Phnom Penh – Cambodian Genocide and the Killing Fields

After watching “The Killing Fields” movie in Luang Prabang we knew that we wanted to learn more about the Cambodian genocide that occurred from 1975-1979. History can often be hard to stomach, but it is only through knowledge we can avoid the mistakes of our past. Our experience was as somber and eye opening as you would expect. Millions were killed because empathy was abandoned for orders, reason was abandoned for blind devotion, and fear reigned over a nation.

The Khmer Rouge was the communist arm of Cambodia born during the overthrow of the French colonial powers in the 1950’s. They truly came to power with the help of the Vietnamese in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. During the Vietnam War, American forces bombed much of Cambodia, similar to Laos, in attempts to root out Viet Cong supply lines; 300,000 Cambodians were killed. These bombings created anti-American sentiment in the country side which acted as a fan to the flames of civil war when the American backed Lon Nol overthrew the reigning monarch, Prince Sihanouk. Cambodians supporting the Khmer Rouge were able to fight back against the Americans in defense of traditional Khmer Cambodia. This swell of nationalism boosted the Khmer Rouge’s power and led to their eventual takeover of Phnom Penh in 1975.

With the fall of Phnom Penh, Pol Pot’s Marxist dream to make Cambodia a rural classless society comprised of collective farms began. Immediately, all city centers were evacuated to the country side with citizens being told they would be allowed to come back home in 3 days under the pretext that the Americans were about to bomb the city. Families evacuated with little more than some clothes, a doll for their children, and very little essentials for what was to come. How could they know?

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979 anywhere between 1.5-2 million people were killed, roughly 25% of their population. The Angka, or the Organization, was the ruling power and little to no pretext was needed for an arrest or execution. Former doctors, teachers, lawyers, rich, or educated members of society were targeted first as enemies to the agrarian utopia of Pol Pot’s dream, ironic considering Pol Pot was an educated and wealthy member of Cambodian society. At first, starvation and overworking in the fields fueled much of the early genocide. An inability to work in the fields was a weakness and all the justification needed for execution. The young, the elderly, and the infirm had no protection as family units were broken apart; the Angka was now their mother and father and it had no patience for weakness.

The S-21 Prison holding cells. Chained by the foot the prisoners would be beaten if they made a sound.

As time wore on the Khmer Rouge became more and more suspicious, seeing enemies even in their own ranks. Locations that had once been bastions of education and culture such as schools and monasteries were turned into prisons. One such prison was the S-21 prison, a former high school, that we were able to visit in our time in Phnom Penh. Shocking images of the prisoner’s mug shots are displayed throughout the museum. The whole range of human emotion can be seen in those eyes; ignorant smiles, angry stone faces, pleas for mercy. The thought that every person in those photos was executed or tortured to death made it hard to meet their eyes. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, families poured over the photos praying to not see the faces of their friends or family. There are millions of stories of local Cambodians that will never be told.

As a young man on an adventure of my own, the story of Kerry Hamill brought me to tears. Kerry, a man of 27, was sailing around the world with his two friends, John Dewhirst and Stuart Glass. At the time the Khmer Rouge was not condemned, and many were unaware of what was happening. The three men strayed into Cambodian waters in 1978 and were captured by a Khmer Rouge gunboat. Glass was immediately killed on the boat, and Hamill and Dewhirst were brought to the S-21 prison.

Kerry Hamill

In the prisons, a systematic torture operation was in place to force confessions from their prisoners. Truth was not the object of these interrogations, just a confession. Once their crimes were confessed, they were sentenced to death and sent to the killing fields. Kerry’s confession showed his humor survived the atrocities. Like all confession’s, prisoners were expected to name names of their accomplices. Tongue in cheek, he included his superior officer in the CIA who had commanded him to spy on the Khmer rouge as Colonel Sanders, KFC founder. Juxtaposed next to this humor, Kerry knew he would never see his family again. He included a heart wrenching goodbye and nod to his mother. Eventually, both Kerry and John would lose their lives after months of torture. Kerry’s brother Rob was able to testify on his brother’s behalf against Duch, the leader of prison systems under the Khmer Rouge. The audio recording of his testimony, choked out between tears, was powerful and damning.

The memorial at Choeung Ek for all the millions who died during the Cambodian genocide

As the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge expanded some 100 or so killing fields were created across Cambodia. Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh, is the killing field closest to S-21 where 20,000 people were killed. It also houses a memorial for all the victims of the killing fields as some mass graves are still undiscovered, or unreachable due to landmines. Walking through Choeung Ek, the most brutal part of the genocide is revealed. When someone was declared a traitor and sentenced to death the entire family would be executed as to prevent anyone coming back for revenge against the Khmer Rouge. The phrase “to stop the weeds you must also pull up their roots” was brandished by the Angka. Shockingly, babies would be ripped from their mothers, held by their ankles, and beaten to death against a tree. I can imagine no greater tragedy. My heart ached for those mothers in the dark, soon to be dead and powerless, forced to watch their infant murdered in front of their very eyes.

The Killing Tree, today covered with momentos honoring the innocent lives

The sights at S-21 and Choeung Ek left a massive ten-ton weight on our hearts. Its hard to believe anyone would be capable of the atrocities committed in Cambodia. There are lessons to be learned. Yet, there are at least 6 areas in the world now, today, at risk of genocide. The problem remains, as many do in the world. Hopefully, with time and knowledge, our species will be better.

EndGenocide.Org is a great website with a bunch of information about past and present genocides. Education is a key sword to swing against injustice. is a foundation led by Rob Hamill in memory of his brother. The organization continues to do good and honor Kerry Hamill’s memory.

One thought on “Phnom Penh – Cambodian Genocide and the Killing Fields

  1. Wow, Matt! So much of history is hidden or presented in a way that one could be living during these times and just be unaware. That is why we need to be reminded of our terrible deeds thru history so that just maybe we learn…. Thank you for this reminder of a not so distant history.


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