The Cambodian Genocide

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General Cambodia
Coming to Power
Purification of Khmer Society
Behind the Khmer Rouge
Political Prisoners and the Cause of the Purges
Fall of the Khmer Rouge and the End of Terror

General Cambodia

Cambodia is a relatively small country in South East Asia. During the Age of Imperialism, it had been under French control. The French, concerned with their war with Vietnam, relaxed their control over Cambodia. In 1953 the French granted Cambodia its independence. Cambodia was a mostly Buddhist country, with bustling cities leading to jungle in the country. After the French freed Cambodia, the monarchy was reinstated. However, it was quite shaky and could only last so long.

Coming to Power

After the Geneva conference in 1953, when Cambodia was granted its independence from France, the Cambodian government swung from left to right on the political spectrum. Desperately trying to maintain peace and stay neutral in the Indochinese Wars, Prince Sihanouk tried to please both the United States and North Vietnam. Finally, after a coup, one of Sihanouk's top men,Lon Nol, took power. Lon Nol was strongly anti-Vietnam and pro-United States. He was just what the United States needed, a tool in Cambodia. However, Lon Nol faced violent opposition from the Khmer Rouge, the once suppressed communist party, led by Pol Pot.

After much fighting throughout Cambodia, on April 17, 1975,the Khmer Rouge captured the capitol, Phnom Penh. This marked the beginning of a new era in

Map of Cambodia (Microsoft Encarta 2000 ed.)

Cambodian capitol, Phnom Penh. This marked the beginning of a new era in Cambodian history, and the beginning of a bloody communist rule in Cambodia. Phnom Penh was the capitol of Cambodia. Along with the majority of Cambodian cities, Phnom Penh was also strongly influenced by western culture. One of the Khmer Rouge's founding principles was being against western culture. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, their first action was to try and "purify" Cambodian culture. Pure, in their minds, meant communal farming the way they had before they had contact with the west.

Purification of Khmer Society

The first step in "purification" was to force all of the people of Cambodia out of the cities and into agricultural reeducation camps. During this mass exodus, no one was spared. People who once held high-level posts in the Lon Nol government were ordered to report to a transformed building in Phnom Penh. Many went there expecting to be exiled or to be put on trial. However, the Khmer Rouge was interested in none of these things. As they showed up, the former leaders in the Lon Nol government, along with their families, were shot without even the pretense of a trial.

Ordinary people were forced to march to agricultural reeducation centers all around the country. Families with sick members had to carry their sick members or drag them in their hospital beds. Because the Khmer Rouge were strict Maoists, they wanted to destroy all social divisions down to even the family unit. The Khmer Rouge wanted to purify Khmer society and bring the people back to the old way, before they were invaded by the west. Every one was put to work in the rice patties. Thousands died from overwork and malnutrition. Countless more were killed by the Khmer Rouge effort to eliminate all western influences.

People who had western eductions were convinced that if they admitted to having an education they would be forgiven by "Angkor" or "organization". These people were later dragged away and shot. People who spoke a foreign language or even who wore glasses suffered the same fate.

Behind the Khmer Rouge

No one at the camps really knew who or what "Angkor" was. "Angkor" was a god like idea that was used as propaganda by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, however, was actually led by a man named Saloth Sar who went by the pseudonym Pol Pot. Most Cambodians did not know who Pol Pot was. They only knew of "Angkor" and the commanders that oversaw their work camps. Each camp tried to be self-sufficient and there was little to no communication between camps. This helped Pol Pot easily retain power. He used his mysteriousness to his advantage. People who did know of him thought of him as some kind of mystical being, a sort of deity.

He certainly was not a deity. In fact, Pol Pot was born in

Southeast Asian rice patties (Photo by Author 2001)

Cambodia. Ironically, despite the anti-western bias of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot himself went to university in France, where he became a communist. Other Cambodian schoolmates of his from France, helped lead the Khmer Rouge with him.

In the villages the atmosphere was crazed. Pol Pot's cadres barely knew what was going on or what they were doing. Also, children and teenagers were thought of as more pure than adults, because they had not yet been corrupted by western society. Because of this, Cambodian youths were a large part of the Khmer Rouge's military. A 14-year-old boy would have carried an AK-47 and could have shot an old man for not working as quickly as the more youthful workers.

Although they seemed powerful, even those running the camps were not safe. Purges of the Khmer Rouge ranks were frequent. People always suspected others of treason and leaders were paranoid. People who were thought to be treasonous were brought to Phnom Penh, which was now the center of the Khmer Rouges power. In Phnom Penh, they were brought to a high school transformed into a prison. This prison was called S-21.

Political Prisoners and the Cause of the Purges

In S-21, forced confessions were extracted through torture and other interrogation techniques. Often people would give away or make up stories about their leaders in order to avoid the agony of torture. This caused the frequent purges of the Khmer Rouge ranks. Thousands of political prisoners were held without trial. Most were executed if they didn't die from malnutrition or rampant disease first. Only seven people survived the hell that was S-21. Of these seven, many were brought to these prisons for reasons that, to this day, they do not know.

Fall of the Khmer Rouge and the End of Terror

Through all of the above methods the Khmer Rouge killed off Cambodians from the time they took over Phnom Penh

Field of dead Cambodians(Chandler, David, 1999)

1975 to their defeat in 1979 at the hands of the Vietnamese. The Cambodian Genocide was an attempt to reverse the effects of imperialism. Through paranoia, torture, malnutrition, overwork, and sheer cold blooded killing, this genocide claimed the lives of over 1.7 million Cambodians, about one fifth of the entire population of Cambodia.

For further reading on the Cambodian Genocide:
for information on the progress of Yale's Cambodian Genocide Project go to the following web site:

Works Cited

Chandler, David Voices From S-21: terror and history inside Pol Pot's Secret Prison. Los Angeles, 1999

Chandler, David P. The tragedy of Cambodia History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945 New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1991

Kamm, Henry Cambodia Report From a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998

Prince Sihanouk, Norodom War and Hope the Case for Cambodia New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

Kiernan, Ben The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1996

"Cambodia." Microsoft Encarta. 2000 ed.

"Cambodia Falls to the Khmer Rouge, 1975." Discovering
World History. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in Student Resource Center.
Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000.

The Killing Fields. Ed. Riley , Chris and Niven, Douglas, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Twin Palms Publishers, 1996 &endash;Primary source
It is a collection of mug shots taken of prisoners from S-21, followed by a first person account from one of the few who escaped. He shows what life there was like. It gives a great view of what it was like under Pol Pot.

The Killing Fields dir. Joffe, Roland, Warner Brothers Entertainment: Burbank, California 1985