The Cambodian genocide was an attempt to nationalize the peasant society of Cambodia.
Carried out by “Pol Pot,” the Khmer Rouge leader, the Cambodian genocide was a rapid attempt at forming a unified society with similar views and values in a communist atmosphere.
In 1952, Cambodia declared its independence from France after years of being subjected to colony rulings. Cambodia, a bordering country of Vietnam, was forced to deal with the nearby Vietnam War as a newly formed nation. The Prime Minister, Sihanouk, developed a neutral outlook on the war, but he was soon overthrown by a military coup that disagreed with his policies. After the coup, the new leader, originally Sihanouk’s military advisor, Lon Nol, rose to power. The overthrown Prince Sihanouk formed his own community group named Khmer Rouge. This set the stone for the Cambodian Civil War.
Prince Sihanouk upheld complete neutrality in the Vietnam War while he was in office. Cambodian ports were opened up to the Viet Cong, and United States troops were allowed to raid Vietcong hideouts across the Cambodian borders. Many Cambodian casualties were the result of US bombings and attacks on suspected Viet Cong troops in Cambodia. Eventually, as the Vietnam War was fought, Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot defeated Lon Nol, and the group took back the power its original leader had been ousted from. The Khmer Rouge, however, grew into a brutal group with intentions to revolutionize and “unify” the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge group grew from a small band of guerillas to a large-scale group composed of many Cambodians who had been embittered by Western democracy, namely the United States, due to the large number of casualties from the United States efforts in the Vietnam war as well as feelings of betrayal from Lon Nol’s collaboration and support for the war efforts.
Pol Pot’s support grew from a small band of people to over half a million men by mid-1975. On April 17th, 1975, Pol pot’s groups invaded Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The city was evacuated, and residents were driven from their homes with no time to collect their belongings or leave in a civilized manner. Pol Pot’s army set up headquarters in the city and started to implement the extremist views falsely cloaked with the ideas of hope and peace, and justice. Schools, institutions, banks, factories, and even hospitals were overthrown and became controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Rouge did not intend to industrialize or modernize Cambodia; instead, they desired to take Cambodia backward in development, back to an agriculture-based society. Pol Pot’s Chinese communism admiration set the tone for the genocide, leading Pol Pot to desire to change Cambodian society almost overnight.
In order to start to develop this form of society, Cambodians were forced into labor camps and farms. Anyone unhealthy enough to make the journeys to these facilities or anyone who voiced disapproval of the movement was killed instantly. The mass exodus occurred from cities, leading the residents to the countryside to begin the “new life.” The Khmer Rouge developed chants and anthems to instill their ideas. Many songs emphasize the acceptance of killing individuals to better society and the importance of sacrificing oneself for the motives behind the acts. One song in particularly held lyrics such as, “They sacrifice themselves without regret, they chase Lon Nol bandits with swords and knives, hacking at them, killing them, until the Lon Nol bandits are destroyed.”
While the “back to the roots” may not seem like a bad concept, the Khmer Rouge intended to exploit the Cambodians for their labor rather than to share productivity and profits. Cambodians were made into unpaid laborers, essentially slaves, living through scarce food and festering disease due to inhumane and appalling conditions. Cambodians who broke down from the hard labor, or fell ill on the job, were disposed of (killed) and considered an expense of the new system.
Any Cambodian thought to be intellectually advantaged or potentially in opposition to the movement was killed. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and even driven students were put to their deaths so as not to risk a person exposing the heinous atrocity that was being conducted with little unified opposition. Cambodia’s elderly and child populations were staggeringly hit due to both groups’ inability to perform the demanding labor required in order to keep one’s life.
Children were separated from their parents even if they were not killed. Purges, instances in which large groups of people such as officials or oppositionists were killed, occurred frequently. Some people were captured but not instantly killed, instead taken to S-21, the torture facility for the Khmer Rouge.
Roughly 1.5-3 million Cambodians were murdered in the genocide, with many more falling victim to heinous crimes of slavery, starvation, and many other unspeakable things. The Khmer Rouge often targeted a variety of racial topographies, namely Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Vietnamese, and many others who were viciously discriminated against. As the Khmer Rouge’s power grew, so did the crimes committed and, in turn, the paranoia. Khmer Rouge members were routinely executed on suspicion of being traitors. It is estimated that around 20,000 prisoners were executed at S-21, only one of the suspected 100+ execution centers. Originally a school, the facility was made to house prisoners in cells and leave room for torture chambers. Prisoners were tortured and made to name family members or people close to them. One person, Hu Nim, confessed to an elaborate tale of being contracted by the CIA to infiltrate the Khmer Rouge movement and overthrow the leaders. Hu Nim actually had no contact with the CIA nor had any intentions of overthrowing the Khmer rouge; instead, the torture drove him to the point of confessing anything in order to make it stop.
In order to continue the development of society, men and women were assigned spouses and married in mass ceremonies of up to 500 couples. One woman recounts the persuasion she used to convince her husband not to have sexual relations or children in the despair of the country. She stated she had no food, no clothing, and no hope for her country or herself, leaving no reason to bring a child into the current state of the country. Officials would spy on the couples, though, leaving these plans to be carried out in the utmost secrecy at risk of being put to death immediately.
Many people ask now why did the genocide continue to go unnoticed, with little to no foreign intervention? The United States took little interest in the genocide, and dealing with the repercussions of anti-Vietnam war feelings took priority. Even the US commander of forces in Vietnam stated that oriental lives were more expendable than western civilians. Many other countries shared similar views, allowing the Vietnam War to blow over without diving into Cambodian foreign affairs.
After the demolition of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians still suffered at the hands of Pol pot’s people. Those fleeing died of starvation and disease. Many Cambodian survivors fell victim to PTSD, ending in heart attacks, suicide, and many other sad measures. The span of the
The Cambodian genocide was short, yet the heinous act had a monumental impact on Cambodian society.
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