CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS
By Ryan Ratnam
The four years of 1975-1979 mark a period of Cambodia’s darkest history. This period is unique from almost any point in history, leaders striving for regression, rather than progression. However, what entailed was tragedy and genocide, torture and imprisonment, and the deprivation of basic human rights, so incomprehensible for a country this small.
The Cambodian Communist movement began to take shape in the 1940s, a consequence of hatred towards French colonialization. Through the next three decades, it continued to grow, being spurred on by the Indochina war, and greatly influenced by the Vietnam war. At first, the Khmer Rouge (Communist Party of Kampuchea) were only based in far out mountainous and jungle areas in the north east of the country, there being a limit to how much influence they had. However, the proceeding political events were key in their rise to power. In March 1970, Marshal Lon Nol, having previously served as Prime-minister, launched a successful coup against the current head of state, toppling Prince Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge allied themselves with the Prince and his forces, sparking a bloody civil war. They were also aided by some Vietnamese forces. The turning point of the war came with America’s involvement. Aiding the Khmer Republic Government in 1973, they dropped about half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia. However, much like their use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, this didn’t only affect the soldiers, killing up to 300000 individuals. For many on the fence about who to support, this put them firmly with the Khmer Rouge and against the Republic Government. By the end of this year, about 85% of Cambodia was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but American aid maintained fighting for two more years. Finally, on April 17th 1975, the capital city, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and by default, so did the rest of the country.
The Khmer Rouge’s leader was a man named Pol Pot. Like many of the other leaders in the party, he had been educated in France, alienated by the previous Kingdom of Cambodia. What was unique in their aims, were their extreme Marxist and Maoist tendencies. They vied to take Cambodia back to the medieval times, starting off again at year zero. They believed that the only way to their classless version of Communism was through a completely agricultural utopia.
Simply days after their takeover, they forced two million people out of the cities, including Phnom Penh and into the countryside to begin agricultural work. Many died in these ‘evacuations’. What followed was a fast period of mass restriction. Money, free markets, schooling, private property, religion and traditional Cambodian culture were all abolished. Schools, religious places of worship, universities and shops were all converted into prisons, stables, re-education camps and granaries. People were stripped of their own clothes, forced to wear identical ‘revolutionary’ black costumes. Family relationships were discouraged, people told only to believe and respect the Angkar Padevat (government), who was their, “Father and mother.” Simple discussions were not allowed. If three people were to gather and start conversing, they could be arrested, accused of plotting and even executed. The country was renamed Kampuchea and cut off all ties with the outside world, secluding its people. In a bid to remain autonomous, medicinal supplies fell greatly, many dying unnecessarily from diseases like Malaria. Back breaking labour, often more than 12 hours a day, was constant, rice being expected to be harvested throughout the whole year, which was unfeasible. Many died simply from sheer exhaustion. The Khmer Rouge divided its citizens into ‘old people’ and ‘new people’. The former was relatively safe (at least at first), already working in the countryside in agriculture. However, the ‘new people’ were urban workers and academics, who most certainly did not fit the party’s brief. Survivors recount being told how they were inconsequential to the ‘revolution’, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Hundreds of thousands of these ‘new people’ were killed, as well as minorities and thousands of soldiers and civil servants, who had previously been under the Khmer Republic Government. The Khmer Rouge’s ideology involved the racial superiority of the Kampucheans, resulting in the persecution of many Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese minorities. What is arguably most chilling however, are the numerous prison camps throughout the country, where men, women and even children were meaninglessly detained, tortured and executed. The most infamous one is S-21, holding 14000 prisoners in its time of operation. Only between 7-12 people survived. Even party members were not safe, there being regular instances of betrayal in the party. Two million people were killed, the mass graves dubbed ‘The Killing Fields’.
Salvation came in the form of border disputes between Kampuchea and Vietnam at the end of 1977. But this was not before thousands of people were killed fighting their neighbouring country. At the end of 1978, Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and took the capital on January 7th 1979, toppling the Khmer Rouge. They fled to western parts of the country and Thailand, continuing to operate, forming a fairly ineffective coalition with the previous Prince, even giving up Communism and gaining a seat in the UN General Assembly. Meanwhile, in Kampuchea, the Vietnamese established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, led by Heng Samrin. The country was eventually renamed Cambodia, and the monarchy restored in 1993. The Khmer Rouge eventually petered out until all members had defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia or were arrested.
Cambodia’s history from thereon has not been easy, but there is a common sentiment to never go back to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in the jungle in April 1998, robbing millions of justice and explanation of his actions. In 2013, a bill was passed making it illegal to deny the events of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and in 2014, two of its last free senior members, now in their 80s, were found guilty of the atrocities they had committed. The struggle was long, trials for these members recommended in 1999, but only commenced in 2011. Despite its members being either dead or behind bars, the Khmer Rouge still haunts Cambodia today. Many have mental illnesses from the atrocities they saw, resulting in high levels of poverty. The country’s infrastructure is behind and there are still millions of unexploded mines, placed by the Khmer Rouge across the whole country, resulting in many deaths and disabilities. One in five people died in this age, leaving many widows and orphans. The 1984 film, The Killing Fields, tells the testimony of an American reporter covering the Cambodian civil war, eventually trapped as the Khmer Rouge rebels move in and consequentially subject to the horrors their reign entailed. As harrowing as it is, if something like this is never to be repeated, we cannot forget the Khmer Rouge, and the Killing Fields that they brought upon Cambodia.