Top 10 Facts About The Cambodian Genocide
Cambodia, once part of French Indochina, is an ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdom world famous for the beautiful temples at Angkor Wat. For many years it was ravaged by the effects of the Vietnam War and the oppressive regime of the evil Khymer Rouge. The country is now rehabilitated and, though poor, is again seeking to establish itself as a tourist destination and one of the friendliest countries in South East Asia. Even today the evidence of the war and the genocide is obvious on the streets as victims of landmines walk the streets and tourists are encouraged to visit the museums dedicated to the atrocities to ensure that the world does no forget the evil perpetrated in this beautiful place.
Often overshadowed, in the west, by the contemporaneous events in neighboring Vietnam it is every bit as important that the world bears witness to the horrors of the Cambodian genocide as the Nazi holocaust or the death camps of Stalinist Russia. With that in mind here are 10 things everyone should know about the Cambodian genocide.
10. The Khmer Rouge Came to Power As a Result of Regional Instability, They Were Later Supported by Many Western Governments
Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge initially gained significant public support due to their opposition of the previous regime and its support for the American bombing of North Vietnamese camps in the remote areas of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge was, as a result, initially well supported by the North Vietnamese. Following a coup in 1970 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge gained the unlikely support of the former ruler Prince Shianouk.
As they gained power and influence in their own country the Khmer Rouge sought to purge those who had been trained and influenced by the Vietnamese. They subsequently started to espouse a more extreme form of communism. By 1975 the Khmer Rouge had taken the capital Phnom Penn and had control of the country. Having broken with their former Vietnamese patrons they looked towards communist China for support. They maintained control of the country until 1979 and, in those four years, oversaw the descent of the nation into hell.
The Khmer Rouge were overthrown when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and installed their own regime. They continued to fight the new regime and, as the Vietnamese were viewed as an invading as opposed to liberating force, were viewed by the west as being the legitimate government of the country; they even retained control of the Cambodian seat at the United Nations until 1982. There are allegations that the US and UK provided support to the Khmer Rouge in their fight against Vietnam.
9. Pol Pot, Leader of the Khmer Rouge Government, Was Never Brought to Trial For His Crimes
Pol Pot lived a comfortable middle class childhood and came from a family with close connections to the Cambodian royal family. He was sent to be educated in Paris where he became involved with the French Communist Party. He idolized the Maoist view of the peasant rather than the Marxist view of the urban laborer as being the true base of the proletariat. This formed the basis of his desire to return Cambodia to a purely agrarian society. In 1962, Pol Pot found himself the leader of the Cambodian Communist following a purge of senior leaders by the Cambodian government.
In 1978 Pol Pot made the mistake of calling for the killing of all Vietnamese within Cambodian borders. This was a direct cause of the later Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and continued the fight against the new regime as the leader of the Khmer Rouge until his ‘retirement’ in 1985.
He was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to house arrest by remaining members of the Khmer Rouge for the murder of a friend. He died in 1998 following an announcement that he would be sent to an international tribunal. He is officially said to have died from a heart attack but there are rumors that he chose to die by his own hand rather than face justice for his crimes.
8. The Year Zero
Pol Pot idolized the agrarian way of life and dreamed of creating a traditional society free from modern influence. Following the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 they began to impose this vision of a warped utopia on their victims.
Cambodia was sent back to ‘year zero’. Informing those who lived in the cities that they had to evacuate to escape expected bombing raids by the Americans (who had been providing support to the previous regime) almost everyone was herded into the countryside like cattle; anyone refusing or unable to move was shot. Many of the evacuees died from exhaustion or starvation on the forced marches to the countryside.
Once in the countryside people were forced onto collective farms where they were made to live in communal barracks. With insufficient sanitary facilities disease was rampant and food shortages were common. People from the cities were left in no doubt that they were expendable being told ‘To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss’.
Pol Pot once boasted that Cambodia would create a truly communist society ‘without wasting time on intermediate steps’. Many of the people working in the collective farms had little or no knowledge of agriculture. They were told that Cambodia could and should be self-sufficient in food terms and that production should be tripled in just one year. The Cambodian people were not, however, provided with any information or tools to help them establish the farms.
7. Almost everyone was a target ‘What is rotten must be removed’
In its pursuit of the perfect agrarian society the peasants were presented as ‘old people’ who led a traditional, rural life which everyone should strive to emulate. Those who came from the towns, people with any level of education, even those with useful (but non agrarian) skills such as doctors and dentists were viewed with suspicion.
Anyone who had owned a business or a factory was murdered and even something as simple as wearing glasses could get someone killed (glasses were considered an unnecessary western ‘affectation’ and supposedly signified that the person wearing them was an intellectual) speaking a foreign language (due to the French colonial era many Cambodians spoke French) was enough of a reason to condemn someone to death.
All religious and ethnic minority groups were viewed with suspicion and were therefore a target of the regime and anyone to ill, weak, disabled or old to work were seen as extraneous to the needs of society and frequently executed. Membership of the Khmer Rouge itself was not enough to protect people and many party members were culled on suspicion of sabotage. Nor could people rely on their ‘peasant’ status to keep themselves safe. The Khmer Rouge was not satisfied with its decimation of the Cambodian elite and, towards the end of their time in power they started to execute any peasant who dared to ‘use happy words’.
Unlike other examples of genocides such as the Nazi extermination of Jews or the Rwandan massacres the Khmer Rouge did not limit their target to one particular group. They hated everyone with impunity and were quite happy to exterminate anyone who had the potential to cross them or interfere with their aims.
Pol Pot gave a chilling summary of the aims of the Khmer Rouge when he said in 1978 that ‘there are no schools, faculties or universities…because we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past. There is no money, no commerce as the state takes care of provisioning all its citizens…We evacuated the cities…the countryside should be the focus of attention of our revolution and the people will decide the fate of the cities’.
6. Almost everything was banned ‘we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past’
In order to build their new agrarian society the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe out all evidence of any other type of life. Factories, schools, universities and hospitals were shut down as they were superfluous to the needs of the new regime. Some were put to new ‘appropriate’ uses such as prison camps.
Emotions were banned; people had to cultivate a complete lack of any kind of facial or body language emotional response to situations. Falling in love was anathema, marriages were contracted by the state and any couple found engaged in (and enjoying) sexual relations not specifically permitted by the Khmer Rouge could result in the people involved being sent to a prison camp. Families were broken up between different farms with no effort being made to keep them together.
Religion was termed reactionary and all religious worship was banned. Personalized clothing was seen as an extravagance; all Cambodian had to wear a black uniform and were not permitted to move away from the collective farm they were assigned to.
Modern, energy saving appliances were gathered together and destroyed. The victory of the Khmer Rouge led to things such as fridges, music players and air conditioners being gathered together and burned in the street. Music in all forms was banned, as was reading (books went up in flames to prove the point) and money disappeared from use.