Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 2001: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was a former high school, converted into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng appropriately means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” and was just one of at least 150 execution centers in Cambodia at the time- as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed here. Yesterday- April 17th 2015- marks 40 years since the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and emptied the city of the approximately 2 million people, to work and die in the countryside. If you haven’t seen it already, the best introduction to the Cambodian genocide is the 1984 film The Killing Fields – a brave film that brought the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia to the World.
The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, murderous revolutionary group intent on revolutionizing Cambodian society. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh. Khmer Rouge soldiers, young peasants from the provinces, mostly uneducated teenage boys who had never been in a city before, swept through the city. They set to their job right away, evacuating Phnom Penh and forcing all of its residents to leave behind all their belongings and march towards the countryside. “Hospital patients still in their white gowns stumbled along carrying their IV bottles. Screaming children ran in desperate search for their parents.
Although the Khmer Rouge movement was small at first, new people were constantly being recruited. Many Cambodians had become disenchanted with western democracy due to the huge loss of Cambodian lives that resulted from the US strategy to involve Cambodia in the Vietnam War. The heavy U.S. bombardment, and Lon Nol’s collaboration with the US, drove new recruits to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerilla movement. Pol Pot’s communism brought with it images of new hope and national tranquility for Cambodia. By 1975, Pol Pot’s force had grown to over 700,000 men. Within days of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Phen, Pol began implementing his extremist policies of collectivization. The government confiscated and took control of all property including schools, hospitals, various other societal institutions, and communal labor.
The Khmer Rouge emptied every city and town, marching the urban population into the countryside. Nearly everyone in Cambodia was herded into labor camps, where they were compelled to live in primitive conditions and work twelve hours a day at exhausting manual labor. Cambodia’s new rulers regarded city dwellers as ideologically suspect, terming them “new people,” sending many of them to their deaths. Those who showed signs of having had an education were murdered outright. Ethnic minorities such as the Cham and Vietnamese were systematically exterminated or driven away.
The insane concept behind ‘Year Zero’ is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it- starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before ‘Year Zero’ is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will ideally be purged and replaced from the ground up. The educated and religious, teachers, artists, and intellectuals were especially singled out and executed during the purges accompanying ‘Year Zero’.
Led by Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar) between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed between one and a half to three million people- but incredibly no one really knows how many people were murdered. The KR policies of forced relocation of the population from urban centres, torture, mass executions, use of forced labor, and malnutrition led to the deaths of an estimated 25 percent of the total population. The genocide was ended by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
The KR goal of purifying the people is similar to the goals of Nazi Germany, in attempting to create a “master race”; as one KR leader said, it was the “purification of the populace”. On 2 January 2001 the Cambodian government passed legislation to try a limited number of the KR leadership. Trials began on 17 February 2009. On 7 August 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted and received life sentences for crimes against humanity during the genocide.
On 19 September 2007 Nuon Chea, AKA, ‘Brother Number Two’ was arrested, and later arraigned before the ECCC. At the end of the trial in 2013 he denied all charges, stating that he had not given orders “to mistreat or kill people to deprive them of food or commit any genocide.” Ieng Thirith was arrested on 12 November 2007 at the same time as her husband, Ieng Sary. She was indicted on 10 September 2010, for crimes against humanity and genocide. On 17 November 2011, following evaluations from medical experts, she was found to be unfit to stand trial due to a mental condition. Khieu Samphan was arrested on 19 November 2007 and charged with crimes against humanity. In 2014 Samphan and Chea, were given life sentences for crimes against humanity.
The tribunal has been criticised for being slow, as only three people, Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 have been tried and convicted. A few months before committing suicide on 15 April 1998, Pol Pot was interviewed by Nate Thayer. During the interview he stated that he had a clear conscience and denied being responsible for the genocide. Pol Pot asserted that he “came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people”. According to Alex Alvarez, Pol Pot “portrayed himself as a misunderstood and unfairly vilified figure”.
The U.S. government’s secret partnership with the Khmer Rouge grew out of the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon (and Phnom Penh) in 1975, the U.S.-worried by the shift in the Southeast Asian balance of power-turned once again to geopolitical confrontation. It quickly formalized an anti-Vietnamese, anti-Soviet strategic alliance with China, an alliance whose disastrous effects have been most evident in Cambodia. For the U.S. playing the “China card” meant sustaining the Khmer Rouge as a geopolitical counterweight capable of destabilizing the Hun Sen government in Cambodia and its Vietnamese allies.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and drove the Pol Potists from power, Washington took immediate steps to preserve the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla movement. International relief agencies were pressured by the U.S. to provide humanitarian assistance to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who fled into Thailand. For more than a decade, the Khmer Rouge used the refugee camps they occupied as military bases to wage a contra-war in Cambodia. The “West”, China, allies (and the UN) backed the KR in their post-genocide war, whether the public were aware of it or not. We’ll back anyone, even genocidal mass murderers like the Khmer Rouge- so long as they are fighting our enemies- Vietnam, backed by the USSR. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.