An attempt by the Khmer Rouge to "start from scratch", after winning the Cambodian civil war. It was "Year Zero", and city-folk had to endure mass relocations to rural areas (or die), in order to help the nation build an agrarian communist utopia - you wonder if the KR ever bothered to read Marx. In the process, many "intellectuals" (e.g. people who wore glasses) were killed. The random murders and harsh labor left millions dead, unlucky mice in Pol Pot's mad-scientist labs.

Life is living
Suffering is truth
Struggling because there’s hope
Life is everything all together

Ranachith Yimsut (June ’92)(1)

Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975 As the Khmer Rouge marched into capital of Cambodia and effectively ended the civil war that had been devastating the country for the last five years, the violence began. Lead by mild mannered well-spoken former schoolteacher Saloth Sar a.k.a Pol Pot, the government of Angkar(2) would lead one of the bloodiest revolutions in history.

Almost as soon as they had established the new government the Khmer Rouge set about enforcing what was referred to as the Four Year Plan. The plan was meant to demodernise Cambodia, break down class divisions and lead to communism on a national scale. He proposed to triple Cambodia's agricultural output everywhere and at once. The scheme drawn from the Soviet and Chinese regime and had no relation to reality. Cambodia had just emerged from five years of ruinous civil war. Its infrastructure was badly damaged. Its labour force which included over two million half-starved city dwellers was expected to perform a miracle without tools, guidance, livestock or material incentives.

Borrowing the phrase Great Leap to describe his Four Year Plan, Pol Pot led Cambodia over a precipice, into the dark. Most of the deaths that ravaged Cambodian the population can be traced to the rejection of western-style medicine, harsh work schedules and paranoia. The centre gave orders and demanded positive results. Local officials were as terrified of Angkar as everybody else. They falsified reports to save themselves. Harvests were poor, but quotas of rice and other crops set by the centre had to be met. As agricultural surpluses were shipped to the capital, food intended for local consumption disappeared.

Thousands of people starved, and when news of their deaths reached the centre, hundreds of cadres were arrested for having sabotaging the plan. When Pol Pot learned that his plan had failed, he was shaken by what he perceived as an emerging pro-Vietnamese faction inside the Cambodian Communist party. Pol Pot refused to blame himself as far as the Four Year Plan was concerned, his colleagues or his Utopian agenda. Instead, he accused enemies of sabotage. He named them as microbes and promised to burn them out. He purged pro-Vietnamese members of his party. Many of his victims were among his oldest colleagues in the movement. By the end 1976 as Cambodia began to come apart Pol Pot believed that he was surrounded by enemies. Murders and arrests already widespread modulated into a systematic reign of terror that lasted until the regime was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979.

The Killing Fields and S-21

The Security Regulations(4)

  1. You must answer accordingly to my questions – Don’t turn them away
  2. Don’t try to hide facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry at all
  7. Do nothing, sit still and await my orders. If there is no order keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom(3) in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
  9. If you do not follow all above rules you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any part of my regulations you shall get extra lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Tuol Sheng, or S-21 as it was known during the Pol Pot regime was a former high school turned into top security prison. The difference between this and any other prison is that here no one survived. Only seven known victims of the 200,000 people detained here made it out alive. The only purpose behind the detention centre was to quickly extract confessions from the so-called enemies of the state, and execute them.

The administrator of the prison working closely with Pol Pot was another former teacher, Khang Khek Leu (a.k.a. Duch). Many of the confession texts from S-21 contain his neat annotations, mocking the prisoners demanding more evidence permitting torture to continue.

The prison occupied four three-storey buildings arranged in a quadrangle, around an open area that had once been used for recreation. The facility was surrounded by a corrugated tin fence and two barbed wire enclosures guarded at all times by fifty soldiers. Inside S-21, some classrooms were transformed into cells where 40 to 100 low status prisoners were shackled together on arrival. Classrooms on the ground floor wore reserved for relatively important people, shackled to their beds. On the upper storeys classrooms were subdivided into cramped one-person cells where less important prisoners undergoing interrogation were bolted by leg irons to the floor. A large room on the second storey was reserved for female prisoners. Some of these women were accused of crimes but the majority it seems were the wives and daughters of male prisoners. Special days, such as July the 1st and 2nd where put aside for the execution of families of men previously killed.

The most important suspects were detained for lengthy interrogations and subjected to repeated torture sessions. Their stay in S-21 in some cases ran for several months and their confessions, when assembled covered hundreds of typed or handwritten pages. The stories that they were made to tell suggested that they had been employed for many years by foreign governments (CIA or KGB mainly) to undermine the revolution.

S-21 was a top secret facility. Its existence was known only to prisoners, prison officials and a handful of high ranking Khmer Rouge. When suspects were arrested they were not told that they were going to S-21. Instead, they were called to study or "summoned for consultation". To industrial workers quartered nearby the prison was known only as a place where "people went in but never come out". Since prisoners at S-21 were often accused of plotting to overthrow the Angkar their confessions were of interest to Pol Pot who is referred to in S-21 documents as "the organisation or as brother number one" (bong timuoy), recalling Orwell’s Big Brother. Copies of important confessions and summaries of related texts were sent to the Minster of National Security Son Sen or to Pol Pot himself with comments by Duch and his associates. Because of this interest S-21 the prison's operations were probably the most fully documented ones in Cambodia at the time. On arrival prisoners were tagged photographed and made to fill in autobiographical forms. Prisoners were given little food, no exercise and hardly any time to sleep. When interrogations began the prisoners were exhausted, disoriented and suggestible. Many confessed to "treasonous activities" without being tortured. Others were broken by tortures so intense that several prisoners died. Still others committed suicide one by grabbing a sentry's gun to shoot himself and another who flung himself off the balcony that encircled the third floor of the prison.

The Vietnamese army that reached Phnom Penh on January 8, 1979 found an abandoned city. When their patrols stumbled across the prison, they discovered the bodies of a dozen recently murdered prisoners whose blood was still drying on the floor. Soon mass graves in the vicinity had been dug up. Toward the end of the year after Vietnam had installed a sympathetic Cambodian regime in Phnom Penh, S-21 was transformed with East German assistance into a Genocide Museum.

Before the Khmer Rouge surrendered they planted over 5 million landmines throughout the country. One for every Cambodian alive.

Partial Cast List1
Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg
Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran
John Malkovich as Al Rockoff
Julian Sands as Jon Swain
Craig T. Nelson as Military attache
Spalding Gray as United States consul
Bill Paterson as Dr. MacEntire
Athol Fugard as Dr. Sundesval
Graham Kennedy as Dougal
Katherine Krapum Chey as Ser Moeum: Dith Pran's wife
Oliver Pierpaoli as Titony: Dith Pran's son

The Killing Fields is a movie released in 1984, directed by Roland Joffé, which details the true story of the relationship between an American journalist and a Cambodian translator/photojournalist during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Warning! Plot spoilers follow.
In early 1975, civil war was still raging in Cambodia. New York Times journalist Syndey Schanberg had been covering the Cambodian conflict since 1972 with his able translator and friend, local war correspondent Dith Pran. The two men monitored the rising tensions as the Khmer Rouge regime prepared to take power, and realized that the situation was rapidly becoming extremely dangerous. Dith Pran, as an educated Cambodian2, was in a much worse position than Schanberg, who had some protection because of his status as a foreign citizen. The two ended up staying on in country, although Dith Pran's family was sent away to safety.

When the Lon Nol government was finally overthrown, violence and killing became rampant, and Schanberg and two other foreign journalists, Rockoff and Swain, were trapped by the Khmer Rouge. Pran managed to save their lives by convincing the troops that Schanberg, Rockoff, and Swain were French, and thus neutral. They all took refuge in the French embassy, but the three foreigners were forced to leave the country soon afterward. Despite their best efforts, Dith Pran, as a Cambodian, was detained by the Khmer Rouge and sent to a re-education camp in the countryside.

Back in the United States, Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Phnom Penh, which he accepted on behalf of himself and Dith Pran. Wracked with guilt that he didn't insist Pran flee while there was time, Schanberg (with Rockoff and Swain) continued to attempt to locate Pran and arrange his release. For years Dith Pran endured torture and starvation in a forced labor camp. In 1979, four years after his incarceration, he managed to escape, and fled across the border to Thailand and freedom.

This script was written by Bruce Robinson, based on the memoirs Schanberg released in 1980 entitled The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia, and was filmed in Thailand. The movie is incredibly powerful, partly because of the subject matter, and partly because of the high quality of the acting and cinematography. The violence is often graphic, but never gratuitous, and highlights the instability and terror of the time effectively. This movie had a massive impact on me, and I find that there are certain scenes from it which linger in my mind regardless of how long it's been since I've last seen it. It is well worth watching, but be prepared for an emotionally difficult viewing.

    Interesting trivia
  • Haing Ngor was not an actor, but a medical doctor whose life experience closely paralleled that of Dith Pran. He was recruited for the part when the casting agent saw his face in some of her friend's wedding photos.
  • Haing Ngor was murdered in 1996 in Los Angeles. Rumor said it was done by Khmer Rouge operatives, but there was no proof.
  • When The Killing Fields was released in 1984, Schanberg was still working at the New York Times.
  • Sydney Schanberg is currently active as an advocate for POW/MIA's.
  • Dith Pran became a photojournalist for the New York Times in 1980.
  • Dith Pran is currently heavily involved in promoting awareness of the Cambodian Genocide. You can learn more about his efforts at
  • 1 - Cast list from IMDb,
    2 - For reasons why it was bad to be an educated Cambodian, I refer you to (darsi)'s excellent writeup above. It was comparable to being a member of the bourgeois class during the French Revolution.

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