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War and Conflict

Wars in Southeast Asia

What were the “killing fields”?

After Communist leader Pol Pot (1928?-1998), head of the Khmer Rouge, took over the Cambodian government in 1975, he ordered a collectivization drive, rounding up anyone who was believed to have been in collusion with or otherwise supported the former regime of Lon Nol (1913–1985). The government-instituted executions, forced labor (in so-called re-education camps), and famine combined to kill one in every five Cambodians, or an estimated 2 million people, during Pol Pot’s reign. He was removed from power in the Vietnamese invasion of 1978 to 1979, and he died in hiding in 1998.

On December 29 of that year, two former Khmer Rouge leaders surrendered to authorities: Khieu Samphan, age 67, and Nuon Chea, 71. The two appeared in a televised news conference. Asked if he was sorry for the suffering that claimed the lives of millions of Cambodians, Khieu Samphan looked straight at the questioner and answered in English: “Yes, sorry, very sorry.” Nuon Chea, said, “We are very sorry, not just for the human lives but also animal lives that were lost in the war.” However, neither Samphan nor Chea accepted personal responsibility for the killing fields. While Samphan pled not to be tried for his crimes and Prime Minister Hun Sen (1950-) of Cambodia seemed inclined toward closing the book on this dark chapter in the country’s history, there was public outcry to bring the former Khmer leaders to justice. Supporters of a trial assert that Cambodia will have no peace until someone is punished for the killing fields—for the Khmer’s genocidal regime.



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