Cambodia Since April 1975

II. Democratic Kampuchea

The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea in January 1976 (hereafter DK). The country was ruled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) but its identity and leaders were hidden from the public. This secrecy was essential, in the view of the CPK’s leaders, because it had helped them in the past and because enemies were allegedly attempting to sabotage the revolution. The "upper organization" or Angkar Loeu was the name of the central committee of the party, the governing body of the DK regime. Its policies were aimed at radically transforming Cambodia into a new society--breaking completely with its past. Pre-revolutionary institutions were uprooted. Old traditions, thoughts, and ways of life were forbidden. In support of such actions, DK cadres echoed the motto, "when you pull the grass, you have to pull the root."

Immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, DK leaders began evacuating approximately three million people from towns and cities throughout the country. Cambodia’s urban population had swollen to this size during the war, out of a total population of some seven to eight million, as refugees fled fighting in rural areas. Although DK cadres spuriously claimed that the evacuations were to prevent epidemics, starvation and to protect civilians from American bombing, this decision was, in fact, "a calculated, political decision, part of a wider agenda with economic and ideological rationale"(Chandler 1991:247). The evacuation’s purpose was to ensure CPK’s control over the urban population and to turn the "unproductive, culturally corrupt, and economically and politically exploitative" urban class into a new and productive people. The former inhabitants of cities and towns were forced to engage in agricultural labor in the countryside. Those who could not transform, chose not to, or who were considered a threat to the revolution were imprisoned and eliminated. Former high ranking government officials, businessmen, and military officers, for example, were immediately executed by Khmer Rouge cadres.

Sihanouk returned to Cambodia from China in late 1975 and served as the head of state; but he was formally "retired" in April 1976, and was held throughout the rest of the DK regime under house arrest on the grounds of the palace in Phnom Penh. While he lived in relative comfort, he was constantly in fear of his life, and many members of the royal family who had been scattered throughout the countryside died during this period (Chandler 1996:213).

Despite DK’s plan to build a classless society, under the DK regime Cambodian people were divided into different social categories. Those who had not lived under the Khmer Rouge-controlled territory prior to April 17, 1975 were considered "new people," while those who had lived in the Khmer Rouge-controlled territory prior to this time were considered "base people." Base people enjoyed more privileges, though their lives were also tightly controlled and transformed by the restructuring of society (Chandler 1991:265). "New people" were used as labor to clear new agricultural land from malaria-infested forests, to dig vast irrigation projects, and to grow rice along-side peasants. The "new people" were not accustomed to long, backbreaking hours of labor in the fields. Moreover, they were considered "politically incorrect," so they were last on "distribution lists, first on execution lists and had no political rights"(Heder 1980:7). Conditions varied from district to district and over time throughout the regime; those in the North and Northwest of the country, where more than a million new people were resettled in 1975-76 were likely the harshest (Chandler 1991:269, see also Vickery 1984).

DK leaders viewed private property as a source of individualism and capitalism; these were the primary enemies of the revolution. Thus, money, markets, and private property of all sorts were abolished. Basic resources needed to sustain life could only be obtained through the newly established communes.

The leaders of DK correctly stressed the significance of agriculture in the development of Cambodia’s economy (see Twining 1989:109-150). DK’s leaders envisioned dramatic and unrealistic growth in rice production that would enable the country to generate a surplus for industrialization--a future stage where Cambodia would supposedly become the master of its destiny. Although Cambodia is an agrarian society in which rice is the major crop, rice yields have always been comparatively low, reaching an average of one metric ton per hectare during the pre-revolutionary era. The DK leadership saw Cambodia as endowed with much arable land relative to her population. They were confident that rice harvests could take place twice or three times per year, while yields per hectare could be doubled or tripled (on the 1976 Four Year Plan see Chandler, Kiernan and Boua 1988). They believed that such levels of production could be achieved through collectivization and revolutionary will. When regional leaders were unable to meet these unrealistic goals, they were purged as central DK cadre searched for those responsible for sabotaging their "perfect" revolution.

People in DK were organized into communes with militarized discipline, and then subdivided into work teams according to gender and age. The language for agricultural projects was full of military terms: "references to launching offensives (veay samrok), to struggling in a military sense (brayut), to fighting onward (tasou), and to persevering (btechnha)" (Marston 1994:111). People were forced to work from dawn to dusk and sometimes into the night with no material reward. Food rations were low as the government gathered rice surplus to feed the army, store and export.

Rice rations were given to Cambodians at a level that was not sufficient to sustain lives. Based upon various interviews with refugees between 1975-1979, one Cambodian observer suggests that only a few people received a ration of around 400 to 450 grams per day, while most Cambodians received 250 grams or less. Before 1970, an average Cambodian consumed about 600 grams of rice per day; a poor peasant’s intake of rice was around 440 grams per day (Twining 1989:109-150). A daily ration of 250 grams or less therefore caused serious malnutrition and famine among the population. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation and diseases related to malnutrition. Ultimately more than a million and a half died in a population of just over seven million, the highest per capita rate of mass killing in modern world history.

DK leaders attempted to transform Cambodia into a new class-free society in which only "Khmer" identity was allowed to exist. While not specifically defining what that meant, the DK regime determined all facets of people’s lives ranging from religion, language, clothing, hair style and sexual relationships. Such cultural traditions as religion and extended family ties, deeply rooted in Khmer society were abolished (see Ebihara 1988, 1993). During the pre-revolutionary era, Buddhism was the state religion and was practiced by the vast majority of Cambodians. But Buddhism was viewed by the DK leadership as reactionary, exploitative and feudalistic. In 1975-76 all the monks in Cambodia were defrocked and forced to resume secular life. Buddhist temples were destroyed or turned to into detention centers, storage warehouses or housing facilities. Buddhism was replaced by political indoctrination through political meetings where self-criticism and mutual criticism were encouraged and where people were told to raise their spirit to defend and build the nation.

Extended bilateral kinship ties, links to both the maternal and paternal relatives, formed the large networks of kinsmen from which Cambodian social relations were woven. DK practices recognized only the union of husband and wife and separated extended kin units. All loyalty was to be redirected to the Angkar, the revolutionary organization.

The project to establish a uniform society greatly affected the ethnic minority groups living in Cambodia who had distinct traditions, ways of life, religions and languages. Among these groups were Vietnamese, Muslim Cham, and ethnic Chinese. Soon after the liberation of Phnom Penh, DK leaders planned to remove all Vietnamese residents from Cambodia. By September 1975, more than 150,000 Vietnamese residing in Cambodia were expelled to Vietnam (Kiernan 1997:107). However, a number of Vietnamese who were married to Cambodian spouses chose to stay in Cambodia. Virtually all of them were executed by the DK regime. Kiernan suggests that there may have been as many as 10,000 Vietnamese who stayed (1997:196, FN 147, see also pp. 296-298, 423-427 and 460). This practice of killing Vietnamese civilians continued to be the policy of the Khmer Rouge after they were overthrown, right through to 1998.

Punishing ethnic Chinese, however, was centered on class rather than race. Many Chinese were merchants and traders who resided in towns and cities. Thus, they belonged to the bourgeois class and to the category of "new people" labeled enemies of the revolution. Some important ethnic Chinese businessmen were executed soon after the Khmer Rouge came to power, while those considered capable of reform were forced to adapt to the new society. The use of Chinese language and ancestral worship, central to lives of ethnic Chinese, were prohibited.

Muslim Cham were distinct from other groups of people residing in Cambodia through their language, religion, and costume. Under the DK, Muslim Cham were forced to abandon their way of life and to assimilate into the new Khmer society. A large number were killed and those remaining were dispersed throughout the country. The execution of Muslim Cham is viewed by some scholars as an act of genocide (see Kiernan 1997). Others argue that under the overall DK policy of social uniformity, the persecution of Muslim Cham resulted not from racial hatred, but from both notions of class and the regime’s harsh views regarding possible resistance to its revolution (Heder 1997:111-113). Their refusal to adapt, by not eating pork and by not giving up their forms of worship, constituted acts of resistance that were not tolerated in DK.

The best case for the use of the term "genocide" seems to apply first to the Vietnamese, where there was a clear policy to eliminate them, and secondarily to the Cham as they were targeted for at least partial destruction based upon their religious beliefs. Heder writes, "(it) was genocide because of the close fit of such practices with the legal definition laid out in the 1948 Convention on preventing this crime against humanity, according to which ‘genocide means...acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group...’" (1997:112). The use of the term to describe what happened to the ethnic Chinese is far less clear, complicated by a variety of other factors that classified urban Chinese as "enemies" of the regime. In areas of the country where Chinese lived in zones "liberated" before 1975, they were not targeted for execution or even for persecution different from others around them.

Since the decline of the Angkorean Empire in the 13th century, Cambodia has been repeatedly invaded by its two more powerful neighbors, Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east. The long history of Cambodia’s subordination to foreign control and invasion caused the DK leaders to be suspicious and paranoid. Over time, this suspicion was increasingly turned towards Vietnam. While the Vietnamese leaders were voicing the idea of a "special relationship" among the three Indochinese countries, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, DK’s leaders perceived this "relationship" as Vietnam’s determination to "swallow" Cambodia. DK leaders accused the Vietnamese of sabotaging the Cambodian revolution by infiltrating their agents into the CPK. This high level of mistrust, compounded by territorial disputes, eventually resulted in open military conflict in 1977-78.

With their ultra-nationalist zeal and with China’s support, the DK leaders, in David Chandler’s words, never "considered the alternatives of defeat, compromise or negotiation" (Chandler 1992:146). DK’s army launched attacks into Vietnamese territory and killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in an attempt to pressure the Vietnamese government to accept the DK’s border negotiation proposal. In 1977 and 1978, the Vietnamese responded with counterattacks and briefly invaded Cambodia. The DK perceived the failure of their defensive forces against this incursion as betrayal by their own Eastern Zone leaders. The people of the Eastern Zone were accused of having "Cambodian bodies but Vietnamese minds." Many Eastern Zone cadres were purged and much of its population was transferred to other parts of the country. The evacuation was followed by the execution of thousands more. This purge led to the defection of a number of DK’s high ranking cadres to Vietnam.

With the failure to persuade the Khmer Rouge to negotiate a settlement, and with firm support from the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese government integrated the new DK defectors with Cambodian communist veterans who had stayed behind in Vietnam after the 1954 Geneva Agreement to form the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). On Christmas Eve 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia using the KNUFNS for justification, and took control of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Five days later the Vietnamese installed a new communist regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), with Heng Samrin as the head of state.

Read a background essay on social hierarchy under Democratic Kampuchea

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