The Cambodia Killing Fields

The Cambodia Killing Fields

by Edmond Gagnon

To truly understand the country of Cambodia, one must first understand its past. Forty years after the massive genocide committed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly called the Khmer Rouge, I endeavored to do exactly that. Having an interest in the Vietnam War, I’d heard about the mass killings in the neighboring country of Cambodia. It wasn’t until I watched the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, that I had a better understanding of what really happened. 

The Khmer Rouge

Despite the massive bombing campaign by the United States, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian civil war that ran from 1970 to 1975. They eventually took political control of the country. Their goal was to maximize production by making everyone farmers. To reach their goal, they eliminated an entire social order that included political opponents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, and all other upper-class professionals. 

massive genocide cambodia

Nobody knows the exact numbers, but some estimate the Rouge arrested, tortured, and killed anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people — a whopping 25% of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge caught civilians and loaded them onto trucks. From there, they brought their victims to remote areas known as the Killing Fields. Here, their executioners sentenced them to death and buried them in shallow mass graves. 

To save the cost of ammunition for such a large task, executioners used poison, shovels, clubs, knives, as well as sharpened bamboo sticks to get the job done. Some executioners took young children to a large tree where they smashed their heads against it. The idea here was that they wouldn’t avenge their dead parents later in life. 

killing tree

This politically ironic catastrophe happened because China and the U.S. trained and supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons and intelligence to counter the power of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sadly, it took thirty years for the monsters the world powers created to fade and finally be brought to justice. 

victims of killing fields

Learning About the Past in the Cambodia Killing Fields

None of what I’d previously read hit home until I visited the Cambodia Killing Fields monument. It sits about ten miles out of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of grief. I felt like I should remove my shoes to walk on the sacred ground. Constructed of concrete and glass, the towering monument contains stacks of human skulls. It was as if I could see the faces of the multitude of victims parading through my mind. 

killing fields Cambodia temple

I felt afraid to speak or ask questions as I quietly explored the marked grave sites. Signs explain to the visitors what exactly professionals found in each mass grave — naked women or headless bodies or children. A knot formed in my stomach; no other place on earth evoked such a strong emotion from me.

victims of mass murder

The result of this mass genocide undeniably set Cambodia back decades. With most of the country’s professionals executed, the financial, educational, medical, and political systems were in chaos, with only young and inexperienced people to fill the void. I witnessed the effects of this first hand. It’s something the country is just now almost fully recovered from. Many still consider Cambodia as a developing country, partly because of its past. Nonetheless, there are many other beautiful things to see and do there.

truck stop cambodia killing fields

The Royal Palace and surrounding grounds are a must-see while in Phnom Penh. Close by, on the river, colorful boats offer a waterside view of the capital city. The passage of time, lessons learned, and experience gained has led to Cambodia entering the 21st century successfully. If you’re visiting Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia is close by and a cheaper alternative to absorbing the Southeast Asian culture


23 thoughts on “The Cambodia Killing Fields

  1. I had not given much thought to this movie until your post but I remember it well along with the story. I imagine visiting a place like the Cambodia Killing Fields is a lot like visiting the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Such evil and death occurred at those locations it’s almost hard to fathom. Unfortunately memorials need to be there to remind us to never let anything like this happen again.

  2. I watched The Killing Fields once and many of the scenes are still burned into my memory. It is a terrible time in the history of that country. One that you honoured by visiting in person and telling the story. It is truly amazing how many of the atrocities committed in the world were started by a superpower funding groups so they could defend the superpower’s interests in the country. Just horrifying.

  3. What a horrible time in history. I haven’t seen The Killing Fields movie but I think it’s important that we’re all informed about this terrible atrocity.

    1. If you ever get the chance, Kelly, watch the movie. It addse realism to the quiet and sombre memorial place that I visited.

  4. I have not seen the movie The killing fields. I just watched the trailer for it that you provided on this post. Wow, just reading about all of this I would love to learn even more about this. So much history, but also very sad. Thank you for sharing.

  5. The story of Cambodia is heartbreaking and it’s very recent. It triggers associations with the Holocaust and brings such terrifying family memories of life as Jews in the Soviet Union during WWII and Stalinism. As a child and young adult, I’ve visited many mass graves. I know the feeling of grief you are describing here…

    I’ve also heard how beautiful Cambodia is and it’s on my travel list.

  6. What an extremely evil time in history. I have yet to see the movie, The Killing Fields, but I have an interest to learn more.

  7. This is a story that should heard louder than this. This is the first time I’m reading about it, and it brings shiver down my spine. Thank you for sharing cos issues like these give me the sense of gratitude all the time.

  8. You are so right, and even though it’s been years since my visit, I thought I’d put it out there…something deeper than a presidential impeachment or the Corona virus. Thanks for your feedback.

    1. I’ve never heard of The Killing Fields and I didn’t know much about the mass killings before reading this post. What a horrifc moment in history. We need to learn from our past*so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

  9. What a terrifyingly brutal and horrific event in history! I have never seen the movie, but I had seen this memorial before on TV. It’s ghastly the amount of bad things that people have done to each other, hopefully this piece of history doesn’t repeat itself.

  10. It’s mind blowing to me that a tragedy of this magnitude occurred and yet is so wildly unknown by many people today. Thank you for sharing and helping to raise awareness of what happened.

  11. This was such a dark and evil time in history. I’ve heard about this from my mom before since we planned to travel to Cambodia someday and I was heartbroken upon hearing what happened in the past. Haven’t watched the movie but I’m interested to watch to learn more about this.

  12. Visiting the Killing Fields helped me understand why some things were the way they are in Cambodia, For them, it’s a wound that will never completely heal.

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