History At Our Doorstep

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA-JULY 26 : Some of the 8,000 human skulls sit in a glass case at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center where July 26, 2010 in Phnom Penh province. Today the UN -backed Khmer Rouge tribunal convicted Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch", to 35 years in prison. He was the prison chief and has acknowledged responsibility for overseeing the torture and execution of more than 15,000 people at the notorious S-21 prison known as Tuol Sleng. Kaing Guek Eay, 67 will serve only 19 years of the sentence since he already spent 11 years awaiting the trial in detention. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images)


Old Vietnamese Communist Party, founded in 1930 to overthrow the French colonial regime, later renamed itself to Indochina Communist Party and issued a resolution to include whole French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). Among the 10 points the party was built around, ‘bringing democratic freedom to the masses’, ‘dispensing education to all people’ and ‘equality between man and woman’ were a key part. By 1945, the party dissolved into separate Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese communist parties and 1951 saw the formation of the Cambodian party named Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) heavily supported by the Vietnamese party during its initial phase of existence.

Through many political twists and turns and considerable historical rewriting, the party was renamed Workers Party of Kampuchea (WPK) in 1960 in a secret meeting between 14 ‘rural’ faction delegates and 7 from the ‘urban’ faction. This was further changed to ‘Communist Party of Kampuchea’ (also known as Khmer Communist Party) in 1971 under Pol Pot’s leadership. Its followers were generally known as Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers).

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge was largely unchanged between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. The Khmer Rouge leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities. China “armed and trained” the Khmer Rouge during the civil war and continued to aid them years afterward.(1) 1

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn professional and urban Cambodians, or “Old People”, into “New People” through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.

2The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. Estimates range from 1.7 million to 3 million Cambodians executed during Pol Pot’s reign out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million (1975 – 1979). A number of sites where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime are named the Killing Fields.(2)

During the Khmer Rouge regime, I was put in prison at the age of 15 for picking mushrooms in the rice fields to feed my pregnant sister. Under the Khmer Rouge, everything belonged to the Revolution — and picking up anything from the ground without their permission was a crime.” – YOUK CHANG, survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields.(3)

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.” – 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.(4)

We endured misery which words can never fully describe and a numbness to life itself. I got sicker with each passing day. There was virtually no muscle left on my body at all, just skin and bones. My head was bigger than my trunk even though my body was swollen from starvation. I lost my vision and the use of my legs. I was yellow with hepatitis and was ready to die if it were not for my greatest fear – I would not die without my mother. As I lay motionless I recalled my mother’s voice urging me on and not to accept death, for it was this that saved my life. The Khmer Rouge would not kill me.” – SOPHAL LENG STAGG was nine years old when she and her family were forced to leave their home in Phnom Penh in April 1975, joining the millions of Cambodians who were devastated by the Khmer Rouge. Today, Sophal and her husband, Bill Stagg, run the Southeast Asian Children’s Mercy Fund, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to raising awareness of the genocide as well as collecting much needed funds for children in Cambodia. As Sophal says, “I am determined to tell our story. I believe our story must be told by all survivors, again and again, to prevent a repeat of the inhumanities that existed during Cambodia’s darkest years.

LIENG – A medical Doctor tells her story

(Lieng’s story is taken directly from Soul Survivors)

April 17, 1975 is stamped on my mind because our lives were changed forever after that date. I 3could have left Cambodia before 1975, but I didn’t consider it because I had no idea the Khmer Rouge would be so cruel. I was in my fifth year of medical school at the time. My father was a surgeon and he wanted one of his children to become a doctor. I agreed because practicing medicine is a service.”

Lieng’s husband was also a medical student and they had 2 young children. The Khmer Rouge ordered them to move into a work camp.

For four years I lived like a slave. At first my job was to dig out tree stumps, which was very difficult work. Later I was assigned the miserable task of making compost from human feces. In 1976 there were 20 families living in my village. One by one they were killed. By 1977, only four families in our village were left. Terrified that we would be the next to die, we focused solely on our work and never spoke to each other.”

In 1979 the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and Lieng returned home.

As soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh I went directly to my old house hoping to find my relatives, but no one was there. I walked through the empty house and saw that most things were just as we left them, four years ago. Our books on Buddhism were still on the shelf, along with my husband’s class notes. A Vietnamese soldier came in and told me that no one was permitted to live in that area. As I was leaving, I stopped and wrote a message to my family on the front gate saying that I had come looking for them.

No one read the message. Everyone in Lieng’s family had died including her parents, her husband and her sisters.

After the Khmer Rouge regime there were only forty doctors left in the country. Nearly all the older doctors had died, so we had no specialists or experts. There wasn’t a single psychiatrist in Cambodia. Only eighteen out of the fifty medical students in my class survived, and I was the only woman. I went back to medical school and graduated in nine months because Cambodia desperately needed doctors. I became director of a hospital’s emergency and recovery rooms. Some of my colleagues worked in Cambodia for a while and then went to live abroad because the conditions here were so terrible…

“In 1992 I passed the entrance exam to get a postgraduate degree in anesthesiology and went through a three-year program with nine other doctors, studying under a visiting French expert at the University of Phnom Penh. It was more difficult to remember the lessons because I am older. I finished school at age fifty, which is retirement age, but I agreed to work and teach in the medical school for six years.”

Lieng wanted to do this because there was only one trained anesthesiologist in all of Cambodia.

4The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations.(6) Pol Pot relocated to the jungles of Southwest Cambodia and from 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power. Pol Pot died while under house arrest by his own military chief on the night of 15 April 1998.(7)

The space for discussing, redressing and healing from the genocide only began to open up in the past decade with the establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Founded in 2006, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is a “hybrid” tribunal using both Cambodian and international judges and staff to investigate the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity and bring leading regime figures to justice.

Intended as a Southeast Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg trials, the tribunal has cost $232 5million so far. But the pace of proceedings has seemed glacial, given the advancing years of the suspected war criminals, two of whom have died while facing trial. Another was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial. (The Khmer Rouge’s top leader, Pol Pot, died without ever facing charges. It is speculated that he committed suicide when he learnt that his party was planning to hand him over to the International tribunal.)(8)

History at our doorstep.
Remain ignorant; invite it again
Some humans survive, humanity but died,
It’s high time we break the chain!

But history does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?” – Author: Chris Bohjalian

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_Kampuchea
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_Fields
3. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/05/opinion/khmer-rouge-cambodia/ + Feature Image
4. http://www.edwebproject.org/sideshow/stories/
5. http://www.friendshipwithcambodia.org/soulsurvivors/canvas-stories-01.htm
6. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pol_Pot
8. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/16/asia/cambodia-khmer-rouge-anniversary/