Episode 18

The Khmer Rouge Part 3 – The Second Dark Age

Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about oppressive regimes that don’t like literature.

Last episode we looked at the young Saloth Sar’s formative years in France, his political writings, and the chaotic situation of Cambodian politics at home, which saw a confusing amount of coups, power grabs, rebellions, and, of course, an ultimately successful push for independence. After which everything was totally fine, the transition was smooth, there was real democracy, zero fighting, and economic stability. Oh, no, wait. I remember now. That’s not what happened. That’s pretty much the opposite of what happened. There were more coups, power grabs, and rebellions.

Two of the most dangerous jobs in the country appear to have been journalist and politician. Sihanouk frequently played whack-a-mole with leftist newspapers, or just… newspapers that said things he didn’t like. Editors were arrested, beaten, and sometimes killed. The same was true for opposition politicians. Sihanouk pushed leftist groups and ideas out of the way, making conditions for opponents increasingly unbearable until they caved, dissolved their parties, and were forced underground.

Deteriorating living conditions in Cambodia caused by Sihanouk’s inept economic policies and the neighbouring war in Vietnam led to increasing unrest, and, eventually, in 1970, there was a coup that ousted Sihanouk from power whilst he was out of the country on his annual vacay.

Oh, yeah, and Saloth Sar became Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. So here’s this episode’s warning: y’all. It’s genocide. I’m trying to hit a balance between doing justice to how horrific things were, without going into meticulous gruesome detail. But if this isn’t something you want to hear, then skip this one and come back next time for the final episode about this topic, which will be about what’s happened to literature in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yeah, I know I said at the start of this topic that it would probably be three episodes, but y’know. Research. It happened.

So let’s get started. Sihanouk was ousted in March of 1970, whilst he was out of the country. He learns about the coup whilst he’s in Beijing and shockingly chooses not to try and return to Cambodia. Instead, he does two things: he allies with the Khmer Rouge, and he founds a government in exile, called the Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea. This would be the banner under which the Khmer Rouge would fight until the end of 1975 (Dy 2007: 19).

One of the first things Lon Nol’s government had done was tell all Vietnamese civilians living in Cambodia that they had 48 hours to leave the country. This could in no way be construed as a reasonable demand, but it pleased most people who weren’t Vietnamese, since, y’know, long history of Vietnam invading them, and decades of various people stoking nationalist sentiments. When the Vietnamese civilians failed to leave, the Cambodian army massacred hundreds of them near Phnom Penh (Chandler 2008: 251). The failure of the Vietnamese to leave also angered many Cambodians, who then joined the army to, y’know. Help the situation along. In a calm, orderly fashion, I’m sure. Over the next few weeks, thousands of members of the Cambodian army were killed or wounded by the far more experienced Vietnamese guerrilla fighters (Chandler 2008: 251).

By early 1973 around 85% of Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (Dy 2007: 12). Between January and August that year, the Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic Government, with the help of the US, dropped an inconceivable amount of bombs on Cambodia, though I can’t tell you exactly what the tonnage was. Dy, Chandler, and Cougill, writing in 2007 state that it was roughly half a million tons of bombs, and that the most current estimates of how many were killed by this bombing was 300,000 people (Dy 2007: 11). But when he wrote Pol Pot’s biography a year later, in 2008, Chandler has revised that estimate to 100,000 tons of bombs, and states that there is no reliable estimate of the death toll (2008: 152).

Whatever the tonnage, and however many the victims, the aid from the US was the only reason that Lon Nol’s government could continue fighting up until 1975 (Dy 2007: 12). But it was also an excellent recruitment tool for the Khmer Rouge: ‘come join us, we’re the ones fighting against the government that just bombed your village’. Lots of people joined them. Many of them were just children at the time.

The bombing had started in 1970, but when the US withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973, it moved it’s aerial attack forces over to Cambodia, and the bombing intensified, and spread across the whole country. In the areas around Phnom Penh, around 3,000 civilians were killed in just three weeks (Kiernan 1990b). The bombs were dropped indiscriminately. One young Air Force captain, Donald Dawson refused to fly any more missions when he learnt that a wedding party had been obliterated by one of the bombings (Kiernan 1990b).

Just as the US had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam, the Viet Minh withdrew its troops from Cambodia. As we know, Cambodians in general had a general suspicion toward the Vietnamese as a whole, due to the long and varied history of being invaded by them. The various communist parties in Cambodia resented them in particular because of the controlling way they were treated by the Viet Minh. And now, the Viet Minh withdrawing from supporting the Khmer Rouge’s revolution was a betrayal.

When the Viet Minh troops withdrew, the leadership of the Khmer Rouge ordered that all those Cambodians who had come back from Vietnam secretly be executed. They were polluted with the taint of the Vietnamese, and couldn’t be trusted (Chandler 2008: 153). This set the precedent for waves of purges that would ultimately lead the party to cannibalise itself.

The fighting continued throughout 1974. By early 1975 the Khmer Rouge had all but surrounded Phnom Penh. They cut off the roads, leaving just the Mekong river as a way in and out of the city. In January the Khmer Rouge mined the Mekong, managing to blow up US ships that were trying to bring in supplies to Phnom Penh. This forced the US to airlift in what military and food supplies they could during February and March, though it’s not enough. By the end of March the airfields were under attack, and back in the US, Congress decided to withdraw aid from Lon Nol’s regime.

Around the same time, Lon Nol left Cambodia, on the pretext of an informal visit to Indonesia and a trip to Hawaii to get medical treatment there. With him, he took a pension of one million dollars awarded to him by the government. No one expected him to return (Chandler 1991: 234). For his crimes, he got to live out the rest of his life in America. He stayed for a few years in Hawaii, then moved to a four-bedroom home in Fullerton, California, where he lived with his wife and several of his nine children. He died of heart failure in 1985, at the age of 72.

On the 17th of April, 1975, Phnom Penh fell. There was a mixed response from the inhabitants of the city. Many crowded into the streets waving pieces of white cloth and welcoming the Khmer Rouge with cheers. The cheering might have represented a sincere hope that this victory would lead to peace, and a leadership that would reach across the aisle and do what was best for the country (Dy 2007: 14). But they waved white cloth because an announcement over the radio warned people that if they didn’t give up their weapons and show a white flag, the Khmer troops would consider this an act of rebellion. In her autobiography Chanrithy Him remembers the frantic scrabble of her family and those around them to find something white to display on their houses as signs of surrender. She recalls how, after making sure they had their own flag, her father went out to make sure all their neighbours had managed to do the same (Chanrithy Him 2000: 56-58) She was nine years old at the time.

Whilst some cheered, others, fearing what would come, hid (Dy 2007: 13). As confirmation of their fears, the Khmer Rouge quickly announced over the radio that high-ranking officials and military leaders from Lon Nol’s regime would be executed (Dy 2007: 13).

The Khmer Rouge rounded up and executed three senior leaders. Lon Nol was long gone, but they executed his brother, who had been a classmate of Sar’s when they were young. They also executed the Prime Minister, Long Boret (sp?), and Nol’s assistant, Prince Sirik Matak.

The US had actually offered to evacuate Matak when they abandoned the city, but Matak declined. He wrote a letter to the embassy is response. It’s short, so I’m going to quote it in full:

I thank you sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me to freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have the sentiment of abandoning a people which have chosen liberty. You have refused us protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed the mistake of believing in Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments. (Dy 2007: 14; Bennet & Cribb 2008: 144)

Turns out that abandoning allies that you’ve been fighting alongside is as American as apple pie. Matak was indeed killed when the Khmer Rouge took the city. His name was top of a list of seven ‘traitors’. Not all of the seven were around to be executed – Lon Nol, obviously, was already out of the country. And so was Son Ngoc Thanh, whose name also appeared on the list.

A few hours after taking the city, Khmer Rouge soldiers began firing their guns in the air, and ordered everyone to evacuate. They claimed that there was a US bombing raid imminent, and that everyone had to leave immediately. They told them not to take their belongings with them, because they would be able to return in a few days. This plan had been agreed in private prior to taking the city, but it was known only to Pol Pot and the very inner circle (Chandler 2008: 257). By this point, Phnom Penh’s population had swollen over the last few years due to the influx of refugees. In 1975, it stood at around 2 million people.

The rationale behind the order for the evacuation isn’t entirely clear. David Chandler suggests a handful of reasons. Firstly, there was a genuine shortage of food in the city. Secondly, the Khmer Rouge considered those who had failed to support the regime as essentially traitors, and in Phnom Penh there were 2 million of them for the regime to try and deal with. Thirdly, they may have been concerned for their own security. Fourthly, Phnom Penh was essentially the epitome of everything they had come to resent through their communist ideology. Forcing people out from the corrupting influence of the city and western culture, and into the countryside – the true heart of Cambodian identity – was an ideological victory. (Chandler 2008: 257)

On top of that, their plans for the future of Cambodia involved an immediate focus on massive rice production so that the excess could be sold to buy technology. So they needed as many people working in the fields as possible.

A survivor, Theeda Mam, who was 15 at the time, gave an account in an interview in 2003 of her memory of the day the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Pehn:

Along the road to get out of the city, we passed by my school. It was completely looted. The library was gone. All those beautiful, colorful books were gone. They were either burned or used for toilet paper. That's because the Khmer Rouge believed that the only way to change things was to erase everything. Their idea was to get rid of the old system, the class system, and to kill anyone who remembered it. Rumor was they wanted to start the society from scratch, age 12 and up. If they could have burned people's brains, they would have. But they couldn't. So they punished everyone who remembered. (Elizondo Griest 2003)

In her biography, written in first person by Joan Dewey Criddle, Theeda Mam recalls the inching progress of the emptying of Phom Penh, and their stay at her brother-in-law’s school:

Inching along Monivong Boulevard, we finally reached Keang’s old school. It had taken us four horrendous days to travel less than two miles. We took shelter in classrooms where Keang had sat for exams. Charred remains of desks littered the tiled floors where refugees cooked rice. The corners of the rooms were used as toilets.

My English school, next door, was a stinking shambles. Windows were smashed, the lovely grounds trampled, trees destroyed. Textbooks had provided fuel and light for squatters. That I could understand, but I could not understand the Khmer Rouge’s wanton burning of books. Stacks of books had simply been tossed out of library windows and set afire. Even the law library was destroyed.

Most books in Phnom Penh’s many libraries were in French. Ever since our independence from colonial rule twenty-two years before, Cambodians had felt resentful of continued French influence. But French was undeniably our second language, the language of the educated. It was the language that made contact with the outside world possible. But it wasn’t just hatred for the French that prompted the Khmer Rouge to burn books; it seemed to be a hatred for any learning. Books written in Cambodian were also tossed to the ravenous flames, and bookstores, newsstands, and stationery shops torched. Rare, priceless volumes in special collections had been eliminated without a second’s thought. Even illiterate peasants, filing past the burning books, were devastated by the senseless destruction. (Criddle & Mam 2010: 30-31)

Another survivor, Someth May, recalls his memories of the evacuation. He was also a child at the time, and his father was a doctor:

I put in my diaries and some of my favourite books: Orwell’s Animal Farm, Eric Williams’s The Wooden Horse, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a French textbook called Mauger and an English grammar. My father seemed to take nothing. He burnt the ledgers in which he had written all his research into popular medicine. (Someth 1986: 106).

As the massive rivers of people trudged out of Phnom Penh, guards at checkpoints along the way searched them for various things. Watches were particular targets of the soldiers, but they also searched for plenty of other now banned objects, particularly those associated with education and learning. Someth May tells us of his encounter at one of these checkpoints:

They went through every single thing, and took all our pens and notebooks away. My bags contained nothing but books. As these fell out, one Khmer Rouge exclaimed, “What are these books about? Whose are they?” His face had hardened. One of the soldiers picked up The Wooden Horse and went through it, page by page, upside down, pretending to read it. I turned to my father and realized he was stuck for words. “They belong to me, comrades,” I replied. “I picked them up along the road because I thought they would be good for rolling cigarettes.” “Well,” said the soldier reading Eric Williams, “there are plenty of banana leaves where you’re going. You don’t need this rubbish.” And he threw The Wooden Horse into a corner of the room, onto a huge pile of photographs and money. (Someth 1986, 113)

Luckily for Someth May, the soldiers couldn’t read, otherwise that copy of Animal Farm might have landed him in far more serious trouble. The Wooden Horse, by the way, is semi-fictionalised account of the author’s escape from a German Prisoners of War camp, Stalag Luft III. The same camp that the famous ‘great escape’ would be made from not long after. Back in the city, François Ponchaud, a French priest, stayed behind at the French Embassy. In his memoir he says:

I personally saw several trucks filled to the roof with books going past the embassy to the north. I also saw the books from the cathedral library burning on the lawn. The Library of the French Far Eastern School a few hundred yards from the embassy was disposed of in the same way on the morning of 5 May, but there was little left of value in it, for the most important volumes had been sent to safety in France. (1978: 49)

The Catholic cathedral, Buddhist and Islamic temples were all destroyed, leading to the loss of the religious texts and statues held within. Those libraries that weren’t ransacked or repurposed were padlocked shut and stood abandoned (Knuth 2006: 128).

Books weren’t the only targets, of course. The soldiers of the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything associated with Western culture. Along with the books, Ponchaud talks of furniture, TVs, fridges, and other kitchen appliances being transported to a huge bonfire. The evacuation of the cities was devastating. Every survivor account recalls seeing dead bodies left and decaying along the roadsides as they slowly made their way out of the cities. They talk about women dying in childbirth along the sides of the roads. They talk about people being detained at checkpoints then lead away, out of sight, followed by the sound of shooting. They talk about families separated, and turned away or even shot if they tried to turn back to try and find their loved ones.

One of the people who died in the evacuation of Phnom Penh was Saloth Chhay, Pol Pot’s brother – the journal editor (Chandler 1999: 104).

Purges of those who were educated – teachers, doctors, and government workers – continued in the following weeks, as those evacuated from the city were slowly moved around the country.

Here are another few extracts from Theeda Mam’s account of the period immediately after the eviction from Phnom Penh:

Two and a half weeks after eviction, a call was issued for men in certain categories to return to Phnom Penh to begin the reconstruction. Those encouraged to volunteer included former government leaders, military officers, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, educators, and professional men, and skilled workmen such as engineers, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. Families of these men were to remain in the temporary camps a little longer

Two days later, a Voice of America broadcast reported that eighty-five government officials had just been executed. We learned much later that bodies of thousands who answered the call to rebuild were stacked in public buildings such as Toul Sleng High School. They had been tricked to their own executions. After the men had left, allegedly to restore Phnom Penh, portable loudspeakers blared the awful truth – there would be no return to the city for us. “Leave!” they ordered. “Go find a place in the villages… Cities are evil; technology is evil; money and trade are evil…’

In the new Cambodia, the officers loudly boasted, there would be no modern means of communication. No mail service or telephones. No newspapers. No border crossings. No trains, cars, buses, or planes. The evil ways of the Western world were outlawed, all ties to the past abolished. This was a new era – Year Zero.

Not many occupations would be needed. No merchants, no bankers, no teachers, lawyers, or civil servants, no doctors, dentists, or dressmakers trained in the corrupt ways of the west. No railroad engineers, pedicab drivers, cooks, waiters, maids – not even truck drivers or housewives. These people had been leeches on society, consuming the harvest of the true labourer. (37-39)

The Khmer Rouge held the city dwellers in contempt. They were referred to as ‘the new people’ and were treated as inferiors. Which is obviously how things are supposed to work under communism. Survivors remember being told ‘to keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss’. They were seen as entirely expendable. They were contaminated with French imperial and colonial ideas, and notions from Western culture. From the technology they used to their level of education – all counted against them.

But it wasn’t just the urban dwellers that were held in contempt by the Khmer Rouge.

Education and urban lifestyles went against their concepts of what a Khmer person should be, because, y’know. Communism. But something else that’s not big and popular in most communist ideologies is the whole ‘religion’ thing. Opiate of the masses and all that. However, in Cambodia, the overwhelming majority of the country was Buddhist. It was integral to society. Many children received their only education at the temples of Buddhist monks. The intellectual groups of the Sangha were an important cultural and political force.

When Lon Nol’s coup ousted Sihanouk, members of the Sangha and the monks were split. Buddhism had been associated with the monarchy for centuries in Cambodia, so it made sense that many would support Sihanouk, and thus encourage support for revolutionary movement (Harris 2013: 21).

Others, however, supported Lon Nol, and argued that Buddhism is more compatible with democracy – after all, the Buddha had turned his back on the life of a prince to pursue that of a recluse (Harris 2013: 23). Amusingly, that was an argument Pol Pot had used back in his first writing, ‘Monarchy of Democracy?’. Now, of course, Pol Pot’s group are allied with Sihanouk, and the Khmer Rouge are happy to accept support from the monks in preaching their cause to the masses.

In a statement in 1970, the revolutionaries claimed that Buddhism was fundamental to the future of Cambodia, and that all religions were to be protected under their regime. They would all be guaranteed their freedom (Harris 2013: 18). Just to reassure everyone, when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, they actually enshrine the right to freedom of religion in article 20 of their new constitution (Harris 2013: 50). They did, however, also demote Buddhism from the position of official state religion, and banned any of the oracle or prophecy nonsense stuff (Harris 2013: 50). Also, in a conference in May the previous year, the leaders had shared with the party an eight-point program, which included defrocking the monks and forcing them to labour growing rice alongside everyone else. It also planned for the complete dismantling of the sangha (Harris 2013: 119).

Normally defrocking would have been a religious matter: it’s something that happened within the confines of the religion – it would be senior monks and leaders of the wats who defrocked those who had broken the tenets of Buddhism. It was not an external affair. Remember the whole march that happened because the government arrested Hem Chieu and didn’t let him complete the necessary ritual for leaving the temple? Yeah, like that. But the Khmer Rouge made the monks disrobe and join the forced labourers in the fields.

Between October and December of 1975 the Khmer Rouge had the vast majority of those monasteries that had survived American’s bombing campaign and remained open closed (Harris 2013: 103). In several instances books and manuscripts stored in various pagodas, wats, and monasteries, was deliberately destroyed, but a lot of the damage was done during the bombing in the 1970-75 period. Under the Khmer Rouge religious buildings were repurposed to serve as prisons, interrogation centres, and torture centres. Which meant that texts would just be discarded or thrown out to make way for other things – the end result was the same, of course, but it wasn’t a deliberate targeting of the Buddhist literature so much as a total failure to care about it, or… about fellow humans.

Buddhism was one thing. Belonging to minority religions and ethnicities was much worse. To belong to a minority ethnicity marked you as not ‘true’ Khmer. Every minority group in Cambodia was unwanted and unwelcome.

One of those minority groups was the Cham Muslims. And there’s one particular Cham community I want to tell you about: the village of Koh Phal – the ‘Island of Harvest’.

Koh Phal had been under Khmer control since at least 1973, but up until 1975, efforts to control them had been… well. Someone would come into the village, tell them they had to change x, y, or z, and they would refuse. Then they would be left alone for a while. Later, a representative of the Khmer Rouge would return, and tell them other things they had to change. They would ignore these orders, and the Khmer Rouge would just disappear again.

But this changed in in 1975. Now, the details of what exactly happened have been reconstructed from survivor accounts. Ysa Osman interviewed survivors and collected their testimonies, and his book, The Cham Rebellion gives the fullest account of what happened. There are some contradictions between the accounts, which is not surprising given that Ysa Osman was conducting these interviews between 1999 and 2001, and these events happened back in 1975. But the differences are largely exactly what you’d expect in terms of the reliability of any witness account – they differ over how many people were killed at what point, and what the names of some of the people killed in specific events were. The core details remain the same. Given his world expertise in the subject, I’m going to trust the accuracy of the core events he’s reconstructed.

In September 1975, on the tenth day of Ramadan, officials from the Khmer Rouge arrived in Koh Phal and convened a meeting in the village’s mosque, declaring everyone had to attend. Despite this, around 30 villagers chose not to attend, and instead hid out, preparing to resist, should worst come to worst (Ysa 2006: 55).

The meeting began at 1.00 pm. The district chairman ridiculed Islam in his speech, and announced two things to the villagers. First, 40 village elders and religious leaders would be removed from the village. Secondly, the village was going to have to follow a five-point plan. Women were going to be forbidden from covering their heads, and were required to cut their hair short; the villagers would have to raise pigs and eat pork; places of worship were to be closed and no more canonical prayers would be held; in all future marriages, the villagers would be required to marry someone who was non-Muslim; finally, all copies of the Koran were to be rounded up and burned (Ysa 2006: 55). It goes without saying that all of these things were deeply offensive to the villagers of Koh Phal.

As a deliberate slight, the officials dragged the meeting on for hours, forcing the villagers to miss late afternoon worship. The meeting was still going on at 6.00 pm – the time at which the fasting villagers should have been eating their fast-breaking meal, and performing ritual ablutions before the twilight prayer (Ysa 2006: 55).

Eventually someone interrupted the meeting and made the call to prayer, and the villagers filed out of the mosque to prepare. Outside, the 30 men who had hidden approached the meeting site. The Khmer Rouge official called the meeting to a halt, and left the village with his men. The next week, the official sent a messenger to the village to summon the 40 village elders and religious leaders, and to collect the villagers’ Korans. He leaves alone, and empty handed (Ysa 2006: 55).

In the wake of these events, the villagers decided that, should the Khmer Rouge return, they would have to fight. They prepared their weapons – swords, knives, and axes. A week later the Khmer Rouge attacked two young men who had been tending cattle in the fields. They killed one and captured the other, releasing him a week later to return to the village with a message: the Khmer Rouge would return in a few days to destroy the village (Ysa 2006: 56).

A few days later, the Khmer Rouge surrounded the village with troops and artillery. A few villagers who went out to scout the situation under the pretext of tending their fields were sent back with another message from the Khmer Rouge: the village would be destroyed that afternoon.

But the Khmer Rouge did not strike that afternoon. After nightfall, they sent a boat up to the village, broadcasting a message that the villagers should surrender and join the revolutionary organization. None do (Ysa 2006: 56).

The next morning, a boat full of armed soldiers docked near the village. Six villagers charged them, but all were shot and killed. The soldiers then advanced toward the village, encountering another group of ten men. They killed all bar one of them. But after this, they stopped. They didn’t enter the village. They didn’t have their support yet – their backup was being held up by having to advance through thick bamboo groves. The soldiers returned to their boat, and left (Ysa 2006: 56).

The villagers took the opportunity to retrieve the bodies of the dead, and bury them. Then they dug four large grave pits in preparation for further losses. The next day the Khmer Rouge bombarded the village with artillery fire. Buildings burned. Homes, schools, and the Mosque were all destroyed. Hundreds of Cham defenders died as they tried to attack the Khmer troops. But they had knives and swords. The Khmer Rouge had guns (Ysa 2006: 56).

The Khmer Rouge retreated for the night, and renewed their assault the next day. By the afternoon, they had entered the village.

In an interview with Ysa, survivor Smam At described what he (?) remembered:

On the fifth day, the Khmer Rouge raided the village once again. Beginning at dawn, the ground quaked with the reverberations of artillery. Automatic fire from boats raked the river banks. The fighting this day was ghastly since the attackers penetrated into the village and shot people indiscriminately. The defenders still would not surrender. I continued to carry out my task of recovering and burying bodies. Under a milkwood tree on a spot of higher ground near Talib’s house, I found so many villagers lying dead and wounded that I could not carry them all. A slope running down to the river nearby the dock flowed with blood, so much that the river water nearby ran red. On this day I was only able to bury forty-six out of the hundreds of bodies that were scattered on the battlefield. At sundown some villagers dropped their knives and swords and just swam for their lives. (Ysa 2006: 68)

The Khmer Rouge fired at everyone – men, women, children, the elders, the sick: they gunned them all down. Those that were left saw that the fight was hopeless. Some hid in the village and on the island, others fled in boats, and others swam (Ysa 2006: 57).

Those that remained were found and rounded up. They were divided into four groups, and sent to different villages. Malaria was rife in all of the villages. Around three months later about a third of the survivors were moved to a different province. Of those left behind in the villages, nearly all died. In two of the villages there were no reported survivors. All had died of disease or starvation (Ysa 2006: 57).

According to eyewitnesses who had been near the village at the time, the Khmer Rouge burnt it to the ground after they had captured it. They renamed it Koh Pheh – ‘the Island of Ashes’. Today, there are 49 mass graves surrounding the site where the village stood. Ysa put the number of dead from the assault on the village at around 1,000 people, with 900 evacuees (Ysa 2006: 57).

When one survivor, Res Tort returned in 1980, he reported that in total, only 183 people had survived.

I should note that in some of the eyewitness accounts, the survivors reported that the Korans were collected and burned before the village was attacked (Ysa 2006: 64, 66, 67), but in the events as Ysa reconstructs them, the villagers never gave up their Korans.

Similar, or equally horrific events happened in other Cham villages. In the village of Svay Khleang, 600 people returned after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, out of a previous population of over 6,000. Twenty-five years later, when they ploughed the land, villagers were still discovering prayers books, copies of the Koran that had been buried to hide them, and the remains of those killed (Ysa 2006: 81).

The Khmer Rouge took power on the 17th of April, 1975. Their reign lasted three years, eight months, and twenty days. With their reign, they declared that 2,000 years of Cambodian history had come to an end.

Estimates are frequently hard to make, but maybe as many as 400,000 died directly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds of thousands of others died from starvation, overwork, disease, and neglect (Chandler 2008: 259).

Over the next two years the citizens evacuated from the cities were forced to work in miserable conditions, for ten to twelve hours a day, every month of the year (Chandler 2008: 264). They were ordered to hack back the forest, a hotbed for malaria, in order to make way for rice fields, canals, dams, and villages. Tens of thousands of people died following these orders. Western medicine was banned, leading to innumerable deaths from curable conditions (Chandler 2008: 265). Their deaths did not bother the Khmer Rouge (Chandler 1999: 117).

Pol Pot’s plans for Cambodia’s future depended on huge, successful rice yields, but they did not appear. The harvest was much lower than expected, and most people in the northwest of the country were significantly malnourished by the end of 1976. Food that should have been designated for their own consumption was instead designated as surplus.

In 1977 the harvest was still much lower than expected, and thousands more died of starvation. Illness and malnutrition took its toll on the ability of the people to work (Chandler 1999: 117). Rations were reduced further still in 1978 (Chandler 2008: 273).

In the city, Sihanouk had been invited to return back in July of 1975. He presided over cabinet meetings, but wasn’t allowed to speak himself. A few weeks later, the Khmer Rouge sent him to take up Cambodia’s seat at the UN (Dy 2007: 20).

In January of 1976, a new constitution had been announced. It guaranteed no human rights, and effectively abolished private property, organized religion, and family-oriented agricultural production (Chandler 2008: 261). In March 1976 National Assembly elections were held. Pol Pot was elected as a representative of the ‘rubber workers in the eastern zone’ (Chandler 2008: 262). The ‘new people’ - those who hadn’t participated in the revolution and had been forced from the cities were not allowed to be nominated, or to vote (Chandler 2008: 262). The assembly met only once, when it approved the new constitution.

In a meeting held at the end of March, the central committee decided that it was time for Sihanouk to ‘retire’. He was still very popular with the people, so executing him would be unwise. But as far as Pol Pot and his committee were concerned, he had outlived his usefulness (Chandler 1991: 264) By April he was under house arrest at the palace. An announcement was made that a monument would be erected in his honour, and that he would be paid an annual pension of $8,000. Neither of these things happened (Chandler 1991: 264). Sihanouk stayed under house arrest at the palace until January of 1979, when he was sent to the UN on a diplomatic mission (Chandler 2008: 261).

For the next year and a half, Pol Pot and his central committee operated in secret, known only to the people as ‘Ankgar’. Finally, in September of 1977, in a five hour speech recorded for Phnom Penh radio, Pol Pot finally revealed the existence of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Chandler 2008: 270).

Even before the Khmer Rouge had come to power, they had already begun purging their ranks. The quiet assassinations in 1973 of those Cambodians who had been trained by the Viet Minh wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of an escalating series of purges. In September of 1976, even before the existence of the party had been announced, the party secretary of the Northeastern Zone, Ney Saran, was arrested. A few days later, Keo Meas – the guy who had been the public chairman of the Pracheachon group – was also arrested. Both men were sent to Tuol Sleng, a former high school in Phnom Penh that was now being used as… hell on earth I guess. Think Abu Ghraib.

It was known as S-21. It was used as a prison and interrogation centre. And yes, ‘interrogation’ involves an awful lot of torture. When the Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted, archives of over 4,000 “confessions” were discovered in S-21. Probably around 14,000 people – men, women, and children, were taken to S-21 (Chandler 1999: 123). If you were arrested, your family would be arrested too. Anyone who knew you would be under suspicion. And all it took to land you under suspicion in the first place was your name being mentioned in the confessions of three other people. Of course, when “confessions” are extracted under extreme duress, people tend to say whatever they think will make the torture stop.

4,000 confessions were discovered in S-21 when the liberators took Phnom Penh, but the people who made them were gone. Of the 14,000 that were taken to S-21, all but a handful were interrogated, tortured, and put to death. Instead of finding prisoners they could free, the troops who entered S-21 found the bodies of the regime’s final victims still tied down to the bed frames on which they had been tortured and killed (Chandler 1999: 126).

Over the course of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid that people within the party were CIA agents, or plotting against him, or working with the Vietnamese. The confessions extracted at S-21 only fuelled that feeling. In the earlier period the purges tended to focus on members who were former Lon Nol soldiers, or who had been educated in North Vietnam (excluding Pol Pot, of course). The crisis caused by the particularly low rice yields in the northern parts of the country was blamed on enemies within the party working against the common cause, and the soldiers and officers from those areas were assassinated (Chandler 1999: 129). In time, the purges spread to other areas of the country, and within the party’s higher echelons, it spread to those who had been educated abroad, or had been educated at all. Groups which should have included Pol Pot and Ieng Sary and many high-ranking members of the party who had been students in France around the same time as Pol Pot. But when are ideological tyrants ever consistent? Again, the numbers are hard to estimate accurately, but maybe a many as 100,000 people were put to death in these purges (Chandler 1999: 133). Just as with S-21, if you disappointed the party, your family might very well share your fate.

The cannibalisation of the party makes it clear how unstable the regime was. Increasingly, Pol Pot focused on Vietnam as a source of potential enemies within the party, and as a threat to the country. By 1977 hostility towards Vietnam was a key part of ‘study sessions’ held by the party (Chandler 1999: 133).

The hostility toward Vietnam was also, ultimately, the largest factor in the fall of the Khmer Rouge’s regime. Right from the start of the regime there had been periodic attacks on Vietnam by the Khmer Rouge (Dy 2007: 59). The offensive ramped up in mid 1977, and in December, in response to attacks and incursions from the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam launched an incursion that managed to get 20 kilometres across the border and into Cambodia. In response, the Khmer Rouge broke off diplomatic relations with Vietnam, stating that they wouldn’t engage in any negotiations until Vietnam had withdrawn its troops from Cambodia. When the Vietnamese forces withdrew, they took thousands of prisoners with them (Dy 2007: 59). Instead of negotiating with the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese instead decide to start training Cambodians to oppose the regime and encourage rebellion. They formed a new group to act as an opposition party that could be installed once Pol Pot was ousted: The United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea (Dy 2007: 60).

Vietnam launched a major assault at the very end of 1978, and on the 7th of January they captured Phnom Penh. The rule of the Khmer Rouge was over. But the Khmer Rouge didn’t just disappear. The leaders of the party had fled the city before the invading forces had reached it. They set themselves up along the Thai border and continued to be political and military players for the next decade. In August of 1996, Ieng Sary defected to the Royal Government, followed by other party leaders including Nuon Chea. Pol Pot died in 1998, and the only remaining leader was captured a year later.

In an obvious sense, all genocides are also cultural genocides. A people and their culture are inextricably linked. But the Khmer Rouge also specifically targeted Cambodian culture. As Rebecca Knuth puts it, the Khmer Rouge ‘took Cambodian society to the brink of cultural annihilation in attempts to purify it’ (Knuth 2006: 121). They targeted educated people, and those who could educate, and the tools by which they could educate.

By the end of the reign of the Khmer Rouge there were no printing presses left in the country. A 1997 estimate suggests around 95% of Cambodian journalists were killed under the Khmer Rouge’s regime (Knuth 2006: 129). Libraries were destroyed, books were burned, discarded, or used to light fires, roll cigarettes or as toilet paper. There was no place for them in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The man who had earned a scholarship to study in France, and then presented as a teacher in Phnom Penh whilst organising his party, made sure that the opportunities that were available to him were never available to anyone else. Around 2 million people died during the decade of the 1970s, the vast majority of them during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The total population of the country had been just under 8 million. As Rebecca Knuth grimly observes, ‘Ultimately, conditions were created in which the physical obliteration of texts became unnecessary: there was no one left to read them’. (Knuth 2006: 121).

That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please subscribe on whatever podcatcher you’re using. Rate and review the show, especially on iTunes.

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You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that sometimes covers really awful topics that should never be forgotten.

The voice in your ears has been: pretty sad whilst doing a lot of this research.


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