I feel very daunted writing a post about this. The Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s and the atrocities the Cambodian people suffered deserve much more time and attention. I am pretty uneducated on the subject (a huge gripe I have with the American education system. I was never, ever taught about this genocide and I’m sure many others throughout history, even so recently as 40 years ago). The little knowledge I now have though, and what I have learned, I will share, with no naïvety that I am failing miserably to do it all any justice.
Pol Pot (it stands for Political Potential) lead the Khmer Rouge, the leading political party of Cambodia (which they named Democratic Kampuchea). in the mid 1970’s. In the effort to spread communist ideals throughout the country, the party forced all citizens out of the cities and back into the countryside. Forced labor day in and day out, achingly minimal food rations, horribly overcrowded concentration camps, and senseless murder became reality. If you were rich you were targeted. Watches, glasses, anything – you did not want to have these. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, and similarly highly-regarded professionals were targeted. The brightest minds posed the largest threat and the regime was set on instilling new revolutionary values in the youth’s minds while making the traditional, Buddhist values obsolete. The Khmer Rouge wanted societal transformation – to stop the division of urban dwellers and country dwellers and return Cambodia to a deindustrialized, egalitarian, agrarian state. They did away with currency and bartering (most commonly with tins of rice) returned as the standard in commerce. The Khmer Rouge pursued economic self-sufficiency much more so than China’s infamous ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the 1950’s. It was the first time in its 2,000 year history that the country was free from foreign economic dominance and foreign trade was virtually halted.
The Khmer Rouge government terrorized the country. They arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone on the ‘enemy list’ including people with connections to the former or foreign governments, professionals, intellectuals, and educated people, ethnic and religious minorities, religiously devout, and “economic saboteurs” – city dwellers lacking agricultural skills. The Khmer Rouge turned children against their parents and rewarded civilian spies, creating an environment of distrust. They used a variety of torture methods, we saw a sample few at Toul Sleng (S-21), a former high school turned prison in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Thousands of prisoners entered those doors, only 12 are known to have survived.
From 1975 to 1979, four years, approximately 2 million lives were taken through starvation, excessive forced physical labor, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and political executions. 25% of the country’s population. 1 in 4 people.
In 1979, as the Khmer Rouge government started crumbling due to Vietnamese force, Pol Pot relocated to Thailand where he lived quite comfortably for years as Cambodia struggled. He died in 1998, two decades after the genocide he was responsible for ended. He was never put on trial. What’s more, the United Nations recognized the Khmer Rouge as a legitimate government and allowed them as seat at the UN for 15 years after the genocide.
Four measly years ago, in 2009, the chief Khmer Rouge torturer Kang Kek Iew was tried for crimes against humanity. 2 millions deaths and 3 decades too late for any semblance of justice.
It’s harrowing, it’s horrible.
Anyone we interacted with over the age of 40 experienced these tragedies first hand. Everyone currently in the country has been affected, undeniably.
Cambodians are resilient and strong people. Their smiles and friendliness will fool you into thinking the genocide was long ago in the distant past, lifetimes ago perhaps, an ordeal one’s great grandparents could tell you about.
And cruelly, it was not.