The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975).
Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.
Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term 'killing fields' during his escape from the regime. A 1984 film, The Killing Fields, tells the story of Dith Pran, played by another Cambodian survivor Haing S. Ngor, and his journey to escape the death camps.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant." Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as "the purest genocide of the Cold War era."
According to Michael Vickery, 750,000 people in Cambodia in a population of about 8 million died due to disease, overwork, and political repression. However many scholars disregard his claims because the number of victims of execution found in the mass graves is higher than his estimate for deaths from all causes during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war combined. The most widely accepted estimate, from scholar Ben Kiernan, is that about 1.7 million people were killed. It is described by the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program as, "one of the worst human tragedies of the last century." Researcher Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia suggests that the death toll was between 2 and 2.5 million, with a "most likely" figure of 2.2 million. After 5 years of researching some 20,000 grave sites, he concludes that, "these mass graves contain the remains of 1,386,734 victims of execution." Execution is believed to have accounted for about 30–50% of the death toll. This would indicate 2.5 to 3 million deaths, but normal mortality over this period would have accounted for about 500,000 deaths—subtracting this from the total sum, we arrive at Etcheson's range for the number of "excess" deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge regime. A UN investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated 3 million had been killed. Even the Khmer Rouge acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion. By late 1979, UN and Red Cross officials were warning that another 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to “the near destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot,” who were saved by American and international aid after the Vietnamese invasion.
Cambodia's ethnic minorities constituted 15 percent of the population in pre-Khmer Rouge era. Of the 400,000 Vietnamese who lived in Cambodia before 1975, some 150–300,000 were expelled by the previous Lon Nol regime. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came to power, there remained about 100–250,000 Vietnamese in the country. Almost all of them were repatriated by December 1975. Some argue that the Khmer Rouge had no intent to cause serious mental and physical harm to the Vietnamese during the repatriation process.
The Chinese community (about 425,000 people in 1975) was reduced to 200,000 during the next four years. In the Khmer Rouge's Standing Committee, four members were of Chinese ancestry, two Vietnamese, and two Khmers. Some observers argue that this mixed composition makes it difficult to argue that there was an intent to kill off minorities. R.J. Rummel, an analyst of political killings, argues that there was a clear genocidal intent:
Not only did the Khmer Rouge run amok massacring their people, but also everywhere the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy the very heart of peasant life. Hinayana Buddhism had been a state religion, and the priesthood of monks with their saffron robes was a central part of Cambodian culture. Some 90 percent of Cambodians believed in some form of Buddhism. Many received a rudimentary schooling from the monks, and many young people became monks for part of their lives. The Khmer Rouge could not allow so powerful an institution to stand and therefore set out with vigor to destroy it. They exterminated all leading monks and either murdered or defrocked the lesser ones. One estimate is that out of 40,000 to 60,000 monks only 800 to 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We do know that of 2,680 monks in eight monasteries, merely seventy were alive in 1979. As for the Buddhist temples that populated the landscape of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of them, and turned the few remaining into warehouses or allocated them for some other degrading use. Amazingly, in the very short span of a year or so, the small gang of Khmer Rouge wiped out the center of Cambodian culture, its spiritual incarnation, its institutions. This was an act of genocide within the larger Cambodian democide, and it was not the only one. In most if not all the country, simply being of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Lao ancestry meant death. As part of a planned genocide campaign, the Khmer Rouge sought out and killed other minorities, such as the Moslem Cham. In the district of Kompong Xiem, for example, they demolished five Cham hamlets and reportedly massacred 20,000 that lived there; in the district of Koong Neas only four Cham apparently survived out of some 20,000. The cadre threw the Cham Grand Mufti, their spiritual leader, into boiling water and then hit him on the head with an iron bar. They beat another leader, the First Mufti, to death, tortured and disemboweled the Second Mufti, and murdered by starvation in prison the Chairman of the Islamic Association of Kampuchea (Cambodia). Overall, the Khmer Rouge annihilated nearly half—about 125,000—of all the Cambodian Cham. As to the other minorities, the Khmer Rouge also slaughtered about 200,000 ethnic Chinese, almost half of those in Cambodia—a calamity for ethnic Chinese in this part of the world unequaled in modern times—additionally, they murdered 3,000 Protestants and 5,000 Catholics; around 150,000 ethnic Vietnamese (over half); and 12,000 ethnic Thai out of 20,000. One Cambodian peasant, Heng Chan, whose wife was of Vietnamese descent, lost not only his wife, but also five sons, three daughters, three grandchildren, and sixteen of his wife's relatives. In this genocide, the Khmer Rouge probably murdered 541,000 Chinese, Chams, Vietnamese, and other minorities.
The judicial process of the Khmer Rouge regime, for minor or political crimes, began with a warning from the Angkar, the government of Cambodia under the regime. People receiving more than two warnings were sent for "re-education," which meant near-certain death. People were often encouraged to confess to Angkar their "pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes" (which usually included some kind of free-market activity; having had contact with a foreign source, such as a U.S. missionary, international relief or government agency; or contact with any foreigner or with the outside world at all), being told that Angkar would forgive them and "wipe the slate clean." This meant being taken away to a place such as Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek for torture and/or execution.
The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees. The rationale was "to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents' deaths."
Some victims were required to dig their own graves; their weakness often meant that they were unable to dig very deep. The soldiers who carried out the executions were mostly young men or women from peasant families.
In 1997 the Cambodian government asked for the UN's assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It took nine years to agree the shape and structure of the court – a hybrid of Cambodian and international laws – before in 2006 the judges were sworn in. The investigating judges were presented with the names of five possible suspects by the prosecution on July 18, 2007. On September 19, 2007 Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge and its most senior surviving member, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He will face Cambodian and foreign judges at the special genocide tribunal. On July 26, 2010 Kang Kek Iew (aka Comrade Duch), director of the S-21 prison camp, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years. His sentence was reduced to 19 due to already having spent 11 years in prison.
The best known monument of the Killing Fields is Choeung Ek. Today, it is the site of a Buddhist memorial to the terror, and Tuol Sleng has a museum commemorating the genocide. The memorial park has been constructed around the mass graves of many thousands of victims in Choeung Ek. The utmost respect is given to the victims of the massacres through signs and tribute sections throughout the park. Many dozens of mass graves are visible above ground, several which have not been excavated as of yet. Commonly, bones and clothing surface after heavy rainfalls due to the extremely large number of bodies still buried in the area. It is not uncommon to run across the bones or teeth of the victims scattered on the surface as you tour the memorial park. If these are found, you are asked to notify a memorial park officer or guide.
A survivor of the genocide, Dara Duong, founded The Killing Fields Museum in Seattle, Washington, USA.