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The Cambodian Genocide: Roots of Atrocity

The Cambodian Genocide: Roots of Atrocity


Editor’s Note:This is Part II of a three part series. Read Part I Here

In Part I of this series, I discussed the first wave of argumentation regarding the causes of the Cambodian genocide: the US bombing campaign against the Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese in Northeastern Cambodia. The next prevailing thesis, articulated by historians and social scientists beginning in the 1980s, argued that broad social, cultural and political forces in Cambodia were responsible for the violence. These scholars argued that Pol Pot’s party drew its ideology and power from anti-modernist, rural resentments against the urban classes and foreigners. A number of left-wing historians have even gone so far to argue that the CPK was fundamentally anti-Marxist.[1] While very few would still make that claim, perhaps the strongest vein of scholarship argues that the CPK’s primary drive was towards the country’s glorious past.

The cultural thesis argues that the average Cambodian peasant was motivated by anti-imperialistic, anti-urban and anti-modern passions. Their way of life had changed dramatically little – indeed, the average Cambodian in 1975 farmed their land using less equipment than a medieval French peasant. Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth and the symbols of modernity – cars, refrigerators, televisions – that had accrued in French colonial cities had aroused the intense hostility of these illiterate masses. Khmer Rouge policy towards cities embodied these hatreds: these were completely evacuated and everyone, regardless of social class, was put to work in the fields growing rice, living on “only two spoons of rice per day.”[2]

The second, parallel argument draws from Cambodian history. Historian Ben Kiernan of Yale University, argues that the self-immolation of Cambodia was driven by historically-motivated racial conflict and a desire “to turn back the clock.”[3] In this line of reasoning, the goal was to restore Cambodia to its greatest historical period, that of the Khmer Empire in the 9th-15th centuries. This had racial overtones. The peasant masses hated and feared Cambodia’s traditional enemies and racially distinct (light-skinned) neighbors, the Thais and the Vietnamese. In support of this thesis is the fact that, among the first acts of the Khmer Rouge, was the deportation or murder en masse of the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai minorities.[4] Frenzied, race-based, anti-modern nationalism was turned inward, leading the masses to support the Khmer Rouge’s violence and encourage perpetrators to their deeds.

These two lines of reasoning are further buttressed by the nearly total destruction of the country’s ethnically heterogeneous professional classes. In 1979, there were only 30 doctors and 5,000 schoolteachers left in a country still numbering more than 6 million people.[5] The Khmer Rouge’s methods for achieving that end were almost incalculably cruel. One survivor recalled CPK torturers executing those suspected of being literate, particularly doctors and former government officials, by crucifying them and then setting the base of the cross on fire.[6] Survivors also reported cannibalism, with guards eating certain parts of their victims. This sort of barbarism clearly drew little from Communism and much from anti-modern hatreds.

However, there is a problem with this line of argument. It helps to explain why some Cambodians participated in the murders of their fellow countrymen. Discussing the motivations of average perpetrators is an extremely important point, analogous to the studies in German history pioneered by Christopher Browning’s landmark work, Ordinary Men. This follows the debate – intentionalist versus structuralist – that has framed discussion of the Holocaust.

But it fails to address the larger issue. What were the root causes of the Cambodian genocide? Unlike Nazi Germany, a great amount of documentation survived the Khmer Rouge’s retreat in 1979. Even more clearly, some of the perpetrators have acknowledged their guilt and willingly discussed the choices leading to the genocide. Pol Pot was alive until 1998, and offered some evidence as to the origins of the massing killings. These sources make it plain that the mass murder of Cambodia’s population was driven from above, not from below. While whatever support the regime enjoyed may be based in the social and cultural factors explored above, it fails to address the match that lit the flame. The stimulus for the mass killing was Communism.

[1] See Michael Vickery, Cambodia 1975-1982 (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2000).

[2] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1996). p. 273.

[3] Kiernan, p. 27.

[4] Kiernan, p. 55.

[5] Kiljunen, p. 39.

[6] Haing Ngor with Roger Warner, Survival in the Killing Fields (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1987), p. 262.