Cambodian Genocide Creates Puzzle

This article is written by Mary Pottanat, Cold Spring Harbor HS, New York; Peta Abdul, St.Hilda's School, Queensland, Australia; and Sokna Chhoeung, Khmer Students and Intellectuals' Association, Cambodia, with assistance from Norbert Klein.

One of the topics on the iearn.hgp teleconference of the Holocaust/Genocide Project is "Genocide: Past and Present." Students and teachers often ask questions about whether there have been other genocides in history. We were contacted by a Cambodian group of students who were willing to help us. From the data that they sent us, and from our own research, we have found out some background to the Cambodian genocide. Following the withdrawal of French troops from Cambodia (Kampuchea) in 1954, a new constitution was written calling for the legislatives to be elected by Cambodia's citizens and for a new prime minister to serve as the head of the government. Because the king would have little to do with the government, King Sihanouk gave up the throne to his father and formed his own political party. He then became the newly formed nation's foreign minister, prime minister, representative to the United nations, and the official head of state by 1960. During the 1960s many young communists, who had been educated in Paris, began a resistance against Sihanouk's rule.

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), labeled the Khmer Rouge by Sihanouk, was formed by these rebels and grew active in the countryside and remote provinces. Cambodians who favored stronger ties with Western Nations formed the other side of the resistance. They were led by General Lon Nol. In the late 1960s, Lon Nol was elected prime minister and the Khmer Rouge grew more active in the countryside threatening Sihanouk's control over the nation. Although Sihanouk disagreed with the Khmer Rouge's principle's, he sided with them against Lon Nol.

However, Lon Nol supporters were able to take control of the nation in 1970. With their power, they abolished the monarchy and declared a new government called the Khmer Republic. However, the Khmer Rouge still held control in the countryside and it began to increase its military troops. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge still held control in the countryside and it began to increase its military troops. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge guerillas, led by Pol Pot (really named Saloth Sar), dominated 60 percent of Cambodia's territory. Pol Pot was determined to rid Cambodia of all the Khmer Rouge's opponents. So with the start of the year 1975, the Khmer Rouge, composed of uneducated farmers, began an all-out war. By April, the Khmer Republic was dissolved.

The nation was renamed Democratic Kampuchea (DK) with Pol Pot as its dictator. Every Khmer Rouge soldier was sworn to obey his orders; if he did not, he was put to death. Military officers and government officials who had been opposed to the Khmer Rouge were killed. Pol Pot also ordered for all cities to be evacuated and for the citizens to work on the farms in order to turn the nation into a self-sufficient agricultural nation. Schools, factories, and hospitals were also closed. The entire urban population was driven out of the cities with whatever possessions they could carry. Only a few light industries were maintained in the otherwise empty cities and towns. Those who resisted littered the street as corpses. A huge number of educated Cambodians who had lived in the cities and practiced a skill or profession including doctors and teachers were also executed. A few of them passed themselves off as uneducated farmers, and thus avoided execution.

"I believe that your research will make a big difference in the world." -- Sokna

Peta Abdul from St. Hilda's School, wrote that "for the next three and one-half years the population was conscripted into agricultural communes where many people died of exhaustion, malnutrition, revolutionary and disciplinary executions." People in Kampuchea lived in continual fear of "angkar," which meant "the organization" or "the system." Under the Khmer Rouge's rule, executions were held daily, and torture centers were filled to capacity. Separate barracks were formed for men and for women on the farms in the countryside, tearing apart families. The Khmer Rouge suppressed religion and forbade the use of money in their quest to regulate its citizens' lives. Thousands of Cambodians died of starvation and disease. Minority groups were persecuted, and Khmer Rouge work gangs held mass executions in the fields. It is estimated that one to three million people died under Pol Pot's rule, from a population of around seven million.

By the mid-1970's, Democratic Kampuchea was closely tied with the People's Republic of China. In support of China, Democratic Kampuchea sent out troops that began to raid villages in Vietnam. By mid-1978, the two nations were engaged in heavy warfare. In December, Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and by January 7, 1979 they had recaptured Phnom Pehn, Cambodia's capital. The Khmer Rouge's forces fled to the Thai border, and the nation was renamed the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

[ Sokna and Norbert's niece ]

Sokna and Norbert's Niece at KSIA

We contacted Sokna Chhoeung at KSIA and asked what they knew about Cambodian genocide. She replied:

"I am a third year student of literature at the University at Phnom Penh and I am working at KSIA. Thanks for your interest on the genocide problem in Cambodia. In Cambodia, genocide took place from April 17, 1975 to January 1, 1979 during the time in which the Cambodian Democratic Regime held power.

"In contrast, some policy analysts have shown that 'The genocide in Cambodia involved the interference of foreigners too.' The program studies past times when Cambodia was under the control of Vietnam which led the Ministry of Education, from 1979-1990, to teach to students that the genocide that happened in Cambodia occurred because China was the head leader of the genocide that happened in Cambodia. China forced the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Democracy) to commit the genocides that took place.

"If we study the Khmer character, we can see that they would not be able to kill their own people, as much as they did, without a foreign force. So now, according to our new understanding we know that the Cambodian genocide really had to have foreign influence in order to force the Khmer Rouge to do it.

"We hope that the Cambodian genocide is a special topic that Cambodia itself should be able to research and study. It is also a special topic that we should study together to look for justice and humanity in the world. I believe that your research will make a big difference in the world. I hope that KSIA will see this information through your project and write about it in our newsletter. Thanks. I hope you have success in your project. Greetings to all of you."

Sokna and KSIA

Massha Ly, an intern with the state of Washington, USA, saw our correspondence and also asked Sokna some questions. Sokna replied:

"I am very happy for your interest in my letter, and that you responded to me about Cambodian genocide. Maybe I thought that foreigners selling weapons to Khmer Rouge was one important element of Genocide. In fact it is not that foreigners forced this but foreigners had sold weapons to Khmer and also, Khmer bought from foreigners.

"On the other hand, I wrote that the Khmer Rouge had killed their own nation due to foreigner influence. The Khmer Rouge had not only its own ideology, but the foreign ideology which had two different ways. One was capitalism and the other was communism. But the Khmer Rouge developed the foreign ideology in their own way.

"During 1940-1980, Cambodia received both ideologies. Due to this, some Khmer leaders held both these ideologies in different ways. The Khmer society met war between the Khmer and its own nation due to these ideologies as these ideologies formed opposing faction groups. This created the genocide in our country. The Khmer Rouge guerilla faction called themselves 'Democratic Cambodia,' but we do not think it was democratic. This group has killed Khmer in order to achieve their own ideology that was different from foreigners. So if we say that the Khmer killed their own nation during Pol Pot's regime, we can see that it is true. According to the above descriptions we can say this: It is not only the Khmer idea but also the ideology related above that caused the genocide in Cambodia."

From Sokna's letters, we can gather that foreigners may have had an influence in the Cambodian genocide. The extent of this influence, however, is still being studied. We have enjoyed learning about each other, and as we gathered information, Norbert sent us pictures of the students and their school. Hopefully, the Cambodian students will be able to research more on this topic. If anyone has additional information or thoughts on the Cambodian genocide, please contact us.

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