The Nightmarish Days of Cambodia

김지혜기자l승인2012.10.09l0호

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Cambodia’s official name is the Kingdom of Cambodia and its capital is Phnom Penh. The largest ethnic group is the Khmer and they speak the Khmer language. It’s a tropical climate, so this region is almost always very hot and humid. The political system is a constitutional monarchy, but it still has a parliamentary government. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries with a per capita GDP of 1,039 dollars.

Cambodia has recently set up friendly relations with Korea. As a result, there were about 330,000 Korean visitors to Cambodia in 2011. This was the second largest number of all nationalities to visit Cambodia. Moreover, Korea is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor based on figures from 2010. In that time, Korea has invested nearly one trillion won in Cambodia. Trade between the two countries is also active. In 2011, Korea’s exports to Cambodia increased by about 42% over 2010. Korea mainly exports raw materials, industrial machines, vehicles, and consumer goods. Korea also provides aid and consultation to several Cambodian industries. The two countries also have an active cultural exchange.

Who was Pol Pot?

You need to have some knowledge about Pol Pot to understand the tragic history of Cambodia. He was born in March 1925. Pol Pot’s real name was Saloth Sar. He used the alias in order to be active as a leftist. He went to Paris to study radio engineering. During his studies, he became interested in French socialism and he became a communist. He specifically identified with Maoism, which is a primitive form of communism that denies all democratic elements and is based on agriculture.
Later, he returned to Cambodia and eventually seized the capital Phnom Penh as the leader of the Khmer Rouge. He was responsible for the deaths of countless Cambodians through famine and torture. The famine was caused due to his farming policy which was designed to build a rural communist society in the shortest time possible. However, his government fell due to an invasion by the Vietnamese. Finally, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and after 9 months, died of a heart attack.

Days of darkness
During the Cold War era, a coup took place in Cambodia with American support because Cambodia became involved in the Vietnam War. At that time, the Khmer Rouge started to extend their influence while pretending to support the military junta that took over. However, after America withdrew from the Vietnam War, the junta was abandoned. Finally, the Khmer Rouge government seized the capital and power.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, established the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea in 1975. He dispersed citizens from the main cities including the capital, Phnom Penh, to promote the technical development of industries, self-sufficiency, and modernization of agriculture. All western influences were forbidden. They blew up the central bank of Phnom Penh and abolished the educational system. In addition, there was no freedom of movement or religion. They nationalized all private property and abolished all professions. The aim was an entirely agricultural society. To that end, they established large collective farms and effectively enslaved their people. They tried to make all aspects of everyday life uniform. All Cambodians could only wear black clothes, and when anyone got married, they had to have a communal wedding arranged by the government. The government also forced everyone to criticize themselves during meetings that were held twice a week. These were public confessions of things they had done wrong in their every activity. Suspicion of others could not be helped because accusation and denunciation were at the core of the system.

Pol Pot’s regime committed horrible acts of brutality in pursuit of their ideals. They butchered thousands upon thousands of people. Intellectuals were killed because intellectualism was deemed to be against the rural movement. For instance, anyone who had a good command of foreign languages who was a public servant, doctor, judge, pharmacist, or who belonged to the upper-middle classes was executed. 760 of 800 doctors, 541 of 545 judges, 80-90 percent of professors and half of all university students were killed. However, it did not end here. Even people who simply wore glasses or had beautiful hands, people who could write, people who played the piano or guitar, and even those who were overweight were killed. For example, when they killed people who could write, they ordered them to write their name. If they were able to write it, they were killed. They also showed them pictures of their relatives and let them write their names. If the victim could write the name, they were killed. About 2,000 athletes who had experience in international competitions were killed and a total of 700-800 thousand people died of disease and famine from the inherent inefficiencies of his agricultural movement. Minority groups were also purposefully killed for example: 400 thousand Chinese, more than half of all Muslims, about 20 thousand Vietnamese, 70 thousand monks, and about 9 thousand Christians.
The cruelty of the Khmer Rouge government was limitless. For instance, they killed children by swinging them by their legs and smashing their heads into trees. They put people in wells or buried them alive because they did not want to waste the bullets. They tried to smother people with plastic bags. They killed babies by driving a nail into their heads or by shooting them after they threw them into the air. They even played games to see who could kill the most. They took off people’s heads with sickles and pickaxes. The remains of over 9,000 people were found in 86 puddles when they were unburied in 1979. The methods of torture were diverse and included water torture and electrical torture. They murdered without regard for sex or age.

I visited the “Killing Cave” in Phnom Penh, Battambang. The Killing Cave is dark and dreary. When you enter, you can feel that something very bad happened here. In the cave, there is a drawing that shows cruel scenes from that time, there are also offerings there to console spirits as well as several casks for donations. At that time, the government climbed up the cliff, cut off a victim’s head and then pushed them off the cliff. The head and body fell down into the cave. That is how the name “Killing Cave” came about. Currently, all the remains are assembled in one place. This is how one-third of the Cambodian population, more than 12 million, died over 4 years.

Pol Pot’s fall
The Khmer Rouge government fell due to the military invasion of Vietnam. Vietnamese forces expelled the Khmer Rouge government and entered the capital, Phnom Penh. Pol Pot lost control of the government and continued to fight a guerrilla war. He was arrested in June, 1997. In the end, he was convicted of treason, and died in custody in 1998.

The conditions of victims and current Cambodia
Seventy percent of the entire population of Cambodia is less than 24 years old. Therefore, so many children are forced to work. This is one reason why Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries. According to one native, more than one person per family died as a victim or was maimed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Others who witnessed these cruel acts have neurological visual impairments, a kind of schizophrenia. Some victims participated in the trial. However, the criminals were not brought to task for their crimes until now because they are so old, besides the current prime minister was a member of the Khmer Rouge. More surprising is that they deny their criminal acts. This causes the victims to suffer further mental and physical pain.

I could feel the cruelty of that time by looking around the Killing Cave. However, even though exchange between Cambodia and Korea is so active lately only a few students know about this history. Therefore I want students to know more about Cambodia, and decided to explain about this sad history. Now, Cambodia is growing steadily. I hope that Cambodia will never experience this kind of tragic history again.


김지혜기자  chiechann@ynu.ac.kr
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