Discovering Cambodia’s Dark Side

As you enter the temple compound of Wat Samrong Knong in the western Cambodian countryside, two large Buddhist pagodas loom over you – a weary 300-year-old wooden structure to the right, and a shimmering modern temple atop a small hill to the left. To reach the newer pagoda, you climb a steep staircase guarded by intimidating sculptures of naga snakes in the classic Cambodian style. If you turn around at the top of the stairs, you can see the area around the temples filled with memorial stupas – both old and new – built to house the ashes of members of the community who have died. It’s a very peaceful place, as the design and symbology are intended to be conducive to Buddhist meditation.

Wat Samrong Krong in Battambang, Cambodia
The old (left) and new (right) temples at Wat Samrong Knong, with a memorial stupa in the foreground.

Just out of sight, and outside the walls of the religious complex, stands another stupa. This stupa rises from a rectangular pedestal at the edge of a small pond. The pedestal is adorned on all four sides with carvings. Unlike the symbols and murals in the temples, though, these carvings do not feature deities or meditating monks. Rather, they illustrate torture methods, and depict Cambodians laboring in the fields under duress. As you move your gaze higher up on the stupa, you see that it is not bell-shaped like the others, but consists of a large rectangular structure with glass panes on each side. Moving closer, it becomes clear that the stupa does not contain ashes, but bones – not just those of one person, but of hundreds. These bones, now arranged neatly on shelves inside the stupa, were excavated from the adjacent pond. A simple wooden sign next to the pond reads “well for killing”, a horrifying reminder of an event that many Cambodians are still trying to come to terms with.

Genocide Memorial Stupa at Wat Samrong Krong in Battambang, Cambodia
The genocide memorial stupa behind Wat Samrong Knong. The bottom row of carvings depicts the evacuation of the city of Battambang and the forced construction of new rural villages. The top row depicts various tortures that the people of Battambang endured at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Sadly, the scene I just described is not unique, but one of several hundred such sites scattered throughout Cambodia. While Việt Nam was embroiled in its war, Cambodia was struggling through a civil war between the existing government and the Communist party known as the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, just as the North Vietnamese were taking control of the southern capital of Sài Gòn, the Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The new government, headed up by a man named Pol Pot, called its nation Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot held radical views about how the country should function, which included a strong emphasis on an agrarian society and an elimination of all foreign influence from the country. To bring about this vision, the Khmer Rouge (Khmer refers to the Cambodian people, and rouge, or “red”, refers to Communism) forcibly evacuated the cities and relocated the people to the countryside to farm the land. Educated people, intellectuals, religious people, and anyone else deemed unfit for agricultural work were marked for elimination. This, not coincidentally, resulted in the targeting of merchants and tradesmen of Vietnamese and Chinese descent who lived in the cities. It also targeted huge numbers of ethnic Khmers; doctors, engineers, musicians – many groups found themselves in the government’s crosshairs.

Those whom Pol Pot thought merited inclusion in his country were rounded up and relocated to rural areas to work on the land. Those who remained were taken to prisons, where they were accused of fictitious crimes and tortured until they confessed to them. The Tuol Sleng Prison was one of the most important, as it was located just outside the capital and was run by one of the highest party members of the Khmer Rouge, a man named Duch. Though he later claimed to have just been “doing his job”, Duch oversaw the imprisonment, torture, and execution of over 20,000 of his countrymen at this prison that had once been a school. The cluster of three-story buildings, with balconies overlooking two leafy courtyards, is not the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – as much as is possible, the modern Cambodians are trying to reclaim the original educational intent of the facility. A narrated audio-guide leads you through the solemn corridors and former classrooms, which now contain bloodstained bedframes as they were left in 1979, photos of victims, and the remains of brick walls that were used to separate prisoners within each room.

Barbed Wire at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tuol Sleng, a school turned prison.
Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A monument in the former schoolyard at Tuol Sleng bears the inscription (in Khmer, French, and English) “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.”

Most of the prisoners held at Tuol Sleng Prison were not actually executed there. Rather, they were sent to a site on the shore of Cheoung Ek lake just south of Phnom Penh. The sole purpose of this site was to dispose of people who had been “convicted” in the cheapest way possible. When the trucks arrived each night with a new group of prisoners, the Khmer Rouge soldiers – often uneducated youth from the countryside who had been trained specifically for this purpose – would lead the prisoners directly to a mass grave. There, using whatever tools were on hand (bullets had to be conserved as the government had shut down all manufacturing in the country), the soldiers beat the prisoners to death, allowing them to fall directly into the grave. The last thing the victims heard was the shrill sound of political songs blaring over loudspeakers to cover up their cries and give the illusion of a Party meeting to the farmers in the surrounding countryside. Today, a stupa stands among the graves and houses the remains of over nine thousand people who have been excavated here so far.

Killing Tree at Cheoung Ek in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A tree at the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields.
Cheoung Ek Killing Field in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The genocide memorial stupa at Cheoung Ek.

South of the city of Battambang, a mountain known as Phnom Sampeau rises from the flat farmland. The mountain has long been a sacred place for the local people, and is topped with a group of beautiful gilded Buddhist temples. As you walk up the steep path leading to the summit, you pass small Buddhist shrines, entrances to caves that are home to Cambodia’s largest bat colony, and countless curious monkeys. However, as with most seemingly pleasant places in Cambodia, there is a dark side. Shortly before reaching the peak, you are confronted with a small park filled with statues that depict in gruesome detail some of the tortures that people were subjected to on this mountain by the Khmer Rouge. Just behind the statues lies the entrance to a deep cave where victims, sometimes entire families, were thrown. Here, too, a glass stupa displays some of the bones that were found in the cave, and a monk sits beside a Buddha statue on the cave floor to dispense blessings to those who have come to pay their respects.

Phnom Sampeau Torture Sculpture Park near Battambang, Cambodia
The grisly sculpture park on Phnom Sampeau.
Phnom Sampeau near Battambang, Cambodia
From the top of Phnom Sampeau, the view is gorgeous.

The only possible outcome of the insanity of the Khmer Rouge’s leadership was failure. Forcing people from the cities who knew nothing about farming to cultivate the natuon’s food supply resulted in the loss of countless varieties of crops that later had to be reintroduced to the country. Constant separating and relocation of families resulted in a demoralized and terrified population. Killing the country’s educated and skilled citizens devastated Cambodia’s ability to function and make progress. Indeed, even the Khmer Rouge itself realized that some of its prisoners were actually useful – who but an artist could create propaganda posters for the Party, and who but a mechanic could fix the typewriters used to maintain the prison records? Ultimately, in 1979, after less than four years in power, the Vietnamese intervened and deposed the Pol Pot regime, effectively bringing an end to the genocide. However, the struggle between the Vietnamese-backed government and the Khmer Rouge continued within the country for nearly two decades before the Khmer Rouge finally fell apart in 1998 upon the death of Pol Pot.

Nowadays, the government of Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, with an elected prime minister as the head of state. However, after losing two million people, nearly a third of its population, in the 1970s, including most of the country’s educated citizens, it is no surprise that Cambodia is still facing difficulties. The government is ranked among the most corrupt in the world. The current prime minister is actually an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge, and has been serving for two decades, holding on to a significant amount of power. Another obstacle to moving forward is that many Cambodians are still trying to come to terms with the genocide; every family was affected in one way or another, and many people who experienced that time are still alive. Unlike what I noticed in Việt Nam, where most people prefer not to speak of their war, I met people in Cambodia who expressed frustration and hatred toward the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. The scars from these events will certainly take more time to heal, but if the number of stupas around the country is any indication, Cambodians will not forget the lessons they have learned anytime soon.

Rainbow in Battambang, Cambodia
A rainbow after the storm – brighter days are surely ahead!

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