Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Study examines people’s treatment of Khmer Rouge victims' remains

Study examines people’s treatment of Khmer Rouge victims' remains

A Cambodian man looks at skulls of victims killed by the Khmer Rouge regime at the Choeung Ek killing field memorial in Phnom Penh in 2015. Tang chhin sothy/Afp
A Cambodian man looks at skulls of victims killed by the Khmer Rouge regime at the Choeung Ek killing field memorial in Phnom Penh in 2015. Tang Chhin Sothy/Afp

Study examines people’s treatment of Khmer Rouge victims' remains

New ethnographic research published in the Journal of Asian Studies sheds light on the unique way Cambodian Buddhists engage with the remnants of Khmer Rouge victims, choosing to leave the bones of the unknown dead untouched, despite a belief that doing so will trouble the victim’s soul.

For many Khmer Buddhists, the fate of the corpse is closely linked with the afterlife. Improper burial or cremation leaves the souls of the dead in limbo, doomed to wander the site of their death or torment its living inhabitants, the study noted.

Traditional cremation rituals were prohibited under the Khmer Rouge, and many survivors expressed disgust and preoccupation with the fact that bodies were left to rot in the open or be consumed by wild animals.

In the Battambang village of Reaksmei Songha, previously the site of a Khmer Rouge labour camp, human remains were unearthed frequently after the town was resettled in the late 1990s. Family ties, however, played a large role in how these remains were treated.

Settlers refused to dig up or cremate bones that did not belong to relatives, opting instead to cover the bones back up or leave them undisturbed. Meanwhile, some people would visit the village from other parts of the country to locate and bury their relatives’ remains.

Bones from mass graves are often unidentifiable, a fact that caused emotional distress for survivors hoping to locate the bones of their relatives and put their souls to rest.

“The inability to locate and tend to the bones of their dead comprised an ongoing source of sorrow for many area residents. Instead of finding their kin, various residents encountered the bones of strangers,” wrote the study’s author, Lisa Arensan.

“Although respecting them as human substances and recognizing their pitiful condition as deteriorating objects, those who found human bones could do little more than leave them undisturbed.”

A belief in ghosts was also prevalent in the Battambang settlement. Before building a new home, community members would leave offerings for the ghosts, entreating them to leave and go to a place “of happiness and peace”.

Many community members said the ghosts of people who starved to death under the Khmer Rouge still wandered the land looking for food. “Ghosts walked in the night, searching for food. They had died starving, and they were still starving.”

Ministry of Culture official and archaeologist Vuthy Voeun agreed that a strong belief that the fate of bones impacts the afterlife is pervasive in Cambodian society. Voeun requested permission to have bones exhumed near the Choeung Ek killing field for research, but his proposal was shot down.

“The government would not allow anyone to dig up the bodies,” he said. “In Khmer culture, when the body dies, you should not disturb it.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Temi tourism project approved by the CDC

    The $500.4 million Tourism, Ecological, Marine and International (Temi) tourism project has been approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), according to a notice on its Facebook page on Monday. The project is part of Chinese-owned Union City Development Group Co Ltd’s (

  • Rainsy will return at ‘favourable time’

    Opposition figure Sam Rainsy on Saturday suggested he would not return to Cambodia as he had previously promised, saying that like liberators King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Charles de Gaulle, he would only do so at a “favourable time”. “I will go back to Cambodia

  • US Embassy urged to stop ‘disrespecting sovereignty’

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called on the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Saturday to respect the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations after it called former opposition leader Kem Sokha “an innocent man” – a move deemed to be “disrespecting Cambodia’s

  • NagaWorld casino sees net profit of more than $390M last year

    Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino posted a 53 per cent net profit increase last year at $390.6 million, a sum which is almost equal to the combined net profit of all Cambodian commercial banks in 2017. NagaWorld’s parent company, NagaCorp Ltd, is listed on the Hong Kong