I’ve decided to start a reading project on genocides and violent totalitarian dictators. Most education about these topics in the US is focused around Nazi Germany, or occasionally the Soviet Union under Stalin. While I’d like to come back to those events if I can endure the topic that long, I’m starting with non-Western events.
First up is Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, partly because I grew up in the 1980s around a lot of first or second-generation Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, but never knew much about the politics behind their flight from Southeast Asia. It’s a particularly strange case of different cultural, political, and historic influences converging in a disastrous way. The term “genocide” has been controversial with reference to the Khmer Rouge regime: while they systematically murdered or starved somewhere between 1.7 and 2.3 million people, for the most part the killings didn’t target a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group. While there were certainly elements of this – as I’ll discuss – Pol Pot’s regime was more about brutal slavery and vicious punishment of any deviance, regardless of the person.
This post is based on the book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short. The book is exhaustively detailed and very well-written; I highly recommend it if you want to learn more.
Cambodia entered the post-WW2 era chafing under a century of French colonialism. The hereditary monarch, King Sihanouk, ruled in name only. Cambodia held a cultural memory of greatness that hearkened back to the 12th century, when the lost kingdom of Angkor Wat was the jewel of southeast Asian civilization. The simultaneous stress of a communist insurgency in Vietnam and the rise of nationalist political movements in Cambodia was pushing an already strained French colonial rule close to the breaking point.
Into this mix came Pol Pot. As the child of an middle-class (relative to the deep poverty that defined the agrarian under-classes) family, he won a prestigious scholarship to study radio technology in Paris. There, he and other Cambodian students quickly become involved with the French Communist Party. The Cambodians weren’t ingesting European Marxism wholesale, though: being relatively new to the French language, they were impatient with French translations of abstract, technical Russian and German texts on the nuances of Marxist theory. Furthermore, Marxism’s requirement for a culture to pass through a phase of industrial captialism before communist revolution didn’t sit well with Cambodia’s pre-industrial, agrarian cultural background. For Cambodia, Mao’s interpretation was a better fit: the industrial phase was not required.
Pol ended up returning to Cambodia with a mixture of Marxism, Maoism, and Kropotkin’s anarchism (which admired the French revolution rather than Bolshevism) under his belt. To this he added a cultural history of Theravada Buddhism.
In the early 1950s, France agreed to Cambodian independence with the stipulation that hereditary monarchy give way to a constitutional monarchy with open elections. Faced with a popular nationalist opposition party, Sihanouk abdicated his throne to his father to participate in politics. The elections were heavily rigged in his party’s favor. After winning, the new government entered into a balancing act between captialist and communist influences: likely due to a secret agreement with Vietnam, Vietnamese communist activity was limited to border areas in exchange for Cambodia’s refusal to accept anti-communist aid from the United States or Western Europe.
This pattern continued into the mid-1960s. The Khmer communists in Cambodia, led in secret by Pol Pot, slowly and steadily gained strength, quietly forming alliances with China. China, no ally of the Soviets, sought to mitigate Soviet influence in Vietnam by aiding the Khmer. Sihanouk continued the violent repression of opposition parties while keeping the United States at a distance.
In the late 1960s, disputes over rice trade and further oppression by Sihanouk led to widespread unrest that set the stage for an open insurrection by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge communists. An ostensibly anti-communist but largely pointless heavy bombing campaign by the United States near the end of the Vietnam War further destabilized the rural areas of the country. Guerrilla warfare between various factions continued until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power under Pol.
The Killing Fields
Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian revolution quickly led to slavery. The country’s larger cities were forcibly evacuated and their inhabitants resettled as peasants in rural areas, forming an underclass called “base people”. Virtually all educated people, including teachers, engineers, and technicians of every type were forced into re-education through hard labor. Part of Pol’s vision included forced equality in every way: everyone needed to dress the same, eat the same amount, and so on. Some leaders were reportedly vexed that people had differing heights. Families were alloted the same amount of rice regardless of size. Those who couldn’t tolerate the required labor were killed or starved.
Ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and Christian and Muslim minority populations were often singled out for starvation or execution.
Rampant anti-intellectualism rapidly led to practical problems: Pol’s goal of increased rice production required irrigation systems to be built, but the lack of engineering or construction expertise led to a series of dam failures that only made food shortages worse. Village cadres who failed to meet their rice production quotas were likely to be imprisoned or executed, so they systematically inflated their production numbers in a predictable case of “post-fact” self-interest.
Conspiracy theories of every sort were put forth to explain the failures of the revolutionary cause. With neighboring Vietnam allied with the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge entered into a relucant alliance with China to counter Vietnamese aggression. A series of increasingly savage purges resulted in the murder of thousands of suspected traitors, many of whom were killed after torture-induced confessions in a secret prison called S-21. Victims were often killed by draining their blood to supply military hospitals. Of the 15,000 - 25,000 people thought to have been sent to S-21, only twelve are known to have survived.
Both the Vietnamese and the US were blamed in these conspiracy theories: forced confessions under torture typically produced detailed false tales of complex CIA or Vietnamese involvement in counter-revolutionary activities. Constant border clashes between Khmer and Vietnamese forces stoked these theories, with each side making multiple invasion attempts.
China eventually attacked Vietnam in defense of the Khmer Rouge, but their respite was brief: a final Vietnamese invasion in 1979 toppled what remained of the Pol’s government, but not until at least 1.7 million Cambodians and ethnic or religious minorities had been killed or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the mountains of Thailand and continued a Chinese-backed guerrilla war against Vietnam for more than a decade, until a 1992 treaty was signed that began a coalition government made up of Vietnamese communists and non-communist remnants of the Khmer Rouge.
Pol Pot died peacefully in his sleep in 1996.