After the catastrophic events that occurred during the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia in 1975, thousands were left with painful mental symptoms. About 2 million people were killed, 1/3 of the county’s population. (Rummel. 1994) During the Khmer rouge’s reign of terror, multiple human rights violations occurred, including the enslavement, torture, starvation, and execution of the people of Cambodia. It has been over 38 years since the tragic events, but Cambodians are still struggling and asking themselves why and how did this happen. The majority of Cambodia’s population is Theravada Buddhists, and as they try to cope with the moral injustice that occurred, they depend on Buddhism to help cope with their painful past. Today, the country is still very indigenous and lacks mental healthcare and psychological approaches similar to the Western region. Although they have help from Buddhism, and other techniques to help them feel a sense of safety and security, the victims of the Genocide are still suffering from mental illnesses from the traumatic experiences they faced in the past.
Cambodia, a country located in South East Asia with a population of about 7 million in 1960, was an Asian empire ruled by King Sihanouk, who wanted no war but neutrality for his country. In 1970, a civil war happened with their neighboring country of Vietnam, which was at the time at war with the US, which led the US to intervene. In 1970 President Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. By 1973, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed and devasted by the US bombings. This resulted in angered and vengeful survivors seeking revenge and joining the Khmer Rouge’s communist party. Prince Sihanouk wanted peace for his country, but in 1970 the communist group of Kampuchea (The Khmer Rouge) gained power in April 1975 after winning the civil war. The group was led by Pol Pot, who was the CPKs secretary and leader of the communist movement that occurred in Cambodia.
In March 1975, the communist group, The Khmer Rouge, marched into the city of Phnom Penh to proclaim their rule, coining it “Year Zero,” taking everyone’s rights. Through their extreme reconstruction methods, Cambodia was no longer Cambodia, and it was then proclaimed Kampuchea. Pol Pot’s ideology was of a Maoist and Marxist- Leninist Communist program, and a few days after entering Phnom Penh, they began to transform the country. The group enforced extremities to create a classless society, with no labels and nobody being poor or rich. At the time, money became worthless, Religion got banned, and all city people were forced to move to the countryside to become agriculture workers. Anyone that was educated and the middle class was either tortured or executed, and if they weren’t, they later died from starvation or disease and exhaustion.
The Khmer Rouge wanted all members of society to be rural agricultural workers. They believed anyone who was educated or a city dweller was corrupted by western capitalist ideas. To enforce their ideology in this classless society and gain loyalty, the Khmer people were forced to abolish their Buddhist Religion and family. All civil rights were taken away. Children were taken away from their parents and placed in labor camps, and manipulated to believe that the leaders and way of life were their true parents. Children were taken into interrogation camps to be molded and conditioned to respect that life. Some were recruited to join the Guerilla force, taught to obey orders, and tortured or killed anyone who disobeyed their orders. They were taught that anyone who didn’t conform to their Khmer laws was corrupt, a traitor, and enemies of their country.
Khmer Rouge ideology proclaimed the only acceptable lifestyle was that of a poor agricultural state. Pol pot and his comrades wanted a country where everyone would be equal in status and wealth, and nobody was allowed to be good at a specialty. All infrastructure, that was, schools, factories, and even hospitals, were closed down and turned into prisons. Anyone who was under the qualified profession of lawyer, teacher, police officer, and engineer was considered a threat to their regime and was killed. Music and radio were banned, and all leisure activities were not allowed. There were no basic rights. If there were groups of more than two people talking, they would be accused of being an enemy and killed. By proclaiming “Year Zero,” Pol Pot’s plan was to create a society in which all citizens pledged loyalty to their laws so all personal Religion and ideas could not exist as it would be a threat.
A country that was once rich in Religion, culture, and entertainment was stripped of all freedom and expression. The massive attempt to reconstruct the country was achieved by forcing everyone to live in concentration camps and work together to produce basic living commodities. The country, at the time, had a population of about 7 million people. (Chan. 2004) The country was cultivated by farm workers; women were forced to work in the rice fields all day. Food was given at certain times of the day; there were no different meals for certain individuals or eating alone. There were no holidays or birthdays. Under the Khmer Rouge rule, the Khmer way of life was decimated. Children over seven years old were separated and forced to live far from their parents. Cheng Dara was ten years old in 1975 when he was separated from his mother, and he recalls,
I was taken away from my mother. She wasn’t allowed to show her tears because they wanted me to believe it was the right thing to do. I slept in a room with five other kids. We were always hungry and sometimes would eat raw rice grains. I didn’t see my family again. I worked all day. I was so scared to break anything because I knew they would kill me if I did.
The Strength of the family was a threat to the Khmer Rouge and was criticized. They were forbidden to show affection or even humor. Children were taken away at a young age. There were no fun times for them; they were expected to perform physical labor. Food quality was inadequate, along with health care. Children were either slaves or trained to be guard prisoners. Cheng Dara recalls prisoners being routinely electrocuted and whipped.
Being whipped was common. Whipped, and their backs would bleed. I remember my friend talked to one of the guards. He was tired and exhausted. He hung him and whipped him. I remember how skinny he was, his ribs showing, and his swollen belly. I don’t think he survived; I never saw him after that day.
Those that did not obey their rules were held in prisons and were detained to be interrogated and tortured. The biggest prison in Cambodia during those years was known as S-21; of the 14,000 people that were held captive, only 12 survived. Under Pol Pot’s plan, Cambodians were expected to work and produce a surplus amount of rice throughout the country, meaning they were working to grow and harvest every day of the year. People were forced to work over 12 hours a day, unfed and exhausted without adequate food. Many were malnourished due to extreme work conditions and starvation.
They asked all Cambodians to believe, obey, and respect only Angkar Padevat, which was to be considered everyone’s “mother and father.” There were numerous torture techniques. ‘The way people were detained, interrogated, and smashed (killed) was unique to the prison,’ said Duch, one of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders. The exact number of people that died during the Khmer regime is not recorded, but it is estimated that about 1.7 million died during the four years, which would be about 1/3 of the county’s population. The Deaths were the result of torture, execution, disease, and starvation. For the survivors, many are left traumatized either from being enslaved and tortured themselves or losing a loved one and witnessing the trauma.
Heap Orm was 17 years old in 1975 and remembered the details of her experience. She recalls the moment the men lined all the women up, made them undress, and selected whom they wanted to marry.
“It was quiet. We all stood there. I didn’t even want to breathe anymore, and one of the guard men came up to me and selected me. Teenagers were the least disadvantaged group. The Khmer Rouge killed people my age, especially men. They would slash their bodies and slit their throats. I remember hearing them scream in pain. Children and babies were killed. Nobody was exempt from the torture. If the guards came to take you, I knew I had lost a friend. I couldn’t even say bye, or cry because I knew I would be taken away too. I just don’t understand why. Why they had to do this.”
In 1979, it was the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. The group eliminated all of the Vietnamese soldiers who boarded their country, creating a massive clash between them. The Vietnamese army wanted revenge and started to move in on Cambodia and killed all Khmer Rouge members forcing them to retreat into the deep jungles and capture Phnom Penh. Everyone began to move quickly in search of their lost family members. Some made it to Thailand, where there was an UN-supported refugee camp setup. They were all seeking safety and peace. They traveled by foot, long nights and months to reach these refugee camps, praying they did not come to face with either the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge had planted grenades along the borders of Cambodia; many were blown to pieces before seeking refuge. For those who made it to the UN refugee camps in Thailand, living conditions were bad, and food was scarce. The Thai government did not welcome them well because they had concerns about the internal security of their own country.
At the time, the first lady visited the Refugee camp in Thailand and stated, “We discovered a virtual sea of humanity… they were lying on the ground, on mats or dirty blankets or rags. All were ill and in various stages of starvation; some, all bones and no flesh, and others with crackled feet and swollen as though to burst. All with serious diseases, such as malaria, dysentery, and tuberculosis. All retching, feverish, and silent. Seeing the children was the most difficult part of all.”
The Democratic Kampuchea was one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century, with nearly 2 million Cambodians dying from torture and diseases due to starvation or exhaustion. Hundreds of thousands were orphaned and left without a spouse. Those who survived are left with the traumatizing experiences of their people and land. Those who fled the country became refugees. Even after the Khmer rouge reign, they were left with a land filled with mines that led to thousands of more deaths and disabilities through the early 90s. A large proportion of Cambodian people have mental problems not only from witnessing it but losing family members, their Religion, and their spirit through it all. Many of the issues that plague Cambodia are the result of the Khmer Rouge.
Life did not become easier for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Adjusting to the aftermath in either Cambodia or adjusting to a new life in another country. Those that did not go through the Khmer Rouge are still affected by living with those who did undergo the torture and memories of Cambodia under Pol Pot’s rule. The uncertainty remains. The poverty and reconstruction of Cambodia have not been fixed. For the 158,000 that gained entry into the US, the adjustment has been anything but easy. Today, many Cambodians are impoverished, and few are educated, still dealing with the mental trauma either themselves or from their parents.
The number of people who are diagnosed with PTSD is not exactly known, but there’s a large percentage of Cambodians who have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, given the despair of life under the Khmer Rouge. From the difficult life of enslavement to their escape to refugee camps, there is a surprise that the victims who survived are left with psychological issues. Mental illnesses are related to a number of traumatic events that an Individual has faced. A study of the victims shows that in 1984, those who arrived in the United States showed 46% were separated from their parents for more than two years. Over 50 percent were whipped, beaten, or tortured and saw a family member get tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Over 50 Percent lost a parent or witnessed their murder, and over 80% were malnourished. Heap Orm recalls, I will never get my teenage years back. I won’t be able to see my aunts and cousins again. I won’t get that time back, and I have to live with that forever. I wake up in the middle of the night screaming, having nightmares of these men. I go to the store and fear I will be attacked. It’s hard for me to have confidence in people or society anymore because my people killed my people. When asked how she copes, she simply states, “Religion. Buddhism. I pray. I meditate daily.”
Data that was collected from a sample of 143 Cambodian refugee patients from October 2006 to August 2017 revealed that 48% were angered towards a family member. Severe anger. 91% had a fear of bodily dysfunction. The anger illustrates severe symptoms of PSTD (Posttraumatic symptoms disorder). Because of the traumatic experiences Cambodians face, there are profound mental health illnesses. The most common is Post Traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD Is the result of “exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving the direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, injury experienced by a family member or other close associate.
Cambodians also suffer from major depression; the disorder can cause severe distress and down episodes that last a long time. The Mental state of Cambodians after their traumatic experiences makes it hard for them to live happy and healthy lives because they are constantly feeling vulnerable to stress and frightened of the future. The behaviors of PTDS and depression lead to agitation, irritability, and avoiding relationships with family members. A lot of Cambodians today have a hard time finding happiness in their days, as having a mental illness has clouded their ability to move forward.
The future of the mental health of Cambodians and their children will continue to be a mystery and different for all of those affected by the Genocide. The experiences they faced continue to have stressors and triggers that bring them back to the events that occurred between 1975-1979 in Cambodia. Those who survived the agonies of what is known as the “Pol Pot time,” both who remained in Cambodia or resettled in another country, felt the need to hold on to their culture. The music, art, dance, and Religion, along with reviving their culture. With adjusting to another country, many were battling the traumatizing events, and many would turn to Buddhist monks for support. Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists, and most would donate what they have to build temples where monks can reside. To Cambodian society, especially those affected by the Khmer Rouge, Religion is their sole source of support. During the four years of the Khmer Rouge, they suffered from starvation, torture, execution, separation from their loved ones, and loss of independence. Their daily lives were planned, and things that brought them joy were taken away. They were enslaved and completely controlled. The victims who survived have to not only cope with the horrific experiences, but the population continues to face difficulties. The added burden of their past experience and mental illnesses affects their ability to function and perform to have a healthy and normal life.
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