• Dave McGuire

Khmer Rouge's Anti-Capitalist Revolt

The Clarksvillian

The Marxist-Maoist Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975, until early 1979.

The party's aim was to establish a classless communist state based on a rural agrarian economy and a complete rejection of the free market and capitalism.

Emptying Cambodian cities was only the beginning of The Khmer Rouge’s brutal attempt to dismantle virtually every element of traditional Cambodian society. The regime launched a massive assault on centuries-old traditions, religion and heritage, denouncing them all as a hindrance to the establishment of the utopian classless society. Each part of the historical Cambodian culture was deemed oppressive, thus needing to be eliminated for the sake of future peace. The culture impact even involved the removal of artworks, mostly destroyed or sold internationally, and replaced with more fitting state approved messages.

The Khmer Rouge arrested and killed thousands of the previous government's employees, including soldiers, politicians, and bureaucrats, who they considered being "impure people". This phrase, as used by the Khmer Rouge, meant those who were not fit or capable of building the agrarian state they had set out to establish. Many were held in prisons to be interrogated, tortured, and finally executed. The most infamous of these prisons, S-21, held approximately 14k prisoners during the peak of their reign - about 12 survived.

The better question may be, "what did the KR not try to destroy?" Below is a small list of subjects they tried to eliminate completely, include:

Religion - Religion was outlawed with the impact of primarily falling onto Buddhist and Muslim worshipers. Each was forced to disrobe from traditional clothing, and senior spiritual leaders were often killed. Buddhism was the dominant religion, but this also signaled how all other forms of faiths or religions would be treated. As an example to their communities, Buddhist monks were labeled as economic parasites and opportunities - their temples being seized and converted into other uses for the state.

Family - in the Khmer Rouge, the ‘Angka’ or ‘commune’ became your family. Children were separated from their parents, married couples separated and remarried according to the whims of the leadership within ‘Angka’

Business - Money was outlawed. There were no shops or markets, and all food was grown for the ‘Angka.’ Typically, the general population received rice in tiny amounts. KR members were afforded greater quantities, depending upon their roles in government.

Infrastructure - Phnom Penh was the envy of SE Asia prior to the Khmer Rouge. Once ‘Year Zero’ was declared, the city was emptied. In their brief time in power, the city was left to waste. Overgrowth took over, piping corroded, flooding left unchecked. Besides Phnom Penh, roads were not maintained, and railroad track was ripped out for the metal.

Mentality - KR left a scar over the Cambodian people remains clear today. Most of the citizens never received mental health or psychological care for their treatments and many carry memories that remain repressed. As one could expect, hesitation in trust and paranoia is widespread to this day among Cambodians.

Development - in Pol Pot’s regime, all intellectuals and foreigners were eliminated: doctors, lawyers, governmental workers, merchants, teachers, and many others. If you spoke French or English, you were also likely to be killed. Ethnically, if you were Chinese Khmer, Vietnamese Khmer or Cham, you would be killed. Even those who wore glasses were viewed as inferior and eliminated. As expected, all non-KR propaganda schools were closed which resulted in a substantial reduction of education being spread throughout the country.

Population - The Maoist KR did not believe in modern medicine and applied traditional ‘medicine men’ to treat easily curable diseases. Many of these illnesses were simply caused by fatigue, overwork, and/or a lack of nutrition. Those who could not work were killed; starvation was also common.

Propaganda - Children were put into schools teaching strictly Maoist ideology and doing good for the Angka. They often treated children better than adults and encouraged them to turn against their own parents. Military training and indoctrination were common for children in the same ways other communist nations have traditionally attempted to program society. These children were brainwashed and sometimes the cause of their own parent’s execution, by alerting the Angka leaders of an escape attempt, eating or even hiding extra food.

Individuality of all types was strictly forbidden in Cambodia. Men and women alike were forced into wearing shapeless black clothing, peasant garb that became a national uniform. There was to be no distinguishing of class, intellect, or family.

One aim of the Khmer Rouge targeted was the complete elimination of the traditional family. Meals were often taken communally to reduce the emphasis on family. Children were often separated from parents and placed into labor brigades traveling from place to place to join community work projects. The state even began forcing a forbidden approach to showing the slightest affection, humor, or pity, while being encouraged to inform on one another’s activities.

The middle class, the educated, the religious, people associated with the previous government, and ethnic or national minorities—all were targeted as enemies of the state. Though the new order was "classless", each region was divided into two groups: “base people,” who had joined the movement early and were deemed loyal and worthy of rewards, and “new people,” who had come from the cities in 1975 and were to be despised and persecuted.

After years of tyranny and oppression, The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. That same year, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and Ieng Sary, a member of his inner circle, were tried in absentia by the PRK government for their crimes during Democratic Kampuchea. They were found guilty of genocide, but there were no sentences given. The Khmer Rouge were in power for less than four years, but during that time between 1-3 million Cambodians died, accounting for nearly a quarter of the national population.

Today Cambodians continue to place blame for the country’s problems squarely on the Khmer Rouge period, which is viewed as a major oversimplification by historians worldwide. But there is no denying this period had a profound effect on Cambodia’s culture and it’s people with the psychological damage resonating for generations to come.