Cambodia – 1975-1979

Number of casualties: approximately 2,000,000 dead

Classification: recognized genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity

Motives for the crimes: national or ethnic origin, religion, political beliefs, and social conditions

The actors

The Mon-Khmer kingdom of Cambodia reached its apogee in the twelfth century, with the city of Angkor. But the incessant fighting between Hindus and Buddhists wrecked so much havoc that in 1863, when France offered its protection against the Thaï threat, King Norodom I accepted.

Cambodia became a French colony, and remained so until its independence was declared in 1953 by King Norodom Sihanouk II.

Early in the Vietnam War in 1965, King Sihanouk sought to preserve his country’s neutrality, but failed to prevent the Khmer Communist Party from taking up the armed struggle against the royal power in 1968.

In 1970, in a climate of contained communism in Southeast Asia, a military coup led by General Lon Nol and backed up by the United States, overthrew King Sihanouk, precipitating Cambodia into a terrible civil war, which in five years time would result in a total of 300,000 deaths.

Inevitably the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia, pitting pro-and anti-American factions against each other.

On April 17, 1975, when communist North Vietnam was on the verge of winning the war against the pro-American South Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge rebels led by Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar), seized Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

The causes

Once in power, the Khmer Rouge estimated that one million socially and ethnically pure young people would be enough to rebuild the new Communist Cambodia, renamed Democratic Kampuchea.

In order to “purify” the country, they would have to either rehabilitate or eliminate every one of their fellow citizens who remained attached to traditional culture or were influenced by Western values.

The ostracized groups were:

  • Former soldiers
  • Government officials
  • Intellectuals (presumably anyone who could read and write)
  • The rich
  • Religious leaders
  • Ethnic minorities.

Based on one of the principles of equality espoused by the Angkar (political organization of the Khmer Rouge) good citizens were promised “ready-made houses and clothes, a machine to feed them, and a file to render all faces identical.”

The Khmer language would be the only one allowed. Religions were banned. All economic and social infrastructures were dismantled, including schools and hospitals. Personal property was abolished.

The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, transformed the country into one giant forced labour camp.

The Khmer Rouge regime was ruthless. Its goal was nothing short of total ethnic, religious, political and social cleansing. Unique in the history of twentieth century genocide, the Cambodian massacre was fratricide, or more aptly, “autogenocide” and “endo-genocide”.

The crimes

A few days after taking power, the Khmer Rouge set their rehabilitation plan in motion. They began by evacuating all of the city dwellers into the countryside, forcing them to work on a communal site.

Their stated objective was the creation of a self-sufficient agrarian communist society, but the prisoners were gradually exterminated through gruelling marches, exhausting forced labour, deliberately poor nutrition, disease and executions.

Without conducting trials, the regime began disposing of any potential opponents or dissidents accused of having “a Vietnamese spirit in a Khmer body”. Even supporters of the regime would not be spared if they interfered in any way with some political or economic objective.

Arbitrary denunciations wrecked havoc. Paranoid about conspiracy plots, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire eastern part of Cambodia in 1978. The hundreds of thousands of displaced peasants in the North West were identified by a distinctive blue marking (a scarf that is reminiscent of the yellow star that designated Jews) targeting them for immediate discrimination and murder.

The Khmer Rouge also turned on ethnic minorities as well. The Cham Muslims (who were executed for the least refusal to eat pork), the Chinese, and especially the Vietnamese (perceived as hereditary enemies) were all either expelled or massacred.

The ideological indoctrination was relentless: the Khmer Rouge, relying on the support of the poor and the young, enticed them with a vision of the future they never could never previously have hoped for.

No twentieth century political regime would so cavalierly assign the death penalty for such minor offenses: theft of a few bananas in a field, clandestine visits to family, the shortest absences from work, alcohol consumption, sex outside of marriage, open religious practice, etc.

In addition to the 300,000 dead from the Civil War, between 1.7 million and 2 million Cambodians (20% of the population) lost their lives out of an estimated of 7.9 inhabitants, the majority of which were Khmer.

Exasperated by the Khmer Rouge’s provocations, Vietnam finally invaded Cambodia and took power in December 1978, setting up a pro-Vietnamese regime controlled by Hun Sen. This new war alone accounted for 150,000 deaths and more than 650,000 refugees who showed up at the Thai border.

When, under international pressure, the invaders finally withdrew in 1989, Cambodia found itself in a very precarious position.

Justice and memory

In 1993, the UN organized elections in Cambodia. Dissident pro-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge won under the leadership of Hun Sen, who became prime minister. A new constitution was proclaimed.

King Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne, but not to power. In 2004, he turned over his role to his youngest son, Norodom Sihamoni.

But justice was never really accomplished. Since 1993, school textbooks contain no reference to the terrible Khmer Rouge regime, under the pretext that it is better to forget a painful past that could potentially destabilize the country once more.

The former Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in April 1998 under mysterious circumstances, without ever having faced legal retribution.

Ta Mok, Pol Pot’s military commander nicknamed the “butcher” and Duch (real name Kang Klek Leu), former head of detention and torture in Phnom Penh, were imprisoned in 1999 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. But the majority of the perpetrators remain unpunished. Some Khmer Rouge leaders began negotiating their surrender in the 1990s. Now “pardoned” they live freely in Cambodia.

After seven years of painstaking talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen, hostile to any jurisdiction beyond his control, the United Nations agreed in May 2000 to a compromise that paved the way for a mixed Cambodian and international tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia - ECCC) to try former Khmer Rouge officials for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Seventeen Cambodian judges and ten foreign judges were sworn in during July 2006. The trial was expected to last three years. All decisions would require the assent of at least one foreign judge.

The identity of all the accused was never completely established, but Kang Kek Leu, alias Duch, the former head of torture center S-21 at Tuol Sleng, where 16,000 people died, and Nuon Chea (Pol Pot’s former right hand man known as Brother No. 2) were charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the tribunal for the Cambodian genocide.