Cambodia and an abominable Pol Pot era

Millions of people living in Cambodia were killed during the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Their bodies were buried in mass graves that became known as “killing fields.” The phrase later became the title of a movie about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, The Killing Fields.

by Anwar A. Khan

Genocide has become the identity of Cambodia. Cambodian politics and many historians now believe that a U.S. bombing campaign in their country drove many rural Cambodians into the arms of the radical ideology. On April 17, 1975, two years after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, Phnom Penh fell to Khmer Rouge troops and U.S.-supported government forces surrendered.

Pol Pot
Forty years ago, Pol Pot’s brutal regime in Cambodia fell from power, but it left behind lasting scars. If Pol Pot regime is responsible for mass murdering of the Cambodians, America’s Nixon government is also equally responsible for the blood-bath of Cambodian people.

Pol Pot was a political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. One detention centre, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. Some historians regard the Pol Pot regime as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history.

Lawyers like, Pich Ang, described the Khmer Rouge as "one of the most heinous regimes histories has ever known".

Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, was born in 1925 in the small village of Prek Sbauv, located about 100 miles north of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. His family was relatively affluent and owned some 50 acres of rice paddy, or roughly 10 times the national average.

In 1934, Pol Pot moved to Phnom Penh, where he spent a year at a Buddhist monastery before attending a French Catholic primary school. His Cambodian education continued until 1949, when he went to Paris on a scholarship. While there, he studied radio technology and became active in communist circles.

Millions of people living in Cambodia were killed during the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Their bodies were buried in mass graves that became known as “killing fields.” The phrase later became the title of a movie about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, The Killing Fields.

When Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in January 1953, the whole region was revolting against French colonial rule. Cambodia officially gained its independence from France later that year. He, meanwhile, joined the proto-communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which had been set up in 1951 under the auspices of the North Vietnamese. From 1956 to 1963, Pol Pot taught history, geography and French literature at a private school while simultaneously plotting a revolution.

In 1960, Pol Pot helped to reorganise the KPRP into a party that specifically espoused Marxism-Leninism. Three years later, following a clampdown on communist activity, he and other party leaders moved deep into the countryside of northern Cambodia, encamping at first with a group of Viet Cong.

Pol Pot, who had begun to emerge as Cambodian party chief, and the newly formed Khmer Rouge guerilla army, launched a national uprising in 1968. Their revolution started off slowly, though they were able to gain a foothold in the sparsely populated northeast.

In March 1970, General Lon Nol initiated a military coup while Cambodia’s hereditary leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was out of the country. A civil war then broke out in which Prince Norodom allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, and Lon Nol received the backing of the United States.

Both the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s troops purportedly committed mass atrocities. At the same time, about 70,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers stormed across the Vietnam-Cambodian border to fight North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops who had taken sanctuary in Cambodia.

The-then U.S. President Richard M. Nixon also ordered a secret bombing campaign as part of the Vietnam War. Over the span of four years, U.S. planes dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, more than three times the amount dropped on Japan during World War II. Look at temerity of the U.S. government and this is irremissibly a colossal crime under any settings.

The body of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot lies in state in a shack in a village near the Thai-Cambodian border on April 16, 1998, after he allegedly suffered a heart attack. AFP
By the time the U.S. bombing campaign ended in August 1973, the number of Khmer Rouge troops had increased exponentially, and they now controlled approximately three-quarters of Cambodia’s territory. Soon after, they began shelling Phnom Penh with rockets and artillery.

A final assault of the refugee-filled capital started in January 1975, with the Khmer Rouge bombarding the airport and blockading river crossings. It is publicised that a U.S. airlift of supplies failed to prevent thousands of children from starving. This was also not true. In fact, the U.S. government deliberately pushed those innocent children to die of starvation under the cloak of humanity. Simply, this outrageous for people who know American government’s colossal crimes since 1929. Can you pardon them? The answer is very simple – no, no and no only.

Finally, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the city, winning the civil war and ending the fighting. About half a million Cambodians had died during the civil war, yet the worst was still to come.

Almost immediately after taking power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2.5 million residents. Former civil servants, doctors, teachers and other professionals were stripped of their possessions and forced to toil in the fields as part of a re-education process. Where was the humanity then?

Those that complained about the work concealed their rations or broke rules were usually tortured in a detention centres, such as, the infamous S-21, and then killed. During the Cambodian genocide, the bones of millions of people who died from malnutrition, overwork or inadequate health care also filled up mass graves across the country.

Under Pol Pot, the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life. Money, private property, jewelry, gambling, most reading materials and religion were outlawed; agriculture was collectivised; children were taken from their homes and forced into the military; and strict rules governing sexual relations, vocabulary and clothing were laid down.

The Khmer Rouge, which renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, even insisted on realigning rice fields in order to create the symmetrical checkerboard pictured on their coat of arms.

At first, Pol Pot largely governed from behind the scenes. He became prime minister in 1976 after Prince Norodom was forced to resign. By that time, border skirmishes were occurring regularly between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese.
The fighting intensified in 1977, and in December 1978 the Vietnamese sent more than 60,000 troops, along with air and artillery units, across the border. On January 7, 1979, they captured Phnom Penh and forced Pol Pot to flee back into the jungle, where he resumed guerrilla operations.

Throughout the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge received arms from China and political support from the United States, which opposed the decade-long Vietnamese occupation. But the Khmer Rouge’s influence began to decrease following a 1991 ceasefire agreement, and the movement completely collapsed by the end of the decade.

Pol Pot poses with his grandchildren in Anlong Veng in the 1980s. DC-CAM
“It was such an evil regime and it was the worst example of what a government can do,” said prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian at the UN backed war crimes tribunal. “I think this verdict is a very timely and very necessary. The fact that these crimes happened 40 years ago in no way diminishes the impact of this verdict for those who were affected by the crimes, people whose parents were tortured and killed.” Rights groups and campaigners have criticised the pace of the UN backed trial and voiced that justice is not served fully.

In 1997, a Khmer Rouge splinter group captured Pol Pot and placed him under house arrest. He died in his sleep on April 15, 1998, at age 72 due to heart failure. A United Nations-backed tribunal has convicted only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity. But that should not be ended. The remaining kingpins of dreaded crimes committed by the U.S. and Pol Pot governments must be brought to justice.

In short, in the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. How difficult should it be for those Cambodian parents to tell their traumatic stories? And how painful is it to be faced with disbelief? The idea that it might be impossible to pass the story of mass violence even to one’s own children poses further, existential questions. Are we as a human civilisation capable of learning “lessons” from history? And consequently, can we immunise the next generation from human violence and self-destruction?

More than 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia still grapples with Pol Pot and America’s former President Nixon’s brutal legacy.

-The End –

The writer is a political commentator based in Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs.

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