Despite the numerous calls of #NeverAgain that pervade our news feeds year upon year, it is startling to discover how little is known about the Cambodian genocide. April 17th marks the date when the genocide officially started, as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh for the first time, establishing Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia. In an attempt to eradicate any signs of a previous history, culture or society in Cambodia, 1976 was declared as ‘Year Zero’, and the country was renamed the ‘Democratic Republic of Kampuchea’, marking the start of a new era.
In order to fully understand the Cambodian genocide, it is important to be aware of the conditions in the region that allowed the Khmer Rouge to take power in the first place. In 1953, Cambodia gained independence from France, with Prince Sihanouk ruling the new country with a repressive and hard-line stance. Gaining independence at the height of the Cold War, and at the onset of the Vietnam War made Cambodia increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the Great Powers, and it suffered a great deal of instability as a result. Many rival factions emerged in opposition to Prince Sihanouk’s government, including the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which would later be known as the Khmer Rouge. With little power and influence in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge remained confined to rural and jungle areas, but grew in size as dissatisfaction with the Prince’s rule grew ever stronger.
In March 1970, a right-wing military coup led by Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk as leader. Searching for allies, Sihanouk and his followers joined forces with the Khmer Rouge, who were now nearly 17,000 strong. The Khmer Rouge attacked Lon Nol’s government, starting a civil war that was to last nearly five years.
At the same time, however, Cambodia also became caught up in its neighbour Vietnam’s war, becoming a battlefield from which US troops launched their attacks on the Viet Cong. Lon Nol’s alliance with and support for the US resulted in the deaths of around 750,000 Cambodians, due to US bombing of suspected North Vietnamese supply lines on Cambodian soil.
Unable to sustain battles against both the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol’s government was eventually defeated in 1975, as Pol Pot’s troops marched into Phnom Penh on April 17th. While this may have brought an end to the civil war, this was only the beginning of four long years of suffering for the Cambodian people.
The Khmer Rouge was based on Marxist principles, and envisioned an agrarian utopia in which there would be no competition, and all citizens would work towards the greater good. This was heavily based on Mao’s vision of communist China, and the Khmer Rouge sought to systematically restructure Cambodian society to fit their vision, using the most ruthless and barbaric strategies to do so. As soon as they took control of the capital, they began what was known as a ‘forced transfer’ of over 2 million people out of the city and into collective farms, designed to be as far away from people’s original homes as possible. No-one was spared from the exodus; children, the elderly, the disabled and the sick were all vulnerable, and indeed many of them died on the march out of the city. The Khmer Rouge also killed all those who refused to leave, did not leave fast enough or who did not follow orders, taking no prisoners.
Intellectuals and the educated were the first to be targeted and killed, with doctors, lawyers military and police all being executed on suspicion of opposing the regime’s communist ideals.
Society was reorganised into collective communes, and ‘re-education’ programmes were begun in order to indoctrinate the people into working for the greater good. Political and civil rights were a thing of the past, and the only way to survive was to be viewed as trustworthy by the regime. However, this ‘trustworthiness’ was imperceptible and unstable, and could turn at any point. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge ended up interrogating and murdering many of its own members.
Life in the communes was designed to be as difficult and exhausting as possible. People had to work impossibly long hours as unpaid labourers and were given little to no food, living conditions were cramped and uncomfortable, whilst personal relationships and affection were discouraged. Many fell ill and died of exhaustion, starvation of disease; it is estimated that over 2 million died during this period.
People were always at risk of being arrested and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, as no evidence was needed to make arrests. People could be sent to prison on a plethora of charges, ranging from wearing glasses to knowing a foreign language. No evidence was needed to throw someone in jail, and once in jail and under duress of torture, people would often lie and admit to made-up crimes, believing that this would end their suffering. This rarely worked, however, and most people were executed regardless once they had given up the names of new people to arrest. The most notorious of the Khmer Rouge’s prisons was Tuol Sleng, the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, where over 17,000 were imprisoned and tortured. ‘Killing Fields’ were also opened up all across the country for people who were no longer useful to the regime, and were used for mass executions. Many have since been excavated to give the victims a proper burial, however landmines have made the majority of sites inaccessible.
Whilst the nature of these mass killings is indisputably a crime against humanity, genocide scholars have often been hesitant to call this a genocide because the Khmer Rouge did not target one specific group – no-one in society was immune to their cruelty. Although starvation and mass killings were initially used to eradicate ethnic minority groups, the strategies used by the Khmer Rouge were applied across all strata of society. Scholars have therefore termed this an ‘auto-genocide’. Whatever we label this event, the Cambodian genocide constitutes an atrocity on a mass scale. According to Yale University’s Cambodia Genocide Program, from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians, 21 percent of the population.
Today, STAND FRANCE, the student-led movement against genocide and mass atrocities, condemns the horrific atrocities that took place and engages itself in favor of remembering genocide so that we never forget and never recreate.
Ananya Sriram is a member of our Communications Task Force and a second year student studying French and International Relations at the University of Leeds.