Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

Phnom Penh just after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge

As we’ve traveled through Cambodia we’ve learned much about the recent tragic history of the Khmer people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge was a communist group that gained control of Cambodia in 1975 by felling the weak and highly corrupt Lon Nol government.  This was at a time of civil war when the disparity between the rich and the poor was at it’s height and the Khmers were glad for any change in government, believing that it couldn’t possibly be worse than what had come before.  There were similar movements spreading throughout Asia including the Cultural Revolution in China and of course the wars in Vietnam and Korea.  But unlike these other movements which were relatively well organized and systematic, the communist party in Cambodia was confused and took it’s logic in part from an incomplete understanding of Marxist-Leninist ideologies and in part from the superstitions of Cambodian culture and Buddhist lore.

Pol Pot who emerged as the head of this movement was partially educated in France where he became a part of the Cercle Marxist and other communist groups of the time.  By no means a star student, he slogged through the thick tomes of Marx and Lenin like his fellow Cambodian patriots and returned to Cambodia in the 1960’s with an imperfect understanding of communism and a radical zeal hidden beneath a wreath of smiles.  He slowly rose through the highly secretive underground ranks of the communist party to emerge as the reclusive and mysterious leader of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took the capital Phnom Penh, the last stronghold of the flailing Lon Nol government, it marked the beginning of a four year reign of terror.  Within hours of storming the capital, the order came from Pol Pot to evacuate the city of 2.5 million people by the end of the day; an impossible order with no reference to reality and a recipe for human suffering on a mass scale. Some 20 000 people died on this forced march back to their “home villages”, marking the first casualties of the new regime.  Pol Pot believed that city dwellers were inherently corrupt by city luxuries and within the new few weeks every major city in Cambodia was empty.  One of the failures of the Khmer Rouge in the understanding of communist ideology was which group constituted the working class.  In strict Marxist-Leninist ideas, the working class is made up of factory and industrial workers who should form the backbone of the communist revolution.  In Cambodia, these workers numbered only around 10 000 people and the majority of the population lived as peasants in villages and hamlets.  Pol Pot twisted communism to suit his own means by declaring the villagers to be pure and incorruptible and by trying to use a largely illiterate, uneducated group of people to form his army.  Instead of being able to transmit clear order to his cadres, everything had to be done by word of mouth so that only the broad strokes of his messages remained in the minds of his workers.  Another problem of using villagers as the driving force of the movement was the fact that, although they could farm for themselves and their families, no one had any idea how to run a large scale farming operation necessary to feed all the new mouths flooding to the countryside from the cities.  Pol Pot demanded that the rice crop be increased three fold, another impossible order that reflects how out of touch he was with the reality of his revolution.  Inefficient co-operative farms (that more closely resembled forced labour camps) were set up all around the country and the population at large slowly began to starve.

Year by year Pol Pot’s policies became more extreme and many people were killed outright for any number of reasons.  At first only members of the previous government and the Lon Nol army were targeted but the Khmer Rouge radar quickly grew to include intellectuals, ethnic minorities, anyone who spoke a foreign language and eventually anyone who had any connection to city life.  Unlike in China where “class enemies” were given the chance to “reform”, in Cambodia, re-education was often a euphemism for death.  The policies of the Khmer Rouge embodied the polarized mentality that either an individual was “pure” or “corrupt”.

Some of the other decisions of the government were to abolish currency, markets, business and all financial systems, effectively reverting the country to a fully agrarian society where absolutely everything was state controlled.

From the years of 1975 to 1979 this crazed and deluded government with it’s extreme ideas of a Utopian society raged until the Vietnamese army eventually stepped in, provoked by the attacks on Vietnamese minorities both within the borders of Cambodia and without.  Pol Pot and the core group of the communist party fled into the jungles but, despite all the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated under their regime, they retained their seats in the United Nations as the leaders of the country until 1997, nearly 20 years after their fall.  Pol Pot died under house arrest in Thailand in 1998.  Some of the core members of the Khmer Rouge are only just now being held accountable for their actions and in a 2011 trial 4 of the 5 leading members pleaded not guilty, denying any knowledge of atrocities or human rights violations.

From starvation, forced labour and in cases outright execution, close to 2 million people died.  About a quarter of Cambodia’s population of 7 million.