The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

Pol Pot’s legacy: Skulls of the killing fields

The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine sounds like a movie that’s torture to watch, but that I’ll certainly have to see, having been bewildered and intrigued by the Pol Pot phenomenon for decades now. A superb if wrenching article on the film, by an eyewitness to what Pol Pot wrought, takes you right there.

With tiny swifts rising and falling almost to the ground the only movement, I walked along a narrow dirt road at the end of which was a former primary school called Tuol Sleng. During the Pol Pot years it was run by a kind of gestapo, “S21”, which divided the classrooms into a “torture unit” and an “interrogation unit”. I found blood and tufts of hair still on the floor, where people had been mutilated on iron beds. Some 17,000 inmates had died a kind of slow death here: a fact not difficult to confirm because the killers photographed their victims before and after they tortured and killed them at mass graves on the edge of the city. Names and ages, height and weight were recorded. One room was filled to the ceiling with victims’ clothes and shoes, including those of many children.

Unlike Belsen or Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng was primarily a political death centre. Leading members of the Khmer Rouge movement, including those who formed an early resistance to Pol Pot, were murdered here, usually after “confessing” that they had worked for the CIA, the KGB, Hanoi: anything that would satisfy the residing paranoia. Whole families were confined in small cells, fettered to a single iron bar. Some slept naked on the stone floor. On a school blackboard was written:

1. Speaking is absolutely forbidden.
2. Before doing something, the authorisation of the warden must be obtained.

“Doing something” might mean only changing position in the cell, and the transgressor would receive 20 to 30 strokes with a whip. Latrines were small ammunition boxes labelled “Made in USA”. For upsetting a box of excrement the punishment was licking the floor with your tongue, torture or death, or all three.

How the people of Cambodia, famous for their gentle smiles, came to be radicalized under Pol Pot was debated briefly between me and a commenter a few days ago. The reviewer, John Pilger, enlightens us at the end of the article.

The genocide in Cambodia did not begin on April 17 1975, “Year Zero”. It began more than five years earlier when American bombers killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians. Phosphorous and cluster bombs, napalm and dump bombs that left vast craters were dropped on a neutral country of peasant people and straw huts. In one six-month period in 1973, more tons of American bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during the second world war: the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The regime of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did this, secretly and illegally.

Unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that the bombing was the catalyst for Pol Pot’s fanatics, who, before the inferno, had only minority support. Now, a stricken people rallied to them. In Panh’s film, a torturer refers to the bombing as his reason for joining “the maquis”: the Khmer Rouge. What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed. And having been driven out by the Vietnamese, who came from the wrong side of the cold war, the Khmer Rouge were restored in Thailand by the Reagan administration, assisted by the Thatcher government, who invented a “coalition” to provide the cover for America’s continuing war against Vietnam.

Thank you, Rithy Panh, for your brave film; what is needed now is a work as honest, which confronts “us” and relieves our amnesia about the part played by our respectable leaders in Cambodia’s epic tragedy.

The Discussion: 9 Comments


Nice link but I’m very disappointed you bought John Pilger knee jerk blame America for everything explanation for the killing fields and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge existed and were certifiably bat-shit before the US bombing. Their ‘retrun to agrarianism’ was already doctrine and their atrocities in the areas they controlled, documented.

US policy in southeast asia failed was flawed and failed, but Pilger (who reflexively blames the US for every injustice under the sun, isincredible and incorrect.

February 14, 2004 @ 6:01 pm | Comment

I admit, I don’t know anything about John Pilger. What he says about the effects of the secret bombings on the radicalization of many Cambodians is in line with what I’ve read in the past. I thought it was only after the bombings that Pol Pot picked up the huge support that ultimately led to calamity. But I’m always willing to hear the other side of the story. Can you recommend any books or articles?

February 14, 2004 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

I think there’s more than enough blame to go around. The French are the ones who colonized Cambodia in the first place and installed Sihanouk; the American support of the Lon Nol régime led to a vast increase in support for the Khmer Rouge, and of course the Chinese provided material support to the KR during and after the war.

Here is an interesting history of Cambodia since the 1960s.

February 14, 2004 @ 7:30 pm | Comment

Good article, Vaara. It still bears up Pilger’s point about the bombings:

American bombing quickly became the centerpiece of Lon Nol’s defense. Before Congress brought the bombing to a halt in August 1973, nearly 540,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on Cambodia, at a cost to the U.S. of nearly $7 billion.

The cost to Cambodia was higher still. The bombing campaign resulted in an inestimable number of innocent deaths. In one instance, the government-held town of Neak Luong was inadvertently bombed because of an error by the bomber’s crew. One hundred thirty-seven people were killed, and more than 205 were wounded. On another occasion, near the village of Saang, peasants in a funeral procession unknowingly walked into a B-52 target area. Hundreds were killed. The incident underscored the tragedy of the bombing campaign: even when the strikes were on target, civilian deaths were inevitable.

Most of the Cambodians who witnessed such carnage place the blame squarely upon the Americans and Lon Nol. Their anger led many of them to join the Khmer Rouge, and by late 1972 the Khmer Rouge army had grown to some 50,000 soldiers.

I’m sure there was, as you say, plenty of blame to go around, and I try to avoid pointing the finger at the US for everything wrong with the world. But this was one of those tragedies in which I do believe America played a defining role. If we had not dropped 540,000 tons of bombs on them, would the Cambodian people have flocked to Pol Pot? Looking at history, people tend to turn to such monsters when they are desperate.

February 14, 2004 @ 8:07 pm | Comment

After reading “First They Killed My Father,” I can’t be too sure that people “flocked to Pol Pot.” Rather, it seems that people had no other choice and were railroaded into death or dismemberment with huge amounts of provocation or even just sudden surprises like the troops barging into a city and telling everyone to pack it up.

They were afraid of a leader they had never seen or heard of before, they were being constantly told that the Vietnames were going to kill and rape their families, and they were isolated in farm camps, forced to march there over long distances as people were dropping dead all around them.

These people had no idea what was going on around them, as there was no telecommunications infrastructure or even leaflets explaining what had happened.

Just pop, pop, shoot, shoot, death, death.

February 17, 2004 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

Before he marched into the cities with his men, his men must have joined him — Pol Pot didn’t arise out of a vacuum with command of Cambodia’s military. True enough, the victims had no idea what was going on. They were caught in a trap. But Pol Pot’s core followers — those are the ones who flocked to him early on, and the article (and most other sources I’ve read) says the secret bombings were a major influence.

February 17, 2004 @ 2:45 pm | Comment

After reading some histories of the Cambodian culture, it seems like they were vulnerable because they had a very isolated tribal underclass of peasants, who were suddenly supplied with modern weapons by the Chinese. A small number of fanatic and brutal soldiers could easily take charge of a large portion of the population, who had no defense against a combination of animal cruelty and modern firearms.

The power vacuum was created by the bombing of the country, that is quite clear. But the stalemate caused by the balance of power between the communist Chinese and Soviets, and the US, prevented anyone from helping, assuming that anyone in the West actually cared.

I think it is unfair to blame the United States for the violence in Indochina, when the Maoist totalitarian and Soviet totalitarian governments were pouring weapons and support for totalitarian leaders. The blame has to rest with the communists ultimately, because the United States was forced to try to do something about them. They really were expansionist and ruthless beyond the understanding of most people I think. China is still a frightening entity, and capable of horrible atrocity. Their only hope is the rising levels of wealth there possible through capitalist reforms. But at the top they are still a ruthless dictatorship, with thousands of people today jailed, tortured, and executed for dissent to their government.

March 15, 2004 @ 11:45 am | Comment

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