Author Topic: Talking About Genocide : Cambodia 1975  (Read 3855 times)

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Offline mayya

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Talking About Genocide : Cambodia 1975
« on: October 03, 2013, 18:25:15 PM »

before the genocide

Cambodia is a country in South East Asia, less than half the size of California and twice the size of Scotland. Once it was the centre of the ancient kingdom of the Khmer, and its capital was Angkor, famous for its 12th century temples. The present day capital is Phnom Penh. In 1953 Cambodia gained independence after nearly 100 years of French rule. In the 1960s the population was over 7m, almost all Buddhists, under the rule of a monarch, Prince Sihanouk.

 In 1970 Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a military coup. The leader of the new right-wing government was lieutenant-general Lon Nol, who was made president of the 'Khmer Republic'. Prince Sihanouk and his followers joined forces with a communist guerrilla organisation founded in 1960 and known as the Khmer Rouge. They attacked Lon Nol's army and civil war began.

 Cambodia was also caught up in another country's war. Cambodia's neighbour to the east is Vietnam, which had also fought against the French to gain independence. When the French were defeated in 1954, Vietnam was divided in two: communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam (backed by the USA). Civil war immediately broke out. The Viet Cong, a group of Vietnamese communist guerrillas (backed by North Vietnam and China), based themselves in the jungles of South Vietnam and fought against the South Vietnamese army from there. In 1964, the USA entered the Vietnam war, with airpower, firebombs and poisonous defoliants, but found they could not budge the determined Vietnamese communists. The inconclusive war in Vietnam cost many American and Vietnamese lives, devastated the country, and achieved nothing but misery for anyone caught up in it, including the Cambodians.

 Under Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia had preserved neutrality during the Vietnamese civil war by giving a little to both sides: Vietnamese communists were allowed to use a Cambodian port to ship in supplies, the USA were allowed to bomb - secretly and illegitimately - Viet Cong hideouts in Cambodia. When US-backed Lon Nol took over, US troops felt free to move into Cambodia to continue their struggle with the Viet Cong. Cambodia had become part of the Vietnam battlefield. During the next four years, American B-52 bombers, using napalm and dart cluster-bombs, killed up to 750,000 Cambodians in their effort to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines.

 The Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement in 1970 was small. Their leader, Pol Pot, had been educated in France and was an admirer of Maoist (Chinese) communism; he was also suspicious of Vietnam's relations with Cambodia. The heavy American bombardment, and Lon Nol's collaboration with America, drove new recruits to the Khmer Rouge. So did Chinese backing and North Vietnamese training for them. By 1975 Pol Pot's force had grown to over 700,000 men. Lon Nol's army was kept busy trying to suppress not only Vietnamese communists on Cambodian territory but also Cambodia's own brand of communists, the Khmer Rouge.

 In 1975 North Vietnamese forces seized South Vietnam's capital, Saigon. In the same year Lon Nol was defeated by the Khmer Rouge. It's estimated that 156,000 died in the civil war - half of them civilians.

the genocide

With macabre bureaucratic precision the Kmer Rouge photographed their victims before torturing and killing them. This picture is all that remains of a mother and child murdered in Tuol Sleng Prison sometime between 1975 and 1979

Under Pol Pot's leadership, and within days of overthrowing the government, the Khmer Rouge embarked on an organised mission: they ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia (now under its Khmer name Kampuchea) on the communist model of Mao's China. The population must, they believed, be made to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition - and all intellectuals and educated people were assumed to be - must be eliminated, together with all un-communist aspects of traditional Cambodian society.

 So, at short notice and under threat of death, the inhabitants of towns and cities were forced to leave them. The ill, disabled, old and very young were driven out as well, regardless of their physical condition: no-one was spared the exodus. People who refused to leave were killed; so were those who didn't leave fast enough, and those who wouldn't obey orders.

 All political and civil rights were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down; so were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field (including the army) were murdered, together with their extended families. Religion was banned, all leading Buddhist monks were killed and almost all temples destroyed. Music and radio sets were also banned. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying. One Khmer slogan ran 'To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.'

 People who escaped murder became unpaid labourers, working on minimum rations and for impossibly long hours. They slept and ate in uncomfortable communes deliberately chosen to be as far as possible from their old homes. Personal relationships were discouraged; so were expressions of affection. People soon became weak from overwork and starvation, and after that fell ill, for which there was no treatment except death.

 Also targeted were minority groups, victims of the Khmer Rouge's racism. These included ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and also Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry. Half the Cham Muslim population was murdered, and 8,000 Christians.

 The imposition of a murderous regime always leaves its leaders afraid: afraid of losing power, failing to prevent vengeance, and facing betrayal by ambitious rivals. The Khmer Rouge repeatedly interrogated their own members, imprisoning and executing them on the slightest suspicion of treachery or sabotage.

 Civilian deaths in this period, from executions, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated at well over 2m.

after the genocide

The Khmer Rouge's links with China meant hostility between the Pol Pot government and Vietnam (soon to be briefly invaded by China for ill-treating Vietnam's ethnic Chinese). In 1978 Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas were driven into the western jungles and beyond to Thailand. Vietnam (now a communist republic forging links with the Soviet Union) set up a puppet government composed mainly of recent defectors from the Khmer Rouge. This new socialist government was comparatively benign, but found it hard to organise the necessary reconstruction programme: Pol Pot's policies had ruined the economy, there wasn't much foreign aid; all the competent professionals, engineers, technicians and planners had been killed.

 The Khmer Rouge in retreat had some help from American relief agencies - 20,000 to 40,000 guerrillas who reached Thailand received food aid -and the West also ensured that the Khmer Rouge (rather than the Vietnam-backed communist government) held on to Cambodia's seat in the United Nations: the Cold War continued to dictate what allegiances and priorities were made.

 The Khmer Rouge went on fighting the Vietnam-backed government. Throughout the 1980s the Khmer Rouge forces were covertly backed by America and the UK (who trained them in the use of landmines) because of their united hostility to communist Vietnam. The West's fuelling of the Khmer Rouge held up Cambodia's recovery for a decade.

 Under international pressure, Vietnam finally withdrew its occupying army from Cambodia. This decision had also been forced by economic sanctions on Cambodia (the US's doing), and by a cut-off in aid from Vietnam's own backer, the Soviet Union. The last troops left Cambodia in 1989, and its name was officially restored. In the 1978-1989 conflict between the two countries (and their behind-the-scenes international string-pullers) up to 65,000 had been killed, 14,000 of whom were civilians.

 In Cambodia, under a temporary coalition government, it was once again legal to own land. The state religion, Buddhism, was revived. In 1991 a peace agreement between opposing groups was signed. Democratic elections, and a peacekeeping force to monitor them, were arranged for 1993, and the former monarch, Prince Sihanouk, was elected to lead the new government.

 The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, of course, opposed Cambodia's political reforms, but their organisation had begun to crumble. Many defected to the new government; many entered into deals to get immunity from prosecution. When Pol Pot accused one of his close aides of treachery, leading Khmers arrested him, and in 1997 staged a show trial. The government, meanwhile, made plans for a tribunal to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. Not surprisingly, those who have spoken publicly all lay the blame for genocide on Pol Pot, and claim no knowledge of the killing. They have also blamed people who are dead and can't argue, or accused 'enemy agents' from the American CIA, the Russian KGB, and Vietnam, all said to have organised the atrocity for obvious political reasons.

 From 1995 mass graves began to be uncovered, revealing the genocide's horrifying extent. The resurrected bones and skulls have been preserved to create simple and potent memorials of the dead in 'the killing fields' where they died. At the torture centre in Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge terrorised and murdered their own members, not only skulls but also identity photographs of the victims are displayed on the walls: this bleak, unhappy place has also become a memorial.

 In 1998 Pol Pot died of natural causes. His last home in the jungle, a complex of huts and bunkers, which is also the site of his cremation, has become an attraction for visitors. The government has plans to create a fully equipped tourist resort there, in the hope of reviving a trade which had collapsed after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001.


'I was a foreign journalist in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched in victorious in April 17 1975, their faces cold, a deadness in their eyes. They ordered the city evacuated. Everyone was to head for the countryside to join the revolution. They killed those who argued against leaving. Two million frightened people started walking out of the capital. The guerrilla soldiers even ordered the wounded - between five and ten thousand of them - out of overflowing hospitals where the casualties had been so heavy in the last days of the war that the floors were slick with blood. Most couldn't walk, so their relatives wheeled them out on their beds, with plasma and serum bags attached, and began rushing them along the streets. I watched many Cambodian friends being herded out of Phnom Penh. Most of them I never saw again. All of us felt like betrayers, like people who were protected and didn't do enough to save our friends. We felt shame. We still do.'

 'Cambodian warriors have a battlefield custom, going back centuries, of cutting the livers from the bodies of their foes, then cooking and eating them. The belief is that this imparts strength and also provides a talisman of protection against being killed. Among pictures from Cambodia rejected by Associated Press were one of a smiling soldier eating the liver of a Khmer Rouge fighter he had killed, one of decapitated corpses being dragged along, and one of a human head being lowered by the hair into boiling water. Many of us are relieved to be protected from such images, but when we support a war we lack a full grasp of what we agree to.'

 'The refugees I met at a UN camp on the Thai border in 1975 all had horrible tales to tell. They spoke of Khmer Rouge cadres beating babies to death against trees, of any adult suspected of ties to the old regime beings clubbed to death or shot, of starvation and total lack of medical care, of men with glasses being killed because they were "intellectuals". It was absolutely clear to me that these refugees were telling the truth. History shows that refugees usually do.'


'A Vietnam Memorial stands in Washington. That long, handsome black stone wall condemns the war in Vietnam man by man, one at a time, name after name. The war is real because those names belonged to real men who lived with their names to identify them, and now are dead. Why are these men dead? By what right and for what reason were they sent off to be killed? The Vietnam memorial is a lesson in stone: mourn the dead, never excuse the war.
 The whole of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos is a war memorial. The Vietnamese have never been able to count their dead and wounded. Cambodians, subjected to 3,500 secret bombing raids, and Laotians, are a separate and unknown casualty toll...The bulk of the dead were peasants, who died of hunger and disease, died in massacres, died because they lived on that day's battleground, died because artillery sprayed random shells over the countryside. Mainly they died under the fire and steel that rained from the skies. American planes dropped more tonnage of bombs here than was dropped by anyone anywhere in the whole of World War Two.'

 Civilians now form the greatest number of casualties in war. They are regarded with indifference by the warring armies, and with concealed indifference by warring governments (which may not be their own). What about the attitude to casualties in local conflicts?

 Civilian citizens may be treated without respect by unelected leaders who take power, reinforce it with armed gangs, and embark on a rule of terror. What can be done (nonviolently) to make that process impossible?

 In Cambodia it was war that gained the unelected Khmer Rouge its surge of recruits, and war that equipped them with weapons and the will to use them. What parallel examples are there in present day society and communities? The Khmer Rouge were a band of bullies, on a large scale. How can the desire to bully be defused?

 All these are vital issues. There is another: the involvement of powerful armies from outside the conflict, who intervene for political reasons of their own and, in the case of Cambodia, illegally. Political awareness is needed to tackle this. Meanwhile, are there equivalent situations locally to think about and learn from?

 And why are 'intellectuals' seen as a threat?