Cambodia’s curse: Pol Pot’s reign of terror

In the simplistic construction of 1945 to 1991 as a time of Cold War between two ideological foes, we elide the ‘hot wars’ of the Global South and their harrowing violence. Indeed, power is at work in the reproduction of silences about proxy conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Angola – whose civilian casualties and environmental destruction stain their people’s collective memory. The fate of Cambodia, ravaged by authoritarianism and genocide, is a disturbing example of such elisions. To negate the partial rendering of history, it becomes imperative to illuminate how this nation’s atrocities attest to the devastation wrought by social engineering, ideological dogma, and the wholesale abuse of political power.


Background context

Having incurred domination by France since 1863 and Japan during the Second World War, Cambodia gained independence in 1953 under the leadership of King Sihanouk. Though a brief period of peace ensued according to neutrality, Cambodia was unable to resist the currents of the Vietnam War.


While Sihanouk as head of state allowed the communist Khmer Rouge insurgent forces to undermine capitalist South Vietnam, 1969 witnessed the beginning of the USA’s secret bombing campaign against North Vietnamese forces sheltering in Cambodia. Tragically, the 540,000 tonnes of artillery dropped are estimated to have killed between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians


Ushering in intensified instability, Sihanouk was overthrown by US-backed Lon Nol in 1970. In the following civil war which took 500,000 lives, the Cambodian army increasingly lost ground to the communist guerrilla forces. Such victories culminated in the capture of Phnom Penh and declaration of Democratic Kampuchea on 17 April 1975 – marking the beginning of Pol Pot’s despotic rule.


1975 to 1979: The years of terror

The Communist Party declared Cambodia’s entry into ‘Year Zero’. Pol Pot’s inspiration was the tribes of the northeast, whose communes relied on subsistence farming. He aimed at the construction of a classless society of rice farmers, the achievement of national self-sufficiency, and the erasure of Western cultural influences. The result was a totalitarian regime which brutalised its population and shattered the existing social order.


Ruling with an iron fist, the Khmer Rouge immediately executed anyone associated with the previous regime and instituted a radical relocation programme in which city dwellers were forced to vacate to the countryside. Families were tragically separated in the chaotic fabrication of communes, often never to be reunited. With the abolition of money, private property, and religion, a quality of sameness was manufactured by the Party’s agents – reinforced by people’s identical haircuts and clothing.


Cambodia’s new collectives were assigned impossible production quotas with disastrous consequences: over 4 years more than 1.7 million people were killed through gruelling work, starvation, or torture in ‘re-education’ camps. Tuol Sleng jail in Phnom Penh was the most famous of many torture centres, having imprisoned nearly 17,000 people.


The regime’s brutality also had an ethnic component: the Khmer Rouge targeted Cham Muslims, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Laotian individuals. Cham Muslims in particular suffered a terrible fate; 70% of the group perished in 5 years. Pak Savorn’s testimony paints a horrific scene of the violent treatment experienced by many Cambodian people:


“They killed the men first and then the older women and children…They tied my family members up and escorted them to the killing place. They called us ‘Vietnam Heads’. First they beat my father with a stick until he died. Then they beat my sister six times with a stick and stabbed her many times while her children were thrown to the ground. My mother was also beaten to death, as was my brother.”


Yet, the indiscriminate nature of the Party’s killings have raised questions about whether Pol Pot’s terror amounts to ‘genocide’. It took merely wearing glasses – or speaking another language – to curse civilians with the mark of death as enemies of state. As at least 21% of the country’s population was exterminated, nobody was exempt from suffering and the perpetual fear of death.


The fall of Democratic Kampuchea

Despite Pol Pot’s strivings to create a hermit kingdom untainted by the West’s cultural imperialism, the Khmer Rouge expanded its ambitions by 1979 in aiming to create an Angkorian Empire. In retaliation to subsequent incursions into the newly-unified Vietnam, the country invaded and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.


As the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge fled to the countryside, the international community gradually became exposed to the destruction the regime had wrought upon Cambodia. This awareness has been aided by media like The Killing Fields (1984) – a film that poignantly charts the violence experienced by Cambodians in the 1970s.


After over a decade of further Marxist-Leninist leadership, Cambodia held democratic elections under UN protection in 1993. The country’s acceptance into ASEAN in 1999 symbolically illustrated its involvement in the Asian community after years of isolation.


Legacies and prosecutions

Cambodia continues to grapple with the deep, complex legacies of the genocide. While the genocide features in families’ negotiation of their generational traumas, it also resurfaces in the publicised trials of its protagonists. Since 2007, the government and United Nations have co-opted a tribunal to prosecute their ‘crimes against humanity’. Although only three leaders integral to the genocide have received sentences, a national survey in 2018 indicated that most citizens feel justice has been served. This reinforces the complication of an oppressor vs. victim binary; given the widespread suffering engendered by violence, famine, and disease, collective victimisation characterises Cambodian society. Testimonies like Khiev You’s reinforce a widespread sentiment about an inability to forget their traumas:


“Even though the Pol Pot regime has been gone for 34 years, the events I saw and experienced are forever engraved in my mind. My fear and sadness about the losses during that regime, especially the loss of my family members, remain.”


Intertwined with the history of the Cold War, the Cambodian Genocide reminds us that the interpretation of the post-war period as an era of unprecedented peace is misguided. Perhaps if we had attended to the atrocities of Cambodia more seriously, the comparable episodes of violence witnessed in countries like Rwanda and Bosnia could have been combatted more effectively – a question with which the international community must contend.


Featured image: Joseph Anson on Unsplash.

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