Cambodia Diary 5: The Killing Machine


by Dan Southerland

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

1997: A boy cycles past a sign for the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, a former Phnom Penh high school which the Khmer Rouge turned into an interrogation and torture center during their 1975-79 reign. Photo: AFP/Emmanuel Dunand

Interviewing refugees can be tricky business. They sometimes tell you what they think you want to hear. Some exaggerate in order to gain sympathy.

But many of the stories being told by Cambodian refugees in the spring of 1975, after the fall of Phnom Penh, were too detailed and too consistent to be made up.

The Khmer Rouge were killing former officers in the defeated U.S.-backed Cambodian army en masse. They had evacuated cities and forced educated people, monks, and others from the old regime to work in the fields. People were beginning to die of overwork and starvation.

After interviewing Cambodian refugees in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, I wrote a story saying that the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmers, were creating a gigantic work camp, a kind of a slave state.

My story understated the case.

I reported the refugees’ statements about the killings but was unable to say if the Khmer Rouge were doing this nationwide or only in certain regions. As it turns out, it was nationwide, and much worse than we at first realized.

We gradually became aware that the victims included not only former soldiers in the defeated Lon Nol army but also large numbers of people from many walks of life.

The Death Toll


Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, has estimated that in less than four years, 1.7 million “inmates” of this “prison camp state” died of execution, starvation, overwork, and denial of medical care.

The victims, according to Professor Kiernan, included not only one-sixth of Cambodia’s ethnic Khmer majority but also some 250,000 Chinese, 100,000 Muslim Chams, 10,000 ethnic Vietnamese resident in Cambodia, members of the Thao and Lao minority groups, and “perhaps 50,000” Buddhist monks.

In their book Seven Candidates for Prosecution , Stephen Heder and Brian D. Tittemore estimate that as many as two million people may have perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their leader Pol Pot. Between 500,000 and one million “appear to have been executed outright,” they say, while others died of starvation and disease as a result of Khmer Rouge policies and practices.

In late 1975, a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders at the top of the system also began to turn on their own followers. They singled out thousands of veteran party members suspected of spying for the United States, Vietnam, or the Soviet Union – or some unlikely combination of the three. The suspects were tortured, forced to make absurd confessions of guilt, and finally executed.

The best documented accounts of such killings came from the regime’s interrogation center at Tuol Sleng, a former high school in Phnom Penh known by the Khmer Rouge code name S-21.

According to historian David P. Chandler, 14,000 men, women, and children passed through S-21 between 1975 and 1979.

Jan. 22, 1997: A broken window pane gives a glance into one of the interrogation rooms at Phnom Penh's infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Photo: AFP

“All but a handful were questioned, tortured and put to death,” Chandler says in his book Brother Number One , a biography of Pol Pot.

The "logic" of the System

Chandler says that the Khmer Rouge “for some reason” never seriously considered “the alternatives to the death penalty… employed so liberally in communist Vietnam and China,” which were imprisonment or “reeducation.”

“By the end of 1978,” say Heder and Tittemore, “virtually the entire Communist Party leadership had either already been purged and executed or was on purge lists and about to be detained and killed.”

The logic of the system was such, they say, quoting one participant in the killings, that ultimately "everybody in Cambodia" would be killed except Pol Pot.

A majority of Cambodians lost one or more family members during the Khmer Rouge years. But experts say that many of the new generation who were born after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 cannot believe that mass killings ever occurred in Cambodia.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), established by Yale, is determined to preserve the stories of survivors in order to help new generations of Cambodians understand what happened during those terrible years.

His center has also been compiling information that can be used in any future trials of key Khmer Rouge leaders.

The act of holding such trials, he says, in an article published in The Bangkok Post , “will help Cambodians put what happened into perspective and let the world know of their suffering.”

“Perhaps, even more important, if the trials are fair and transparent, people may begin to have some faith in their justice system and hope for tomorrow.”


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