Phnom Penh: Cambodia's sobering reminder of Pol Pot's rule 

click to flip through (2) A Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge on 17 glass-encased levels
  • A Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge on 17 glass-encased levels
 
 

The horrific legacy of the first person convicted in the mass murder of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians has become one of this city's top tourist attractions. Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. Comrade Duch, a one-time teacher who became the head of Phnom Penh's notorious Security Prison 21, confessed to ordering the murders of thousands of men, women and children at Choeung Ek, the killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, between 1975 and 1979. In July 2010, he was sentenced to 35 years in jail for crimes against humanity in Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide. After credits for time served, he will be behind bars an estimated 11 hours for each of the 14,000 murders he ordered.

Four decades on from the murders, tourists in tank tops and flip-flops wander through the two-hectare killing fields at Choeung Ek, which had been a Chinese cemetery before Pol Pot's regime made it a place of infamy. Chhut Phearith, a university student in his fourth year of a tourism degree who works for LMN Travel Tours in Phnom Penh, says the killing fields are one of the capital's most popular tourist attractions. "People are upset, and they want to know the history of the Khmer Rouge."

The killing fields today have a benign look. Butterflies dance across the coarse grass. Chickens and geese dart about, the latter vocalizing lustily. An imposing Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of Khmer Rouge victims on 17 glass-encased levels, as well as the clothing they were wearing when they were exterminated. There's something jarring about the elegance of the structure — it has a roof made of coloured tiles ornamented with delicate finials, as seen on palaces and temples — and the grisliness of its contents. Nearby, signs urge visitors not to tread on the mass graves, not all of which have been excavated. Even more incredibly, scraps of victims' clothing still lie on the dusty paths.

The Khmer Rouge under its leader, Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, attempting to recreate the country as an agrarian communist utopia. To that end, Pol Pot ordered the deaths of all he felt opposed him, including intellectuals, the religious and foreigners. The order extended to women, children and babies. One sign draws visitors' attention to a tree against which executioners dashed infants, holding them by their ankles.

There are some unintentionally funny things at this most sobering of Cambodian tourist attractions. At the site's museum, for example, a notice asks visitors not to bring in shoes, hats, cameras, guns or hand grenades. Hand grenades? Could anyone possibly be carrying one and, if so, would that person heed a sign?

Still, visitors can't help but leave sobered. What happened at Choeung Ek was one of history's tragic aberrations. And it's not over. Like the Nazis before them, some Khmer Rouge cadres have escaped, while others have gone underground or taken new identities. Comrade Duch, now a born-again Christian, is expected to be a key witness in the trials of at least four who have been apprehended.

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