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The Khmer Rouge Agrarian Cult

Pol Pot said, "If our people can make Angkor, we can make anything." His victory in 1975 was of "greater significance than the Angkor period." Stalinism and Maoism offered the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) the political means to rival this medieval model and restore the rural tradition of an imagined era when, Pol Pot claimed, "our society used to be good and clean." Maoism reinforced a Khmer Rouge fetish for rural life. In the 1960s, Prince Sihanouk's regime denounced Khmer Rouge rebels for "inciting people to boycott schools and hospitals and leave the towns." Rebels said of Sihanouk, "Let him break the soil like us for once." In his memoirs the former CPK head of state, Khieu Samphan, recalled meeting guerrilla commander Mok in the jungle. His account suggests Samphan was mesmerized by a rural romance.

The Khmer Rouge began a multi-process cleansing of the country to enforce Pol Pot's strong communist and traditional Maoist beliefs. He strove to create an equal, uneducated, farming society out of Cambodia. Pol Pot wanted to conduct his radical experiment to create an equal utopia for all people. Pol Pot began by declaring that the year was the year zero and that the "old society" was to be "purified." Ideas such as capitalism, education, western culture, city life, and religion were to be extinguished in an extreme form of peasant communism. The first step in this purification process was to expel anything foreign.

As it expanded through Cambodia's countryside, the CPK divided Khmer society into "classes." In theory the working class was "the leader," but in practice "the three lower layers of peasants" formed "the base" of the Party's rural revolution. The victorious CPK acknowledged: "Concretely, we did not rely on the forces of the workers. they did not become the vanguard. In concrete fact there were only the peasants." The CPK's main vision remained rural.

Samphan claimed: "The poor and lower middle peasants are content. So are the middle peasants." Pol Pot added: "People from the former poor and lower middle peasant classes are overwhelmingly content . because now they can eat all year round and become middle peasants." That seemed to be the Party's view of the future. It went beyond even Maoism when it announced that the countryside itself, not the urban proletariat, comprised the vanguard of the revolution: "We have evacuated the people from the cities which is our class struggle." In crushing "enemies," CPK cadres resorted to agricultural metaphors such as "pull up the grass, dig up the roots," and proclaimed that victims' corpses would be used for "fertiliser."

Cut off from the outside world, Cambodia then came into a dark era, or year zero society, as all national infrastructures were completely eradicated. Khmer Rouge soldiers stood guard at all times with machine guns ready to shoot. They were only allowed one rest period a day and only got one small tin of rice over two days. The whole country was stricken with people dying of overwork and malnutrition. Ten to fifteen families lived together in small hut-like houses.

The new government sought to restructure Cambodian society completely. Remnants of the old society were abolished and Buddhism suppressed. Agriculture was collectivized, and the surviving part of the industrial base was abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia had neither a currency nor a banking system. The regime controlled every aspect of life and reduced everyone to the level of abject obedience through terror. Torture centers were established, and detailed records were kept of the thousands murdered there. Public executions of those considered unreliable or with links to the previous government were common. Few succeeded in escaping the military patrols and fleeing the country.

Many of those forced to evacuate the cities were resettled in new villages, which lacked food, agricultural implements, and medical care. Many starved before the first harvest, and hunger and malnutrition--bordering on starvation--were constant during those years. Those who resisted or who questioned orders were immediately executed, as were most military and civilian leaders of the former regime who failed to disguise their pasts. The use of foreign language was prohibited. Newspapers and televisions were shut down and any mode of transportation was confiscated. Embassies, libraries, and schools were closed and eliminated. Money was forbidden and all businesses were shut down. Religion and health care were nonexistent; Cambodia was sealed off from the entire world.

In their desire to radically transform Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge emulated both contemporary Communist China and the Khmer "golden age" of the 11th-13th centuries-- both of which utilized irrigation. Canals around China's Yangtze River delta harnessed rainy-season floodwaters, carrying them out to the surrounding lowlands where in the dry season people lifted the water up into their rice fields.12 Historical and archeological documents also indicate a local irrigation system in the twelfth-century Khmer state, possibly storing and distributing water so that rice could be grown year-round, two or more crops per year. The Khmer Rouge set out to build a system of canals, ditches and dikes. Citizens, including the evacuated city-dwellers, were forced to work in the countryside growing rice and building these irrigation works, with rigid work quotas and hard, slavelike conditions.

The Khmer Rouge built irrigation works along the 1-km gridlines of their military maps, ignoring hills, villages, and other topography. It is claimed that some canals actually did more harm than good, disrupting natural water supplies and encouraging erosion. It appears that each district had to dig a certain amount of ditches, whether needed or not. Workers had rigid daily quotas, so that some finished early and some could never finish.22 There were rigid decisions about which varieties of rice were acceptable, diminishing the diversity of varieties which had adapted to local conditions.

There is disagreement whether this sacrifice and coercion even succeeded in irrigating Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge have been criticized for applying inappropriate models from the beginning. In emulating the Chinese system, for example, they ignored the amount of human labor needed to lift the water up to the fields. Where one square kilometer of Yangtze River lowlands may support 1500 laborers, the Mekong uplands may support only 300. Many projects were headed by loyal party leaders with no technical skills. Teachers, technicians, and other skilled (usually urban) professionals were hated by the Khmer Rouge as corrupting urban influences, and many were executed. There were reports of many ditches collapsing when it rained. It is likely that by the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, expertise had improved, but the post-Khmer Rouge government had to devote considerable resources to repairing irrigation works. One official said 80% of the projects had been poorly constructed, though it varied by region.

Cambodia was a major rice-exporting nation in the 1960's during a period of political stabilityfollowing independence from the French in 1953. In MY 1964/65 rice exports exceeded500,000 tons and Cambodia was considered one of the rice bowls of South East Asia. The encouraging production trend of increasing yields and growing area was reversed when the country became embroiled in the war against communism. By 1975, when Phnom Penh, the country's capital, finally fell to the communist Khmer Rouge, the rice-growing area had declined by 77 percent and rice production had decreased 84 percent from the 1970 level. During the Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge) era (1975-1979) the country was further devastated through mass dislocation of the population and persecution of intellectuals and agriculturalists. As a result, Cambodia faced annual rice shortfalls of 100-200,000 tons per annum during the 1980's. Cambodia missed the wave of the green revolution almost totally. In the 1980's, nearly all Cambodian farmers continued to use traditional farming practices as they had for over a thousand years. Pol Pot's policy of dislocating farmers from their homelands also resulted in the loss of many traditional rice varieties.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2012 18:41:13 ZULU