Ghosts of Cambodia’s Past

A country lives with the specters of its genocidal past

By Mahir Rahman


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n April 1975, with the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge communists had won the Cambodian Civil War. Pol Pot would begin his revolution by destroying any trace of Cambodia’s past and remaking the country from the ground up. Year Zero of his new world had begun.

Barely a month later, Sydney Schanberg, then foreign correspondent for the New York Times, reported on the plight of the Cambodians after escaping to Bangkok, Thailand. The Khmer Rouge had orchestrated a mass urban exodus, transforming even their capital into a ghost town. Schanberg wrote, “A once-throbbing city became an echo chamber of silent streets lined with abandoned cars and gaping, empty shops. Streetlights burned eerily for a population that was no longer there. The end of the old and the start of the new began early in the morning of  [April] 17th.”

The Times feature was one of the earliest reports on the Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Thirty years prior, the Holocaust had ended with the Allied victory in Europe providing a window into the Nazi’s genocidal practices. The Vietnamese ended the Cambodian genocide in 1979, when they invaded and expelled the Khmer Rouge.

Yet, the United Nations voted to recognize the Khmer Rouge  over the new government that replaced it. The flag of a regime responsible for the deaths of an estimated quarter of its own population waved over 1st Avenue in New York City for nearly two more decades.

“We were isolated from the world,” said Chhay Visoth, director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, describing Cambodia’s condition in the years leading up to the modern government. The museum was originally built as a high school, before being converted into a prison known as S-21 by the Khmer Rouge. I walked through rooms where prisoners used to sleep head-to-head on the bare floor. Guards would beat prisoners who drank water without permission. Prisoners would be hosed down every four days. Once torture produced desired false confessions, prisoners were sent to “killing fields” to be exterminated since S-21 ran out of burial space by the end of 1976. When I asked Visoth on his thoughts on the delayed support from the international community, he responded, “They should have come quickly or my father would have not been killed during the regime.”

At the time, American scholars Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argued that media claims of the Cambodian genocide were propaganda, designed to make the US look favorable in the ongoing Vietnam War. Swedish diplomat Gunnar Bergstrom dined with Pol Pot in Phnom Penh while the dictator’s  cadres continued their genocide. Global powers like the United States and China promoted pro-Khmer-Rouge resolutions in the United Nations after their removal from Cambodia. Ironically, academics, politicians, and foreigners were key Khmer Rouge targets for extermination.

Today, the politics around the Cambodian genocide that prompted its denial by the international community continue to exist in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge tribunal has been trying high ranking members in the regime for crimes against humanity since 1997. However, former low and middle ranking members work in the current government. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, the Cambodian NGO dedicated to the preservation of Khmer Rouge documents, faced criticism for exaggerating its death toll estimate.

History on the Khmer Rouge did not become part of the mandated public school curriculum until 2009. Cambodian youth are reluctant to accept history that asserts family members, village elders, and community members took part in a genocide against their own people. Visoth observed that children only began to believe the history after facing remnants of the regime and setting foot in sites like Tuol Sleng. Yet, the museum is still frequented by substantially more foreigners than students.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia will be launching an open access database to their resources with the hopes of deepening the understanding of the once-ignored genocide within their country—a complicated history in which the human beings that killed their relatives live around them as neighbors.

When I learned about this history in Tuol Sleng, Visoth told me that Cambodians remain hesitant to visit. Apparently, they fear seeing ghosts. Maybe it is time to confront those fears.


Mahir Rahman ’17 is a Psychology–Neuroscience major in Silliman College. Contact him at