Year Zero

Right: "Year Zero"

In 1975 the commumist Khmer Rouge acquired power and under the leadership of an ex-school teacher named Saloth Sar attempted to build a cashless agrarian utopia based on Maoist principles. Entire cities were emptied into the countryside and their citizenry forced to work at gunpoint. Any dissent was dealt with harshly and immediately, though many were also sent to concentration camps for "re-education". The policies were ill conceived and what unfolded was an unspeakable bloadsoaked horror which has left a permanent scar on the land and it's people.

The Klling Fields at Choeung Ek

In 1975 the commumist Khmer Rouge acquired power and under the leadership of an ex-school teacher named Saloth Sar attempted to build a cashless agrarian utopia based on Maoist principles. Entire cities were emptied into the countryside and their citizenry forced to work at gunpoint. Any dissent was dealt with harshly and immediately, though many were also sent to concentration camps for "re-education". The policies were ill conceived and what unfolded was an unspeakable bloadsoaked horror which has left a permanent scar on the land and it's people.

Below: Grisley Remains at Choeung Ek, "The Killing Fields"

human remainshuman remains

Saloth Sar, known to most of us as Pol Pot, is possibly after Hitler, the most reviled figure of the 20th century. There is little doubt that Mao, and Stalin were responsible for greater losses of human life, though in demographic terms the Khmer Rouge did considerably more damage. As much as a third of Cambodia's population may have died as a result of their ill considered reforms. The term genocide is not out of place here, though perhaps as many as were murdered, succumbed to disease, or simply starved to death due to the reforms. Pol Pot was a true zealot, who whole heartedly believed what he was doing was for the good of the Cambodian people. Even in his later days he would only admit to having "made mistakes". With Maoist rebels looking to take control in Nepal one wonders if the whole ugly mess is set to play itself out there as well.

Right: Stupa at Choeung Ek

Hiring a motorcycle (only $3 + $2 insurance) I took a trip to the "Killing Fields" at Choeung Ek. This is where the Khmer Rouge disposed of many undesirables during their four year reign of terror. At the centre of the grounds is a large stupa which contains on platformed layers, the skulls of more than 10,000 murdered by the regime. Many of the skulls have holes and cracks as the victims were more often than not, bludgeoned with blunt instruments to save the cost of a bullet. There are still fragments of bones and clothing sticking out of the ground in places. I wasn't sure how I would feel when I visited this place, be it disgust or anger, or disbelief. Ultimately my strongest emotion was one of profound sadness, for the victims, and for what the people still living had been through.

 Stupa at Choeung Ek
Tuol Sleng Concentration Camp

Left: Tuol Sleng Concentration Camp, Phnom Penh

Back in the city I visited the notorious Tuol Sleng concentration camp. A.K.A. "S2" Tuol Sleng was previously a high school which the Khmer Rouge used as a "re-education" centre. Cells are not even large enough to lie down in and people were left without medical care for any number of serious conditions including malaria. Few who entered left alive, most were tortured extensively before they died. It has has since been converted into a museum. Combined with a trip to Choeung Ek it makes for a sobering glimpse at Cambodia's still recent history.