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Cambodia’s years of Communist terror
“It is better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.” — Pol Pot, a leader of the Khmer Rogue
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), often referred to as the Khmer Rouge, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In the course of the four years of its reign, Khmer Rouge enacted one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. The party introduced policies that overlooked human rights and quickly turned the country into a huge detention center, which later became a graveyard for an estimated two million people.
The Cambodian communist movement was a direct consequence of the country’s struggle during and in the aftermath of French colonization. Cambodia joined into the French Indochina union in 1887, together with Vietnam and three principalities in Laos. French protectorate failed to educate Cambodians and gave them no opportunities to participate in politics until the 1940s. There was only one high school in the entire kingdom and no university. On the contrary, the French educational system in southern Vietnam was far superior to its counterpart in Cambodia. Many Vietnamese became literate in French and filled up the middle ranks of the Cambodian civil service. In addition, another half-million Vietnamese, comprising farmers, fishermen, and artisans, emigrated to Cambodia, encouraged by the French authorities, who considered them a more vigorous race than the Cambodians. By 1945, more than half the inhabitants of the capital Phnom Penh were ethnic Vietnamese. Cambodian nationalists were infuriated by these changes, while the educated Cambodians preached that their nation would soon be swallowed by Vietnam.
The French colonization in Indochina was a bitter experience for Cambodia, including the loss of 19 of its provinces to Vietnam. After Cambodia achieved its independence in 1953, the country’s king, Norodom Sihanouk, gave up his crown to his father so that he could become the head of state. Although Prince Sihanouk did much to develop the cities into modern cosmopolitan meccas offering education and opportunities to their residents, he neglected the peasants in the countryside. As a result, the division between the urban dwellers and the countryside became severe. Additionally, the government under Sihanouk did not tolerate any political opposition. Such an authoritarian style of ruling eventually gave rise to underground organizations. In 1960, a small group of Cambodians, led by Pol Pot, secretly formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which would become known as the Khmer Rouge (“The Red Khmer”, with red referring to the communist red). The group initially had not gained much recognition across Cambodia, partly because of Sihanouk’s popularity in the cities. Yet, from their base camps in the remote rural areas, the Khmer Rouge slowly recruited peasants into the party by fueling their dislike of the city folks and the Vietnamese. In 1965, once the Vietnam War had intensified, Prince Sihanouk officially broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and strengthened his relations with socialist North Vietnam. The United States responded with the bombing of military installations and occasional attacks on Cambodian villages. In 1970, when Sihanouk was overthrown by pro-American general Lon Nol, the deposed leader immediately joined hands with the communists and went on radio to urge all Cambodians to join their fight to take control of Cambodia. Since the monarch was respected by the city-dwelling Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge finally began to receive public support. Following their union, civil war broke out all over the country.
In 1970, the US ground forces entered eastern Cambodia to attack Communist sanctuaries there. The North-Vietnamese, in return, moved deeper into Cambodia and began seizing large sections of the countryside for the Khmer Rouge, who accepted their help despite historical distrust of Vietnam. Due to domestic outrage over the Vietnam War’s expansion, President Nixon withdrew US ground troops from Cambodia, but he authorized extensive military assistance to Lon Nol’s government. By the end of 1972, the North-Vietnamese also withdrew from Cambodia, turning the responsibility over occupied territories to the Khmer Rouge. From January to August 1973, the US air force dropped about half a million tons of explosives on Cambodia, twice the amount of bombs being dropped during air raids on Japan during WWII. It was quite often for the American bombers to miss their targets, resulting in the death and destruction of entire Cambodian villages. The number of deaths resulting from these bombings was nearly 300,000. Unsurprisingly, many who detested the bombings or had lost family members joined the Khmer Rouge’s revolution. By 1974, about 90 percent of Cambodian territory was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge while the government army was unable to go on the offensive, even with the US aid. On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, overthrowing the US-backed Lon Nol’s government.
On the day the Khmer Rouge seized the capital, the leader of the revolution, Pol Pot, was installed as the head of state, who then set about abolishing all traces of capitalism. His vision was to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, a classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. Once in office, Pol Pot declared a fresh start, A Year Zero. From that day, anybody who had owned luxuries, anybody who had lived in a city, anybody with more than a basic education, anybody who worked for foreigners, was in grave danger. The Year Zero was the dawn of an era in which there would be only work and death. Pol Pot’s social engineering had no consideration for human lives. By the Four-Year Plan, Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare throughout the country. To accomplish this, two million people in Phnom Penh and other cities were instantly sent to labor camps in the countryside. Thousands had died during the evacuations, while the survivors were starved or worked to death. Under Pol Pot’s dictatorship, everyone was stripped of their basic rights. All citizens, including the leaders themselves, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes. Leisure activities were completely banned. People were severely punished for showing even the slightest affection, humor, or pity. No one could go outside their farming cooperative. The regime also forbade people to gather and hold discussions. If three people or more gathered and talked, they could be arrested for conspiring against the government. Even family relationships were heavily criticized.
Shortly after taking power, the government declared that only “pure people” were qualified to build communism. In this context, thousands of soldiers, military officers, and civil servants from the Khmer Republic administration led by Marshal Lon Nol were arrested and killed. As anti-Vietnamese paranoia set in, they killed many of their loyalists, soldiers, and party members. The Khmer Rouge initially ordered the removal of ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia but later massacred large numbers of that population when they tried to flee the country. The regime then prevented the remaining 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese from fleeing, and much of them were executed in the end. Someth May, Cambodian teenager, recalled his family’s escape from Phnom Penh in 1975 “After two hours we reached the marketplace called Phsar Doeum Kor, where there were two piles of bodies in civilian clothes, as if two whole families had been killed, babies and all. Two pieces of hardboard stuck out of the pile and [on them] someone had scrawled in charcoal ‘For refusing to leave as they were told’. From here on, both sides of the road were covered with dead bodies, some soldiers, some not.” Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge used the media to endorse their goals of genocide. Radio Phnom Penh called on Cambodians to exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese living in Vietnam. Furthermore, they conducted many cross-border raids into Vietnam, where they slaughtered an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese civilians. The campaign of purges also targeted the middle class and intellectuals such as doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, and students as well as religious groups. It is said that some people were executed for seeming to be intellectuals by wearing glasses. Christian and Buddhist groups were under attack, but it was the Cham Muslims that were most affected. As many as 500,000 people, or 70% of the total Cham population, were annihilated. The sites where people were killed and buried became known as Cambodia's Killing Fields. Those being killed were often hit over the head with clubs in a bid to save bullets. Many innocent people were held in prisons, where they were detained, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops, and government buildings were closed or turned into prisons or reeducation camps.
After several violent battles on the border between the two countries, the Vietnamese army finally occupied Cambodia in 1979 and removed Pol Pot from power. However, the invasion did not stop his tyranny at once. The Khmer Rouge leaders safely escaped to the west and reestablished their forces in Thai territory. In 1982, the Khmer Rouge allied with Prince Sihanouk, who was exiled in China after the civil war, and the non-communist leader Son Sann to create the Triparty Coalition Government. The United States backed its legitimacy to keep the organization alive as a payback to Vietnam. China provided its forces with $100 million in weapons per annum, to halt Soviet-Vietnamese ambitions for united Southeast Asia. Through the government-in-exile, the Khmer Rouge managed to hold Cambodia’s seat at the UN, representing their victims even though they were openly accountable for their crimes. On the other side, Soviet-Vietnam helped establish a new government in the capital Phnom Penh, led by Heng Samrin, but this failed to obtain international recognition.
US and China backing for the Khmer Rouge kept Cambodian politics in turmoil and prevented the pursuit of justice for the mass killings. In 1986, US Secretary of State George Shultz declined Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden's proposal to impeach the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal. In 1992, as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation to end conflicts in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge were permitted to establish a political presence in Phnom Penh. With UN support, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen, president and deputy prime minister in the genocidal regime, were appointed to the Supreme National Council. Though they profited from the UN's protections, the Khmer Rouge failed to honor the peace treaty. They declined to implement the cease-fire, disarming of their troops, or demobilization. The Khmer Rouge also boycotted the 1993 election and tried to sabotage it. They failed but continued their military campaign against the elected Cambodian government. In 1994, Cambodia hence outlawed the Khmer Rouge. It was only then that international action slowly began to build against them.
In 1997, Cambodia's two Co-Prime Ministers wrote a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, requesting assistance to set up trial proceedings against the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. After five years of negotiations, the United Nations reached a draft agreement with the Cambodian government for an international criminal tribunal, the so-called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The Tribunal faced many delays in its work due to funding and political interference by the Cambodian government, wanting to protect the former Khmer Rouge leaders in its own ranks. In 2010, the first live sentence was handed to Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who ran the brutal S-21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh where at least 14,000 people were tortured and killed. Only 15 people survived this prison to tell their tales. Van Nath, a former inmate, told the court, "We could not sit. If we wanted to sit, we had to ask permission first. No talking, whispering, or making noise". Van Nath was kept in a room packed with 50 other inmates, shackled together, and forced to lie down. He further said, "We were so hungry, we would eat insects that dropped from the ceiling. We would quickly grab and eat them so we could avoid being seen by the guards." The prisoners admitted to S-21 prison were photographed and carefully documented. One document written by the chief of guards, which gave details about executed prisoners, had a note at the bottom that read, "Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed.” Another document produced by the central leadership instructed to "Kill them all." Today, this former high school turned into prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Many of the nearly 6000 S-21 photographs that have been recovered are hanged throughout this horrifying museum.
Today, 41 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, only two other leaders have been convicted. Before being sentenced, a former president, Khieu Samphan denied that he and his colleagues are guilty, saying their sworn enemy Vietnam invented the idea of genocide as propaganda. The cases of four more suspects, middle-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge, have already been processed for prosecution but have been scuttled or delayed. Most of those responsible for the killings, including Pol Pot, died before they could be tried. Hun Sen, long-serving prime minister of Cambodia, has declared there would be no more prosecutions, alleging they could cause unrest. Hun Sen himself was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before deserting while the group was still in power. Several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share similar backgrounds. Without a doubt, the Communist Party of Kampuchea caused one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. Estimates of the total deaths resulting from the Khmer Rouge policies, including death from disease and starvation, is roughly 2.5 million, which amounts to one-fifth of Cambodia’s population at the time. Several hundred thousand Cambodians fled their country and became refugees. Those who lived through the regime were left traumatized by what they had been through. The long, painful past of the Khmer Rouge is still a source of grief for many in Cambodia.
The issue of Khmer Rouge rule is still very much alive in Cambodia, and an open wound. Most Cambodians would get very emotional when discussing this sensitive issue, and there is an overall feel in the country that the Khmer Rouge regime is still very much in power. Over the last decades the country is slowly rising from the ashes left by those cold-blooded murderers, but with very little international intervention and acknowledgment of the suffering the Cambodian nation went through, the process of rehabilitation is slow and painstaking.
With the reinstitution of monarchy back in 1993, and the advance of democracy, the Cambodian people are more than ever hopeful to leave these atrocities behind, and look forward to a brighter future, and stable development.
INDOCHINA DELIGHTS | CAMBODIA & VIETNAM PRIVATE TOUR
This 14 days Cambodia and Vietnam private tour takes through the amazing landscapes of these countries, locked between the Mekong River and the South China Sea, providing insight into these ancient cultures, and the impact these major events have had on the people of Vietnam and Cambodia.VIEW TOUR