Killing Time in the Killing Fields

Posted on by Khmer 440 Staff


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Fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh a Buddhist stupa sits in the middle of manicured lawns surrounded by heavily-trafficked dirt paths. Throngs of Western tourists, dressed in beachwear and earphones, walk around, treading lightly over the bones of Cambodian people that emerge from the dirt track after a heavy rain, and gape in horror at the mass graves on their way to take photos of the tower of Khmer skulls displayed in the stupa.

Most tourists who only spend a few days in Phnom Penh usually do a circuit of the Royal Palace; the former high school and Khmer Rouge detention center Toul Sleng; and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. The Killing Fields are a heavily trafficked part of the Cambodia tourist trail where visitors seek to understand the enormity and the horror of the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history.

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek were the site of more than 17,000 killings between 1975 and 1979, including many women and children. Of the 129 mass graves there, only 43 have been excavated, and the rest remain buried. Unlike many atrocity memorials in the world, Choeung Ek was not created with the input of psychologists, victim’s families, or teams of designers and architects. It is this rawness and supposed authenticity that many foreign visitors find so powerful, and make the experience such a meaningful one for many.

Interestingly, though, on a regular day, you’ll see few Cambodians visiting the memorial. From the start, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek was not a grassroots memorial; the site, like Toul Sleng, was designated for tourism and propaganda by the Vietnamese soon after they invaded Cambodia in 1979. The purpose of both Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng was to highlight the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and justify the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The sites were intended for foreign viewers as a means of swaying international opinion. In fact, Cambodians were not allowed to visit Toul Sleng when it first opened. Today both sites continue to promote the narrative that the current government saved the Khmer people from genocide. That, and generating revenue, are the primary purposes of Choeung Ek, not remembering the dead.

Mai Lam, a Vietnamese colonel, designed the stupa filled with thousands of Cambodian skulls at Choeung Ek. Many Khmer Buddhists believe that this monument is not in line with their traditions, which require immediate cremation or burial of corpses. In fact, while former King Norodom Sihanouk was on the throne in 1994, he offered to pay the cost of official cremation ceremonies for the remains at Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng.

In the face of government opposition his wishes were ignored. In 2004 he posted a handwritten statement on his website that said, “What Buddhist man or woman accepts that, instead of incinerating their dead relatives . . . one displays their skulls and their skeletons to please ‘voyeurs’?” Having their skulls on display, he wrote, “is to punish the victims, humiliate them, dishonor them.”

But the value of Choeung Ek as a tourist attraction is more important, it seems, than offering a proper memorial to the thousands that died there, or providing Khmers the opportunity to better understand their recent history. Many researchers have argued that Choeung Ek deliberately focuses on the perpetrators and methods of killing ,rather than on the silent, faceless victims, whose personal stories are told nowhere at the site. Indeed, the official website for Choeung Ek has detailed pages about the “killers” and the “killing process” but the “victims” page remains empty, under construction since the site was launched.

Choeung Ek is not the only site of mass killings by the Khmer Rouge, but it is the closest to Phnom Penh, making it an ideal tourist attraction. The Cambodian government has allowed the site to be privatised, and has sold a thirty-year concession to operate the site to a Japanese company, JC Royal, who have raised ticket prices and their own profits by showcasing Cambodia’s violent history.

Because the displays at Choeung Ek focus almost entirely on the killings as such, rather than on the victims or the history of the Khmer Rouge, the site can seem impersonal to many visitors. Foreigners often find themselves making offerings to the Cambodian victims at Choeung Ek’s stupa while Cambodians themselves are noticeably absent. Previously, dozens of local tour guides were available to help fill in the gaps and and make the experience more personal by talking about their own families’ experiences during the Khmer Rouge era. Recently, though, $3 audio tours have been brought in and the Khmer tour guides have disappeared, presumably because the audio tours are more profitable for JC Royal. It’s possible to spend hours at the memorial and see no Cambodians besides the ticket-seller and the children who stand outside the chain link fence begging for money from the Choeung Ek tourists.

At the site they screen a documentary about the Khmer Rouge atrocities in English, subtitled in English. The film is not offered in Khmer. The documentary, “The Road to Killing Field Choeung Ek,” claims that the stupa was erected because Buddhists believe that the bones of the deceased should be kept in a special place. King Norodom Sihanouk’s assertions suggest otherwise.

After visiting the site a number of times, I began to question whether I really needed to continue taking my out-of-town guests there. Was the site such a crucial part of the tourist experience, I wondered? And is a tourist attraction really a special place for the dead? My own reaction to it was one of discomfort; I felt that my participation in the site as a tourist was somehow wrong, in a way I have not felt at similar memorials in other countries. I also found it boring, due to the lack of information presented, and then felt deeply ashamed that I could be bored at a site of such horrific tragedy.

Then as I began researching the history of Choeung Ek and its use to generate support for the government of Cambodia and revenue for a private company in Japan, I wondered why I had been taking visitors there at all. Wasn’t it too much like orphanage tourism? Do tourists go to the Killing Fields just to feel aghast, to underscore their own good fortune in life, to be reminded of their own deep compassion for the Cambodian people?

But perhaps there is a more generous way to look at this. It may be that foreigners go to the Killing Fields to better understand the tragedy that befell Cambodia. And maybe that outweighs the many legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with Choeung Ek. My hope is that, despite Choeung Ek’s deficiencies, those who choose to visit will be so deeply affected by the horror of what they see there that they will be willing to act to stop the next genocide in some far-off land. The cynic in me suggests that’s unlikely.

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Words: Khmer 440
Images: Richard Reitman

To see more images by Richard, visit his website www.richardreitman-photography.info

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5 Responses to Killing Time in the Killing Fields

  1. Pingback: Killing Time in the Killing Fields | Khmer440.com | Tour Cambodia

  2. Gaye Miller says:

    Below is a piece I wrote a few months ago to describe my feelings about The Killing Fields:

    It was my own fault as I had planned the entire visit.
    I had arranged for the crew to visit Choeung Ek better known as The Killing Fields in Cambodia. To understand the psyche of the people I feel a visit there, although profoundly depressing, is essential.
    I thought of my previous visit many years ago when I walked into a beautiful and tranquil meadow. I had heard a crunching noise and looked down to see, to my horror, that I was walking on bones, teeth and bloodied scraps of clothing. The heavy rain had washed the top soil away and exposed shallow graves.
    I had no wish to repeat my experience, so I chose to sit under the shade of a tree inside the complex but outside the actual execution area. I relaxed and felt almost in a mediative state as I drifted off in the hot and humid conditions. The slight breeze blowing through the trees, birds singing and dogs barking provided a reassuring blur of background noises. My mind had put me back thirty years when the vile and brutal Khmer Rouge regime controlled the country. I could see the manacled prisoners walking silently in singe file, towards the killing area. Although they were resigned to their fate, I could smell their fear. They kept their eyes on the ground, for to make eye contact with a guard would result in a beating. I began to cry, reliving the sadistic cruelty of it all. Then one of our group joined me, so I hid my tears as he had actually survived this horror and I could see he was struggling with his emotional memories. Eventually the rest of the group joined us, all shaken by what they had seen and experienced. We all talked, cried and comforted each other. I had nightmares about the victims and their suffering.
    I have many conflicting feelings about the atrocities. How could peace-loving Buddhist Cambodians do this to each other? I don’t want to be part of the same human race that can be so barbaric and cruel to their own country men and sometimes even to their own families. We are all too close to this historical event. Maybe we know too much to mentally cope with it.
    I’m angry that this was allowed to happen. Did all the governments in the world collectively bury their heads in the sand? Did they think they could cover up the fact that a third of Cambodia was executed, starved or tortured to death?
    I’m sad that this sacred site is used for tourists to gawp at the macabre skull displays and mass graves. This shouldn’t be on the list of tourist attractions. Let these victims lie in peace and with dignity.
    I hope to never return to this evil place where thousands of defenceless humans were slaughtered. My heart bleeds for my beloved Cambodia. I want to gather the entire population into my arms to soothe away all their nightmares.
    NOT Mother Courage but Mother Cambodia!

  3. Richard says:

    these are are my photos and were shot in 2006 and here is my impressions.
    I traveled there with half Thai 12 year old daughter

    There is a small primary school nearby where we also spent some time Kind of unreal to have it there next to the killing fields but the kids seemed all happy and not concerned about what took place next door. I spent some time talking to the teacher as he spoke English and my daughter enjoyed playing with the kids and teaching them some English words. He was relatively young and had no feelings at all about what took place 100 meters away.

    more photos here
    http://s1119.photobucket.com/albums/k628/Phuketrick/

    I found the area very surrealistic as it was peaceful and almost to quiet, yet u could feel something was not quite right. It was very eerie to walk around the area and see the unmarked graves knowing what they held. At that time there were still pieces of blooded cloth and bone fragments in the dirt and trees that had been used to bash kids heads in had stains on them.

    My daughter was 12 and she could not stay and had to leave after a few minutes walking around and waited in outside

    I have not been back

  4. Dengchao says:

    I just had a look at it. Some thoughts:

    It was used to purge KR: mainly from the East where, according to that map where all the thousands of mass graves in the country were found, there is only one. I am certain that those KR to the East, like the PM, were indeed practising a far more benign form of communism and probably were, for the majority, truly shocked at what they saw when they were brought S21.

    Originally meant as a propaganda tool to justify Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea: It was an invasion that is considered by one author and this one to be one of the handful of invasions in the history of the world to be truly justifiable on both the grounds of the maintenance of national sovereignty and humanitarian interventionism. Remarkable in itself as it had just prevailed over the invasion that is certainly not within the said handful.

    Rather than rapturous applause from the international community, it was officially condemned by the UN led by a coalition of the worst perpetrators in the whole fiasco: KR, USA and PRC. I can only imagine at the exasperation of Vietnam in the face of this jaw-dropping hypocracy, indeed it is the lowest point of the UNs History to have been the tool of the most incredible display of political hypocracy and pro-revisionism on the history.

    Vietnam should be applauded to this day as the ones who stood up for themselves and prevailed against all odds. They should be an example of how a proud country can stand up against an invading Super-bully alongside his mates and prevail, then stand up against him when he runs crying with his bloody nose and black eyes to the principal’s office in the school that his daddy built and tell another story.

    BRAVO VIETNAM! Your example has provided massive inspiration for at myself and you shall have at least my respect, even though you deserve that of many more. Your establishment of historical primary sources are indeed the permanent truth that shall undermine the lies of an impermanent tyranny.

    The original purpose of the ‘propaganda’ tool should be lauded. Vietnam praised. The bullies condemned.

    That is against Buddhist practice: I have witnessed many piles of skulls around the country where a Buddhist monk stands sentinel. Therefore, it is apparently accepted in contemporaneous Cambodian Buddhism, which deserves its own brand as it Cambodian Buddhism, along with Judaism, which have faced History’s most extreme test of faith and prevailed.

  5. Bob Bensen says:

    I remember the emotional impact of my visit to Phnom Penh, Tol Sleng and Cheong Ek. I do not in any way regret going there. Was I the victim of a tourism hoax or scam? I only know that without visiting those sites, I would never have understood the horror that was Pol Pot. If all history lessons had that kind of impact, I would have been a much more interested student. I wish the very best for Cambodia and it’s people and I hope to return someday.

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