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The Cambodian Genocide: The Role of Ideology

The Cambodian Genocide: The Role of Ideology


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

In the first two parts of this series, the arguments for international and cultural triggers for the Cambodian genocide have been explored. In this concluding post, we’ll examine the notion that ideology mattered in the Cambodian mass killings, something not taken seriously by many of journalists and historians studying Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Where did the Khmer Rouge come from? Pol Pot, and the Cambodian left, matured politically in exile.[1] While studying in France, the future murderers of millions joined a cercle Marxiste of communist left wing intellectuals in Paris. While associated with that organization, Pol Pot also joined the French Communist Party, traveled throughout Eastern Europe, and volunteered for a labor battalion in Yugoslavia. These formative experiences shaped his political vision. In his first political writing, Pol Pot credited “Robespierre and Danton, Stalin and Lenin and Sun Yat Sen” as the leaders who should be emulated in instilling “democracy in the hearts of the Khmer people.”[2] He later explained his political philosophy to a French communist, saying that “Without a solidly-built and solidly-directed Party, no theory can be applied and the enemies of socialism will profit.”[3]

Pol Pot returned home to the soon-to-be independent state of Cambodia in 1953. He rapidly became affiliated with revolution, serving as the contact between the communist guerilla movement and its leftwing front organization. By 1964, Pol Pot had gained assistance from the Vietnamese in organizing military formations in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia to overthrow the government. During this time, Pol Pot and his small band of Marxist intellectuals formulated the basis of their political platform, which drew heavily from Maoist Communism. In Mao’s formulation, in states lacking a large industrial class, the revolution should center on the agricultural laboring classes. Given Cambodia’s agrarian nature, this was a logical turn, and one that mirrored developments in Vietnam at the same time.

The expansion of the Vietnam War and the staggering corruption of the Lon Nol regime provided opportunities for the Khmer Rouge to grow. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled more than half the country and had Phnom Penh under siege. In April 1975, the capital finally fell. Now in power, Pol Pot revealed to the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s Central Committee his “Four Year Plan” to build socialism.[4] It followed models provided by China and the Soviet Union explicitly: “the plan sought to achieve socialism in Cambodia within four years by collectivizing agriculture and industry and by spending money earned from agricultural exports to finance agricultural production, light industry, and eventually heavy industry as well.”[5] Pol centered his plan on making agriculture massively productive, exporting it, and using the capital generated to fund heavy industry. To that end, and with the goal of eliminating subversive elements, the cities had already been emptied of their populations to supplement agricultural labor in the countryside. The new agricultural laborers lived on “only two spoons of rice a day;” the death toll was staggering.[6]

Accompanying these economic goals were a series of social and political targets. According to Cambodian political scientist Boraden Nhem, the basic principles guiding Pol Pot were the abolition of classes; the destruction of “exploitative social elements;” the elimination of the market economy, even to the point of banning barter; the elimination of religion and the family; the elimination of the rule of law in favor of the totalitarian dominance of the CPK; and finally, the “abolition of individual free will.”[7] The objective was to build an autarkic, classless, modern state tightly controlled by CPK leadership.

The genocide of the Cambodian people came as a part of this process of “building Communism,” following the models of Chinese and Soviet development. Arrests, famine, and brutality began as soon as the Khmer Rouge took power. The massive dislocation of the country’s urban population had triggered economic collapse and famine. By spring 1975, Pol Pot had begun erecting “a slave state… where they were required to execute without payment whatever work was assigned to them for as long as the cadres ordered it, failing which they risked punishment ranging from the withholding of rations to death.”[8] For CPK leaders, this was the path to a truly classless state.

In January 1977, things went from bad to worse. Failure to meet rice production targets (much as in the case of Soviet collectivization) led Pol Pot to deliver a speech stating that there was a “sickness in the Party … As our socialist revolution advances … we can locate the ugly microbes. They will be pushed out by the … socialist revolution … If we wait any longer, the microbes can do real damage.”[9] As tensions with Vietnam grew in the aftermath of the American withdrawal, Pol Pot readied the country for war by murdering larger and larger percentages of those belonging to potentially “reactionary classes.” Drawing inspiration from Mao – who had written that it is “Better to kill a hundred innocent people than let one truly guilty person go free” – and from Stalin’s purges of his own party, the death lists included large numbers of Khmer Rouge cadres for the first time.[10] These unfortunates were sent through the torture and execution center called S-21 in Phnom Penh.[11] Only with the successful Vietnamese invasion did the mass killings finally stop.

It is clear from his speeches, from his policies and from his writings that Pol Pot envisioned his revolution in communist terms. He labelled his regime “the Number 1 communist state” for its successes in destroying any vestiges of class-based society (such as the family), beyond even his patrons in Moscow and Beijing (labelled Number 2).[12] His social, political and economic programs all followed the ideological principles of international communism, particularly its Maoist variant. Indeed, shortly before his death, Mao told Pol Pot that “You have a lot of experience. It’s better than ours. We don’t have the right to criticize you … Basically you are right … We have a slogan of equality, but we don’t carry it out.”[13] Mao recognized in Pol Pot’s Cambodia a communism purer even than his own. The cost for that achievement would be the blood of millions.

[1] Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar, but used the name Pol Pot while leading the Khmer Rouge.

[2] David P. Chandler, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), p. 38.

[3] Chandler, 34.

[4] Chandler, pp. 114-115.

[5] Chandler, p. 115.

[6] Kiernan, p. 273.

[7] Boraden Nhem, The Khmer Rouge: Ideology, Militarism, and the Revolution that Consumed a Generation (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), pp. 67-68.

[8] Short, p. 291.

[9] Chandler, p. 129.

[10] Short, p. 299.

[11] Chandler, p. 147.

[12] Kiernan, p. 25.

[13] Short, p. 299.