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Cambodia — The Ruinous Reign of the Khmer Rouge

— Cambodia —
The Murderous Reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge

When the ruinous reign of a murderous dictator is finally at end; when survivors arise from their shelters beyond an unimaginable and horrific abyss; when a few who know the truth begin to piece together the who, the what, the where, the why, and the how for the many; only to learn what they seek to know still resides beyond comprehension; then, we may begin to grasp the emotional shell shock impacting the psyche of the Khmer (Cambodian) people today.

A step off an airplane or fast boat into Phnom Penh places you smack-dab amidst a culture of a caring, loving, friendly people, still displaying the telltale signs of genocide and, who visibly carry the scars of their past — families that no longer exist. Downtown Phnom Penh is now a gleaming new capital and center for maritime commerce, as the picture below suggests.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The harbor in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia

But the beauty of this place is quickly overshadowed by reality. As our Tuk-Tuk driver in Phnom Penh told us on the way to our hotel, “All of my family over 40-years old dead. I never know any of them”. This, is one family fact set that almost all Cambodian’s share today.

The Horrific History of the Khmer Rouge

It’s difficult to visit Cambodia without getting caught up in the trend to check out the Holocaust museum and Killing Fields detailing the murderous rampage of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge (literally “Red Khmers”, practically, “Red Communists”) during the 1970’s. All the travel guides recommend it. Trip Advisor rates the Killing Fields as a “must see” destination in Phnom Penh.

Three million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 — out of a population of 8 million. This was about 25% of the entire population of the country and includes a dozen foreigners, six of whom were Americans.

It’s unclear to many, it seems, why Pol Pot exterminated so many of his people. He was born into a prosperous family and educated in the finest schools in Phnom Penh. He studied radio electronics and Communism in Paris in the 1940’s — a hotbed for communist radicals.

Before WW II and the pre-Cold War paranoia about communism, Pot concocted his twisted vision of a communistic utopia for Cambodia. Adopting the Marxist-Leninist philosophy while in France, he admired Joseph Stalin and Mae Se Tung and later led the Cambodian-Viet Communist resistance movement in his country.

At Pot’s direction, Khmer Rouge fanatics rounded up city dwellers — the “intellectual elite” — for forced labor in the fields. Many were simply tortured, interrogated, and later sent to the Killing Fields for immediate execution.

Yet, Pot’s conversion to Marxism-Leninism and his ardent Red Communist affiliations fail to account for the genocide under his leadership.

The U.S. – Vietnamese War: A Contributing Factor

Interestingly enough, some analysts perceive the US as contributing to the conditions in Cambodia allowing the Khmer Rouge to arise. The U.S. carpet bombing of the Cambodian countryside during the US-Vietnam war caused the deaths of many non-combatants.

You can read a transcript of discussions between President Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger about the U.S. bombing strategy.

In short, Nixon and Kissinger figured if they killed enough people with the bombings, the Vietnamese communists would not be able to recruit warfighters. By extension, they figured carpet bombing in Cambodia would yield a similar result since the North Vietnamese would retreat into Cambodia between skirmishes with U.S. forces.

The Extermination of the “Elite Class”

An execution at the Killing Fields
An execution at the Killing Fields

Pol Pot shaped his reign by following the lead of the Vietnamese Communists. He recruited uneducated, gullible farmers and other rural workers from the war-torn Cambodian countryside. Angry at the U.S. for bombing their country and killing their families, these recruits were easily turned to a virulent form of revolutionary communism.

A killing tree for children used by the Khmer Rouge
A killing tree for children used by the Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge soldiers were told the educated citizens — doctors, lawyers, teachers, university professors, TV personalities, and other professionals — caused the war in Vietnam leading to the bombing of their country. As a result, they willingly followed orders when they were told by Pol Pot to kill the “intellectual elite”.

Prisoners on the way to the Killing Fields at Camp Choeung Ek from the S21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh
Prisoners on the way to the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields at Camp Choeung Ek from the S21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh

Cambodians were also upset at previous rulers for allowing encroachments on their country by the Vietnamese. These were among the causes contributing to the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

The End of Pol Pot

Pol Pot and his followers were overthrown in 1979. Ironically, the U.S. and other countries officially recognized the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia until the 1990’s!

Pot retreated into the countryside along the Thai-Cambodia border. A coup within the Khmer Rouge led to his overthrow in 1997. He died under “house arrest” in 1998.

As of 2014, several former Khmer Rouge leaders were on trial for crimes against humanity. This story, it seems, is an unending one in the lives of the Cambodian people.

The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia

The Tuel Yang Genocidal Museum at the intersection of streets 113 and 340 in Phnom Penh, better known as the Killing Fields Museum, presents graphic evidence of the consequences of the reign by the Khmer Rouge. Previously known as the S21 concentration camp, it is a former secondary school set up by Pol Pot as a torture and interrogation center for prisoners.

There’s a link to this museum from a site in Seattle, Washington, now home to the largest population of Cambodian’s ex-pats in the United States. There’s a separate link to this center from a website in Cambodia.

We suggest you visit the Tuel Yang Genocidal Museum first when you’re in Phnom Penh. The walls of this former school are loaded with drawings and photos of the tormentors and their victims. Signs present historical information.

We suggest visits in this order because there isn’t much to see at the Killing Fields that is readily comprehensible. You’ll note from our photos in this post, these fields are now a nondescript national site of mourning.

The Killing Fields

After a visit to the museum, you’ll find it easier to understand the sights at the Killing Fields. Formerly known as Camp Choeung Ek, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, is where prisoners were taken for immediate execution. It’s about 15 km to the south of Phnom Penh in Kandal, Cambodia.

A Partial View of the Killing Fields today — From Camp Choeung Ek, Kandal, Cambodia. Depressions are former death pit/burial areas. During heavy rains, bones and clothing arise from the soil.
A Partial View of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields today — From Camp Choeung Ek, Kandal, Cambodia. Depressions are former death pit areas. During heavy rains, bones and clothing arise from the soil.
Skulls from the Stupa at the Killing Fields museum
Skulls from the Stupa at the Killing Fields Museum

Excavations during the 1980’s uncovered 89 of 129 mass graves at the Killing Fields. A total of 8,985 corpses were recovered. The skulls of some of the corpses are in the Stupa as depicted above.

A Mausoleum: Victims Skulls at the Killing Fields
A Stupa: Victims Skulls at the Killing Fields

There’s a small fee for entrance. On arrival, you’ll be given a digital player with earphones. You’ll follow numbered signs through the fields during your tour. At each signpost point, you’ll learn details about the extermination of prisoners. Prisoners were killed here daily on arrival from areas across the countryside or from camp S21 in Phnom Penh.

There’s more to tell you about this wonderful country that isn’t tragic. You can read our first impressions here.

~ Karla

We’re Karla & Tom, travel content creators and founders of RoverTreks.com. When we are not international travel, we explore North America in our Leisure Travel Van (LTV) Unity to discover new stories for our readers. Our stories connect the past, present and future to inspire audiences and span an array of topics to include culture, history, law, public policy, space, technology security, travel, and the future. You'll find some of our stories about RV Life here and on the blogs of Leisure Travel Vans and the Family Motor Coach Association.

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