The genocide in Cambodia, carried out between April 1975 and January 1979, unfolded within the historical context of the end of the war in Vietnam and the removal of the United States both from its South Vietnamese allies and from the “friendly” government of Lon Nol in Cambodia. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouges run by Pol Pot entered the capital Phnom Penh, giving rise to a communist regime and a purge that would cause over 1,500,000 deaths. The material executioners of such an extermination were a mass of young people, mostly of peasant origins, maneuvered by a very restricted élite made of Stalinist leaders.
A “cultural” genocide case
The US withdrawal from the territory paved the way to the rise of the communist forces both in Vietnam and in Cambodia, where the Khmer fighters, supported by their Viet Cong allies, overthrew in just a few days the government of Lon Nol and conquered Pnomh Penh. From here they would have liked to start accomplishing their communist ideals, to then extend them to the whole of Cambogia. These were, at least partly, favoured by a situation of strong popular discontent for the social and economic degradation caused by the old regime. In a climate of strong polarization between “capitalists, friends of the Americans” and “communists, defenders of the proletarians”, it was all too easy for the victors to label the whole society according to gross generalizations, which take personal responsibilities into no account.
On one side, there are the “people’s enemies”, first of all the politicians and officials of the previous regime, the intellectuals, professionals, teachers and all those who, in one way or another, did not do manual work. On the other side there were the peasants, who are assigned the task of “building the society of the future”. This partition between “the good” and “the bad” obeys a similar logics to that of those who label individuals based on the belonging to a race. The special feature of the genocide carried out in Cambodia, therefore, consists in the fact that it had no ethnic bases but solely cultural bases in a broad sense of the term. For example, those who wore glasses or had too clean hands were immediately killed as “people’s enemies”. The ones who managed to save themselves were those who camouflaged as peasants or anyway disfigured their bodies so to look credibly like members of the humblest strata of the population.
The survivors were compelled to forced labour in the rice or jute plantations. Life conditions were so hard that thousands died in the first days.
In the planning of the massacres, the targets were first of all the true or alleged political foes. The Khmer Rouges thus hit those who under the previous regime had held top posts, the army officials (82.6%), the policemen (66.7%), and above all the magistrates, murdered at 99%. The category of the teachers was completely wiped out. As to the minorities, 84% of the Buddhist monks, 33.7% of the Cham Muslims, 48.6% of the Catholics, 38.4% of the Chinese and 37.5% of the Vietnamese were killed.
Children during the Cambodian Genocide, 1975.
Women and children during Khmer Rouge fighting to take control of the Cambodian capital, April 1975.
Planning and start of the violence
The responsibility for the genocidal plan and its execution have to be assigned to the leading group of the Khmer Rouge movement, formed by the so-called “Big Brothers”, an élite consisting in 20-25 individuals who acted in agreement with each other, based on a shared political training, which can be summarized into four main stages: the stay in France in the Fifties, where their ideological training started; the time of the opposition against prince Sihanouk; the years spent in hiding in the Cambodian jungle, where they took refuge when they were indicted of high treason by the government of Lon Nol because of their communist ideas; the experience of the most significant moments of the Chinese cultural revolution.
The main exponents of the “Big Brothers” were Pol Pot (Brother No. 1), Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Hou Youn, Hu Nim, Khieu Samphan and Duch, director of the sadly known S-21 camp, the main jail institution of democratic Kampuchea. The material executioners were recruited among the lower and middle cadres of the Communist party, of a low cultural level, together with 60,000 very young peasant-soldiers precisely selected because they were not “contaminated” by urban capitalism, nor by the imperialist school system.
The planning of the extermination was thus predisposed during the time of hiding in the jungle, where the “Big Brothers” drafted a version of communism based on a vision of harsh hostility towards the urban lifestyle, to which they opposed an unrealistic economic project based on agriculture and focused on rice cultivation.
Given their physical and ideological isolation, we cannot talk about a detailed, consistent and linear plan, but the basic guidelines of the planning are clear, despite the indefiniteness of a concept, the one of “objective enemy”, which from time to time shifted the focus from a target to another, according to the given political analyses.
The elimination of the elements linked to the old regime, now contaminated by capitalism, was justified as need to “purify” the Cambodian society from the “bourgeois tumor” that had spread inside it over the previous years. The deportation of hundreds of thousands people from the cities to the countryside answered the logics of “re-education” of the inmates and their restitution to a “productive” role within a new society. Albeit not planned, the death of the inmates was easily foreseeable, as they were forcibly moved to the places assigned to them and held in conditions of malnutrition, when not enslaved, tormented and tortured.