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What are the Killing Fields?

The Killing Fields are a grim testament to Cambodia's tragic past, where over a million people were executed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. These sites bear witness to the atrocities of a genocide that still haunts the nation. To grasp the full impact of this dark chapter in human history, let's delve deeper into the stories they hold.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Shortly after the last Americans were evacuated from Vietnam in 1975, both Cambodia and Vietnam fell under Communist rule. One of the chief architects of the Communist party in Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge, was a despot named Pol Pot. Although Pol Pot himself was highly educated, he became resentful of the intellectuals and capitalists who controlled Cambodia's largest cities and politics. Most of his Khmer Rouge recruits were from peasant stock, and were systematically conditioned to accept his views of a new society.

During the early 1970s, Pol Pot successfully eliminated some of his political enemies through summary executions, and managed to force an evacuation of several large cities. The idea behind these forced evacuation was to "re-educate" complacent city dwellers to the ideals of an agrarian society, which would be governed by a benevolent Communist government. This vision led to a horrific event known as the Killing Fields.

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Man holding a globe

In 1976, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army officially became the rulers of a new Cambodia, renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot wasted no time implementing his plans for an ethnically purified Communist country. Since he saw little need for more than a few million loyal citizens, Pol Pot used this opportunity to systematically remove intellectuals, political opponents, those of mixed race, the elderly and the crippled from the country's population count. From 1976 until Vietnamese intervention in 1979, the Killing Fields of Kampuchea were in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Civilians living in the larger cities in Cambodia were forcibly removed from their homes by armed Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were then herded to large rice patties or other fields in the remote Cambodian countryside. Many were forced to dig their own mass graves or perform other degrading duties. Food rations in the Killing Fields were reduced to a few bowls of rice soup a day, if the evacuees were fed at all. Many died from starvation or committed suicide to escape the daily tortures.

In an effort to save ammunition, the Khmer Rouge soldiers working in the Killing Fields were encouraged to use primitive weapons to commit their murderous acts. After completing mass burial pits, thousands of civilians were beaten to death with clubs or stabbed with bamboo stakes. Some were simply buried alive. This continued unabated for nearly three years, since many of the Western governments were either preoccupied with the aftermath of the Vietnam War or were reluctant to intervene for political reasons.

The total number of lives lost in the Killing Fields is still a matter of some dispute, but the Khmer Rouge itself placed the number at nearly 3 million. Outside estimates range from 1.2 to 2.4 million, but some victims may have already been executed before 1976. Several memorial shrines in Cambodia contain thousands of skulls excavated from the Killing Fields after the fall of Pol Pot.

The scope of the Killing Fields of Cambodia (Kampuchea) is often compared to that of the Jewish Holocaust or the ethnic cleansing efforts in Bosnia and Rwanda. Pol Pot's personal hatred of intellectuals and capitalists drove him to commit one of the most horrific acts of genocide during the 20th Century. His death in Thailand in 1998 occurred before he could stand trial for his role in the Killing Fields, but his acts of evil against his own people will never be forgotten by the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the Killing Fields?

The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where mass killings and burials were carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime during its rule from 1975 to 1979. Over 1.3 million people were executed in these areas as part of a genocidal campaign, with victims including political dissidents, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities. The fields are now a stark reminder of the atrocities committed and serve as a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Why were the Killing Fields created?

The Killing Fields were created as part of the Khmer Rouge's radical social reform process aimed at transforming Cambodia into a classless agrarian society. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime sought to eliminate any potential threats to its power, which included intellectuals, professionals, and anyone perceived as an enemy of the state. This led to the systematic extermination of individuals through mass executions in areas that came to be known as the Killing Fields.

How many people died in the Killing Fields?

It is estimated that around 1.7 million people died under the Khmer Rouge regime, with a significant number of these deaths occurring in the Killing Fields. According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the regime executed over 1.3 million people in these areas. The victims were often killed using primitive tools to save bullets and were buried in mass graves.

Can visitors go to the Killing Fields, and what can they expect to see?

Yes, visitors can go to the Killing Fields, particularly the most well-known site, Choeung Ek, which is now a memorial located just outside Phnom Penh. At Choeung Ek, visitors can expect to see a Buddhist stupa filled with over 5,000 human skulls, mass graves, and an informative museum that recounts the history of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities committed. It is a somber site that provides a powerful insight into this tragic period of Cambodian history.

What has been done to bring justice for the crimes committed in the Killing Fields?

In the pursuit of justice for the crimes committed in the Killing Fields, the Cambodian government, with the assistance of the United Nations, established the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. This tribunal has been working since 2006 to try the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Several leaders have been convicted and sentenced, providing some measure of accountability for the atrocities.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular HistoricalIndex contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments

AnswerMan

One of my co-workers is originally from Cambodia, and he told me one time that most of his extended family died in the Cambodian killing fields. He was very young at the time, but he remembered seeing men in uniforms walking down his street and knocking on doors. His mother scooped him up and ran out their back door before the soldiers reached the house. They hid in a small shack until the soldiers and the other people left in trucks.

He said life under Pol Pot was always terrible, but he didn't know anything about the Khmer Rouge or the killing fields until his mother got them both to a refugee camp on the Vietnamese border. He found out much later that all of the people he saw being driven out of town that day were taken out to a swamp and shot to death. He was lucky to survive.

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