History and Historiography

How we forgot about Pol Pot

By Sean Thomas The Spectator

Stupa for deposited skulls and bones from the days of the Khmer Rouge (photo: Alamy)

When I was a small boy, I had a favourite book: The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton. Given that my own family life not was not untroubled, the story of how a bunch of regular kids travel, via this wonderful tree, to a sequence of fantastical places, where they meet lovable characters like the Saucepan Man, Moon-Face, and Silky the Fairy, seemed to embody a childish version of heaven. An escape, and a Utopia.

Yesterday, many decades after reading Enid Blyton under the bedcovers, I encountered the opposite of the Magic Faraway Tree. A tree that is still faraway in time and conception (and growing evermore so), but a tree that is all too real, and very definitely not magical.

The tree is in a quiet, sunstruck park, lost in a grimy exurb of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The tree is decorated with hundreds of bracelets and trinkets, with the occasional teddy bear and kiddies’ drink – poignantly Blyton-esque touches, perhaps.

But if you look close at the bark of this tree, you can see tell-tale abrasions: chops, scars, bruises. These blemishes mark the places where peasant soldiers would swing screaming children against the tree, smashing their skulls to pulp. This was done, quite deliberately, in front of their naked, wailing and soon-to-be-murdered mothers. Because this is the infamous Baby Bashing Tree, in the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

The baby bashing tree (photo: Alamy)

This tree is obviously important, historically, but it also has some importance for me, personally. Because, on my previous visit to Cambodia, in 2009, I encountered the man who ran these Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, as well as the Khmer Rouge Prison of Tuol Sleng, in the middle of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng is where the chosen victims of the KR were tortured with surreal cruelty to extract lunatic confessions, before they were finally driven out of town to Choeung Ek, to be bludgeoned to death with axes, hammers, crowbars and trees – to save money on bullets.


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