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Cambodia 1975-79 - Year Zero / Killing Fields

Beginning in the late 1960's, and lasting into the early 1970's, the United States unofficially, secretly, and yet, in reality, openly carpet-bombed Cambodia with B-52s. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed throughout Cambodia, in the hope of eradicating the communist guerrillas and their military sanctuaries. The red Khmers or "Khmer Rouge" were pushed farther into the interior and border areas of the country. However, when the United States abandoned the Vietnam effort in 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and cut off the entire country from the world's media.

From 1975 to 1978, Cambodia was governed by ideological pro-Chinese communists known as the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmer"), who gained a reputation for extreme brutality. Over a period of less than four years -- the Khmer Rouge systematically tortured, starved, and eradicated millions of fellow Cambodians. On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, captured the city of Phnom Penh and so took complete control of Cambodia, renaming Cambodia, the Republic of Democratic Kampuchea. It was, they declared, year zero.

Author David Chandler, in A History of Cambodia, says, "The Khmer Rouge period can be divided into four phases. The first lasted from the capture of Phnom Penh in April 1975 until the beginning of 1976, when a constitution was proclaimed and a new wave of migration was set in motion. During this period the peoples only hope for rescue or salvation were the clandestine radio broadcasts out of Phnom Penh. The second phase lasted until September 1976. The prominent activity during this phase was the radical behavior from a mixture of individuals in the new government. The mixture included those who studied in France (Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Sary's wife Ieng Thirith, Hu Nim, Thiounn Thioenn, and Son Sen) and younger militants who had never left Cambodia (Vorn Vet, Khek Pen, and Chhim Samauk). The third phase was marked by additional purges and by a shift toward blaming Cambodia's difficulties and counterrevolutionary activity on Vietnam. The fourth phase of Khmer Rouge activity was marked by a Vietnamese military offensive against Cambodia."

No one was safe, not if you were a Cham Muslim or a Vietnamese, or a Buddhist monks or a city dweller, not if you had a diploma or wore eye glasses, especially those appearing to be educated. All of these people and many others -- along with their families - were murdered.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge thought that educated and "high achieving" members of society were a threat and should be killed. Liquidation of all non-communist leaders began immediately and eventually encompassed not only military and political leaders, but also monks, teachers, people who wore glasses, and anyone else judged to be a "new person" or corrupted by capitalism. The cities were totally emptied of all residents, who then were put to work on agricultural communes. Families were separated according the needs of working units and a deliberate effort was made to replace traditional relationships and structures such as family, village, and Buddhism with absolute obedience to the communist party or Angka. This campaign was lit by the flames of hate and was not suppressed until it had reached virtually everyone.

The regime immediately seized and executed as many Khmer Republic civil servants, police, and military officers as it could find. Evacuees who had been associated with the Lon Nol government had to feign peasant or working-class backgrounds to avoid certain death. One refugee wrote that she and her family, who came from the middle or upper middle class, dyed their city clothes black (like those of peasants) to help them escape detection. In one incident, soon after the fall of Phnom Penh, more than 300 former military officers were told to put on their dress uniforms in order to "meet Sihanouk." Instead, they were taken to a jungle clearing in Batdambang Province and were machine-gunned or clubbed to death. The wives and the children of people with government backgrounds were also killed, apparently to eliminate people who might harbor feelings of revenge toward the regime.

According to refugee accounts, the rate of killing had decreased by the summer of 1975. Some civil servants and educated people were sent to "reeducation centers" and, if they showed "genuine" contrition, were put in forced labor battalions. There were new killings, however, in late 1975 and in early 1976. Many of the victims were educated people, such as schoolteachers. During the entire Democratic Kampuchea period from 1975 to 1978, cadres exercised the power of life and death, especially over "new people," for whom threats of being struck with a pickax or an ax handle and of being "put in a plastic bag" were a part of everyday life. In order to save ammunition, firearms were rarely used.

People were murdered for not working hard, for complaining about living conditions, for collecting or stealing food for their own use, for wearing jewelry, for having sexual relations, for grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or for expressing religious sentiments. Sick people were often eliminated. The killings often, if not usually, occurred without any kind of trial, and they continued, uninterrupted, until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. People who displeased the Angkar, or its local representatives, customarily received a formal warning (kosang) to mend their ways. More than two warnings resulted in being given an "invitation," which meant certain death. In 1977 and 1978 the violence reached a climax as the revolutionaries turned against each other in bloody purges.

As is evident from the accounts of refugees, the greatest causes of death were hunger, disease, and exposure. Many city people could not survive the rigors of life in the countryside, the forced marches, and the hard physical labor. People died from the bites of venomous snakes, drowned in flooded areas during the rainy season, and were killed by wild beasts in jungle areas. Many fell victim to malaria. Others died in the fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1978 and in 1979. Nonetheless, executions accounted for hundreds of thousands of victims and perhaps for as many as 1 million. Western journalists have been shown "killing fields" containing as many as 16,000 bodies.

Estimates of the number of people who perished under the Khmer Rouge vary tremendously. It is likely that hundreds of thousands were brutally executed by the regime. Hundreds of thousands more died of starvation and disease (both under the Khmer Rouge and during the Vietnamese invasion in 1978). Estimates of the dead range from 1 to 3 million, out of a 1975 population estimated at 7.3 million. The most commonly accepted number killed under the Khmer Rouge is two million. Many of these deaths were from hunger, disease, war, torture, and forced work, but there were also mass executions.

A figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the PRK. Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million. Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million dead; the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, who could be expected to give underestimations, cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively. In 1962 the year of the last census taken before Cambodia was engulfed by war, the population of the country was cited at 5.7 million.

Ten years later, in 1972, the population was estimated to have reached 7.1 million. Using Pol Pot's rather modest figure of 800,000 deaths, about 11 percent of the population would have died from unnatural causes between 1975 and 1978. By contrast, Amnesty International's figure would yield a death rate of almost 20 percent of the population; Father Ponchaud's, of approximately 32 percent. The revolution was easily, in proportion to the size of the country's population, the bloodiest in modern Asian history.

The international community stood by and allowed genocide to unfold in Cambodia. One reason the genocide went unstopped for so long was disbelief of a growing tragedy that was claiming the lives of ever-increasing numbers of Cambodians. Reports of atrocities in Cambodia were dismissed as incredible. It was difficult for Europeans and Americans to utter the word "genocide." Eventually US State Department officials called what had happened in Cambodia genocide.

Territorial expansionism accompanied the agrarian cult. The regime launched attacks against all Cambodia's neighbors: Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The cost in Cambodian lives is unknown, but according to Hanoi, the Khmer Rouge killed approximately 30,000 Vietnamese civilians and soldiers in nearly two years of cross-border raids. Pol Pot aimed to "stir up national hatred and class hatred for the aggressive Vietnamese enemy." Attacks into Vietnam would "kill the enemy at will, and the contemptible Vietnamese will surely shriek like monkeys screeching all over the forest." Cambodia declared an expanded maritime frontier, and projected territorial changes in "Lower Cambodia" (Kampuchea Krom), land lost to Vietnam since the early nineteenth century. Many CPK officials announced their goal to "retake Kampuchea Krom."

After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December l978, on 7 January 1979, the revolutionary army of the National Front for Solidarity and Liberation of Cambodia defeated the Khmer Rouge regime and then proclaimed the country as the People's Republic of Kampuchea and later the State of Cambodia in 1989. The end of the Khmer Rouge period was followed by a civil war. The Khmer Rouge became one of the three components of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea that contested the Vietnamese presence and the Hanoi-installed regime of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. That war finally ended in 1998, when the Khmer Rouge political and military structures were dismantled.

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