Skulls on display in the Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.

The day before we visited Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek Killing Fields, we talked with another couple about their thoughts on visiting the two sites. The woman was very open about her reluctance to go, saying that she just didn’t want to see a place where so many horrible things were done and experience the feelings that would come with visiting such sites. We fully agreed with her and respected her thoughts on the matter. But even though the day was very tough emotionally and I personally fought back tears a number of times, I thought it was important to take the time and learn all about it.

The Cambodian government openly encourages people to visit Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields so we can understand their culture, their history, and what they’ve been through as a people. But more importantly, so that we can learn how this happened and ensure that it will never happen again.


What you need to know: You can take the day to visit both Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Or you can break it up into two days if you feel uncomfortable with the subject matter. Entrance to Tuol Sleng costs $2 USD a person. Entrance to Choeung Ek Killing Fields cost $5 USD a person and includes the audio guide (highly recommended!). You will need to hire a tuk-tuk to drive you to the killing fields. We hired a driver for the day and paid $10 USD.


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