The Long Read

Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and]


Before visiting Cambodia we were advised to visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields site. A mass grave. It was important to visit this at the start of our trip to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide.

Like a lot of westerners, I was largely ignorant of what happened here. The first time I had even heard of the Khmer Rouge was when I read Angelina Jolie’s diaries of her UN work, Notes From My Travels. I am still no expert in Cambodian history, but here is a very brief background to what happened:

During the Vietnam war, Prince Sihanouk, the Cambodian Head of State, cut ties with the USA in 1965, in order for Cambodia to remain neutral. Cambodia allowed communist forces the use of border points and ferry points.

The US responded by bombing Cambodia.

Between 1965 and 1969, the U.S. bombed 83 sites in Cambodia. The pace of bombing increased in 1969, as U.S. B-52 carpet-bombing began, in support of the slow pullout of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Bombers targeted mobile headquarters of the South Vietnamese “Viet Cong” and the North Vietnamese Army in the Cambodian jungle.[i]

In March 1970, a coup was launched against Prince Sihanouk resulting in a new government with Lon Nol at the helm. The coup government made a drastic change in Cambodian policies, deciding to counter the North Vietnamese, in support of the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In May 1970, the US and South Vietnamese launched an offensive into Cambodia, with the aim of cutting off North Vietnamese supply routes. The Vietnamese Communists widened and intensified their actions in Cambodia as well, working with insurgent Cambodia communists.[ii] After the U.S. ground invasion failed to root out the Vietnamese communists, in December 1970, Nixon instructed his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to order the Air Force to ignore restrictions limiting U.S. attacks to within 30 miles of the Vietnamese border, expanding the bombing areas. However, extensive bombing forced the Vietnamese communists further west and deeper into Cambodia, and ultimately radicalized Cambodian citizens against the government.


These events created a vacuum which was filled by the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. What followed was ‘year zero.’ Pol Pot and Angkar aimed to create a classless society; they forcibly removed city people from their homes and forced them into labouring in the countryside.


As part of year zero all schools, hospitals and universities were shut down.

Article 20 of the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea states that:

Under the regime Monks and religious leaders were either executed, or forced into labour camps.

When the Khmer Rouge took power they targeted teachers and intellectuals (in some instances wearing glasses was the sign of an intellectual), because they rejected traditional education and saw it as a threat to the regime. All teachers and intellectuals, and their extended families, were targeted and sentenced to death. Instead of a traditional education children were taught ‘revolutionary’ values.

All political opponents and their families were murdered. As were lawyers, doctors and scientists. Anyone who was educated was seen as a threat.

The Khmer Rouge followed a racist ideology. The belief in the supremacy of the Khmer people was central to their belief system. They wished to return Cambodia to the ‘old people.’ They wanted to exterminate all ‘new people’: immigrants and minority groups.


Angkar claimed that they killed 20,000 people. The real numbers are closer to 1,000,000–2,000,000. Every Cambodian I have met on this trip will have lost family to the Khmer Rouge. One of our guides told us about his family being put to work as a child. He said that they were luckier than most, because they were country people and not from the city.

I don’t think I can find the words for how harrowing it was to visit the Killing Fields. What I saw and learned there I will never forget. All visitors receive an audio guide, where you listen to real accounts of survivors of the regime. I heard stories of separated families; of mothers who had lost their children and children who were forced to leave behind their entire families.

What struck me about visiting the Killing Fields is how quiet they are. Most visitors are focused on listening to their audio guides and have enough sense to keep quiet. I will never understand people who take selfies or make a lot of noise at places like this.

The further round we went, and the more we listened, we learnt that the scraps of cloth on the ground were rags that were once victims’ clothes. Every time it rains these clothes rise to the surface. There are glass cabinets displaying human skulls and bones. Next to one mass grave there is a tree where the Khmer Rouge killed babies in front of their mothers.

The Khmer Rouge began to lose their grip on power in 1978, when they were forced into hiding by Vietnamese troops. A Vietnamese backed government was established. However, the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk joined forces to form a government in exile. This was the internationally recognised government.

The genocide ‘ended’ in 1978. Do you know that the Khmer Rouge still had a seat on the UN until 1993. That’s the year I was born.

In 1991 the Paris Peace Accords were signed. These granted the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia the powers to supervise control of Cambodia and oversee free elections. One of the stories we listened to was of a man who fled Cambodia as a refugee under the Khmer Rouge. He returned as an adult to oversee these free elections.

Here is a helpful timeline of what happened (taken from my guidebook again):

I believe that we should visit sites like this, if we have the opportunity and resources, because it is important to learn from our history. I find myself replaying the closing words from the audio of the tour:


The Narrator was right. We have to look not only to our future but to our present. According to UNHCR we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. There are now 25.4 million refugees worldwide, some fleeing genocide and persecution.



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