April 17 marks the anniversary of one of the most horrific chapters in human history. Nearly 2 million Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir laying out a brief history of the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
I didn’t learn until later in life that when I was born, my mother, who was around 18 at the time, left me in the care of a Cambodian pastor and his family in San Diego. She didn’t exactly have the most pristine and peaceful life. Her childhood was stripped from her and so how could she be expected to raise children herself? To understand this, you must know the history of the Cambodian Genocide.
My mother spent most of her childhood on the run from events set in motion by the power vacuum created by the collapse of French colonialism and imperialism in Southeast Asia following World War II. King Norodom Sinahouk, who had been living in exile during the colonial period, returned and the Kingdom of Cambodia was reborn. But Cambodian independence came under immediate threat as the Cold War-era dawned and the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc engaged in numerous wars and proxy wars all over the world.
Despite declaring itself a neutral party to the escalating disputes between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Cambodia was seen by the U.S. as a potential buffer zone against the rising influence of communism in Southeast Asia, particularly North Vietnam. North Vietnam and the Communist Bloc, too, saw Cambodia as a vital chess piece in its wargame against the West. In the years following Cambodia’s independence in 1953 and the splitting of Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, President Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up American anxiety about the region by articulating the “Domino Theory” and stating:
“You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”
King Sihanouk, feeling the pressure of the two superpowers and their respective blocs, stepped down as King in 1955 and took on the title of Prince and Prime Minister. He initially aligned with the U.S. and western powers, accepting military and financial assistance, but distanced himself as the years went on as he faced opposition, a coup, and allied himself with Pol Pot — who was educated in France and was a member of the French Communist Party before returning home to help start the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Cambodia.
In 1965, the United States began bombing Cambodia in efforts to target the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Western-backed forces, led by Marshal Lol Nol, a former prime minister, and politician, staged a successful coup in 1970, sparking a civil war with Prince Sihanouk and Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge. This coincided with President Richard Nixon’s orders to Kissinger, who told his military assistant:
“He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
In 1973, the newly formed Khmer government, fearing defeat at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese allies, received U.S. assistance for another bombing campaign that is estimated to have killed roughly 300,000 citizens. From 1965 to 1973, conservative estimates put the tonnage of bombs dropped on Cambodia numbered somewhere around a half-million tons; nearly matching the number of U.S. bombs dropped in the Pacific during World War II.
There is ample evidence to suggest that U.S. involvement and the bombing of Cambodia helped give rise to the Khmer Rouge as the rural population, mostly peasants, joined their ranks to avenge loved ones killed during these bombing runs. Even the CIA Directorate of Operations was aware of this, including it in an International Information Cable:
“Khmer insurgent (KI) [Khmer Rouge] cadre have begun an intensified proselyting campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents . . . in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organizations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.”
From 1969 to 1973, the Khmer Rouge saw their ranks grow from 10,000 to over 200,000, becoming an increasingly bigger threat to Lol Nol’s US-backed Khmer Republic. Even after the Paris Accord was signed in January of 1973, President Nixon continued to bomb Cambodia in support of Lol Nol until Congress called an end to the bombings later that August. But the damage had already been done and in 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, ousted Lol Nol, and established the Democratic Kampuchea.
What ensued in the following years could only be described as pure hell for the Cambodian people. It is estimated that nearly 2 million people in urban areas were evacuated and escorted to the rural regions and farms in pursuit of the Khmer Rouge’s “agrarian utopia.” The Khmer Rouge also adopted extreme Maoist and Marxist-Leninist changes. As the Cambodian Tribunal Monitor website describes:
“They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps, and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes.”
“During this time, everyone was deprived of their basic rights. People were not allowed to go outside their cooperative. The regime would not allow anyone to gather and hold discussions. If three people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested or executed.”
The United States, which still saw Cambodia as a buffer against the spread of communism in Vietnam, chose to be complicit with the new regime. Henry Kissinger, who stayed on in the Ford administration after President Nixon resigned, asked Thailand’s foreign minister to relay a message to the Khmer Rouge, saying, “should tell [the KR] that we bear no hostility towards them. We would like them to be independent as a counterweight to North Vietnam…. [S]hould also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.” In just four years, by 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, purges, and forced labor in what became known as the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror ended only after the Vietnamese invaded, following border disputes, and installed a pro-Vietnamese government.
That was my mother’s childhood. One spent running and fleeing, losing loved ones, and in abject uncertainty of an end to her struggle. But it wasn’t just the systematic murder of millions and her family, friends and loved ones that scarred my mother, as the Khmer Rouge and upheaval have done to so many. What Pol Pot and his followers wanted most, like the many despots and ideologues throughout history, was to dominate and control the minds of the populace. Many violent regimes have left scars on the collective memory of human history that power is easily seized through the machinations of war and violence, but it is the holding onto that power that proves the more difficult task. And they have all shown us that if you cannot win the hearts and minds of a people, then you must break them.
The Khmer Rouge accomplished this in many ways. Chief among these was the creation of a political cult of sorts in the form of Angkar Padevat, or simply the Angkar. Essentially it was the leadership of the Khmer Rouge but secretly hidden behind the veil of “The Organization” (what Angkar translates to). To me, it had the characteristics of a faceless pseudo-deity that demanded absolute obedience and devotion, like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan but with its head shrouded in the smoke and ashes of war.
Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s ideologist, borrowed heavily from Stalin’s handbook to extract obedience and devotion out of the Cambodian people. Among the methods they employed, beyond the obvious killings and forced labor, were regular small group meetings in which adults and children were subjected to speeches and lectures and forced to recite mantras. They also instituted a ritual of criticism and self-criticism, which was used to isolate Cambodians from each other and to sow distrust and more reliance on Angkar.
Angkar was elevated even above one’s own family, as the Cambodian Tribunal further explains:
“Family relationships were also heavily criticized. People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor or pity. The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only Angkar Padevat, which was to be everyone’s ‘mother and father.’”
This was enforced by the Khmer Rouge to the extreme. Children were separated from their families and placed in communes. They were forced to attend nightly meetings where they were forced, under pain of death, to listen to speeches, recite mantras, and engage in the criticism of others and self-criticism. Children were brainwashed to betray, reject, spy and turn on and turn in their family members. The result of all of this was that the ties and bonds that often held families, communities, and even entire societies together were severed. Seeds of suspicion and distrust were sown between individuals. Trust and faith were only to be found in Angkar — in the collective. It wasn’t until years after the Khmer Rouge takeover that Pol Pot, in a five-hour speech, revealed the true identity of Angkar as the Communist Party of Cambodia.
I’ve been told that even in a UN refugee camp in Thailand, where she thought she would be safe, she was forced into prostitution — something that I remember angrily and vehemently denying when I was first told. In my mind, I saw the UN as the good guys. How could the good guys do such a horrible thing?
But the older I got and the more I learned, I realized that the world is not so black and white. That the lines we so foolishly wish would discern the good, the bad, and the evil, become blurred in a history told by the winners of minds, hearts, and wars.
This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir.