In the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the writings of Marx are upheld as a sort of blueprint for idealist scholars. Several of my Harvard peers call themselves Marxists, inspired by a vision of equality and universalism.
For the people of Cambodia, the word “Marxism” brings back memories of one of the country’s darkest times. To explore the history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the genocide that ensued under the party’s leadership, I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In its four years of national rule from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge is believed to have caused the deaths of 2 million of Cambodia’s 7.5 million civilians, making it the deadliest regime of the twentieth century. To force egalitarianism upon its populace, party leaders ordered the exodus of all urban dwellers to the rural countryside where a policy of self-sufficiency required people to produce their own rice, clothing, and medicines. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from starvation and lack of access to modern medicines, the party’s policies of torture and execution aimed at suspected capitalists depleted Cambodia of some of its most educated, famous, and prosperous members of society.
The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is located near the center of the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once a high school, the Khmer Rouge converted the campus into a systematized torture facility and prison. During its four years of operation, an estimated 20,000 prisoners met their demise behind prison walls, with only seven known survivors.
The exterior of each of the school buildings remains covered in barbed electric wire, meant to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. The tiny cells constructed within the former classrooms appear insufficiently small to fit a resting body, sized more appropriately as coffins than prison rooms.
As each prisoner entered the facility, they were photographed and ordered to provide a full life biography. Today, the prison rooms are filled with the haunting photographic portraits of the thousands held captive and tortured within the facilities.
Just fifteen minutes outside of the city center, I visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the location of the largest known mass graves in Cambodia. Here, at least 20,000 people were executed and murdered, many of them family members of those detained in Tuol Sleng prison, representing a small fraction of the estimated 1,300,000 buried in mass graves throughout Cambodia. Today, the bones of the bodies excavated at Choeung Ek are kept on display in a memorial stupa in the center of the killing fields. The land surrounding has been largely untouched since the excavations began. Grass now covers the shoveled pits where skeletal remains were removed; trees, once used to bash in the heads of infants, stand swaying in the wind; and local fishers now use the property to catch evening supper. The calm in this former place of mass violence is eerie with birds chirping and insects humming where once, the screams of thousands were heard.
It was amazing for me to learn that the Khmer Rouge party remained strong until the early 1990s, not officially dissolving until 1999, when I was ten years old. Today, the Khmer Rouge Case Trials continue, a slow effort overseen by the UN to bring justice to the Cambodian people.
I left the killing fields in silent prayer, sending peace to the spirits of Choeung Ek and praying for an end to senseless violence everywhere.