3 Jun 2017

Text: Corinna / Translation: Miriam & Daniel

#Cambodia (1975-1979) – A country on the bloody path back to Year Zero

When thinking about Cambodia, we think of rice fields, temples, Buddhist monks, beautiful landscapes and a peaceful, quiet life. Unfortunately, Cambodia was everything but peaceful until the end of the 20th century. It was an absolutist country led by the politics of vengeance. Enemies were tortured and punished disproportionately according to the motto ‘a head for an eye’.[1]

Photo: Chi King/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

During the Middle Ages, the country was very rich and influential and owned parts of what is today Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma and China. In the 19th century, Cambodia fell under French rule, until it gained independence in 1954. During its rule, France provoked a nationalist attitude through economic exploitation and political subordination.[2]

#Victims of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in the 1960s and caused great suffering for the population. Despite not officially being at war with Cambodia, the USA bombed the country heavily – with the objective of destroying Vietnamese supply routes. Between 1965 and 1973, the USA dropped an estimated 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia, thereby not only destroying the country’s food sources, but also killing approximately 600,000 people. The USA also supported the overthrow of the Cambodian head of state, Prince Sihanouk. He was succeeded by General Lon Nol, who ruled the country with corruption and authority.[3]

#Khmer Rouge

Due to the war, political instability, blocked institutions and the lack of perspectives for young intellectuals, the country found itself in a political state of emergency. This enabled the communist party ‘Khmer Rouge’ (Red Khmers) to gain support and popularity and, finally, to attain power in 1975.[4] The Khmer Rouge’s leadership consisted of Pol Pot (often internally referred to as ‘Brother No. 1’), Ta Mok, Nuon Chea (‘Brother No. 2’), Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary (‘Brother No. 3’) and Son Sen. Many of them had been students in Paris and brought socialistic and nationalistic thinking back to their home country.[5]

Photo: Tomoaki INABA/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


Ideologically, the Khmer Rouge based their policies on Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. They developed a hatred against so-called enemies of the state; ‘enemy’ became a blanket term, which was readily applied to the group’s opposition – including those who were against the revolution or were part of a specific socio-economic class. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted rich people, the lower middle class, experts (especially foreigners), academics, intellectuals and everybody who cooperated with the USA. This meant that the vast majority of the urban population was targeted. Even ethnic minorities (Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham Muslims) and religious people who didn’t believe in the Khmer Rouge’s pseudo religion were persecuted.[6]

They were racist, nationalistic and admired the peasantry and its ‘primitivism’. The Khmer Rouge viewed the farmers as protectors of the true and the pure against the urban population. Despite idolising the farmers, none of the party officials came from a farming background – Pol Pot and his officials studied in Paris. They dreamed of Cambodia’s old governance, a strong country that could subsist self-sufficiently; a country without property, a free market or money.[7]

#Year Zero

The Khmer Rouge introduced Year Zero through violence, and changed the country’s name to ‘Democratic Kampuchea’. Their aim was to build an agricultural utopia; a society without a middle class, intellectuals or technology, where everyone should work to meet their own basic needs and nothing else. Cambodia was to become a classless country; all foreigners were expelled, embassies closed and any form of international aid with regard to food and medicine was rejected.

Foreign languages, money and religion were prohibited; and newspapers, broadcasting stations, shops, churches, mosques and schools were closed. Education was nearly completely stopped and the health system was abolished. Capitalism, Western culture and its influences were to be eliminated completely, thereby cleansing the society. Cambodia’s entire past and traditions were to be destroyed.[8]

#Eviction of the cities

In order to achieve their goals, the Khmer Rouge began their so-called ‘Urbicide’ in 1975: the destruction of cities as places of physical, social and cultural melting pots.[9]

They gained full control on the 17th April 1975, and evacuated the capital of Phnom Penh entirely under the pretext of a planned American air strike, pretending to want to bring them to safety. They deported all 2 million inhabitants to the countryside on foot, approximately 20,000 of whom died on the way. The same pattern was repeated in almost all cities. This way ‘without damage to a single building, whole cities were destroyed.’.[10]

‘We walked for days, then weeks. Pregnant women gave birth under trees by the road. Old people died from exhaustion and lack of water. […] I saw two men with their hands tied behind their backs. Soldiers were questioning them on the side of the road. The soldiers cut off the men’s heads […].’[11]

Photo: Damien @ Flickr/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Old and new people

The Cambodian people were split into ‘old’ and ‘new’ people. ‘Old’ people were all those who lived in the countryside – they were viewed as the only true and pure people. They formed the basis of the Khmer Revolution. Those who had been deported from the cities were the ‘new’ people. The Khmer Rouge gave the farmers preferential treatment, giving them more food and easier chores. The townsfolk were subjected to hard labour in the fields and were completely suppressed.[12] Family ties were broken – it was not allowed to show feelings for anybody else. Teenagers and young children were taken away from their families and put into work groups.[13]

The entire population was forced to work in fields from 4am until 10pm. During the day, there were only two short breaks. Each person was given 180g of rice to eat every other day. Despite being close to starvation, they were not allowed to eat the fruit and rice they were harvesting.[14] People died of exhaustion, illnesses, starvation or were either executed or tortured to death. It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed between 1.7 and 1.9 million of the 8 million Cambodians during their 4 years of rule. They killed roughly a quarter of the total population, making it one of the deadliest genocides in history.[15] Ethnic minorities were nearly eliminated entirely. They killed 68,000 of the 70,000 Buddhist monks, and the Vietnamese minority of 20,000 people was completely eradicated. Half of the Chinese (215,000), a third of the Cham (90,000), Thai (8,000) and Lao (4,000) died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.[16]

‘There were no laws. If they wanted us to walk, we walked; to sit, we sat; to eat, we ate. And still they killed us. It was just that if they wanted to kill us, they would take us off and kill us.’ – Cham Villager[17]

#Tuol Sleng S-21 Torture Centre

During this time, an old school in Phnom Penh was converted into a prison and torture centre. Between 17,000 and 20,000 people were tortured and forced to make a false confession. Fewer than 10 people survived their imprisonment.

The S-21’s commander-in-chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as ‘Comrade Duch’ or ‘Comrade Deuch’, phrased it as follows:

‘I, and everybody else who worked there, knew that everybody who came there had to be destroyed psychologically and eliminated throughout work. Nobody had the chance of an exit. No answer could prevent death. Nobody who came to us had a chance to save himself.‘[18]

To avoid the possibility of somebody seeking vengeance in the future, entire families were brought to S-21 at once. Laughing, talking, crying or any other form of communication were prohibited and disobedience was severely punished. The methods of torture included simulated drowning, being hanged by the extremities, and inserting acid into the victims’ nose. The group of victims consisted of men, women, children, diplomats, students, public officials, officers, foreigners, Buddhist monks and intellectuals, as well as disloyal members of the Khmer Rouge. All those who survived the torture were brought to the Killing Fields.[19]

Photo: Allie_Caulfield/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Killing Fields

The so-called Killing fields are roughly 300 fields on which up to 200,000 people were killed, true to Pol Pot’s motto: ‘what is rotten must be removed’. The most famous field is Chœung Ek, located near Phnom Penh, where approximately 17,000 people were killed. In order to save ammunition, the victims were slain with axes, iron or bamboo rods, or suffocated with plastic bags. Another common practice was slitting the victims’ throats. Children were often hit against trees or walls until they were dead, or thrown into the air and speared with a bayonet.[20]

‘[…] we saw hands sticking up from the surface, and swollen corpses floating a bit farther on; severed heads and hands were oiled up on the bank.… There were dozens of corpses strewn every which way at the water’s edge, and a stomach-turning stench.’[21]

The dead were thrown into open mass graves. ‘The bodies lay in open pits, rotting under the sun and monsoon rains.’ Even today, heavy rain occasionally uncovers victims’ bones and clothes. Those findings are then collected and brought to a stupa, a sort of memorial, embedded into the Killing Fields.[22]

#End of the genocide

After a long period of international inaction, in spite of the enactment of a genocide convention, Vietnamese troops finally entered Cambodia on the 25th December 1978. Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge fell on the 07th January 1979. Cambodia was put under Vietnamese occupation for 11 years and a shadow government of Khmer Rouge defectors was set up. Pol Pot was deprived of his power, and fled to Thailand from where he fought a guerrilla war against Cambodia for roughly 17 years. He lost that war and all his power within the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s and died in Thailand in 1998, without having been brought to trial or prison.[23]

Photo: istolethetv/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Justice for the victims?

After decades of impunity, the ‘Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’ (ECCC) started their work in 2007. The ECCC is a Cambodian court supported by the UN. This special court has jurisdiction over the former rulers of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ and all those accused of being responsible for the violations of national and international law between the 17th April 1975 and the 06th January 1979. Until today, the court has opened 4 cases.[24]

#Case 1: Kaing Guek Eav, known as ‘Comrade Duch’, former commissioner-in-chief of the S-21 torture centre, was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, he was found guilty on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2013 and sentenced for life.[25]

#Case 2: In this trial, the following people were charged:

#Khieu Samphan, former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea

#Nuon Chea, ‘Brother No.2’, former chairman of the national assembly of Democratic Kampuchea and vice minister of the Khmer Rouge

#Ieng Sary, ‘Brother No. 3’, former foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea

#Ieng Thirith, former social minister of Democratic Kampuchea

Due to his death in 2013, Ieng Sary’s trial was discontinued. His wife Ieng Thirith’s trial was first suspended for health reasons in 2011. That decision was, however, overturned by the Supreme Court chamber and a new court order to assess her mental health was issued. In 2012, Ieng Thirith remained unfit for trial due to her severe case of Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 2015 without having been held accountable for her crimes. [26]

According to the Website of the ECCC the other two accused were given a life sentence on charges of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and genocide against the Muslim Cham and the Vietnamese.[27]

It is viewed as an insult to the victims that only the genocide against these two groups is being prosecuted by the ECCC, since 90% of the victims were of Cambodian origin. However, the murder of political groups is not viewed as a genocide according to the Genocide Convention.

‘This is no longer a legitimate court. It’s a sham. It does such a disservice to Cambodian victims and international justice in general.’ – U.S. -trained human rights lawyer Theary Seng whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge.[28]

#Case 3: In this case the following individuals were investigated:

#Sou Met’s case was suspended following his death in 2014.[29]

#Meas Muth was initially charged in absentia. In December 2015 he appeared in person before the international Co-Investigating Judge and was charged with[30] genocide, crimes against humanity, grave Breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and homicide. The case is still under investigation.[31]

#Case 4: This case is still under investigation. Thus far, no persons have been charged and the identity of the three suspects remains confidential. However, it is known that the following two people are charged:[32]

#Ao An is charged with premeditated homicide and crimes against humanity in 2015. Additionally, he was charged in 2016 with genocide of the Cham and crimes against humanity. The case is still under investigation.[33]

#Yim Tith is charged with genocide of the Khmer Krom, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and premeditated homicide. The case is still under investigation.[34]



# Buch, H.C. (1998) „Sorry, very sorry“. Available at: http://www.zeit.de/1999/10/199910.khmer.neu_.xml (as of 08.01.15).

# Campbell, C. (2014) „Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trials are a shocking Failure“, on Time.com Available at: http://time.com/6997/cambodias-khmer-rouge-trials-are-a-shocking-failure/ (as of 08.01.15).

# CNN (2010) A timeline of the Khmer Rouge Regime and its aftermath. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/07/25/cambodia.khmer.rouge.timeline/ (as of 08.01.15).

# ECCC (2014 a) „Introduction“. Available at: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/about-eccc/introduction (as of 08.01.15).

# ECCC (2014 b) „Case 1“. Available at: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/case/topic/1 (as of 08.01.15).

# ECCC (2014 c) „Case 2“. Available at: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/case/topic/2 (as of 08.01.15).

# ECCC (2014 d) „Case 3“. Available at: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/case/topic/286 (as of 08.01.15).

# ECCC (2014 e) „Case 4“. Available at: http://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/case/topic/98 (as of 08.01.15).

#ECCC (2014 f) „Charged Person: Meas Muth“. Available at: https://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/charged-person/meas-muth (as of 03.06.17).

# ECCC (2014 g) „ Charged Person: Ao An“. Available at: https://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/charged-person/ao-an (as of 03.06.17).

# ECCC (2014 h) „ Charged Person: Yim Tith“. Available at: https://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/charged-person/yim-tith (as of 03.06.17).

# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.

# Kloth, H.M. (2008) „Kambodschas Killing Fields – Interview mit einem Massenmörder“, Spiegel Online. Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/kambodschas-killing-fields-a-946633.html (as of 08.01.15).

# Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the Contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.

# The History Place (1999) „Genocide in the 20th Century – Pol Pot in Cambodia 1975- 1979“. Available at: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/pol-pot.htm (as of 08.01.15).

# Weitz, E. D. (2003) A Century of Genocide – Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[1]Jones (2010) pp. 283
[2]Jones (2010) pp. 284
[3]Jones (2010) pp. 288 / Spencer (2012) pp. 66
[4]Jones (2010) pp. 288 / Spencer (2012) pp. 66
[5]Spencer (2012) pp. 69
[6]Jones (2010) pp. 284
[7]Jones (2010) pp. 288- 289
[8]The History Place (1999)
[9]Jones (2010) pp. 291
[10]Jones (2010) pp. 291- 292
[11]Spencer (2012) pp. 67
[12]Jones (2010) pp. 292
[13]Weitz (2003) pp. 151
[14]The History Place (1999)
[15]Jones (2010) pp. 293- 294
[16]Spencer (2012) pp. 69
[17]Jones (2010) pp. 293
[18]Kloth, H.M. (2008)
[19] Buch, H.C. (1998)
[20]Jones (2010) pp. 297
[21]Jones (2010) pp. 295
[22]Jones (2010) pp. 297
[23]The History Place (1999)
[24]ECCC (2014 a)
[25]ECCC (2014 b)
[26]ECCC (2014 c)
[27]ECCC (2014 c)
[28]Campbell, C. (2014)
[29] ECCC (2014 d)
[30] ECCC (2014 d)
[31] ECCC (2014 f)
[32] ECCC (2014 e)
[33] ECCC (2014 g)
[34] ECCC (2014 h)

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