In the first half of the 20th century, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia”. Today, it’s Cambodia’s largest city and its booming economic center.
The Khmer Rouge regime
Not so long ago however, Phnom Penh was a ghost city and the center of the Khmer Rouge’s terror regime. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient agricultural society, isolated from the rest of the world. Schools and hospitals were closed, banks and currency abolished, and all private property confiscated.
The people of Phnom Penh and other cities had to march (many died on the exhausting marches) to the countryside where they were forced to work, even though many of them had no knowledge of farming. They received almost no food and even though the population was starving, the regime exported rice in order to buy weapons. During the Khmer Rouge regime, between 1.5 and 3 million people died of starvation and diseases or were tortured and killed by the regime.
The Khmer Rouge ruled between 1975 and 1979. Even though that’s only 40 years ago, we knew almost nothing about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Therefore, our visit of Tuol Sleng museum and the killing fields of Choeung Ek was an important – and shocking – history lesson.
Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek
Tuol Sleng used to be a high school but was turned into Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge. Today, it’s a museum that doesn’t need a lot of exhibition objects to have a distressing effect on the visitor. The bare rooms, where the “VIP prisoners” – members of the Khmer Rouge – were being held and tortured, contain just a metal bed and a photograph of how the prisoner was found by the invading Vietnamese. The crude small cells in the former classrooms speak volumes; even more so the haunting photographs of the victims.
After being tortured in prison, the victims were taken to the so-called Killing Fields at Choeung Ek where they were bludgeoned to death (bullets were too valuable) and buried in mass graves. Over 20’000 such mass graves exist all over the country – a horrifying number.
Tuol Sleng museum and Choeung Ek are almost unbearably depressing places and they make you realize once again – but not understand – how incredibly cruel humans can be. And that people still haven’t learned from history, and probably never will, because similar atrocities are still taking place today in different parts of the world.