The Genocide in Cambodia

On April 17, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took the power in Cambodia, the whole country became a vast horrifying prison, where in less than 4 years, they slaughter more than 1,700,000 of their own people in an auto-genocide…

For Americans and others in the world, the war in Southeast Asia – “the Vietnam War” – ended in April, 1975. This long and bloody conflict came to a close with communist victories throughout Indochina, and a welcome, if still difficult and uneasy, peace finally came to Cambodia’s neighbors, Vietnam and Laos. But for the Cambodian people, whose country had been drawn into that conflict, “peace” brought much greater horror and suffering. For them, their worst nightmare was only just beginning.

The communists in Vietnam and Laos imposed severe dictatorships on their people. But they paled in comparison to that of their comrades next door in Cambodia, where the victorious Khmer Rouge carried out one of the most savage and brutal regimes of the 20th century. They began by abruptly emptying the cities, forcing the entire urban population, including families with small children and the old and sick, into the countryside without food, water, medicine, or shelter. Thousands died in the process, either murdered when they objected to the evacuation, or from starvation, illness, or exhaustion along the way. Members of the defeated government, including soldiers and civil servants and much of the educated class, were summarily executed. The rest of the population was driven into virtual slave camps in the countryside, where they were forced to farm for the state under the harshest conditions imaginable.

The Khmer Rouge regime was driven by perhaps the most extreme radical ideology ever put into practice in modern times. It was Marxist/Leninist in origin, but in theory, and certainly in practice, it went beyond even the excesses of Stalinism and Maoism. Its leader, Pol Pot, and many of his colleagues, had met at the university in Paris, where they easily fell into the communist party prevalent in Paris at the time. The Khmer Rouge called for the complete elimination of the existing society and its replacement by a thoroughly new and “pure: agrarian one. Cities and towns were seen as hostile and unnecessary. The urban and educated were considered irredeemably tainted, fit only for ruthless reformation or physical extermination. The new economy was based almost entirely on rudimentary agriculture and forced labor. The Khmer regime, guided by an essentially faceless party, had total, arbitrary power over every facet of the people’s existence – where, how, and whether they lived, how they were fed and housed, even whether or not they could have families.

The regime lasted for nearly four years, during which time and estimated 1.7 million Cambodians – from one-fourth to one-third of the entire population were killed by the Khmer Rouge or died from the severe privation imposed upon them. Proportionally, it was the largest death toll suffered by a country at the hands of its government  in perhaps centuries. It was “auto-genocide” – ruthless, mass killing directed by a regime not against foreign or outside elements or minorities, but against its own people. It was also systematic, in that it focused most heavily on the country’s educated and skilled people. The damage continues to be felt long after the regime has disappeared, due to the deep traumatization and near-decimation of a whole generation of Cambodians most needed now to rebuild their shattered country.

The Khmer Rouge government was ousted in 1979, when their former allies, the Vietnamese communists, invaded Cambodia and set up their own puppet regime headed by ex-Khmer Rouge leaders who had defected earlier. Cambodians initially welcomed the relief from their murderous tormenters, even when such relief came from their traditional enemies, the Vietnamese. But Cambodia’s ordeal was far from over. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the countryside and led a bloody civil war against the Vietnamese occupiers that lasted another several years and brought further devastation. The Vietnamese departed in 1989 after a harsh occupation of their own, leaving behind a country still badly torn by civil strife and saddled with an inept and dictatorial government.

The international community knew little of the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule in the early years of the regime. The country was sealed off almost completely from outside contact, and world attention shifted elsewhere. Those who did have some knowledge – the Thais and especially the Chinese who backed the Khmer Rouge – had little interest in bringing attention to it. Later, as more information came out from refugees and other sources, awareness of the Khmer Rouge holocaust and international condemnation of it – greatly increased. But it was too late. The worst damage had already been done by the time of the Vietnamese invasion, which ended the most brutal aspects of Khmer Rouge rule.

The UN intervened in the early 1990s to restore a semblance of peace and stability and to organize elections for a more broadly-based and effective government. Armed conflict is no longer a great threat, and more normal conditions have returned to the country and to Cambodian society. But political turmoil has continued sporadically even after the UN-sponsored and subsequent elections. To this day, the country still suffers misrule under a corrupt and dictatorial government led by one of the same Khmer Rouge defectors installed by the Vietnamese occupiers in 1979.

The Khmer Rouge leadership has never been punished or called to account for its murderous rule and crimes against humanity. Though long out of power, several top leaders remain at liberty and live normal lives near the Thai border. The Khmer Rouge regime’s notorious leader, Pol Pot, was never taken into custody, and died a natural death in 1998.

The current Cambodian government, spurred by the international community and the UN, has agreed to form a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes. But cooperation with the UN has been grudging at best, and there is still no assurance that trials of those most responsible will ever take place. Perhaps the regime fears renewed civil strife. Perhaps it is afraid of what might be uncovered about its own dubious past and links to the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps it reflects a true desire of the Cambodian people to put things behind them and not have to relieve the huge suffering and trauma they endured some thirty years ago under Khmer Rouge rule.

James D. Rosenthal
Former United States Ambassador to Gunea


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