Khmer Rouge Genocide museum

11 Jan
School turned into prison to re-educate...

School turned into prison to re-educate...

On my way back through Phnom Penh, I had to visit the Toul Sleng school that was turned into a ‘re-education centre’ (meaning prison) were questioned (read tortured) before most of the in-mates were sent to the Killing Fields. After the victory over the Khmer Rouge the school was turned into a (poorly done, but very silencing) genocide museum showing the influence of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia – or how an idea can influence the lives (and cause the deaths) of millions.

It is difficult to explain what the Khmer Rouge regime was really about – it goes beyond imagination and explanation – and there are websites that do history a lot more justice than I do, or you can read what was on the panels explaining what happened (pictures below).

What I do remember though is that when the Khmer Rouge declared (forced) the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, that they abolished cities, they refused any class distinctions, they abolished money and got rid of ‘property’. Families were not important anymore, only to reproduce. People should let the commanders know if people didn’t comply with the communist ethos or complained – and they would get rewards for it – or they would be punished for not telling. From now on forget all progress – Cambodia was going to be an agricultural egalitarian communist society.

Monks connecting to the past

Monks connecting to the past

Try to imagine, that one day the ‘government’ (probably armed forces) come to your house and invites you to go on a trip – and there you are on a truck with complete strangers on the road to be ‘relocated’. You get assigned a whole lot of arid acres, and you need to reach a certain target of rice production within 4 years – your group (of strangers) will be accountable for the amount of rice you send over to the headquarters for export. If you don’t reach it you’ll die…

There you are, with your ‘mates’ (whom you don’t know, your family members probably sent to other regions of the country and you don’t know where) and you are facing a few football fields of bushes, forest, hills or whatever. As in one of those reality shows – where then you have to start creating a place to live (hopefully there’s some bamboo or palm leaves around) and then get a crop of rice (which needs lots of water, where do you get that from?) going by next year. And what do you eat in the mean time?

Intellectual people were by default suspicious. Knowing a foreign language or wearing glasses was often enough to be sent to ‘re-education’ which meant that the Khmer Rouge was coming to pick you up unexpectedly – and you would end up very expectedly in one of the Killing Fields. The ‘studied jobs’ were abolished. Education was reduced to ‘communist teaching’ (read: propaganda), medicine studies were reduced to 6 months (yes, that’s correct, or maybe 3, can’t remember)…

Very alternative medicine - made of rabbit droppings

Very alternative medicine - made of rabbit droppings

So you can imagine what kind of effect this had on people’s health. The living conditions were ‘inexistent’ (had to be created from scratch), food was not available for the first moments of (forced) ‘settling in’, no more health care,… And of course the rice crops did not sprout from the arid and infertile soil – so in order to please the headquarters, they were sending away the portion that should have been their food, or that should have been seeds for the next year – so you can imagine the situation the year after. And the ‘re-education’ that followed if they didn’t reach the targets…

People could not have belongings anymore (and you can still see beautiful but abandoned and fallen apart houses all through the country from those times). Clothes had to be black – but as most of the people were plucked of their beds to be sent to ‘their’ new plots of land, they only had the clothes they hand on their bones – so they had to die them black with mud or dirt…

The system was kept intact by the ‘responsible citizens’. Everybody should keep an eye open and report all suspicious things (criticisms, opposition, people that studied, etc). If they would report unwanted activity or thoughts, they would get a reward (or be punished for not reporting). Most of the reported people were just ‘sent for re-education’ (meaning brought to the Toul Sleng school before the Killing Fields) and the punished people – for not reporting- as well… So the population of Cambodia reduced in size manifold… But who was going to cultivate the rice?

Makeshift cells in the classrooms

Makeshift cells in the classrooms

Families were also abolished. People just got married to produce kids for Democratic Kampuchea. Weddings – the most important ceremony and moment in a Cambodian’s life which usually lasted for a whole week was reduced to a mass-formality of a few minutes together with many other ‘couples’ in front of some Khmer Rouge leader. The compounds were also made for a certain number of people, not for ‘a family’ which led to situations that a big family was living in the same space as a couple with no children – because they still wanted to keep the family unit… against communist ideas.

That uprooting life lasted for more than 3 years, even though many did not see the end of the 3 years. So you can imagine that the Victory day (on the Khmer Rouge) on 7th of January is piously celebrated every year – and people are (forced to) put their Cambodian flag out.  But in 1979, the effect of victory was that many people rushed back to find their loved once (mostly dead), with the result that the fields were left to their own devices, and the harvest went down the drain, with a huge famine (and more people dying) as a sad result of re-uniting with their loved ones…

  • Definitely not a happy part of my trip…
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