Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge – Beauty and the Beast?

Last week the trial began of Comrade Duch, one of five former Khmer Rouge senior personnel to go before a special UN-led war crimes tribunal, investigating the atrocities that were committed in Cambodia during the 1970s. I have studied Cambodia in depth and find it a very interesting subject so I thought it opportune to include an article in the blog.

The ancient Angkor kingdom prospered much during the Middle Ages and leaves us remnants today of a magnificent Khmer civilization which was highly advanced and produced some of the greatest architecture ever known to our planet. The highlight of this culture can be seen in the magnificence of Angkor Wat which is one of the most architecturally precise monuments of all time and lies locked away in the Cambodian jungle.

During the 1970s, when the US was fighting the North Vietnamese, neighbouring Cambodia became involved in the conflict. As a result of Cambodian government policies at the time, the US were carpet bombing much of the country. The King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, sided with the political opposition in an attempt to save his country from peril. With massive rural support the Khmer Rouge army, led by Pol Pot, entered the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975, and seized control of the state. What followed in Cambodia is one of the most startling incidents in human history and resulted in the deaths of approximately 2 million people out of a population of 7.3 million.

The Khmer Rouge were communists and had developed their political theories through the study of marxism in foreign universities. Most of the Khmer Rouge leadership had in fact studied in Paris, the capital of the former colonial masters of French IndoChina. Pol Pot, however, the regime’s leader had remained in Cambodia where he had built up his armed forces to a position whereby they were able to seize power. The Khmer Rouge had developed a version of Marxism loosely based on that of Chairman Mao, who had successfully swept his Red Army into power in China in very recent memory. The Khmer Rouge declared Cambodia as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and set about instantly imposing their political ideals.

Under the guise of protecting the people from the ongoing carpet bombing by the Americans, the Khmer Rouge forcibly removed the entire population of Phnom Penh, and indeed the other major cities, into the countryside. Khmer communism was a warped brand of the Marxist philosophy. in Kampuchea there was to be no steady shift of class revolutions. Pol Pot envisaged an instant turn to full communism and in the vein of Mao before him set about devising an agrarian revolution akin to China’s Great Leap Forward. The parasitic city dwellers would join their rural compatriots as peasants and through forced labour, the entire population would put its hand to tilling the soil. Kampuchea would become self-dependent and effectively the Khmer Rouge leadership sealed the borders, shut their country off from the rest of the world and proceeded with one of the most radical social experiments in history.

Dissenters and potential opponents of the new authorities were quickly and systematically removed. The first elements of society to feel the terror of Khmer Rouge ‘smashing to bits’ were the doctors and lawyers and other professional classes who were the first to fill the mass grave sites that would become a lasting legacy of Pol Pot’s régime. The army would be the backbone of Khmer Rouge power and would brutalise the population in ways beyond belief.

The political theory held that strong force would initially be necessary to enforce the goals of the revolution. The land was quickly collectivised and people were set to work in communes, under the auspices of committees who would liase with the government forces. Traditions were abandonned, religion was abolished. New education measures meant that history began again at day 1. Everyone was to be reeducated with the new doctrines. Dissent was intolerable and amid the severe torture that was used there was widespread killing. Where the bullets of Khmer Rouge soldiers failed to penetrate, starvation through famine due to a failure of the agricultural policy, in particular the failure of adequate food distribution, ensued. An army of child soldiers arose, who were completely brainwashed with the ideology of the new régime and who were trained to inform on their own families and were conditioned to provide the brutal backbone of the Khmer Rouge system of terror.

Pure marxist theory excludes the position of supreme leader. In a communist society all are supposed to be equal. However, Pol Pot was a pure dictator. He applied the purges of the people to his own party. Although the army and government were clearly a priveleged class, they were not free from the terror perpetuated by the new system. In the abandonned Phnom Penh an interrogation centre and prison for internal dissidents was established. Tuol Sleng or S-21 was assigned to the command of Comrade Duch. He was provided with the full range of torture istruments with which to extract confessions from any suspected clients so that they could then be legitimately executed for their crimes against the state. It is estimated that Duch was individually responsible for the deaths of 14000 Tuol Sleng prisoners. A British journalist, Nic Dunlop, went out to Cambodia in the late nineties on a mission to find Duch and to investigate the inner workings of S-21. He managed to discover Duch, a new Christian convert, living on a false identity and working as a teacher in rural Cambodia. This discovery led to the great book that Dunlop wrote, ‘The Lost Executioner’ (see below) and also meant that Duch’s cover was blown. He was handed over to the authorities to await a proper trial for his actions. That trial has now begun.

Not all under the Khmer Rouge was bad. Although famine was initially a problem, productivity in the collective farms did increase and certain factories in the cities were re-opened. In moves reminiscent of the Angkor empire, vast irrigation projects were undergone in an attempt to improve agricultural productivity. Cash was eliminated and a pure barter economy existed, with rice being the principal form of currency. Cambodia had achieved a certain independence from the imperial forces that had traditionally dominated the region. This was an aim of the régime and apart from the good relations it maintained with the People’s Republic of China, Cambodia was purely independent. Little was known of what was actually occurring within the borders due to its pariah status.

Ethnic populations did suffer incredibly, in particular the Vietnamese minorities. Thais in the border regions, Muslims, Christians and Buddhist monks were also prone to experiencing the full force of the authorities’ brutality. With the control of the native populations achieved, Pol Pot began to seek out futher Khmer Rouge goals. He dreamed of a wider state, a means of incorporating the Mekong delta, an expansive empire akin to the great Angkor one his predecessors had carved out in the jungles of southeast Asia.

Eventually, the urge for war became too much. Constantly readying the army and practising manouvres in constant border skirmishes eventually proved too much temptation to resist a full scale war with the hated Vietnamese neighbour. Pol Pot relied heavily on his Chinese ally aiding a Khmer Rouge assault on Soviet-supported Vietnam. Preceeded by an increasing dispatch of distraught Cambodian refugees to aid camps set up in border areas, eventually a full scale war with Vietnam saw the brutal terror of the Khmer Rouge brought to a close. In January 1979 Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese army and Cambodia became a subsidiary state of Vietnam for the next decade. Pol Pot and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge sought refuge on the borders of Thailand where they managed to maintain Khmer Rouge control until the late nineties when in 1998 Pol Pot died.

The international community began to writhe in guilt after the true scale of the Cambodian horrors emerged. The world was a silent witness to some of the harshest breaches of human rights that man’s warped mind has ever produced. Pol Pot dies without ever standing trial for his actions. Some of the perpetuators now face justice. in the dock alongside Comrade Duch, stand Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan. Having read the book about Duch, I feel a certain sympathy for him. As he has clearly stated at his trial, he was merely following the orders of his superiors. He had no real choice about his actions as he would have simply been ‘smashed to bits’ himself. However, in light of the terror he must have committed, his very humanity must be called into question.

The Khmer Rouge make an interesting tale as it is a tale of extremes. We focus now on the brutality of the régime and seek evidence of the full scale of horrors that emerged during the existence of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. It is easy to condemn the movement. However, in studying it, I can see a mirror image, an image of beauty. We take our lives and our modern societies for granted. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were empassioned by a vision which does not run parallel to that of common international ideas. They wanted to reject the status quo entirely, to create a better future for their country. They set about abandonning modernity for perhaps a neolithic alternative. I think that in some ways by putting the people back on the land they were very right. Are people in cities parasites? In the countryside man becomes closer to nature. In the modern world we are so far removed from nature that we have forgotten what it actually is. Perhaps the global problems of climate change would evaporate if there was a worldwide movement back to our rural hinterlands? The Khmer Rouge at the very least had the conviction to put their theories into practise. All revolutions experience bloodshed. At what point does the flow of blood become successful? To sacrifice for the common good is a noble quality. I think that not everything went to plan, however. Nature itself is very brutal, nowhere moreso in the deprived imaginations of men, especially when they are armed and have no resistance. To lose over a quarter of the population to mass graves and skull mountains must signify a failure of the overall Khmer Rouge movement. I would have been intrigued to see, however, what would have occurred with absolutely no international pressures on Kampuchea. I didn’t mention it in the article but there was US involvment in them dropping chemicals on Cambodian farmland. The region was overly susceptible to foreign involvment and the situation with the Vietnamese was a constant threat. In the end China didn’t provide the anticipated support that Pol Pot envisaged which ultimately led to the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

In today’s world we see other countries embark on paths not dissimilar to that of Cambodia during the 1970s. Colombia, North Korea and Afghanistan are cases all well worth examining. In analysing a failed state we can perhaps learn more about the world we live in. Cambodia has some harsh lessons to teach and we owe it to the people who suffered and died in Cambodia that we gain an understanding of their situation so that such atrocities will never occur again.

If this article has interested you then you may wish to study the topic further. There is a great film called ‘The Killing Fields’, the aforementionned book ‘The Lost Executioner’ plus a biography of ‘Pol Pot’ by Philip Short, which are all excellent sources of reference and can be easily purchased at Amazon using the links below.

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