Phnom Penh: Inside Cambodia’s Dark Past.

7 Min. Read

In Phnom Penh,

the capital of Cambodia,

there exists a place called Tuol Sleng.

A security prison used by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979.

During these years, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisioned here and subjected to brutal interrogation, torture and execution by their captors.

By 1979, only 7 had survived the horrors of Tuol Sleng.

This is the story.

One of the young prisoners at Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng

Before Tuol Sleng became the murderous torture center it would become to be known as, the site was actually a secondary school for kids, which was then converted into a prison by the regime. The main objective at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was to obtain confessions from what the prisoners were criminally charged with by the state.

The other goal was to extract information on other opponents of the state through torture, with the prisoners giving a list of the names of close friends, family and colleagues. The people on these lists would then be brought in for interrogation, where the vicious cycle would start again.

The main opponents of the Khmer Rouge were firstly, any previous military or political leaders and anybody else suspected of having any kind of connection with the former government or any other foreign government. Along with these victims, other groups that were targeted included, business leaders, professionals and intellectuals of any kind.

This included doctors, lawyers, journalists and students.

In fact, just by wearing glasses alone or speaking French, was enough to get sent to prison.

Ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Chams, Christians and Buddhist monks were also rounded up and sent to labor camps or prisons to be tortured and killed.

The Cells of Tuol Sleng

“It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.”
motto of the Khmer Rouge

Upon arrival at the prison, all of the prisioners would be photographed and had to give a detailed autobiography to their captors. They would then be stripped down to their underwear and have all of their personal items confiscated.

They were then taken to their cells where they were either shackled against the wall or to the floor. Those that were escorted to the larger cells were shackled together with long iron bars. There, they slept on the floor with with no mats, no mosquito nets nor blankets.

During the day they were only fed some spoonfuls of rice porridge and a watery leaf soup and they would be given only the smallest amounts of water to drink. If they were caught drinking water without the guards permission they were then subjected to beatings.

Bed in Torture Room

Most prisoners of the state were brought in for interrogation after 2 or 3 days after their arrival and the majority of prisioners spent about 2 to 3 months at the prison. To extract confessions from the prisoners, along with additional information of “conspirators” against the regime, the staff at Tuol Sleng used many different forms of barbaric torture.

Along with the severe beatings and deplorable living conditions which caused many skin diseases, lice, rahes and ring worms, they were also subjected to electrical shocks, being cut with knives and searing hot metal instruments. Many were hung upside down and suffocated with plastic bags and others endured torture by waterboarding.

The Harsh Rules at S-21

Sometimes the prisioners were forced to eat feces and drink urine. Fingernails were pulled out and women prisioners endured sexual abuse and rape. Sleep deprivation and outright neglect was combined with the horrendous physical torture and live surgical operations with no anesthetic were also being performed.

All of this was being done by the state…

to it’s own people.

The iron shackles used to lock up the prisoners side by side

And here’s another terrifying fact…

Tuol Sleng was just 1 out of at LEAST 150 torture and execution centers throughout Cambodia and by January 1979 an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people had been executed by the ruthless regime.

A genocide was being carried out by the Khmer Rouge and this included, not only ethnic Cambodians, but also Chinese-Cambodians, Muslims and Vietnamese-Cambodians. Nearly a quarter of the nation’s population was exterminated.

Only after when the prisioners confessed to their alleged crime, were they routinely executed and buried on site at S-21. However, after only a year, when there was no more space to bury the victims, did the staff at S-21 decide to move their executions to spot near a pond called Choeung Ek, about 11 miles south from the capital.

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), Kampuchea being the name of Cambodia in the East, and in the 1960’s the Khmer Rouge army slowly built up in the jungles in eastern Cambodia. And with much support from North Vietnam, Pathet Lao and Communist China especially, the Khmer Rouge Army was able to overthrow the Khmer Republic in 1975 and captured Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot. A Cambodian revolutionary and politician. And in 1975, with much aid from Mao’s Communist China, he would begin to radically change Cambodia into a Socialist Agrarian Republic. Under his leadership, entire cities, most notably, Phnom Penh, were emptied out under the pretext that the United States was planning to bomb the city.

Pol Pot

Instead, entire familes were sent to the countryside, had to wear identical black garbs and forced to work in labor camps to produce rice for the nation. They had to build their own huts and were provided very little food and water. The prisoners were subjected to brutal slave labor, working 12 or more hours a day and when they could no longer work from weakness or sickness, they were exterminated without hesitation, many times having to dig their own graves. Many others died from diseases and starvation.

“To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
motto of the Khmer Rouge.

Everything was for the state and the people were “Reeducated” by the party, also known at the time as “Angkar” or “The Organization.” The party’s ideology was the complete rejection of capitalism and to create a classless, self-sustaining communist state maintained by a rural agrarian economy.

The party abolished the use of money, free markets, religious practices, foreign clothing and traditional culture. All schools, universities, churches, mosques, temples, shops and government buildings were effectively shut down, with some of them turning into prisons like Tuol Sleng. There was no private or public transportation and absolutely no entertainment.

Cambodia would then become to be known as, Democratic Kampuchea.

A completely totalitarian and genocidal regime.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek was a killing field.

It was 1 out of the 20,000 mass graves sites that dotted Cambodia and in the following years, many adults, children and entire families would meet their horrible deaths here.

Due to the scarcity and cost of ammunition, the regime at Choeung Ek would execute the prisoners in other savage ways…

In order to save bullets, they resorted to beating and butchering the prisoners with pick axes, machetes and other iron tools. Small children and babies would be beaten to death against the trees, with the captors laughing, as they couldn’t show any sign of sympathy.

Not doing so would raise questions about the comrades loyalty and risk being thrown into prison himself.

Execution Tree at Choeung Ek

Toady, Choeung Ek is a collection of mass graves where almost 9,000 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and it is open to visitors that want to learn about Cambodia’s terrible past. In the center is a Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 human skulls, which serves as a memorial to the people that had lost their lives during the brutal regime.

The Khmer Rouge genocide against it’s own people finally ended several years later in 1979, when Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia and effectively dismantled the brutal government.

Pol Pot fled and died in 1998.

A Reflection

July 5th, 2019

As I walked through Tuol Sleng and explored the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, I learned in detail how the killings were carried out.

Learning about the atrocities that were inflicted to the Cambodian people horrified me and made me think of the other genocides committed by other countries in the past. It made me wonder why those nations took those steps. Why was it a solution?

And why do we, as human beings, keep committing genocide?

Being there at Tuol Sleng and walking through Choeung Ek made me shudder. It made me emotional and it even made me sick.

And it made me question human nature.

We all learned about horrific genocides in school.

Yet, here I was, physically learning about the barbaric crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

Peering into cells where people were locked up, beaten and starved to death.

I was standing in places where thousands of men, women and children were murdered…

It was something I had never experienced.

It was hard to fathom that, a nation had turned against it’s own people and they were not safe in the one country they were supposed to be safe in.

And to think…

That the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge ended only 40 years ago.

In memory to those who lost their lives during the Regime.

If you would like to learn more about Cambodia’s dark past and more about genocide in general, I encourage you to check out these resources down below.


End Genocide

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


First they Killed My Father by Loung Ung
Brother Number 1 by David P. Chandler


The Killing Fields directed by Roland Joffe.
First they Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie.

Tuol Sleng

Visiting Hours: 8 am to 5 pm.
Entry: Khmer – Free
Foreigner – $3 (10 years to 18) and $5 (18 years and over)

Choeung Ek

Visiting Hours: 8 am to 5:30pm
Entry: $3
Audio Guide: $3