Martin Shaw

The Cambodian genocide 1977-79

Draft for  Slaughter: From War to Genocide

The Cambodian regime of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot 'probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history.' Its genocide was the most comprehensive of all modern mass killings, in the extent to which it touched all sections of the population within a given territory.

Both regime and genocide were inextricable from war. Pol Pot's Communist Party of Kampuchea (as it called the country) was the apotheosis of the tradition of militarized revolution that began with Mao Zedong. In China, the kind of Communist regime this movement produced was responsible for the genocidal massacres of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). In North Korea, a regime of this kind still presided over an extensive state-made famine at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Khmer Rouge seized power from a pro-American regime in 1975. It had created power bases in rural Cambodia, fighting in uneasy tandem with the Vietnamese Communists. The United States under Nixon and Kissinger invaded Cambodia after 1970, bombing relentlessly and killing up to 150,000 civilians: 'Although it was indigenous, Pol Pot's revolution would not have won power without US economic and military destabilization of Cambodia.'

Pol Pot's regime used the political-military organization through which it came to power to reconstruct Cambodian society. It fostered extreme racism against ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities. It 'cleansed' the cities: 'We evacuated the people from the cities which is our class struggle.' It destroyed religion, land-ownership and the family in the countryside. It enforced 'communal eating' and a barrack-like existence for virtually all Cambodians. In a state of total control by Angkar, the organization, peasants 'could only "curse inwardly". But their families remained uppermost in their minds. Surviving family units, physically separated, were emotionally preserved.'

As Pol Pot's Centre provoked border war, it became ever more engaged in violent struggle with Vietnamese forces, with sections of its movement and in the slaughter of the people. This was a multi-pronged genocide: in the 'killing fields', peasants ('base people' in the regime's terminology) were increasingly slaughtered alongside city ('new people') and minorities. Despite ethnic and class targeting, huge numbers of Cambodians of all groups died: an estimated 1.6 million people, one fifth of the population.

Pol Pot's regime ended as it began in war. But although responsible for this most appalling genocide of modern times, its overthrow by the Vietnamese army in 1979 was welcomed neither by the West nor by China. The movement carried on guerrilla war against the new government, with active backing from China. It retained the Cambodian seat at the UN throughout the 1980s - with the support of the administrations of Reagan in the US and Thatcher in Britain.

After the end of the Cold War, a UN intervention in Cambodia legitimized a government still led by the Vietnamese-installed Hun Sen. Only in the late 1990s were the remnants of the Khmer Rouge finally defeated. But Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar) died in his bed in 1999, before he could be brought to local or international justice.

Key text: Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, London: 1996. Quotes from pages 464, 16, 64, 215