No, this isn’t a dig at 45. Well, not directly, at least. And while politics certainly factor into this (with some current situations being obvious retreads), it’s really about something far greater than politics.

I spent the other day with my partner at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka Prison S21) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka The Killing Fields) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Both are actual, historical sites turned into remembrances of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s short but brutal reign. As an American, public schooled and in my 40’s, I’d heard of the Khmer Rouge but only in passing. Ok, they were some bad people who did some bad things in a podunk, “shithole” of a country that no one cares about on the other side of the planet. But since I happen to be in that shithole country (and quite enjoying it) and these sites are listed on all the Top 10’s, I went to get educated. I had no idea what I was in for…

SIDEBAR: If you are ever in Phnom Penh – you MUST do these tours. There are self-guided audio tours (vital!) and each will cost you less than $10 US. Give yourself 3hrs at each site. You may not use it all but better to have time to kill {/bad pun} than to rush through. No, this is not a “pleasant” way to spend the day but it is an important one. Whatever emotions it stirs up in you, whatever questions about our current political/socioeconomic/ideological world dynamic it raises, take the time to open your eyes, your mind and your heart. Don’t be an arrogant prick on vacation. Give a shit about the actual country you’re visiting and not just your next drink or selfie.

So we showed up, arranged with the tuktuk guy to give us 2.25hrs there, bought our tickets and started listening to the audio. You begin in the courtyard of what was once a high school and notice the 4 concrete, 3 story buildings framing the space. You smell the frangipani and jasmine, see the gentle sway of the mango and coconut palms in the breeze….and 14 whitewashed cement tombs.

As you listen to audio and walk through Building A, the one used for the most extreme torture, you are struck by how these rooms were intended for education of children but eventually were used for the “re-education” (read: torture) of adults and children.  You move from former classroom to former classroom – each still containing a flimsy, metal bed frame with thin, jagged steel strips in a lattice pattern (to support a nonexistent mattress) that prisoners were tied to with heavy iron ankle shackles and handcuffs; a rectangular metal box they were to defecate in; and a large, graphic picture on the wall of the last human to have been killed in that room.

When the Khmer Rouge were driven from Phnom Penh, they killed all the remaining prisoners and left their bodies in situ. The Vietnamese found S21 hours later by following the stench of decay and documented exactly what the KR had left behind.  One of the rooms still contains a desk as vivid reminder that the entire point of this torture revolved around forced confessions.  If you didn’t include enough names, you were beaten again. If you didn’t claim responsibility for everything you were accused of, you were tortured again. If you did or did not do, say or did not say anything they didn’t like, you were punished yet again.

The pictures are gruesome. Black and white, grainy images of horribly beaten bodies, bloated and swollen from abuse lying in mangled shapes on these same beds you’re standing next to; their blood spattered and pooled beneath them. The floors are stained by the blood to this day and there are spatter marks on the walls and ceilings as well. These torture rooms continue the full length of the first floor, with larger rooms for similar purposes on the two floors above. The audio is graphic but not gratuitous. The overall feeling is horror, sympathy and outrage.


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You continue the tour through the yard that once was play and exercise grounds for youth and the audio points out how even structures were used for different kinds of abuse and humiliation including being hoisted by the wrists which were tied behind the back (often shredding shoulder joints ) then being dunked headfirst into a vat of raw sewage.
Building B was used for holding prisoners, and that in itself was a form of torture. Long iron bars with U shaped attachments secured the ankles and restricted movement. As many as 20 people would be shackled to the same bar, which was then secured to iron loops in the concrete floor. There are pictures painted by an artist, a survivor of S21, that show little difference at all to pictures I’ve seen of how slaves were confined in ships during their journey to America 200 years ago. In one room, there are outlines on the floor from where individual cells had been constructed and a display of the leg irons. As you walk though each of the rooms, you can’t help but notice sections of floor tile stained just as those in Bldg A and no, it’s not dust or dirt.

Bldg B currently houses the photographs of the Khmer Rouge leadership and of about a thousand of the victims to die here, among them are a dozen Westerners including an several Americans. The grim faces staring at the death behind the lens range from babes-in-arms to the aged, with the average being significantly under 30. When someone was arrested, their entire family was arrested – from infants to grandparents.

Out of over 15,000 prisoners admitted to S21, there are only 14 known survivors. Numbers are just that until you start putting human beings, faces, stories to those numbers. The gallery of faces, grouped by age and gender, and the audio with several accounts from survivors feels like a punch in an already sickened gut. It’s when the pictures of mutilated bodies and the blood stains in Bldg A become real, personal.  It hits home that it wasn’t just the ones in the pics who were tortured to death there, but thousands before them, too.

Bldg C is more prisoner housing, only here you see individual, raw brick and cement cells that are about 5’L x 3’W that are slapped together in the former classrooms with a hole cut out in the wall between rooms to allow guards quick access to all. The ankle irons were present again, as were the shit boxes and plastic jugs for urine.

The entire front of the building and balconies are covered in barbed wire to keep inmates from struggling with guards, breaking free and throwing themselves off. More survivor audio. More heaviness around my heart.

Bldg D contains more victim photographs, stories, a look at the detailed bureaucracy of death (remarkable documentation regarding who was tortured and how, what confession they were tortured into making and what the manner of death was as well as the detailed chain of command responsible), more paintings of torture exercises (including fingernails being ripped out, female’s breasts and nipples being mutilated and giant centipedes inserted vaginally, waterboarding, etc). There are even a dozen or so of the actual implements used for these things, a waterboarding table and a dunk-tank type device, and a cabinet filled with skulls and bones.

At this point, I am so sick in my heart and stomach. And sad. And angry. And incredulous.  I didn’t even realize til writing this post that I’d stopped taking pictures by this point, so great was the emotional overload.  I wish I had captured more to be better able share the depth of the gut wrench.

How did this not make it into my education?? Or if it did, why was it not more prominently featured? Everyone knows oodles about the Holocaust…and that happened in the 1940’s. The Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia just in 1975! Some 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust over approximately 5 years. Here three million, a full 25% of the population, died in Cambodia in just over 3 years. I’m flabbergasted at the lack of knowledge that I, an average American, have regarding this.

Feeling a bit nauseated, definitely raw, jangled, outraged, rattled, heartbroken, we headed for the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. I’m glad the 15km drive took about 35min. I needed the time to allow what I was feeling to settle a bit.

As we grabbed a snack and some juice from one of the vendors outside the site, my partner and I started searching for words for our feelings. If I had to summarize mine, I’d say it was pretty much equal parts ~

INCREDULOUS at the barbaric ways humans can treat humans in such a modern era. We’re not talking ancient history or anything here, this happened in my lifetime.

SHOCKED at the lack of knowledge I had – again, this happened in the era of modern communication/TV/Cable News/budding globalism and AFTER the Holocaust where we were supposed to learn how to stop this insane shit and theoretically have global watchdogs in place.

HEARTSICK COMPASSION for the victims and survivors (including the underlings who had to do the actual wet work, that’s dreadful trauma in itself).

WHYYYY??!!?? What purpose, what gain, what goal could possibly be worth this horror?

My partner’s feelings were different. Pretty much variations of anger… and some sadness… but mostly anger. Digging a little deeper, it’s anger at the cowardice and weakness of a leader who has to kill his own citizens to maintain power. And anger that the “idiots were running the show”.

SIDEBAR:The US had been bombing the shit out of neutral Cambodia for 6 years trying to disrupt the Vietnamese supply lines and had devastated large portions of eastern Cambodia with carpet bombing tactics as well as bombing the Phnom Penh area, killing more than half a million Cambodians between 1969 and 1975. In fact, the US dropped more ordinance on Cambodia than the entire Allied forces deployed in all of WW2….2.7 MILLION tons of it. The country was sick of it and mad as hell…rich soil for the planting of dangerous ideas.

The Khmer Rouge capitalized on this fertile soil and found it easy to radicalize the poor, rural, youth (age 15-19), and the uneducated, unsophisticated and unemployed (who often could not even read or write). All were fed propaganda promises of a Communist Utopia – a peaceful, happy, well fed, class-less society. Because of these promises to save them from the ravages of the Western world and return Cambodia to a “golden era”, even the educated and more savvy Cambodians fell for it and actually cheered when the KR coup marched into Phnom Penh.

For some reason, though, no one saw what was coming next. In order to manifest this “return to greatness”, the KR had to create an imaginary class conflict between the New People (who lived in cities, had soft hands, wore glasses, were educated, spoke a second language, had private property or wealth of any kind – like the Westerners who had been carpet bombing Cambodians) and the Old People (agrarian, poor, uneducated, the main victims of the US/Vietnamese war). This classist conflict didn’t exist in any substantial way before the Khmer Rouge but by capitalizing on the anger, poverty and destruction already present, they created an “us against them” class warfare mentality and leveraged it.

An immediate evacuation at gunpoint of every single living person from every city, forced marches and relocation into those same devastated countrysides ensued. Rebellion meant death. Rice production was demanded at 3x the usual yield per acre, despite the fact that the acreage was virtually uninhabitable and non-arable, and that those expected to work it had no clue how to. Failure meant death. An estimated 1 million died on these forced relocation marches and in the work camps.

Once in power, they systematically tortured and killed professionals, intellectuals, the Buddhist monk hood, ethnic minorities, business leaders, journalists, students, doctors, and lawyers – the very people who should be leading a country forward were slaughtered by those who had absolutely no idea how to do anything but SMASH (KR code for kill).**

It was these “idiots” that formed the bulk of the Khmer Rouge manpower. And after all was said and done, after the intellectual talent had been slaughtered, these were the ones left (on both the victim and perpetrator sides) to try to rebuild.  My partner’s anger was at the waste of human capital and how those least qualified to run a country were all that was left after the genocide.

The next 2 hours were spent wandering and listening to the story of the Killing Fields. The plot of land is actually rather small, having been a Chinese cemetary for the small village before being repurposed by the Khmer Rouge. It is bordered by rice fields on 3 sides and a village on the 4th. Based on the record keeping of S21, the 129 mass graves hold almost 17,000 victims. The graves were roughly 15′ deep and wide, organized by gender and age, and lined up as neat and orderly as the rice paddies. Only 86 have been excavated, revealing over 9,000 sets of remains.


Whomever didn’t end up dying at S21 was transported here for extermination. They would be promised a relocation to a better facility or to see a family member to make them docile, then blindfolded and bound and trucked to Choeung Ek after dark. Held for up to 24 hours in a double walled and metal roofed building in their usual shackles, they would experience the intense heat of the Cambodian sun baking them in pitch darkness. Come nightfall, a diesel generator powering loud speaker blaring propaganda songs and lectures covered any sound of the slaughter. They would be led in small, blindfolded groups to the edge of pit, forced to kneel and then bludgeoned with a cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever implements were available and then their throats were slit. Babies’ heads were smashed against the trunk of a tree. Most were stripped of clothing and then their bodies were pushed into the pits and covered in chemicals to reduce the stench and kill off any who had managed to survive the attack. After the site was abandoned researchers uncovered documents with jotted-down notes like “Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed”.

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The audio includes all these details and stories of survivors as you walk the property. There are several plexiglass cases around the site protecting examples of bones found in situ, or bones that didn’t fit the cataloging schematic or display space of the 17 story tall monument that houses the remains of over 8,000.

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I noticed bits of clothing sticking up from the dirt in areas and the audio explains that the graves are still giving up their secrets every time it rains. You’re instructed to leave everything in place and that every few months, workers come through and gather up bits of clothing and bones that have emerged. It really brings home how real this all is when you catch yourself about to step on a fragment of someone.img_7901
Some of the mass graves are marked by a short fence of bamboo, a tin roof to reduce erosion and a plaque indicating the contents of that grave. Visitors have looped bracelets, prayer beads or strips of cloth tied in remembrance on the pickets. One mass grave held 166 headless bodies – the most dishonorable death reserved for the cadres of KR killed for “treason” (when all it took to be found guilty and executed was an accusation, the torture would force the confession out of you).img_7899
The largest one held 450 bodies.img_7880

This was all difficult to learn about and a few times through the tour, I choked back a tear but the one that broke me was the Killing Tree and mass grave for Mothers and Infants. It had far more bracelets on it’s fence than any other site – as well as positively covering the bark of the thick Killing Tree trunk as high up as 8′. People had thrown money onto the grave as well…and some had clearly been there a while.

I tear up now as I write this with the wailing WHYYYY?!? echoing in my head. What could possibly justify dashing infant’s brains out?? What modern human could do that? We’re not fucking cavemen anymore. Haven’t we learned enough from history about despots, dictators and dickheads? Don’t we have multinational organizations that are supposed to watch for and stop these atrocities? Don’t we live in the information age? Even in 1975 there was way, way too much bandwidth available for the world not to know about this. No matter how much someone thinks their way is the right way of doing something, how do you skip the part where this is a child you’re killing (or ordering killed)? No matter what political or economic ideology you might have, how do you lose your humanity?

For once, this wasn’t done to appease some mythical man-in-the-sky. This wasn’t done purely by psychopaths and sociopaths – there simply aren’t enough of them in any one population and they’d never trust each other well enough to organize something this big. This was about a political ideology and nationalism. The procedure and chain of command for this entire process from arrest to death sentence is very well documented as originating with one man, Pol Pot. Yes, he had a team of like minded psychopaths to help him, but it was his “baby”.

All this torture… all this murder… all this genocide was about one man’s ego. One man’s desire for power and a pledge to return the country to an alleged “golden age”. And a lot of “good people” who were fed up with years of conflict made the mistake to support this tyrant. Hhm, that’s not eerily familiar, is it?

When the Vietnamese wrested control of Cambodia from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge,  and drove them to the far north border by Thailand, they made all these facts public. And then a whole big new fucking group of “good people” on the global stage who had the power to intervene but did nothing about it because of their own fucking ego, ideology and desire for power.

Like the US.

#Sorrynotsorry to those “patriots” who think this country can do no wrong.

The US refused to acknowledge the new socialist government the Vietnamese set up in Cambodia (being butthurt over losing the Vietnam War) BY PRESSURING THE UN TO KEEP ACKNOWLEDGING ONLY THE KHMER ROUGE AS VALID RULERS. Yeah, I’ll say that again. The US would rather fund, arm and train a KNOWN genocidal, communist regime than acknowledge temporary socialist one the Vietnamese set up even though the Vietnamese were the only ones in the world to step up and end the KR nightmare. And the US did this for 10 YEARS to the tune of $215 million dollars. All to continue a pissing match with Vietnam that had already cost $141 billion and over 1,353,000  lives.

And the US legacy still lives. The current Prime Minister is a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander and has been in office 33 years (by refusing to step down after elections and by staging coups).  In 1987, Amnesty International accused Hun Sen’s government of torture of thousands of political prisoners using “electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags….just like they did under the KR. Guess what that means for today’s Cambodians? Well, just this year, the government arrested the leader of Cambodia’s political opposition on dubious charges of treason; dissolved the main opposition party and banned over 100 members from political activity; intensified the misuse of the justice system to prosecute political opposition and human rights activists; and forced several independent media outlets to close. And this is the guy the US has spent over 1 Billion on over the last 25 years.**

Fucking crazy, right? Not just the stats, as stats vary depending on which source you site, but about the complete and total inhumanity of it all.

At what point does it not register in people’s heads that whatever political ideology you espouse, IF YOU HAVE TO KILL FOR IT TO WORK THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT. Same with religions. History clearly shows that all kinds of atrocities have been committed by all sectors of humanity for all kinds of ridiculous ideas but when is enough enough? When will we evolve past this? When will the “good people” of the world step up and do the thing those in power on all sides are too corrupt to do?  To BE BETTER HUMAN BEINGS?!  This isn’t ancient history perpetrated by ‘lesser’ civilizations. This shit happened in my lifetime! Did the Holocaust teach us nothing? Have all the previous wars taught us nothing?






**I am not a historian.  I am not here to debate facts or fake news.  Whatever stats I’ve listed are averages from the top half dozen or so semi-reliable sources (not tabloids or newspapers, but researchers and historians). The stats might be skewed one way or another but anyone caring to focus on that has lost the point of the story.
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Posted by Arlee Weiss

Free Range Human, Bad Yogi, Random Adventurer, Gym Junkie, Sailor.


  1. WOW, I lived through that time and had. No idea. Sure there were rumors, and the occasional story but nothing anywhere as complete as this..Thank you for being there. I wonder how much of this ‘Hanoi Jane’ (Fonda) knew.



  2. It was eye opening and heart crushing. It’s maddening to think that in our current time, the “news” we get inside the US and our government is even more corrupt than it was in the 1970’s. The inanity of our pop culture/sports/entertainment complex anesthetizes us to it all and the rigged nature of our elections and oligarchia (some still call it a “political system”) keeps us from doing much about it.

    I’m not too familiar with Jane’s political stance (other than general awareness of her being called a traitor for supporting the Vietnamese and being anti-US) but the Khmer Rouge had sympathetic anti-imperialism allies in Sweden and northern Europe. Gunnar Bergstrom and 3 other journalists were treated to a two week, highly sanitized propaganda tour in 1978. They spoke only through an interpreter and were shown only parts of the country that would create the right impression (rice being loaded onto boats for “export” indicating self-sufficiency, smiling children, happy workers in lush rice fields, cheerful communal dining halls). They were fooled, denounced the thousands of refugees fleeing into Thailand as slanderers and wrote glowing articles in favor of the work Pol Pot was doing to rebuild Cambodia after the Western oppressors’ destruction. The world would have to wait til the Vietnamese ousted the KR for the truth.

    Jane’s situation might have been similar. I can’t fault a person for being fooled.

    I can fault the Powers That Be for what they did after the truth was made known.



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