Caroline Bennett
PhD Candidate
To live amongst the dead: embodied and contested spaces of mass graves in Cambodia


School of Anthropology and Conservation,

University of Kent

Canterbury, UK

email: cb500(at)

Over 19,000 mass graves in over 343 killing sites lie scattered across Cambodia, leftover from the nihilistic communist regime of the Khmer Rouge who ruled Cambodia from 1975 – 1979.  Although many sites were disturbed in the 1980s as people hunted for valuables, the majority of these graves now lie undisturbed and have been re-appropriated into the everyday living space of Cambodia. 

Based on 15 months fieldwork, conducted between June 2012 and December 2013 as research for my PhD thesis, this research examines the spaces of mass graves and relationships to them in contemporary Cambodia by looking at the everyday life and interactions that occur on these spaces. 

My research centres on two main explorations: the political manipulation of mass graves and the dead who lie within them, and the place of religion and belief systems in encompassing the dead from the Khmer Rouge into the everyday life of the living.  In some cases the graves act as physical touchstones to the violent Khmer Rouge regime, being appropriated by political parties (ruling and in opposition) as sites of manipulation of collective narratives of the past to maintain, or obtain, political power.  In the majority of cases however, the sites have been normalised as living space and have no such power.  Neither do the sites have negative power: they are not haunted and even where spirits do still exist, they are powerless.  Two major factors have led to the disappearance of the spirits: the re-establishment of Buddhism (which had been banned under the Khmer Rouge) which enabled the spirits to come under the ‘proper’ control of the monks, and modernisation, which has led to the demise of ‘wild’ areas where spirits like to dwell in many locations. 

Mass graves are often assumed to be negative sites on ongoing suffering and trauma, in need of some kind of formal reconciliation and treatment: often excavation with individual identification of the remains, or at the least, some kind of commemoration or memorial.  My research challenges that notion by exploring Cambodian relationships to these graves and to the dead who lie within them.


Download PhD here