What are the Killing Fields?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Shortly after the last Americans were evacuated from Vietnam in 1975, both Cambodia and Vietnam fell under Communist rule. One of the chief architects of the Communist party in Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge, was a despot named Pol Pot. Although Pol Pot himself was highly educated, he became resentful of the intellectuals and capitalists who controlled Cambodia's largest cities and politics. Most of his Khmer Rouge recruits were from peasant stock, and were systematically conditioned to accept his views of a new society.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

During the early 1970s, Pol Pot successfully eliminated some of his political enemies through summary executions, and managed to force an evacuation of several large cities. The idea behind these forced evacuation was to "re-educate" complacent city dwellers to the ideals of an agrarian society, which would be governed by a benevolent Communist government. This vision led to a horrific event known as the Killing Fields.

In 1976, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army officially became the rulers of a new Cambodia, renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot wasted no time implementing his plans for an ethnically purified Communist country. Since he saw little need for more than a few million loyal citizens, Pol Pot used this opportunity to systematically remove intellectuals, political opponents, those of mixed race, the elderly and the crippled from the country's population count. From 1976 until Vietnamese intervention in 1979, the Killing Fields of Kampuchea were in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Civilians living in the larger cities in Cambodia were forcibly removed from their homes by armed Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were then herded to large rice patties or other fields in the remote Cambodian countryside. Many were forced to dig their own mass graves or perform other degrading duties. Food rations in the Killing Fields were reduced to a few bowls of rice soup a day, if the evacuees were fed at all. Many died from starvation or committed suicide to escape the daily tortures.

In an effort to save ammunition, the Khmer Rouge soldiers working in the Killing Fields were encouraged to use primitive weapons to commit their murderous acts. After completing mass burial pits, thousands of civilians were beaten to death with clubs or stabbed with bamboo stakes. Some were simply buried alive. This continued unabated for nearly three years, since many of the Western governments were either preoccupied with the aftermath of the Vietnam War or were reluctant to intervene for political reasons.

The total number of lives lost in the Killing Fields is still a matter of some dispute, but the Khmer Rouge itself placed the number at nearly 3 million. Outside estimates range from 1.2 to 2.4 million, but some victims may have already been executed before 1976. Several memorial shrines in Cambodia contain thousands of skulls excavated from the Killing Fields after the fall of Pol Pot.

The scope of the Killing Fields of Cambodia (Kampuchea) is often compared to that of the Jewish Holocaust or the ethnic cleansing efforts in Bosnia and Rwanda. Pol Pot's personal hatred of intellectuals and capitalists drove him to commit one of the most horrific acts of genocide during the 20th Century. His death in Thailand in 1998 occurred before he could stand trial for his role in the Killing Fields, but his acts of evil against his own people will never be forgotten by the world.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


One of my co-workers is originally from Cambodia, and he told me one time that most of his extended family died in the Cambodian killing fields. He was very young at the time, but he remembered seeing men in uniforms walking down his street and knocking on doors. His mother scooped him up and ran out their back door before the soldiers reached the house. They hid in a small shack until the soldiers and the other people left in trucks.

He said life under Pol Pot was always terrible, but he didn't know anything about the Khmer Rouge or the killing fields until his mother got them both to a refugee camp on the Vietnamese border. He found out much later that all of the people he saw being driven out of town that day were taken out to a swamp and shot to death. He was lucky to survive.

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