Cambodian Genocide

        The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, ending a five year long civil war against the Khmer Republic and beginning the brutal reign of Pol Pot. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Sydney Schanberg, famous for his reporting on the war in Cambodia, told CNN in an interview, “You knew that they [the Khmer Rouge] were different, all I can is that they were dead behind the eyes. It was chilling.” Schanberg was one of only a few foreign journalists who remained after the U.S. evacuated its embassy five days earlier. The Khmer Rouge soon kicked out all the foreigners from their country, including Schanberg, and they were loaded into trucks and deported out of Cambodia. The journalist would later blame the U.S. for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, in an interview with the Oxonian Globalist, saying:

“This is the key thing that nobody wants to remember. The Khmer Rouge at that time in 1970 were an annoying factor of Cambodian life, but they were – I wouldn’t say meaningless – yet not able to overthrow the government and were not motivated enough. And this provided them with a great recruitment tool. They could point to all of this activity against them, and people who were dying, and they would point to the skies to the American planes that were bombing, and say: there’s your enemy…At that time the estimates of their strength were 3-5000 unconnected gangs of guerrillas, no central control. By the end of the war they were 70-100,000, a very different beast. And they had become more brutal as time went on. So I think we gave them the enemy they needed to build themselves and I think that people like Henry Kissinger – who is a master of his own brand of history – he has to know somewhere inside him that he built, that he was an architect of their growth. And that is the truth.”  

Sydney Schanberg (second in line) leaving Cambodia18

        After cleansing the country of all foreigners, the Khmer Rouge embarked on Pol Pot’s vision of Year Zero: creating a new Cambodia. The entire city of Phnom Penh was evacuated, as thousands of inhabitants and refugees helplessly trudged on the dirt roads to their unknown but horrifying destiny. Those who refused to leave, and even hospital patients who couldn’t walk, were shot. The sick and elderly were left to die on the sides of the road. This wasn’t just happening in Phnom Penh, it was happening all over Cambodia. Pol Pot was initiating his plan to return Cambodia to a peasant farming society. All the Cambodians were forced into the countryside where they were imprisoned in labor camps and ordered to work on the farms, under the watch of armed Khmer Rouge soldiers, beginning the Cambodian Genocide. In forcing everyone into the countryside and out of the cities and towns, the Khmer Rouge succeeded in ending class divisions and creating a communist agrarian Cambodia. With a tight control over the entire population, they achieved the goal for Year Zero, having no schools, hospitals, or religion. As Pol Pot explained:

“We are building socialism without a model. We do not wish to copy anyone; we shall use the experience gained in the course of the liberation struggle. There are no schools, faculties or universities in the traditional sense, although they did exist in our country prior to liberation, because we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past. There is no money, no commerce, as the state takes care of provisioning all its citizens. The cities have been resettled, as this is the way things had to be. Some three million town dwellers and peasants were trying to find refuge in the cities from the depredations of war. We evacuated the cities; we resettled the inhabitants in the rural areas where the living conditions could be provided for this segment of the population of new Cambodia. The countryside should be the focus of attention of our revolution, and the people will decide the fate of the cities.”

                 A Khmer Rouge solder in Phnom Penh, 197519                    

The labor camps that Cambodians were sent to later became known as the “Killing Fields”.  Most of the food grown at these fields was grown to feed the Khmer Rouge, leaving little for the thousands, even millions, of working Cambodians. Thousands starved to death or died of disease and many others were executed and brought to Choeung Ek to be buried, sometimes even ordered to dig their own graves. Meanwhile, Pol Pot was working tirelessly to purge the nation of any teachers, professionals, doctors, and intellectuals, or what he considered the “lazy” elite. In doing so, Cambodia completely lost its educated class, which would have devastating long-term effects. At the end of the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror, only 45 out of 450 certified doctors before 1975 survived, and only 7,000 out of 20,000 teachers survived. Schools were eliminated and books were burned; a once peaceful paradise became the most terrifying place on earth.

A labor camp in Cambodia, known as the killing fields20 

To cleanse Cambodia of its intellectual class and his opposition, and also to make use of the now vacant schools, Pol Pot established Security Office 21. This was a prison cell at a high school in Tuol Seng, Phnom Penh. Its purpose was to interrogate, torture, and execute those who opposed the Khmer Rouge. According to them, that was anybody who was skilled or educated. Roughly 150 other jails like these were set up in high schools throughout Cambodia, and approximately half a million Cambodians were brutally tortured and killed in them. Even worse, the Khmer Rouge viciously killed babies of those who were imprisoned, by smashing their heads against trees. They used such torture methods as electric shock, waterboarding, suffocation, and other terrible ways to get people to try to confess to crimes they never committed. Overall, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s radical and brutal leadership, inflicted the worst genocide since the Holocaust on the gentle people of Cambodia, killing approximatley 2 million people in total. The Khmer Rouge finally collapsed in 1979, but the Cambodian people would still suffer the dreadful effects for years to come.

                              A Khmer Rouge jail cell, once a high school in Phnom Penh21  

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