Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

The shadow of Cambodia’s violent past still looms over the Kingdom today

Forty years ago, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, ushering in unprecedented death and destruction. This short but seismic era casts a long shadow over the Kingdom to this day

Sebastian Strangio
April 10, 2015
The shadow of Cambodia’s violent past still looms over the Kingdom today
The fall: Khmer Rouge soldiers collect weapons on the day Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot's forces Photo: Roland Neveu

Pheach Ang heard it from an old Khmer Rouge soldier. To make them talk, prisoners were strung up by the feet inside the temple and dunked headfirst into a large tank of water. The procedure would be repeated until the victim “confessed”. After that, they were taken away and disposed of. When liberation came, bodies were found in pits dug around the main pagoda building. Inside, the walls were covered with bloodstains – stains so stubborn, said Sos Sim, 62, an old woman living nearby, that “they had to spend a week cleaning”.

If the walls at Wat Snguon Pich could talk, they would tell a gruesome tale. For three years, the pagoda just outside Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, served as a Khmer Rouge security centre and prison – one of about 200 that existed under the murderous regime, which ruled the country between 1975 and 1979. Ang, a 67-year-old Buddhist layman, recalled that for years afterward “bones were scattered all around”. A few were held in a dilapidated concrete memorial and then moved to a new memorial stupa in 2010. Local officials estimate that 1,567 people were killed at Wat Snguon Pich under the Khmer Rouge, though the mass graves were never fully exhumed, so there’s no way of really knowing for sure.

Most districts in Cambodia have their own version of Wat Snguon Pich, a school or a temple or a government building where a dark history lives on, unresolved, in the folds of the everyday. In some places, victims and perpetrators still live in close proximity, unreconciled. In this situation, the horrors of the past often go unspoken, leaving younger Cambodians with little to help them come to grips with the madness that gripped their country. “The young generation don’t believe what happened in the Khmer Rouge regime,” Ang said. “Even though they see the skulls and bones, they don’t believe it at all.”

Forty years ago, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and declared 2,000 years of Cambodian history at an end. “The glorious 17th of April”, as the event would be enshrined in the national anthem of Democratic Kampuchea, initiated three years, eight months and 20 days in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives. The Khmer Rouge and its paramount leader, Pol Pot, sought to create an agrarian communist regime of unsurpassed purity. Overnight, social bonds were severed and age-old institutions torn up by the roots.

By the time the regime fell to a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, Cambodia had lost most of its educated class. Cities and towns had to be repopulated nearly from scratch. It was as if the whole country were upturned and shaken violently, leaving behind an atomised human mass – a people so conditioned by the inhuman discipline of Polpotism that they had difficulties grasping the implications of freedom. Robert Carmichael, author of the new book When Clouds Fell from the Sky, said the Khmer Rouge had a massive impact on Cambodia’s subsequent history. “There were so few people left with an education in ’79 when the regime fell, and there’s no doubt that that’s had a huge impact on Cambodia,” he said. “By installing their vision of what they wanted this new country to be, [the Khmer Rouge] deliberately destroyed an alternative vision.”

It’s hard to say what that vision would have produced had the Khmer Rouge not come to power. Like a black hole, Democratic Kampuchea has had an intense distorting effect on what came before and after. In comparison to the nightmare, pre-revolutionary Cambodia is seen by many as a ‘golden age’. Those old enough to remember say that for all its problems, Cambodia under Prince Norodom Sihanouk was self-confident, prosperous and at peace – at least for a time. By the mid-1960s, its per capita GDP was roughly equivalent to that of South Korea. When Singapore’s premier Lee Kuan Yew visited Phnom Penh in 1967, he was impressed by the charming city he found, telling Sihanouk: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.”

Hun Sen, Cambodia
Power player: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office for more than 30 years. Photo: Reuters

Harder still is an assessment of what followed. Under Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled the country in one guise or another since the fall of Pol Pot, the country has come a long way. Infrastructure and human capacity have been replaced, and in some cases exceeded. The last remnants of the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed in the late 1990s, and surviving leaders of the regime are finally on trial at a United Nations-backed court in Phnom Penh. Overall, the country has returned to a semblance of normality, and the economy continues to grow rapidly in an unprecedented period of political stability.

But other reckonings have been more elusive. Ever since the Vietnamese military swept the Khmer Rouge from power on January 7, 1979, understandings of the regime have been hopelessly entangled in the country’s politics. Throughout the 1980s, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, installed in power by the Vietnamese military, battled a Western- and Chinese-backed resistance coalition that included the rehabilitated Khmer Rouge. With a civil war raging, the regime built its legitimacy squarely on the fact that it had overthrown Pol Pot. In the early 1980s it built dozens of local memorials at places like Wat Snguon Pich, politicising the trauma of survivors, who were encouraged to see January 7 – prampi makara – as the existential vector of the Cambodian nation, the date of its “second birth”.

In this scheme, the Khmer Rouge take-over of four decades ago is seen almost in dialectical terms, as an intermediate step between the chaos of the past and the very real achievements of the present. At Wat Snguon Pich I met Tep Ky, a diminutive 60-year-old man wearing a short-sleeved, white shirt over black slacks and flip-flops. A local multi-tasker, Ky combined in his one person the roles of village security chief, CPP member, pagoda committee member and guardian of the memorial stupa. “The 17th of April is a very important day,” he explained. “It’s like a source, like the commencing, of January 7. If we didn’t have the 17th of April, we wouldn’t have the 7th of January.”

Since then, the Khmer Rouge has been central to Hun Sen’s discourse. He has played on survivors’ deep yearning for peace, portraying the CPP as the only thing standing between Cambodia and a return to the abyss. The government has used the Khmer Rouge both as a benchmark for its own achievements and as a way of excusing present problems, including corruption, political violence and destructive patronage politics. In political terms, this strategy has proved remarkably successful. But it has also prevented a proper accounting of either the horrors of the past, or the problems of the present. “To compare any effort to the Khmer Rouge is always glory, because the Khmer Rouge is so dark,” said Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), which researches the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea. “You can have a little candle, and it’s becoming a firework.”

Carmichael agreed: “This government’s been running the country for thirty-something years… If they want accountability they can have it. If they want a proper judiciary they can have it. They just choose not to.”

Today, January 7 remains the basic faultline in Cambodian politics, cleanly dividing those who support the CPP’s long rule from those who oppose it. For one side the event was a liberation; for the other it was an invasion by Vietnam, the historical enemy. Between these two poles, there is no neutral ground. In a speech ahead of this year’s January 7 celebrations, Hun Sen said that anyone who opposed his government could only be pro-Khmer Rouge. “You hate Pol Pot,” he said, “but you oppose the ones who toppled him. What does this mean? It means you are an ally of the Pol Pot regime.”

What it really means is that Cambodians today have little space to discuss the Khmer Rouge with any sense of balance. The history of Democratic Kampuchea wasn’t properly taught in Cambodian schools until 2010, in large part because competing political factions couldn’t agree on how to portray it. The sensitive nature of the issue has also bedevilled efforts to bring surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge to trial.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has notched three convictions since its establishment in 2006, but the government has worked hard to restrict the trials to a handpicked clique of former leaders. (Many current CPP officials were low- and mid-ranking Khmer Rouge officials and, presumably, have fears about what an unfettered trial process might reveal.) “Because the Khmer Rouge affected all of us, it’s become personal,” said Chhang.

For a couple of weeks in October and November, a lone protester by the name of Roeun Kosal maintained a lonely vigil in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. Kosal, who was just five years old when he lost his parents during the evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17, stood with a parasol to protect him from the sun, his hand-drawn placards laid out on the pavement. These made the purpose of his protest clear: the Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, on trial at the ECCC, were nothing more than “plastic killers”. Instead, it was the Vietnamese and the Vietcong who were truly responsible for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. As he explained to the Cambodia Daily: “My main goal is to explain to the national and international communities that Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are not the real perpetrators.”

In Cambodia, the dominance of the official story about the Khmer Rouge has naturally produced a mirror-image version of history, in which Khmer Rouge crimes were not ‘Khmer’ crimes at all, but rather Vietnamese ones. These sorts of beliefs are unsettlingly common. In mid-2013, Kem Sokha, the vice-president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), caused uproar after he argued that S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge torture prison that operated out of a school in Phnom Penh’s southern suburbs, was a fabrication of the Vietnamese. A coffee shop owner near Wat Snguon Pich, who refused to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue, said similarly that he didn’t believe the official version of history. In his mind, “it was all because of Vietnam”. In the absence of history, there is conspiracy theory.

Phnom Penh Skyline
Reach for the sky: looking south from Phnom Penh’s highest building, the Vattanac Capital tower. The city is thriving and rapidly expanding despite having to be repopulated following the Khmer Rouge regime. Photo: Francis Wilmer for SEA Globe

But some hope lies in the fact that Cambodia is changing. With every passing year, the past recedes. Nearly two-thirds of Cambodians today are under the age of 30, and old nightmares no longer exercise the grip they once did. This became evident at the national election in July 2013, when the CPP experienced its biggest electoral setback since 1998 at the hands of a resurgent CNRP. At the forefront of the opposition to Hun Sen were the millions of young people born in the 1990s, for whom the Khmer Rouge has little political relevance next to issues such as jobs, corruption and education.

Youk Chhang said that with the survivors of the Khmer Rouge now entering their 60s and 70s, the people being born today are the first generation who will truly be able to unshackle themselves from history and take Cambodia out of the shadows of the Khmer Rouge.

“People who are now 35 are between the beginning and the end,” he said. “I call them the transitional generation… for the next ten years Cambodia will be in transition, a real transition to something else.” But he said that without properly teaching young people about the Khmer Rouge, one of the darkest episodes in Cambodian history will remain yoked to politics, while its people stay shackled to their past.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said Chhang, quoting the famous line from William Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun. “But you shouldn’t be stopped by it,” he added. “You shouldn’t be the slave of it.”

Read more articles