Cannibalism, Khmer Rouge and Horrors of War

Following her arrest and imprisonment in Kraing Ta Chan security center by the Khmer Rouge, Ouk Him bore witness to a scene unfathomable to most.

“One day, there was a pregnant woman detained at the prison with me and she felt a stomach pain as she was due to deliver a baby. The Khmer Rouge cadre in charge at the prison brought her out of the detention cell,” Ms. Him said. 

After the woman was marched onto the grounds of the prison, in Takeo province’s Tram Kak district, Ms. Him said, piercing screams could be heard through the walls of her cell. Then silence.

“I saw a Khmer Rouge cadre who walked her out come back into the detention cell. Upon his appearance, he raised up his hand with a human liver and heart and shouted, ‘Here’s the liver and heart from that woman. Let’s eat and drink it with alcohol,’” she said.

Now aged 71, Ms. Him is among the survivors of the Khmer Rouge who have told of cannibalism in Tram Kak district during the regime. Many of these stories have arisen recently during the second phase of Case 002 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Ms. Him, who was jailed after her husband—a French teacher who disappeared after being taken away for “reeducation”—said local cadre consumed human body parts openly.

“Everybody in the prison saw it, and it looked so scary to see fresh human liver and heart. There was a story spread that Khmer Rouge cadre…ate humans’ inside organs because it made them heartless and gave them courage to kill others,” she said.

“Those who ate people’s organs, like liver and heart, their eyeballs went so red and they were very cruel and aggressive.”

The reasons for cannibalism during the Democratic Kampuchea [DK] period are complex and cannot be explained by a single overarching factor, according to Craig Etcheson, a researcher who was the chief of investigations in the Office of Co-Prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal for six years and has written extensively on the regime.

“In the first instance, the vast majority of the DK army was composed of rural people, and among that rural cohort of the population animist spiritual views held, and still hold strong sway. One aspect of those views is that the human liver embodies bravery or courage, and so to consume the liver of a defeated enemy will transfer his or her courage to you,” Mr. Etcheson said in an email. He said some cadre also believed the gallbladder held medicinal properties.

The divisive rhetoric espoused by the regime’s leaders, who fanned the flames of hatred for perceived enemies of the revolution, also contributed to the emergence of the practice among soldiers, he added.

“Another aspect of [Khmer Rouge] ideological indoctrination was the idea that one must have a ‘burning hatred’ toward the class enemy. When that hatred is ratcheted up to a feverish level, extreme acts may well be more likely,” Mr. Etcheson explained.

“Combined, these notions could well have contributed materially to the apparent relatively widespread practice of liver and/or gallbladder eating among DK cadres. I would note that the majority of the cases I have heard about involved DK cadre who were responsible for executions at security centers.”

While cannibalism was relatively widespread during the Pol Pot regime in comparison with other periods, the consumption of human organs in Cambodia, particularly in the context of warfare, can be traced back hundreds of years.

In his paper “Anthropologies of the Khmer Rouge, Part II: Gen­o­cidal Bricolage,” Alexander Hinton cites a tale relayed by a Chinese envoy who visited Cambodia at the beginning of the 14th century. The official claimed that the Angkorian Empire would offer “thousands and thousands” of human gallbladders, sliced from unsuspecting victims, to the king of Champa.

Mr. Hinton also references the death of Lon Nil, the younger brother of Lon Nol, who was killed by a mob in Kompong Cham province in 1970 after King Norodom Si­hanouk called for rebellion against his brother’s coup. Lon Nil’s liver was fried and served at a Chinese restaurant.

Lon Nol’s own soldiers also engaged in cannibalism, according to veteran Australian filmmaker James Gerrand, who covered the Cambodian civil war before the fall of Phnom Penh to communist forces in 1975.

Mr. Gerrand said he witnessed Lon Nol soldiers, under the leadership of a Khmer Krom commander named Danh Krouch, barbecue the organs of slain Viet Cong forces in 1971.

“When…they had some Viet Cong victims, they had the liver cut out and they were barbecuing it on a skewer, and he offered me some. I didn’t film it at that stage but I made the excuse that as a reporter or documentarian I shouldn’t get involved; I’m just an observer, not a participator in the barbecue,” he said.

Also in 1971, Mr. Gerrand claimed, he saw the bodies of Viet Cong militiamen with their livers cut out lined up on the mansion lawn of Im Tam, the governor of Kompong Cham under the Khmer Republic, while the group dined inside.

While conceding that there may have been elements of animistic belief relating to absorbing the power of one’s enemy, Mr. Gerrand said he perceived the ritual as more of a celebration to mark a victory.

“In my understanding over what was happening, particularly with Danh Krouch, I didn’t feel it was a sort of barbarism at all…it wasn’t necessarily taking revenge or being unduly bloodthirsty about your victims. I felt some sort of feeling—whether it was right or not, intuitively or in the atmosphere—I felt it was a celebration,” he said.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that the ritualistic consumption of organs by Khmer Republic soldiers was widely known.

“When people live in devastated conditions…people sort of look for something spiritual to protect their life,” he said of the prevalence of ritual organ consumption during wartime in Cambodia.

“The fear, desperation…. They are looking for some spiritual protection. They no longer trust material or humans, so they are looking for [the] spiritual.”

Mr. Chhang, who was a child during the Pol Pot era, also offered up a different theory. He said that he had heard from neighbors during and after the Khmer Rouge that malnourished people were eating human flesh in desperation.

“I was later told that they would eat their children, but I never saw that. It’s just a story, and it also became part of the propaganda in 1979. But the main reason is starvation. People will eat anything, anything that crawls or lives. [They] eat it because they’re so hungry, hungry beyond the English language to describe,” Mr. Chhang said.

Standing inside a small barbed wired fence surrounding the remote Kraing Ta Chan memorial center, Yen Sen, a 65-year-old who worked in a Tram Kak cooperative during Democratic Kampuchea and now shows visitors around the former jail, agreed with Mr. Chhang that hunger was a driving factor.

“The people who escaped the killing…when we would have discussions after the regime they mentioned this,” he said. “They ate it because they did not have enough rice.”

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