The worst known time in Cambodian history was under the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that was oppressive and rejective of all outside customs. The Khmer Rouge was lead by Pol Pot, a dictator and communist political leader who took control of the country in 1975.
Under the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot systematically dismantled and took apart Cambodia, killing around one fourth of the Cambodian population. Most people have probably heard of the Holocaust, a genocidal killing during WWII. Most people don’t know about the Khmer Rouge, another horrible thing that happened recently, just in the last 44 years. It is not well known, because it happened somewhere far away, isolated from the rest of the world during its time. It should not be forgotten for that.
With visiting a part of the world that has history, even history as brutal as that, comes education. That began in the form of a movie. On Netflix there is a movie called First they Killed my Father, which tells the true story of a five-year-old girl named Loung who lived through the terror of the Khmer Rouge.
The movie begins with her family living in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Khmer Rouge soldiers come marching through the streets, with flags and rifles, demanding everyone to evacuate the city, for the “Americans were going to bomb Phnom Penh.” But is was all a trick. They only said that to get everyone out of the city and to the countryside.
Loung’s family had to leave their house. Her parents knew that something was up, and Loung came to the realization herself after they weren’t able to return after three days like the Khmer Rouge had promised.They were sent to camps, in huge swaths of people, forced to walk day after day.
First the Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate any opposition. They did this in the most horrible way they could. They killed anybody who was part of the former government or might pose a threat by being educated. In the movie, they told everyone that was part of the government to go somewhere else. Loung’s father knew what was happening, and he had been part of the military. He pretended to be from the shipyard, to hide his identity. I can not imagine what it would be like to have your whole family’s lives on the line. If they found out that he worked for the military, the Khmer Rouge would kill their entire family of nine.
They also killed intellectuals, Buddhist monks, foreigners, the middle and upper class Cambodians, and of couse, just anyone who dared stand up or oppose them.
The Khmer Rouge “liberated” the population. They made everybody “equal.” It was not so much liberation and equality as oppression and inequality. The people with the guns and the authority could do anything they wanted, while everybody else just had to do what they said and try not to get killed. They were always being watched.
They didn’t want to have anything to do with the Western world. They threw away all the stuff that the French and Americans had shared and given them, and turned themselves into an agricultural society of Cambodia based off of maltreatment and persecution.
The first thing they told the people to do was to make their own house. They took people out of their homes, made them walk for days on end, and then told them to make their own house. I don’t get it. It just isn’t civil. On top of that, they were fed small portions of gruel for brekfast, lunch, and dinner, so little that many people had to risk their lives and the lives of their families to sneak to the fields at night to grab food.
I could only imagine millions of people just waiting, hoping that someone would come along and overthrow Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge called themselves “Ankar,” which is very different from Angkor. They claimed that the Cambodians they captured were “giving their work to Ankar” because Ankar needed it. Everything they did was for Ankar.
Under the name of Ankar, people were treated like that for four years, if you survived through all four. In total, the Khmer Rouge killed two million people, which, at the time, was a whole fourth of the Cambodian population. They killed people by execution if you stepped out of line or if you posed a threat, starvation by the tiny meals of gruel and rice they were served, or just overwork in the fields of grain and rice. All the death was “for Ankar.”
During their reign, the Khmer Rouge had one enemy: The Vietnamese. All through their time, the Khmer Rouge were fighting with the Vietnamese. Teenage boys and girls, even Loung, at age eight, were sent off to fight. They recieved military training and were told to take on the Vietnamese.
In 1978, the Vietnamese finally entered Cambodia, liberating the Cambodian people along the way from the cruelty and mistreatment of the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh, the Capital, and the Khmer Rouge forces were diminished and forced into the jungle.
People alive today in Cambodia have either lived through that, had parents who lived through it, or had grandparents who lived through it. As I drive around in a tuk tuk, I look into eyes of people who have seen things that I couldn’t bear nor imagine. Millions of people in Cambodia today bear the scars and marks of a Cambodian period that was way more brutal than anything known that has ever happened there. Many people have horrible stories to tell, or sad memories that will stay with them forever. Maybe their entire family was taken or killed.
Later that day, we went to visit a museum about this. There were boards with stories of people’s horrific lives under the Khmer Rouge, and more nasty pieces of history that just piled onto the sorrow and misery that echoed throughout the museum.
The hardest part of the museum was the most powerful. A huge case full of skulls and bones of the people that had crimes commited against them under the Khmer Rouge. Eye sockets staring back at me, jaws seeming to speak to me. One skull had a huge hole in its forehead. As to not waste bullets, the Khmer Rouge sometimes even used axes, shovels, or clubs, to kill people, and then drop the bodies into a huge pit full of dead bodies. I could imagine something smashing into the front of that person’s head, killing them.
This all happened some 40 years ago. You might think that the world is a much safer place now. How could the world commit such atrocities? Haven’t we learned our lesson?