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Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia (Kampuchea) is the remnant of the once mighty Khmer Empire which stretched from Burma through what is now southern VietNam. The Khmer Empire was dismembered by the southward migratibn centuries ago of the Thai and Vietnamese peoples from China. Over the centuries the Khmer people have experienced some difficult times from invasions but one of the most severe periods was from 1975 to 1979 when Cambodian Communists (the Khmer Rouge) turned Cambodia into one great Stalinist slave labor camp in an attempt to achieve economic development. The Cambodian Communists came into power as a result of a series of fiascos. The fiascos centered around Norodom Sihanouk.

Norodom Sihanouk became king in 1941 under French suzerainty. The Japanese in a surprise move at the end of World War II took control of Cambodia and an independence movement formed to prevent the French from assuming control after the war. This effort was unsuccessful but it led to eventual independence under Sihanouk. Sihanouk, who resigned his kingship and assumed the title 'Prince" and the position of premier of the government, sought to establish a Buddhist socialism in Cambodia. He attempted to defuse radical leftist movements by bringing their leaders into his government. He managed to keep Cambodia out of wars by taking a neutral stance and secretly cooperating with both sides in the conflicts. For example, he allowed transhipment of arms and supplies to the Viet Cong across Cambodia. He also ignored the Viet Cong bases in eastern Cambodia for a period of time but grew fearful that they would never leave. He apparently secretly informed the American military of the location of these bases so they could bomb them. Afterwards he publicly protested the bombing.

In 1970, Sihanouk changed the election procedures and to his chagrin Cambodian voters elected a right wing legislature. Under some protest he accepted a cabinet headed by Lon Nol. While on a tour Sihanouk gave orders to his cabinet to promote some public protests at the North Viet Namese embassy in Cambodia which he could use a device to argue that the Soviet Union should use their influence with the Viet Cong to remove their bases from Cambodia. But the protest, to Sihanouk's great embarrassment in Moscow, went too far and the embassy was sacked. Sihanouk threatened to have the whole cabinet shot. Under this threat Lon Nol carried out a coup d'etat deposing Sihanouk as head of state and creating a Cambodian Republic. After some hesitation the Nixon administration recognized the Lon Nol government and shortly thereafter American personnel and equipment were shipped to Pnom Penh.

It was relatively easy for the North Vietnamese to promote a revolution against the Lon Nol regime. The North Vietnamese infiltrated the countryside with badges bearing the picture of Prince Sihanouk and tape recorders bearing a message from the Prince calling the people to arms against the Lon Nol regime. The North Vietnamese organized the revolution and left the hitherto small Khmer Rouge in control of it. With weapons from North Vietnam and the support of the people loyal to Sihanouk, including some units of the army, the Khmer Rouge had all they needed. They also played ruthlessly upon antagonisms of the poorer country people against the richer city people.

Once the Khmer Rouge were on their way to victory they cast Norodom Sihanouk aside. He was held captive for a period of time by the Khmer Rouge but later made his way out of Cambodia. He noted that while he was being held captive by teenage Khmer Rouge soldiers he say them viciously torture a dog.

The army led by the Khmer Rouge surrounded Phnom Penh and when America ceased supporting the Lon Nol regime, the city fell (April 17, 1975). The population of Phnom Penh had risen from less than one million before hostilities began to about 2 million when the Khmer Rouge captured it. The population was a bit apprehensive but glad the war was over. Almost immediately upon taking control of Phnom Penh the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh and all other cities. The city dwellers were forced to migrate to the countryside with little or no preparation. They had been told that they must leave immediately because the Americans were going to bomb the cities but that they would be allowed to return in a few days. During this chaotic evacuation soldiers and officials of the Lon Nol government were asked to identify themselves. The Khmer Rouge, or as they called themselves, The Angkar (The Organization), said the soldiers and officials would be needed to help run the country. But instead of being taken to greet Prince Sihanouk, as they were told, they were taken and immediately shot. The deportation of the city residents to work camps in the countryside, and the execution of all that might organize effective resistance, was a carefully worked out plan of the Khmer Rouge leadership.

The Khmer Rouge leaders were Cambodian intellectuals, school teachers primarily, who were trained in France and there became Marxists. Some wrote college theses on how they felt Cambodia should be run and elements of the horrible system implemented under the Khmer Rouge can be traced back to those seemingly idealistic academic studies. Who would have thought that such innocent sounding expositions on the virtues of the simple life of farming would result in the deaths of one to two million of the seven million Cambodians?

The ruling clique of the Khmer Rouge was, in part, a family clan. Pol Pot and Met Vann are married to sisters. Each member of this group held a powerful positions in the Angkar. As noted previously the regime did not refer to itself as the Communist Party but, instead, as the Organization, the Angkar.

The Khmer Rouge's economic program involved an all out push to build capacity for growing rice. In the past Cambodia had exported rice and the Khmer Rouge saw this as the means for acquiring what they wanted from the rest of the world.

The people of the countryside and the evacuees from the city were set to work clearing land, planting crops and building canals, all under the supervision of armed Khmer Rouge. The work force was divided into three groups;

The old rice paddies in most cases were nationalized and cultivated by Khmer Rouge soldiers for the Angkar.

The evacuees from the cities were driven hard, rising before 5 a.m. and sometimes working until 8 p.m. if there was sufficient light. Where oxen were not available, groups of eight people pulled plows in their stead. Workers who did not meet their quota were reprimanded and if they did not improve they were sent to the Angkar Leu (Higher Organization) which meant execution. Workers were not given enough to eat and had to forage in the fields and woods for lizards, crabs, etc. The Khmer Rouge soldiers told the evacuees that they had it easy compared to what the revolutionaries had to endure during the war. When workers complained about the food the soldiers told them, "If you're not happy we'll take you to a place where there is more than enough to eat," i.e., to the place of execution where there were many dead bodies. The Khmer Rouge soldiers, on the other hand, had plenty. They justified the difference on the argument, "You are prisoners of war-- We went hungry for five years-- Now it's your turn."

The first harvest, that of 1976, was excellent and for a time the workers were not hungry, but after August 1976 all rice was stocked in Angkar warehouses for shipment to Phnom Penh and villages were exhorted to achieve self sufficiency. There was famine until the next crops ripened. The next rice crop was mediocre but again the crop was sent to Phnom Penh, leaving the villagers to shift for themselves.

The slogans of the Khmer Rouge were of the standard Marxist variety in which everything is depicted in militaristic terms. Elements of economic development are battles, struggles, and mobilizations. Control of floods and storage of water became matters of conquest and mastery. There is little wonder that ordinary life became regimented. Even the Khmer Rouge described Kampuchea as,

One vast work site, where day and night have become one, and work continues without pause and without fear of fatigue, in joy and enthusiasm.
In some places generators have been installed so that work can go on at night. Meals are eaten at the work site to avoid wasting time. Never a day of rest; election days and the anniversary of the capture of Phnom Penh are the only brief moments of respite in this forcing process. p. 96

Radio Phnom Penh listed many work sites of four or five thousand workers and some had more than ten thousand workers. Radio Phnom Penh also said that before dawn the neighborhood of the work sites

"resound with the joyful cries of peasants on their way to work."
Everybody goes by in a holiday atmosphere. Peasants work from dawn to dusk without a moment's thought for fatigue. Songs and shouts of joy ring out on every side.

One report of Radio Phnom Penh said,'

Democratic Kampuchea is one huge work site; wherever one may be, something is being built. The people, children, men and women, and the old people of all cooperatives are enthusiastically building minidikes. At Chikreng, in Siem Reap province, almost twenty thousand people are united in an offensive struggle to build dikes with a positive and combative attitude and unflagging revolutionary dynamism. Today the dike-building sites are the front lines of the battlefield on which the struggle is being zealously waged, and the peasants of our cooperatives are striving to fight vigorously and without pause, day or night, to achieve the great leap forward and to solve the water problem for the coming rainy season." (p. 95)

The Khmer Rouge set up hospitals for workers but the account given by refugees cast doubt on their motives:

In the hospital where I worked there were about three hundred patients. It was a hospital in name only, because sick people were brought there so that their families wouldn't waste time looking after them instead of working. The only medicines came from the traditional pharmacopoeia. Large numbers of patients died every day. The twenty or thirty people running the hospital both cooked the rice and carried away the corpses to bury them. (p. 101)

A refugee summed up the situation,

In Kampuchea there are no prisons. For every crime, the only punishment is death. Anyone who protests shows that he doesn't want to be part of their society. Anyone who doesn't want to be part of their society should be shot.

Another refugee relates that the political education sessions people were told, "The law of Kampuchea is at the end of a gun barrel." Another refugee said,

We didn't dare suggest any changes that could lighten the work for they killed people who asked questions. The only punishment and the only law was shooting and killing.

A political goal of the Angkar was to wipe out not only any opposition but also any potential opposition. At a political meeting one cadre said,

We know that there is still officers, soldiers, officials, students, and engineers hiding among you. But we shall find them out and kill them.

For the people of the cities the revolution of the Khmer Rouge amounted to "Unending labor, too little food, wretched sanitary conditions, terror and summary executions." The cost in human lives of the Angkars program was more than one million. Endless statistics were broadcast on the regimes accomplishments. And yet in the things that mattered the regime failed. Before the Khmer Rouge Cambodia exported annually a half million tons of rice, but in 1977 it could only offer 100,000 tons, and that of poor quality. In 1977 Ieng Sary asked the Malaysian government to help find markets for Cambodia rubber but the quality was too low, typical consequences of the centrally controlled economy.

Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and the rest of the Angkar Leu acquired their Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology in France rather than the Soviet Union. It was unfortunate for the Cambodian people that if they had to be ruled by Communists that it was by Communists who learned it in a free country because those who didn't live under Stalinism did not know its costs. For those who worship Communism from afar, reality and propaganda get reversed. It is much the same as the way the white rhinoceros of the tropics got transformed by distance into the legendary unicorn.

The Khmer Rouge regime had all the elements of Stalinism: the Big Push, slave labor, the extermination of politically suspect groups, the sloganeering and the purges of the inner circle. There are major lessons of the Kampuchean nightmare. The first and most important is that the forced march of economic development under a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist program did not work. Despite the tragic sacrifices of the people, little or nothing of lasting value was accomplished and the system could not even meet the necessities of life. Communist Parties like the Angkar, in spite of their profession of humanitarism, reveal themselves to be semi-religious, quasi-military cults, which literally practice human sacrifice. Power is dangerous under any circumstance and absolute power in the hands of self righteous fanatics is almost certain to produce a living hell like Kampuchea.

Source: Francois Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero

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