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Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields Of Cambodia


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Margette Rawson



Cambodia, a country known for its rich cultural heritage and breathtaking natural beauty, also bears the haunting legacy of one of the darkest chapters in human history. Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, witnessed unimaginable atrocities during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. This period, marked by widespread human rights abuses and genocide, left an indelible scar on the nation’s psyche.


The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, aimed to transform Cambodia into an agrarian communist society, forcibly evacuating urban areas and implementing radical policies that caused the deaths of an estimated two million people through execution, starvation, and disease. The regime’s reign of terror was characterized by its pursuit of an extreme form of agrarian socialism, which led to the displacement, torture, and murder of countless innocent Cambodians.


Phnom Penh, once a vibrant and bustling city, became the epicenter of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign to dismantle urban society. The city’s inhabitants were forced into labor camps, stripped of their possessions, and subjected to brutal conditions. Phnom Penh’s transformation into a symbol of suffering and despair was epitomized by two notorious sites – the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as the S-21 Genocide Museum.


In this article, we will delve into the tragic history of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime, exploring the harrowing experiences of its residents, the role of the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison, and the lasting impact of this dark chapter on Cambodia as a nation. We will also highlight the efforts made to remember and honor the victims, as well as the resilient spirit of the Cambodian people in the face of unimaginable suffering.


Historical Background

To fully understand the atrocities that unfolded in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime, it is essential to delve into Cambodia’s historical context. Cambodia, a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, has a rich and complex history.


During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cambodia was under French colonial rule. The country regained its independence in 1953 and experienced a period of relative stability under the leadership of King Norodom Sihanouk. However, political unrest and regional conflicts soon destabilized the nation.


In the 1960s, the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, with the North Vietnamese army using Cambodian territory for supply routes. This led to heavy U.S. bombing campaigns in an attempt to disrupt the supply lines. The indiscriminate bombings resulted in the deaths of thousands of Cambodian civilians and fueled anti-American sentiment.


Amidst the chaos and political turmoil, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, emerged as a formidable force. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge aimed to create an agrarian communist society free from perceived capitalist and imperialist influences. Their ideology, informed by Maoist principles, called for a radical overhaul of Cambodian society.


The Khmer Rouge gained momentum and support from disenfranchised peasants and intellectuals who were disillusioned with the existing social and economic disparities in Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power, and Pol Pot declared Year Zero, signaling the beginning of a new era.


Under the Khmer Rouge regime, urban areas were evacuated, and the population was forced into rural labor camps. Intellectuals, professionals, and anyone perceived as a threat to the regime were targeted for execution. Schools, religious institutions, and cultural symbols were destroyed as part of the regime’s effort to erase the past and create a new society.


Phnom Penh, the capital city and cultural center of Cambodia, bore the brunt of the Khmer Rouge’s radical policies. The once-bustling city was emptied as residents were forced into labor camps, where they endured grueling conditions and were subjected to physical and psychological torture.


The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1979, until Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and toppled the regime. Pol Pot and the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders retreated to the jungles, continuing to wage a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government.


It is within this historical context that we must examine the experiences of the people of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime, and the subsequent sites of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Prison, which serve as reminders of the atrocities committed by the regime.


The Rise of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, rose to power in Cambodia in 1975, following years of political turmoil and social unrest. The regime’s ascent was driven by a combination of factors, including widespread dissatisfaction with the existing social order, economic disparities, and the lingering effects of external conflicts.


Pol Pot, born as Saloth Sar, was a charismatic and enigmatic figure. He was influenced by communist ideology and saw the potential for radical change in Cambodian society. With the support of like-minded individuals, including Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary, Pol Pot transformed the Communist Party of Kampuchea into a revolutionary force, known as the Khmer Rouge.


The Khmer Rouge’s rise to power was facilitated by the exploitation of Cambodia’s political and social divisions. The regime tapped into the frustrations of the peasantry, promising agrarian reform and equality. They presented themselves as the champions of the poor and the marginalized, gaining support from peasants, disgruntled intellectuals, and those affected by the political and economic turmoil of the time.


As the Khmer Rouge gained strength, they launched a guerilla war against the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol. The unpopularity of the Lon Nol regime and the devastating impact of U.S. bombings played into the Khmer Rouge’s hands, allowing them to position themselves as the saviors of Cambodia.


In 1975, the Khmer Rouge forces finally drove out the Lon Nol government and seized control of Phnom Penh. The city, which had been heavily bombarded by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, was left in a state of disarray. The arrival of the Khmer Rouge was initially met with a mix of hope and fear, as people were unsure of what to expect.


However, the Khmer Rouge regime soon revealed its true nature. The radical policies implemented by Pol Pot and his associates aimed to create an agrarian communist society from scratch. They envisioned a classless society where urban elites, intellectuals, and anyone who did not fit into their narrow definition of a “pure” peasant was seen as an enemy of the state.


The rise of the Khmer Rouge marked the beginning of a period of immense suffering and tragedy in Cambodia. The regime’s extreme measures, including forced evacuations, mass executions, and the dissolution of institutions, caused immense human suffering and laid the groundwork for the events that would unfold in Phnom Penh during their reign.


Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge Regime

Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, experienced a dramatic transformation under the Khmer Rouge regime. Once a bustling urban center, it was forcibly emptied and reshaped according to the regime’s radical vision.


Khmer Rouge leaders viewed Phnom Penh, along with other urban areas, as hubs of corruption and decadence that needed to be eradicated in order to create an agrarian communist society. On April 17, 1975, the population of the city was ordered to evacuate, as the Khmer Rouge implemented their vision of returning Cambodia to a rural-based society.


The forced evacuation of Phnom Penh was chaotic and brutal. As residents were driven from their homes, they were separated from their families and all personal belongings were confiscated. The city became a ghost town overnight, its streets left empty and devoid of life.


Those living in Phnom Penh, along with countless refugees from other cities, were sent to rural labor camps, known as “Cooperatives.” These cooperatives were established to enforce agricultural production and eliminate social hierarchies. However, in reality, they became sites of immense suffering and forced labor.


Conditions in the labor camps were deplorable, with a severe lack of food, medical care, and basic necessities. People were subjected to long hours of arduous labor, often with little rest or respite. Any form of dissent or resistance was met with severe punishment, including torture and execution.


The residents of Phnom Penh, many of whom were educated and urban-dwelling, faced particular persecution. The Khmer Rouge viewed them as enemies of the revolution, representative of the urban bourgeoisie that needed to be eradicated. Schools, universities, and cultural institutions were destroyed, and intellectuals and professionals were targeted for execution.


As a result of the forced evacuation and the harsh living conditions in the labor camps, countless lives were lost. The combination of starvation, exhaustion, disease, and violence led to an unimaginable death toll. Phnom Penh, once a thriving city, became a symbol of suffering, transformed into a ghostly reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.


The transformation of Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge regime left a lasting impact on the city and its people. The scars of this dark period in history continue to be felt today, as survivors and their descendants navigate the complex process of healing and rebuilding.


The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Among the most notorious sites associated with the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh is the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Located just outside the city, this former orchard turned execution ground serves as a chilling reminder of the mass atrocities committed during the regime’s reign.


Choeung Ek was one of many killing fields throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge carried out their systematic extermination of perceived enemies. It is estimated that around 20,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves at this site alone.


Upon arriving at Choeung Ek, visitors are confronted with the somber reality of the site. The area is marked by numerous mass graves, many of which have been exhumed to uncover the remains of the victims. A memorial stupa stands at the heart of the site, housing thousands of skulls and skeletal remains as a haunting tribute to the lives lost.


Walking through the fields, visitors can witness the remnants of the horrors that took place. Pieces of clothing and bone fragments occasionally surface from the ground, serving as painful reminders of the brutalities endured by those who perished here.


Audio guides provide a comprehensive account of the site’s history, sharing the stories of survivors and detailing the methods used by the Khmer Rouge to carry out the killings. The narration paints a grim picture of the inhumanity and cruelty that characterized the regime’s rule.


Choeung Ek’s significance extends beyond its role as an execution ground. It also serves as a memorial and a place of remembrance for the victims and their families. Every year, on the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, ceremonies are held at the site to honor the lives lost and to ensure that history is not forgotten.


Visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is a sobering experience that evokes a range of emotions – from sadness and horror to a deep sense of reflection and empathy. It serves as a stark reminder of the depths of human cruelty, but also as a testament to the resilience and strength of the Cambodian people in their pursuit of justice and healing.


Tuol Sleng Prison: The S-21 Genocide Museum

Located in Phnom Penh, the Tuol Sleng Prison, formerly known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), stands as a haunting testament to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. This former high school turned prison served as the epicenter of the regime’s campaign of terror and is now preserved as the S-21 Genocide Museum.


Walking through the gates of the prison, visitors are immediately transported into the chilling world of the Khmer Rouge era. The buildings that once housed classrooms have been transformed into cramped and claustrophobic prison cells, where countless victims were subjected to interrogation, torture, and eventual execution.


The museum provides detailed exhibits, including photographs, documents, and personal testimonies, offering insights into the horrors that unfolded within its walls. The photographs, in particular, are both haunting and deeply personal, capturing the anguished faces of prisoners who faced an almost certain death.


One of the most striking aspects of Tuol Sleng is the meticulous record-keeping of the regime. The Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their prisoners, taking photographs and assigning them identification numbers. These records are on display, providing a chilling look into the systematic dehumanization and control exerted by the regime.


Visitors also have the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from survivors and former prison guards who have chosen to share their stories. Their testimonials shed light on the inhumane treatment, the sense of arbitrariness, and the deep psychological impact experienced by those imprisoned within Tuol Sleng.


Walking through the prison cells and seeing the crude methods of torture used by the regime, including the infamous waterboarding technique, is a deeply sobering and emotional experience. It serves as a reminder of the immense suffering endured by the prisoners and the lasting trauma inflicted upon them.


Although Tuol Sleng is a place of immense sadness and horror, it also stands as a symbol of resilience and justice. The museum serves as a platform for education, raising awareness about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and ensuring that the memory of the victims is preserved.


By visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the S-21 Genocide Museum, visitors can pay homage to the victims and bear witness to the darkest chapter in Cambodia’s history. It is a somber reminder of the importance of remembrance, the pursuit of justice, and the commitment to preventing such atrocities from happening again.


Repercussions and Aftermath

The repercussions of the Khmer Rouge regime’s reign of terror in Phnom Penh continue to be felt to this day. The four years of genocide and human rights abuses inflicted immense damage upon Cambodia, leaving a deep scar on the nation’s psyche and infrastructure.


One of the immediate repercussions was the loss of a significant portion of the population. It is estimated that around two million people, roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time, perished under the Khmer Rouge regime. This loss of life had a devastating impact on families, communities, and the overall social fabric of the nation.


The Khmer Rouge’s forced evacuation and dismantling of urban areas, including Phnom Penh, resulted in a significant disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods. Communities were torn apart, and the loss of infrastructure and resources had a long-lasting impact on the country’s development.


Furthermore, the regime’s targeting of intellectuals, professionals, and educated individuals contributed to a significant loss of human capital. The loss of teachers, doctors, engineers, and other skilled individuals created a void in the nation’s workforce and severely hindered its ability to recover and rebuild after the regime’s fall.


The aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime saw the country grapple with the immense challenges of justice, healing, and reconciliation. The Cambodian people have experienced a complex process of seeking accountability and coming to terms with the painful past.


Efforts to achieve justice and hold those responsible for the atrocities accountable have been ongoing. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was established in 2006 to prosecute the regime’s senior leaders and those believed to be most responsible for the crimes committed. While the tribunal has faced challenges and limitations, it has contributed to the pursuit of justice and the recognition of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes.


Reconciliation and healing have been important aspects of Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge journey. Memorials, museums, and cultural initiatives have been established to honor the victims and foster remembrance. These efforts aim to ensure that the memories of the past and the lessons learned are preserved for future generations.


However, reconciliation is an ongoing process. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime continues to affect families and communities, and the wounds are not easily healed. Psychological trauma, intergenerational trauma, and the need for support and counseling services remain pressing issues in Cambodia.


Despite the immense challenges, the Cambodian people have shown resilience and a determination to rebuild their nation. Today, Phnom Penh stands as a modern city, its streets bustling with life. It serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Cambodian people who have overcome the horrors of their past and are working towards a brighter future.


Remembering the Victims

Remembering the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and honoring their memory is a crucial aspect of Cambodia’s healing process. Efforts to commemorate those who perished under the regime have been undertaken at various levels – from national memorials to grassroots initiatives.


One of the most significant national memorials dedicated to the victims is the Choeung Ek Memorial, located at the site of the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. This memorial serves as a place of remembrance, where visitors can pay their respects to the thousands of individuals who lost their lives at Choeung Ek. Every year, on the Day of Remembrance (May 20th), Cambodians gather at the memorial to honor the victims with solemn ceremonies and prayers.


In addition to the national memorials, Cambodian communities have also established their own initiatives to remember the victims and keep their memory alive. These initiatives include commemorative events, performances, art exhibitions, and grassroots efforts to document and preserve the stories of survivors and their families.


One example is the oral history project initiated by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), which aims to collect and record the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. These firsthand accounts provide invaluable insights into the experiences of those affected by the regime and help ensure that their stories are preserved for future generations.


Education plays a vital role in remembering the victims and fostering understanding of Cambodia’s dark history. Schools and educational institutions now incorporate the study of the Khmer Rouge era into their curriculum, ensuring that younger generations learn about the atrocities that occurred. This education not only helps prevent the repetition of such horrors but also instills empathy and compassion in the hearts of young Cambodians.


International organizations and foreign governments have also played a role in remembering the victims. The United Nations and foreign countries have supported efforts to preserve historical sites, provide resources for memorialization projects, and assist in the documentation and prosecution of those responsible for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.


Remembering the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime is not only about acknowledging the past but also about honoring their lives and the resilience of the Cambodian people. It is a means of paying tribute to the countless individuals who suffered and perished, and a reminder of the importance of justice, compassion, and human rights.


By remembering the victims, Cambodia confronts its dark history and strives to build a society rooted in peace, reconciliation, and respect for human dignity. It is through these collective efforts that the memory of the victims becomes a source of inspiration to ensure a brighter future for the nation.



The tragic history of Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge regime serves as a stark reminder of the depths of human cruelty and the devastating consequences of unchecked power. The forced evacuation of the city, the atrocities committed in prisons like Tuol Sleng, and the mass killings at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields left an indelible mark on the nation’s collective memory.


However, amidst the darkness, there is hope. Phnom Penh and the people of Cambodia have demonstrated immense resilience and the unwavering desire for justice and healing. Memorials, museums, and educational initiatives have been established to remember the victims and ensure that the atrocities of the past are not forgotten.


The pursuit of justice has been ongoing, with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal working to prosecute those responsible for the crimes committed during the regime. While the path to justice may be arduous, it is an essential step towards healing and preventing such atrocities from recurring in the future.


Remembering the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime is not only an act of remembrance but also a commitment to creating a more compassionate and just world. By acknowledging the past and learning from it, Cambodia continues to strive towards a society that values human rights, truth, and reconciliation.


Phnom Penh, with its rich history and vibrant culture, stands as a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people. As the city moves forward, it carries the weight of the past while embracing a future that is built on understanding, unity, and the determination to rebuild.


The story of Phnom Penh and the atrocities committed within its borders is a reminder for us all to cherish the values of peace, justice, and human dignity. It implores us to confront the darkest aspects of our history, so that we may build a better world where such horrors never take place again.