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Living with the dead in the killing fields of Cambodia

  • Caroline Bennett


This article traces the changing relationships between the living and the dead in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Fuelled with fear, confusion, and massive displacement, these relationships initially consisted of distrustful interactions. Over time, however, reciprocal relations of support were established, enabling a transformation of the dead from frightened and frightening beings, to benevolent allies in the reconstruction of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. These relationships allowed both the living and the dead to be brought in from the ‘forest’, thus showing how managing the dead was an integral aspect of post-conflict security. By comparing such relationships at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (a national memorial site) and Koh Sap (an island in the Bassac River) this article shows how the dead replicate the locally situated politics of the living in these encounters.


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The research for this article was supported by the ESRC (grant number ES/J500148/1) and Victoria University of Wellington. Thanks to my anonymous reviewers for their thorough reading and advice.



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1 See also Anne Yvonne Guillou, ‘An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide: The dead of the mass graves and the land guardian spirits (neak ta)’, in Southeast Asian responses to massive destruction’, special issue, Southeast Asia Review 20, 2 (2012): 207–26; Davis, Erik, Deathpower: Buddhism's ritual imagination in Cambodia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 214.

2 I have renamed this site.

3 See also Beban, Alice and Work, Courtney, ‘The spirits are crying: Dispossessing land and possessing bodies in rural Cambodia’, Antipode 46, 3 (2014): 593610.

4 Exact numbers killed at Choeung Ek are hard to determine. Evidence from Tuol Sleng shows the detainment of at least 12,273 people. See: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), ‘Transcript of proceedings: “Duch” trial (trial day 74)’, p. 37. The number is likely far higher: as well as documents potentially not recording all who passed through, several informants told me that as well as prisoners from Tuol Sleng, people from the local cooperative were also sent to Choeung Ek to be killed.

5 I also visited 15 other mass-grave sites across Cambodia.

6 Throughout the article I follow the Huffman system of transcription, except for words that have attained a common written form, including prei, Pchum Benh, preay, and neak ta.

7 Many thanks are owed to Um Sompoah and Res Phasy for their help in collecting this data.

8 Becker, Elizabeth, When the war was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge revolution (New York: Public Affairs, 1998).

9 See Chandler, David, A history of Cambodia, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2008); Kiernan, Ben, The Pol Pot regime: Race, power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

10 See Tyner, James, ‘Dead labor, landscapes and mass graves: Administrative violence during the Cambodian genocide’, Geoforum 52 (2014): 7077.

11 Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime, p. 101.

12 Bruce Sharp gives a good critique of attempts to calculate the figure in ‘Counting Hell’,, 9 Jan. 2008; Because of the uncertainty of the data, I do not use precise figures in this article.

13 For example, Guillou, ‘An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide’; Hinton, Alexander Laban, Why did they kill? Cambodia in the shadow of genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Kiernan, Ben, ‘The demography of genocide in Southeast Asia: The death tolls in Cambodia, 197579, and East Timor, 1975–80’, Critical Asian Studies 35, 4 (2003): 585, 585–97.

14 Vickery, Michael, Cambodia 1975–1984 (Boston: South End, 1984).

15 Heuveline, Patrick, ‘“Between one and three million”: Towards the demographic reconstruction of a decade of Cambodian history (1970–79)’, Population Studies 52, 1 (1998): 4965.

16 As well as the academic literature, there are many biographies describing conditions under the Khmer Rouge, for example: Bizot, François, The gate (New York: Vintage, 2003); Him, Chanrithy, When broken glass floats: Growing up during the Khmer Rouge (New York: WW Norton & Co, 2001); Ngor, Haing, Survival in the Killing Fields (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Panh, Rithy, The elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the commandant of the Killing Fields (London: Clerkenwell, 2013); and Yathy, Pin, Stay alive, my son (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

17 Like the number who died, research on mass graves presents varied and contestable figures: see Caroline Bennett, ‘To live amongst the dead: An ethnographic exploration of mass graves in Cambodia’ (PhD diss., University of Kent, Canterbury, 2015), pp. 29 and 221–3.

18 See Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), Mass Graves Study:

19 It was this sight that led journalist Dith Pran to coin the term ‘the Killing Fields’ to describe his encounters as he escaped Cambodia (Schanberg, Sydney, The death and life of Dith Pran (London: Penguin, 1985).

20 Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime, pp. 450–55.

21 Chandler, David, ‘Cambodia deals with its past: Collective memory, demonisation and induced amnesia’, Totalitarian movements and political religions 9, 2–3 (2008): 355–69.

22 Ibid.

23 In the 1980s there were over eighty of these memorials: see DC-Cam, ‘Mapping project’, Today many of the memorials have been abandoned or dismantled, and the remains rehoused in pagodas.

24 Kwon, Heonik, Ghosts of war in Vietnam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

25 Kwon, Heonik, After the massacre: Commemoration and consolation in Ha My and My Lai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Ghosts of war in Vietnam.

26 Ibid.

27 Perera, Sasanka, ‘Spirit possession and avenging ghosts: Stories of supernatural activities as narratives of terror and mechanisms of coping and remembering’, in Remaking a world: Violence, social suffering and recovery, ed. Das, Veena, Arthur Kleinman, Margaret Lock, Mamphela Ramphele and Pamela Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 157200.

28 Bovensiepen, Judith, ‘Spiritual landscapes of life and death in the central highlands of East Timor’, Anthropological Forum 19, 3 (2009): 323–38.

29 Johnson, Andrew, Ghosts of the city: Spirits, urbanity, and the ruins of progress in Chiang Mai (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014).

30 Lambek, Michael, ‘The past imperfect: Remembering as moral practice’, in Tense past: Cultural essays in trauma and memory, ed. Antze, Paul and Lambek, Michael (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 235–54.

31 For an in-depth discussion of Khmer supernatural beings, see Chouléan, Ang, Les êtres surnaturels dans la religion populaire Khmère (Paris: Cedorek, 1986); Forest, Alain, Le culte des génies protecteurs au Cambodge: Analyse et traduction d'un corpus de textes sur les neak ta (Paris: Editions L'Harmattan, 2000); and Bertrand, Didier, ‘The names and identities of the boramey spirits possessing Cambodian mediums’, Asian Folklore Studies 60, 1 (2001): 3147.

32 Harris, Ian, Cambodian Buddhism: History and practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005).

33 In her ethnography Consoling ghosts: Stories of medicine and mourning from Southeast Asians in exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Jean Langford shows how material engagement with the dead is essential to the welfare of both the living and the dead. This became all the more important after the Khmer Rouge, when the dead were negated as social beings, threatening their viability and, by doing so, also threatening that of the living.

34 See Guillou, ‘An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide’; Alexandra Kent, ‘Recovery of the collective spirit: The role of the revival of Buddhism in Cambodia’ (Legacy of War Working Paper no. 8, Dept. of Anthropology, Goteborg University, 2003).

35 Erik Davis, Deathpower, pp. 159–88; Holt, James, ‘Caring for the dead ritually in Cambodia’, Southeast Asian Studies 1, 1 (2012): 375.

36 Davis, Deathpower, p. 50.

37 Ibid., pp. 42–81; Langford, Consoling ghosts, p. 45.

38 Corpses of the powerful, however, may be preserved for longer periods. For example, Norodom Sihanouk's body lay in state for four months after his death in 2012, allowing for visitors from around the world.

39 Peg LeVine shows how people created their own funerary rituals by burying the dead under sacred trees, or reciting prayers and blessings for those who had died, in Love and dread in Cambodia: Weddings, births, and ritual harm under the Khmer Rouge (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010).

40 Harris, Cambodian Buddhism.

41 At one site I visited in Battambang, for example, those returning gathered the bones lying across the surface of the land and burned them, making offerings for the dead as they did so.

42 Harris, Cambodian Buddhism, p. 194.

43 Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime.

44 Chouléan, Ang, ‘The place of animism within popular Buddhism in Cambodia: The example of the monastery’, Asian Folklore Studies 47, 1 (1988): 3541.

45 There is therefore some ambiguity in people's discussions about the dead, because they can be referring to all three modes of existence contemporaneously. Because of this ambiguity, throughout this article I use the term the dead rather than ghosts.

46 Davis, Deathpower, pp. 213–14.

47 See also Langford, Consoling ghosts, p. 36; Lesley, Elena, ‘Death on display: Bones and bodies in Cambodia and Rwanda’, in Necropolitics: Mass graves and exhumations in the age of human rights, ed. Ferrándiz, Francisco and C.G.M., Antonius Robben (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), pp. 213–39.

48 All informants have been renamed, using common Khmer names, and using the Khmer practice of using age-specific kinship terms in front of names, for example, Yei (grandmother), and Bu (uncle).

49 Far are lights that move across a space, fading as they travel, a certain indicator of the presence of ghosts.

50 In the early 1970s, Koh Sap was used as a military base by the Khmer Rouge, while government soldiers were based in some of the villages around it. During the regime, it functioned solely as a prison, and the cadre stationed there were guards for the prisoners.

51 The ground has mostly settled now, but sometimes after heavy rain some depressions still appear, and although rare, skeletal remains occasionally still emerge. Shortly before my fieldwork a farmer found some bones as he was digging. He put them in a plastic bag and left them in the wooden pt ĕəh kmoac that originally housed the remains before they were taken to local pagodas several years previously. They were still there while I was doing my fieldwork in 2013, although they had been removed when I returned in 2017.

52 A type of plum.

53 Houses in rural Cambodia are often one-roomed wooden, or wood and palm-leaf, stilted houses. They can be easily dismantled and moved as necessary.

54 Like most of us, my informants would take advantage of all possible modes of dealing with difficulty, including accessing practices from different cultural backgrounds such as feng shui.

55 Sok sruǝl can be translated as safely or peacefully, or can mean both.

56 In the immediate aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, noon was a time of insecurity. The sun in Cambodia is relentless, and particularly in the villages, many people return home and nap at lunchtime to avoid its most savage heat. At noon the villages were quiet, and this, according to Yei Touch, was the time when robbers came and ghosts emerged, taking advantage of the quiet.

57 Hinton, Devon, Pich, Vuth, Chhean, Dara and Pollack, Mark H. explore this type of haunting in their article ‘“The ghost pushes you down”: Sleep paralysis-type panic attacks in a Khmer refugee population’, Transcultural Psychiatry 42, 1 (2005): 4677, considering it a cultural response to stress and trauma.

58 See Guillou, Anne Yvonne, ‘The living archaeology of a painful heritage: The first and second life of the Khmer Rouge mass graves’, in “Archaeologizing” heritage? Transcultural entanglements between local social practices and global virtual realities?, ed. Falser, Michael and Juneja, Monica (New York: Springer, 2012), pp. 263–74; Hughes, Rachel, ‘Memory and sovereignty in post-1979 Cambodia: Choeung Ek and local genocide memorials’, in Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: New perspectives, ed. Cook, Susan E. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005) pp. 269–92.

59 Some groups of people travelled from site to site searching for valuables amongst the dead; at Koh Sap the group, led by a gold-broker who bought the valuables found, came from Battambang. According to one of my informants at Choeung Ek, this same group also dug up some of the graves there.

60 The skeletal remains were used medicinally for various ailments. They were usually burned, ground into powder, and then mixed with various other ingredients to be drunk as a tonic. Sometimes they were simply boiled in water and the water drunk. They were, according to Saley and Samnang, particularly good for treating high fevers and rubella in children.

61 This practice was common in other areas, where the skulls were taken from some of the mass grave sites and used to provide protection to those who took them, and to deter trespassers from the land. One informant in Kep told me that they were particularly effective against the Vietnamese.

62 Chandler, Voices from S-21, pp. 41–76.

63 Ibid., p. 139.

64 A local farmer told me that because of the trucks regularly arriving, they thought it was an army training ground.

65 Chandler, Voices from S-21, p. 30.

66 Him Huy, an executioner at the site, has described the killings in interviews since the regime. See particularly Chandler, Voices from S-21, pp. 139–41.

67 After the fall of the regime a local family appropriated the loudspeakers.

68 Chandler, Voices from S-21, p. 140.

69 Some Chinese graves remain to date.

70 See Chandler, Voices from S-21; Tyner, James, Alvarez, Gabriela Brindis and Colucci, Alex R., ‘Memory and the everyday landscape of violence in post-genocide Cambodia’, Social and Cultural Geography 13, 8 (2012): 853–71.

71 Ian Harris, Cambodian Buddhism.

72 Though conceived much earlier, the stupa that dominates Choeung Ek now was not completed until 1988.

73 Although large numbers of Cambodians visit Choeung Ek, the majority come as part of the ECCC's Victim Participation Project, brought on combined visits to the court and Tuol Sleng. On the many visits I witnessed, almost as soon as people were dropped off, their coach drivers started beeping the horns for people to return so they could start the long trip back to the provinces. Those Cambodians who come independently make up only a small percentage of the overall visitor numbers.

74 For example, Becker, Elizabeth, Overbooked: The exploding business of travel and tourism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), pp. 107–8; Seth Mydans, ‘Cambodia profits from Killing Fields and other symbols’, New York Times, 6 Nov. 2005.

75 A Cambodian curry often served at celebrations.

76 Thanks to one of my reviewers, who pointed out that this image of the dead as Vietnamese possibly represents an internalisation of the historical narrative of Vietnam saving Cambodia from the regime.

77 Lambek, ‘The past imperfect’, p. 241.

78 Langford, Jean, ‘Gifts intercepted: Biopolitics and social debt’, Cultural Anthropology 24, 4 (2009): 682.

79 Douglas, Mary, Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo (London: Routledge, 2003 [1966]).

80 This transformation is usually enabled through funeral rituals (Davis, Deathpower, p. 42).

81 Although the monks I interviewed told me that as soon as one life ends the next starts, my lay informants considered that the time and place of rebirth depends upon karma and connection between the living and the dead.

82 Guillou, ‘An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide’.

83 Kwon, Ghosts of war in Vietnam, p. 164.

84 Nowadays care for the dead of the Khmer Rouge has been incorporated into the annual Buddhist ritual cycle, primarily the annual rituals of Pchum Benh and the Khmer New Year. See Guillou, ‘An alternative memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide’; Holt, ‘Caring for the dead ritually in Cambodia’.

85 For additional discussions on the preisrok dichotomy, see Lim, Alvin, Cambodia and the politics of aesthetics (London: Routledge, 2013); and Zucker, Eve, Forest of struggle: Moralities of remembrance in upland Cambodia (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013).

86 The current prime minister, Hun Sen, often uses the threat of the ‘forest’ as political propaganda to insinuate impending civil strife and violence.

87 Edwards, Penny, ‘Between a song and a prei: Tracking Cambodian history and cosmology through the forest’, in At the edge of the forest: Essays on Cambodia, history, and narrative, in honor of David Chandler, ed. Ruth, Anne Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2008), pp. 137–62.

88 See Hinton, Why did they kill?.

89 Langford, Consoling ghosts, p. 166.

90 Dziuban, Zuzanna, ‘Polish landscapes of memory at the sites of extermination: The politics of framing’, in Space and the memories of violence: Landscapes of erasure, disappearance and exception, ed. Schindel, Estela and Colombo, Pamela (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 3447.

91 Langford, Consoling ghosts, pp. 185–208.

92 Hun Sen is particularly aware of the political power of relations with the dead, and often uses it in his campaigning and propaganda. After lighting Sihanouk's funeral pyre in 2013 he claimed the spirit of the late King was waiting for him, because they have a special connection (Meas Sokchea, ‘“Miracle” cremation: PM Hun Sen’, Phnom Penh Post, 15 Feb. 2013). While campaigning before the 2013 general elections, he claimed that a shooting star was seen on the night his son was born, suggesting he is the reincarnation of a powerful neak ta with connections to Cambodia's creation (Neou Vannarin, ‘Hun Sen tells of eldest son's supernatural arrival’, Cambodia Daily, 3 May 2013). In the past he has claimed to be the reincarnation of Sdech Kan, a sixteenth-century fighter who took the Khmer throne after killing a supposedly corrupt king (Norén-Nillson, Astrid, ‘Performance as (re)incarnation: The Sdech Kan narrative’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44, 1 [2013]: 423). By using such narratives, Hun Sen connects himself and his family directly to royalty, but, more importantly, to the powerful spiritual world that orders Khmer society.

93 For a discussion on the importance of managing the dead as part of political control, see Wagner, Sarah, To know where he lies: DNA technology and the search for Srebrenica's missing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

94 van Gennep, Arnold, The rites of passage, trans. Vizedom, Monica B. and Caffee, Gabrielle (London: Routledge, 1960 [1908]), p. 160.

The research for this article was supported by the ESRC (grant number ES/J500148/1) and Victoria University of Wellington. Thanks to my anonymous reviewers for their thorough reading and advice.


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