Reporting from: Choeung Ek Killing Fields – Phnom Phnom, Cambodia
The conditions were like heading into war. Driving over a string of seemingly endless potholes. Having hot wind blow into my face. Staring into a frontier of dust.
In fact, by the time I got back into town, I was literally able to wipe the dirt and dust off my face.
The ride to Choeung Ek isn’t that far, complicated mostly by the slow speed of Cambodian tuk-tuks and the poor conditions of the road as you head outside of the city. One can only imagine just how difficult the ride was when fruit orchards covered this area nine miles outside of central Phnom Penh.
Twelve years ago today, three thousand Americans died at the hands of terrorism. But thirty-five years ago, hundreds of people a day were being trucked here to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek as Pol Pot’s increasingly paranoid regime was doubling down on its genocide.
Just a few years earlier, when the Khmer Rouge began its brilliant “Year Zero” plan to force everyone out of cities and into a failed agrarian paradise, the truck stop here saw a dozen or so people a day. That number quickly escalated as Pol Pot realized his teenage sociopaths could hammer, ax, and beat to death anyone who just might be a “traitor” to his bloody government tyranny.
As Pol Pot was fond of saying, “better to kill an innocent man than to let a rebel escape.” Call it Blackstone’s formula in reverse.
This paranoid government tyranny is on full display at the Killing Fields. I have no doubt readers of this site are fully familiar with Pol Pot’s reign of terror that saw anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language – the undesirable “New People” – shipped to a political prison and then here to be killed in the middle of the night.
What caught my attention was just how they did it.
When buses came in overfilled to capacity with prisoners, they’d be placed into a wood shed as a holding cell. Initially, many of these prisoners were killed the same night they arrived. Over time, though, a backlog started building and there just wasn’t enough manpower to execute the growing numbers that “posed a threat” to the Khmer Rouge.
Each night, the Killing Field guards would blast revolution music, not just as propaganda, but to cover up the screams of those they savagely beat to death with any blunt instrument they could find lying around. Adults were thrown into ditches, beaten, and topped with DDT to finish them off. Small children, including infants, were grabbed by their legs as guards swung their heads into “the Killing Tree”, in an effort to wipe out any potential for future revenge.
This is just one more exhibit in a long line of others as to why I don’t put a lot of faith in governments. Yours may have not overthrown the king in a bloody coup, but that doesn’t mean they’re not terrorizing someone somewhere.
It’s a small step in the right direction to see that so many Americans oppose their government getting involved in Syria and causing even more death and destruction than the Syrian government could ever dream of.
It only took the Khmer Rouge three years to take an otherwise free country and turn it on its head, going from paranoidal genocide to a Defcon 5 million-person killing spree.
On the other hand, it’s taken the US and other western governments about one hundred years to go from a state of overall freedom to a police and surveillance state unlike anything previous generations could have expected.
One transition was fast and bloody, the other was slow and hidden. But in both cases, honorable citizens who didn’t see anything coming got screwed.
As I toured the Killing Fields grounds today, the audio guide bid me farewell with a timely suggestion that most western visitors would not heed. The narrator, an actual survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s prison, said that what happened to him could happen to anyone. Anywhere. He said that we all have to be vigilant because we never know when terror will strike.
Especially when it’s at the hands of the government.
Imagine how many lives of city dwellers, academics, entertainers, and even monks and priests could have been saved if only they had seen the Khmer Rouge’s democide coming. Like so many things in life, we don’t know what will hit us until it actually has, and because we don’t see anything coming, we often neglect to have a backup plan.
Personally, I’m all to happy to take a cue from someone who has actually survived brutal democide than those who practice blind patriotism. As the Killing Fields narrator suggests, no country is immune from the ability to see such atrocities. In fact, the US government is already guilty of such atrocities – they just never effected you.
The three million innocent victims of a tyrannical madman – some of whose bones still poke out of the ground to this day – are a harrowing reminder that trusting too much in the madness that is government has often led to horrible ends.
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