LIFE UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE
The Khmer Rouge attempted to totally reorganize society and create a new social order based on an ideal peasant scoiety free of class structures and foreign influences. Exceptionally strong and aggressive coercive methods were used in an effort to achieve their goals. Teachers,, merchants, doctors and Muslims were killed. Personal property was banned. Religion, press and all personal freedoms were abolished. Schools and banks were closed. Cities were emptied and people were forced to work on cooperative farms.
Survivor Vichea Sopheak Tieng reported: “In the morning, it was the 17th of April 1975, the day in which the people were being evacuated from the city of Phnom Penh. That morning, the sound of guns could be heard throughout the city of Phnom Penh. There was total confusion and chaos and people running all over the place and in every street. ...When the Khmer Rouge soldiers captured Phnom Penh... it was also like they captured the entire country. This was the day the Khmer Rouge began to evacuate the people from every province and city and forced them all to live in the rural areas and countryside. All 7 million people in Cambodia were transformed into farmers and peasants. The cities and provincial centers became so deserted and silent, one ought to be terrified. Hundreds of thousands of homes remained uninhabited, markets had no traders, roads had no traffic, and cars had no one drive them. At night there were no lights and the city became so dark it became a ghost town. Every family that lived in the cities was forced by Khmer Rouge soldiers to work in the fields in the countryside. This was the time in which husbands and wives, mothers, fathers and their children, and brothers and sisters were all separated from each other. Some large families were even separated from each other since the evacuation. [Source: Vichea Sopheak Tieng,Documentation Center of Cambodia d.dccam.org/Survivors/1 ]
Society under the Angkar
The social transformation wrought by the Khmer Rouge, first, in the areas that they occupied during the war with Lon Nol and, then, in varying degrees, throughout the country, was far more radical than anything attempted by the Russian, Chinese, or Vietnamese revolutions. According to Pol Pot, five classes existed in prerevolutionary Cambodia -- peasants, workers, bourgeoisie, capitalists, and feudalists. Postrevolutionary society, as defined by the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea, consisted of workers, peasants, and "all other Kampuchean working people." No allowance was made for a transitional stage such as China's "New Democracy" in which "patriotic" landlord or bourgeois elements were permitted to play a role in socialist construction. Sihanouk writes that in 1975 he, Khieu Samphan, and Khieu Thirith went to visit Zhou Enlai, who was gravely ill. Zhou warned them not to attempt to achieve communism suddenly by one "great leap forward" without intermediate steps, as China had done with disastrous results in the late 1950s. Khieu Samphan and Khieu Thirith "just smiled an incredulous and superior smile." Khieu Samphan and Son Sen later boasted to Sihanouk that "we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps." New York Times- Library of Congress *]
Although conditions varied from region to region, a situation that was, in part, a reflection of factional divisions that still existed within the KCP during the 1970s, the testimony of refugees reveals that the most salient social division was between the politically suspect "new people," those driven out of the towns after the communist victory, and the more reliable "old people," the poor and lower middle-class peasants who had remained in the countryside. Despite the ideological commitment to radical equality, KCP members and the armed forces constituted a clearly recognizable elite. The working class was a negligible factor because of the evacuation of the urban areas and the idling of most of the country's few factories. The one important working class group in prerevolutionary Cambodia--laborers on large rubber plantations--traditionally had consisted mostly of Vietnamese emigrants and thus was politically suspect. *
The number of people, including refugees, living in the urban areas, on the eve of the communist victory probably was somewhat more than 3 million, in a wartime population that has been estimated at between 5.7 and 7.3 million. As mentioned, despite their rural origins, the refugees were considered "new people"-- that is, people unsympathetic to Democratic Kampuchea. Some doubtless passed as "old people" after returning to their native villages, but the Khmer Rouge seem to have been extremely vigilant in recording and keeping track of the movements of families and of individuals. The lowest unit of social control, the krom (group), consisted of ten to fifteen nuclear families whose activities were closely supervised by a three-person committee. The committee chairman was selected by the KCP. This grass roots leadership was required to note the social origin of each family under its jurisdiction and to report it to persons higher up in the Angkar hierarchy. The number of "new people" may initially have been as high as 2.5 million. *
“New People” and “Old People” Under the Khmer Rouge
Urban residents were called “new people.” The purpose of the evacuation was to purify them by having them live among the “old people “ in “new villages” in the countryside. Once they arrived at their villages they were put to work. Youk Chhang, wrote in Newsweek, Khmer. “The soldiers immediately sent me away to the fields. The village chief told my mom I would be back in three weeks. For the next three years I worked in the fields."
Mardi Seng was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Because Mardi and his family were from the area around the capital, they were labelled as New People. New People could include city dwellers, civil servants, teachers, educated people, French speakers; in other words, those who weren’t poor village peasants or Khmer Rouge cadres (the “Old People”) were classified as New People and thus suspected as traitorous allies of the former Cambodian government. As Mardi tells in his story, being labeled as New People was tantamount to a death sentence for much of his family.[Source: Mardi Seng. www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day]
The "new people" were treated as slave laborers. They were constantly moved, were forced to do the hardest physical labor, and worked in the most inhospitable, fever-ridden parts of the country, such as forests, upland areas, and swamps. "New people" were segregated from "old people," enjoyed little or no privacy, and received the smallest rice rations. When the country experienced food shortages in 1977, the "new people" suffered the most. The medical care available to them was primitive or nonexistent. Families often were separated because people were divided into work brigades according to age and sex and sent to different parts of the country. "New people" were subjected to unending political indoctrination and could be executed without trial. The creation of what amounted to a slave class suggests continuity between the Cambodian revolution and the country's ancient history. Like the Khmer Rouge leadership, the god-kings of Angkor had commanded armies of slaves. Pol Pot boasted in 1977 that "if our people can make Angkor, they can make anything." [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
The situation of the "old people" under Khmer Rouge rule was more ambiguous. Refugee interviews reveal cases in which villagers were treated as harshly as the "new people," enduring forced labor, indoctrination, the separation of children from parents, and executions; however, they were generally allowed to remain in their native villages. Because of their age-old resentment of the urban and rural elites, many of the poorest peasants probably were sympathetic to Khmer Rouge goals. In the early 1980s, visiting Western journalists found that the issue of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge was an extremely sensitive subject that officials of the People's Republic of Kampuchea had little inclination to discuss. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
On the basis of interviews with refugees from different parts of the country as well as other sources, Vickery has argued that there was a wide regional variation in the severity of policies adopted by local Khmer Rouge authorities. Ideology had something to do with the differences, but the availability of food, the level of local development, and the personal qualities of cadres also were important factors. The greatest number of deaths occurred in undeveloped districts, where "new people" were sent to clear land. While conditions were hellish in some localities, they apparently were tolerable in others. Vickery describes the Eastern Zone, which was dominated by pro-Vietnamese cadres, as one in which the extreme policies of the Pol Pot leadership were not adopted (at least until 1978, when the Eastern leadership was liquidated in a bloody purge). Executions were few, "old people" and "new people" were treated largely the same, and food was made available to the entire population. Although the Southwestern Zone was one original center of power of the Khmer Rouge, and cadres administered it with strict discipline, random executions were relatively rare, and "new people" were not persecuted if they had a cooperative attitude. In the Western Zone and in the Northwestern Zone, conditions were harsh. Starvation was widespread in the latter zone because cadres sent rice to Phnom Penh rather than distributed it to the local population. In the Northern Zone and in the Central Zone, there seem to have been more executions than there were victims of starvation. Little reliable information emerged on conditions in the Northeastern Zone, one of the most isolated parts of Cambodia. *
Equality Under the Khmer Rouge
On the surface, society in Democratic Kampuchea was strictly egalitarian. The Khmer language, like many in Southeast Asia, has a complex system of usages to define speakers' rank and social status. These usages were abandoned. People were encouraged to call each other "friend," or "comrade" (in Khmer, mit or met), and to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation. Language was transformed in other ways. The Khmer Rouge invented new terms. People were told they must "forge" (lot dam) a new revolutionary character, that they were the "instruments" (opokar) of the Angkar, and that nostalgia for prerevolutionary times (cchoeu sttak aram, or "memory sickness") could result in their receiving Angkar's "invitation." [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
As in other revolutionary states, however, some people were "more equal" than others. Members and candidate members of the KCP, local-level leaders of poor peasant background who collaborated with the Angkar, and members of the armed forces had a higher standard of living than the rest of the population. Refugees agree that, even during times of severe food shortage, members of the grass-roots elite had adequate, if not luxurious, supplies of food. One refugee wrote that "pretty new bamboo houses" were built for Khmer Rouge cadres along the river in Phnom Penh. According to Craig Etcheson, an authority on Democratic Kampuchea, members of the revolutionary army lived in self-contained colonies, and they had a "distinctive warrior-caste ethos." Armed forces units personally loyal to Pol Pot, known as the "Unconditional Divisions," were a privileged group within the military. *
New Life After the March Out of Phnom Penh
Ten-year-old Mardi Seng reported: “In November of 1975, after walking 90 miles, we arrived at my father's parents' farm in a small village. My grandparents and my mother's three sisters who had left Phnom Penh with us lived in the next village, about two miles from where we lived. On the first day on the farm, my father's youngest sister (my siblings and I did not know any of my father's family; the last time I saw them was when I was four years old) took me and my two brothers to take care our family's water buffaloes. In the field many children came to greet the newcomers. I was impressed with their vocabulary. They were very nice and proper to each other; they addressed each other as ‘ comrade. ’ One boy aske d, ‘Comrade, what is your name?’ ‘ My name is Mardi, ’ I replied. I pointed to my two brothers and said, ‘ these comrades' names are Sina and Lundi.’ They broke down and laughed; we joined them in the laughter but we did not know why. Later that day, my aunt told me that I shoul d not address my siblings as ‘ comrades. ’ I was embarrassed. [Source: Mardi Seng. www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day]
Survivor Samondara Vuthi Ros reported: “My family was evacuated from Phnom Penh with a car full of sacks of clothes, plates, dishes, pots and food. Along National Road 2, hundreds of thousands of people were walking with no real direction. Some families, who had political trends and were not allowed to go to their home towns, were trying to find other ways. Some other families, whose members were policemen or government soldiers known to the Khmer Rouge, were killed along the way. Pregnant women gave birth to babies along the way. After one week on this journey, my family decided to stay temporarily in Kiri Vong District, Ta Keo Province. I didn’t know in which village and sub-district we were staying. The village chief brought my family to live with base people. [Editor’s note: “Base people” was the term generally used by the Khmer Rouge to refer to the peasant farmers of Cambodia.] A month later, the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar in the sub-district proposed to take our car and use it as communal property, removing the wheels, tires and inner tubes for use as sandals. My father was assigned to cut bamboo for making fishing instruments and lattice for flooring. My mother was assigned by the women’s chief of the village to transplant rice seedlings and clear forests for growing vegetables. [Source: Samondara Vuthi Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org^^ ]
My brother and sister were assigned to build dams and dig canals in mobile work sites. My family members were separated from each other from dawn to dusk. At the outset, my family had never known hardship or starvation. My mother tried to pick tree fruits and vegetables for sustenance. My brother and sister had never learned how to forage for crabs or snails. But with circumstances being what they were, they tried to copy from those around them, even though there were rubbish words from some of the “base people” who said mockingly, “You are Phnom Penh dwellers. You know only how to eat, but not how to grow things.” I remember every night my father would sit alone by the light of a lamp in the leaf-roofed house with its bamboo floor, which was about two meters high. My mother slept next to us. She fondled my head with tears, saying softly, “My son, I am very, very tired. From now on you will have to take care of yourself. We will be separated, and we don’t know for sure when bereavement will take place.” After hearing these words, it seemed to me that I was very light and flying far away from my family. I thought: “If I am separated from my parents, how can I survive?”. Then I fell to sleep leaving my mother talking alone. ^^
After living in the village for two months, my family and another ten families were moved to Wat Angkor Thum Loap. Because of the lack of food and medicine, and the forced labor, my father came down with fever. My mother’s feet swelled. My sister suffered a kind of disease characterized by a swollen belly, while my brother became emaciated. In order to cure my sister’s illness, my mother collected her odds and ends to trade for the medicine and the rice of the base people who lived in Wat Angkor Thum Loap Village. My father never let anyone know that he was enduring hardship or pains. After taking the medicines and eating the rice my mother obtained from trade, both my father and sister seemed to improve. Later, I heard the village chief, who had gathered villagers to join a meeting, say, “Angkar has directed that those living here be transferred to another place. This is just a temporary place. You won’t need to bring along with you so many things, because Angkar has already prepared everything for you. Especially, those who once served the Khmer Republic must report to Angkar. Angkar will allow you to work in your original positions and places.” ^^
Everyday Life During the Khmer Rouge Years
Under the Khmer Rouge, everyone was forced to dress alike and everyone was indoctrinated with the same revolutionary dogma. Holidays, dancing, music, courtship and entertainment were all banned. Haircuts and clothing were strictly regulated. Televisions and even fans were destroyed. People weren't allowed to own anything not even a cooking pot. Possessing a clock or calendar was a crime punishable by death.
People were settled by the Angkar (a Khmer Rouge organization) on rural cooperatives that resembled Siberian gulags. They worked dawn to dusk planting rice, digging irrigation ditches, clearing forests and performing other duties. No machines were involved; all the work was done by hand. Some rice paddies were hoed to look like the Khmer Rouge emblem.
Everyday was a workday. One Cambodian told the New Yorker, “We never know the day. We never have Tuesday. Never had Wednesday. We have a kind of saying: Every day we call Monday...We have Monday only, Monday, Monday.” At night “new people” were often forced to criticize each other for things like eating some fruit, a root, or a worm. If someone was criticized two or three times he or she was killed.
Mealtime Under the Khmer Rouge
Mardi Seng reported: “Four months had passed. My siblings and I really enjoyed living on the farm. The sense of peace, tranquility and contentment overwhelmed us. There was no war nor suffering, hunger nor material need. Life was basic and simple. But in life nothing is forever. In March 1976, the hot and dry season began. A dining hall was erected in every village. Angka r ‘ The Organization ’ – what everyone called the Khmer Rouge government) wanted to provide f or all of our needs. This way, people would not have to cook for themselves; equality also could be achieved. But this was also a method of control. [Source: Mardi Seng, www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day /\]
“Since we ate in the dining hall, many things started to change. People worked for longer hours. Young people (ages 15 to 25) worked from five in the morning until midnight. We had less food to eat even though we had just harvested a good crop. We could not walk from one village to another without a permit – not even to the next village. They started to mistreat the ‘ new people ’ (the city people like us). There was worry and fear on the adults' faces. /\
“‘ Bang, bang, bang ’ the dinner bell resounded to break the silence of busy workers. Some men and women, with their eyes squinted and their right hands ove r their foreheads to block out the merciless bright sun, estimated the time of day. The sound of the bell always brought smiles on peoples' faces. The children filed along narrow paths from their homes and strolled innocently toward the dining hall. The adults – all dressed in black, some with straw hats and some with white/red or white/blue checker krama (a native cloth scarf with many uses) – marched t oward the dining hall. The sight was both haunting and dramatic. /\
“In the dining hall, the children sa t at one end of the room because the adults complained that these children had no manners. They would stir up the soup to get the meat and leave nothing for the adults. A group of ten people sat around a table and on each table there was a bowl of soup and a bowl of stir - fry. The soup consisted mostly of vegetables and water. There was no meat. The usual lunch or dinner consisted of two or three chickens for 500 people. At the other corner of the room were the Chinese 'new people.' They always sat and ate together. /\
“In August 1976, the rainy season started. Water covered most of the land. The grass was green; buds sprouted; water vegetation emerged from the fields. The rice patties were teeming with life - frogs and tadpoles, large fish and small on es, herds of water buffaloes and children. The children were responsible for the care of the herd of water buffaloes and bulls. In a field away from the village, while my two buffaloes enjoyed the freshness of vegetation, I chased after a frog . Angka r d id not want us to fish or catch frogs to supplement our diets, but I was hungry. The frog tried to escape and jumped into a newly dug hole. I did not take much notice of the hole then; I was too involved with my potential dinner. I jumped into it after the frog. I got it. Getting the frog out of the hole was not easy because the lip if the hole was over my head. The hole was rectangular in shape – it was about 2.5m x 2m. I was a little curious because I did not remember seeing it there the previous day. /\
Religion and the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge tried to eliminate religion Buddhism. Religion and prayer were banned. Monks were killed or disrobed, or sent to the fields to work as slave laborers, and temples were destroyed, desecrated and even used as death camps. Almost all the Muslims that lived in Cambodia were killed.
Article 20 of the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea guaranteed religious freedom, but it also declared that "all reactionary religions that are detrimental to Democratic Kampuchea and the Kampuchean People are strictly forbidden." About 85 percent of the population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. Before 1975 the Khmer Rouge tolerated the activities of the community of Buddhist monks, or sangha, in the liberated areas in order to win popular support. This changed abruptly after the fall of Phnom Penh. The country's 40,000 to 60,000 Buddhist monks, regarded by the regime as social parasites, were defrocked and forced into labor brigades. Many monks were executed; temples and pagodas were destroyed or turned into storehouses or jails. Images of the Buddha were defaced and dumped into rivers and lakes. People who were discovered praying or expressing religious sentiments in other ways were often killed. The Christian and Muslim communities also were persecuted. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was completely razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as an abomination. Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim leaders were executed. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, monks were expelled forcibly from the wats and were compelled to do manual labor. Article 20 of the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea permitted freedom of religion but banned all reactionary religions, that were "detrimental to the country." The minister of culture stated that Buddhism was incompatible with the revolution and was an instrument of exploitation. Under this regime, to quote the Finnish Inquiry Commission, "The practice of religion was forbidden and the pagodas were systematically destroyed." Observers estimated that 50,000 monks died during the Khmer Rouge regime. The status of Buddhism and of religion in general after the Vietnamese invasion was at least partially similar to its status in pre-Khmer Rouge times. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
Religious affairs are overseen by the PRK's Kampuchean (or Khmer) United Front for National Construction and Defense (KUFNCD), the mass organization that supports the state by organizing women, youths, workers, and religious groups. In 1987 there was only a single Buddhist order because the Thommayut order had not been revived. The organization of the clergy also had been simplified. The sangharaja (primate of the Buddhist clergy) had been replaced by a prathean (chairman). Communities that wanted a wats had to apply to a local front committee for permission. The wat were administered by a committee of the local laity. Private funds paid for the restoration of the wats damaged during the war and the Khmer Rouge era, and they supported the restored wats. Monks were ordained by a hierarchy that has been reconstituted since an initial ordination in September 1979 by a delegation from the Buddhist community in Vietnam. The validity of this ordination continues to be questioned. In general, there are only two to four monks per wat, which is fewer than before 1975. In 1981 about 4,930 monks served in 740 wats in Cambodia. The Buddhist General Assembly reported 7,000 monks in 1,821 active wats a year later. In 1969 by contrast, observers estimated that 53,400 monks and 40,000 novice monks served in more than 3,000 wats. Vickery sums up his observations on the subject by noting that, "The government has kept its promise to allow freedom for traditional Buddhism, but does not actively encourage it." *
Islam is the religion of the Cham (also called Khmer Islam) and Malay minorities. According to Po Dharma, there were 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia as late as 1975. Persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers, however, and by the late 1980s they probably had not regained their former strength. According to Cham sources, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era, many others were desecrated, and Muslims were not allowed to worship.
See the Chams Under Khmer Rouge
Marriage Under the Khmer Rouge
In the Khmer Rouge era, marriage like everything else was forced and controlled by the Khmer Rouge, often with ideological aims in mind. Ugly people were matched up with beautiful people, peasants were joined with urbanites and the illiterate were united with intellectuals in an effort to create a better society. Not surprisingly many of these couples divorced after the Khmer Rouge years were over.
A mother of five told AP that one day when she was 18 she was taken to a barn with 15 boys and 14 other girls. "There was little speech that said, ‘Be good couples together’ and scarves were exchanged,” she said. "That was it. We were married." She said she was matched up with a boy her age. "I don’t remember what I first thought when I saw him in front of me," she said. "All I remember is that I was terrified. I didn't say any anything. You could get killed for that." They lived together for a month, with no time off from work and guards watched over them to make sure the marriage was consummated.
On the marriage of Khmer Rouge survivor Pom Sarun, Joanna R. Munson wrote: “Around April of 1977, Sarun was assigned to marry Choeuth Sarath. She says, "Because I have no children, like that, they select by themselves that we need to marry this, this, who." Before 1975, Sarath was a Lon Nol soldier. He was married to the sister of a Khmer Rouge soldier, and this caused problems. Sarath was imprisoned, but he escaped and came to work in the same cooperative as Sarun. Sarun recalls, "We stay like brother and sister, no love....He and me never touch because I am not happy and very tired." [Source: Story of Pom Sarun told by Joanna R. Munson, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ]
In 1974, Khmer Rouge survivor Mousa Sokha—aka Sun Sokha, a former president of a women’s sub-district association in Democratic Kampuchea (DK) Regime—was married to an ammunition carrier youth, called comrade Noh Loas. Bunsou Sour of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Mentioning about the wedding, she seemed to change her facial expression. She said that she should not marry too young, because she still loved working. She told me, “I regretted for marrying…I've been regret till today…if I had not married, nothing would have happened. As a wife, I had to think about my family—living conditions and the kids—so I spent very little attention to working.” When she was single, there had been many men admiring her beauty, and plenty of them got broken-hearted when she got married. One of them was a youth, called comrade Sen, who had been living in the same village with her. Comrade Sen had been a close friend of comrade Noh Loas. He had climbed up to Sokha's house in the middle of the wedding days and uttered, “I don't care about the wedding, since we are not a predestined couple! However, I'll be waiting for you forever, no matter how many children you have.” “At that time, I was young and bright; I am not proud about this…there were many people in the village, who adored my beauty, even Elder Matt Ly's nephew. His family also proposed to my family for marriage,” she continued. [Source: Bunsou Sour, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org <>]
Sokha married in 1974, at the age of 15, and her husband was 17. Their marriage had been arranged since they were young. The parents of the two sides worked together in the village. Comrade Noh Loas's father was a squad chief, while Sokha's was a village chief. Sokha and her husband had always played together when they were kids. The villagers had always teased them about their relationship. Sokha's mother-in-law had usually said to Sokha's parents, “When they grow up, I'll marry them.” As the strikes had broken out, Sokha had been ordered to go to Po En village, while Comrade Noh Loas to Chymoan village. When both of them had grown up, the elderly of both sides revised their promise. Even though Comrade Noh Loas already had a new fiancée, he broke the engagement with her and married Sokha. Sokha revealed, “The elderly reconsidered our past relationship. My husband was going to marry his fiancée; but most people disapproved of it, so he broke the engagement with her. When his mother inquired him about me, he was silent. So his parents proposed the marriage to my family in a traditional way, and he abandoned his fiancée.” Before married, comrade Noh Loas was studying at grade 7. <>
Under the Khmer Rouge. illicit sex was a crime punishable by death.
Khmer Rouge Wedding
Describing the wedding of Khmer Rouge survivor Mousa Sokha, Bunsou Sour of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Sokha and comrade Noh Loas seemed to be luckier than their fellow villagers, for a month after their wedding a new law was passed banning people from decorating their bodies with imperialists’ jewelry. Sokha recalled, “It was barely a month after my wedding that the new law was put in effect. Even false jewelry was banned. Everything used for bodily decoration was considered as imperialist.” Sokha spoke with laughter that by that time, five to ten couples had already been forced to marry. If a couple rejected each other, they would be summoned for reeducation. Newly married couples were separated. They could meet their spouses once a month, by bribing village chiefs and the women’s unit. [Source: Bunsou Sour, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org<>]
“In her wedding, Sokha had been accompanied by bridesmaids, worn diverse jewelry, like necklaces and rings, but dressed in black clothes with tire sandals. The party was even entertained by performance of the local art club. She remembered that a singer, called comrade Dam Pheng, sang a song entitled Dam Pheng. Dam Pheng was a chief of an art club, in Tnaot sub-district, Ponnea Krek district. He was born in Ba Phnom district, Prey Veng province, into a poor peasant family. In a revolutionary novel (Quoted from various newspapers and magazines) named “The Courage of Kampuchea's Revolutionary Citizens and Army,” from page 34 to 58, described a detailed account of Dam Pheng's biography. He was an outstanding revolutionist of the time. Remarkably, there were published poems composed by him. The poem was written “I caress my delicate, red heart and I make it stronger day-by-day, so that it is ready to serve our priceless revolution and help the poverty-stricken proletariat. And now the time has come; Kampuchean people is in desperate need for it to relieve their suffering.” <>
“About ten days after singing in the wedding, he was imprisoned. A notebook of political study is stored in the Documentation Center. This book described about "different characteristics of revolutionary cultural conservationists and anti-revolution cultural conservationists," and criticized that "these two cultural conservationists were completely distinctive." The former possessed the absolute spirit to struggle against the enemies in order to liberate their nation and people, and class. Whereas the latter cared only about money; they did what they could to get money, although it meant betraying their nation and countrymen. <>
“Only three days after marriage, Sokha was separated from her husband, leaving them with no time to share their new life together, for the reason that Angkar needed more forces to overthrow Phnom Penh. The order letter written to Sokha's husband was "comrade Loas, you have to go to the battlefield." Sokha, then, beseeched the sub-district chief to let her husband stay, but that was a useless effort. In reply, the chief reminded her about her pledge when she requested permission to marry from the authorities "Comrade, you have to devote yourself, for when you came here to fill in the forms to get permission to marry, you promised to us already." Just a night after Sokha's husband had gone, Phnom Penh was captured. So comrade Loas returned to live with Sokha and their first baby was soon born. In 1976, Sokha gave birth to a son. Tragically, just a week later her son died of disease.
Family Life Under the Khmer Rouge
Some of the killings and worst atrocities was carried out by children and teenagers. The children could be trained to do almost anything. One fighter later told Newsweek. “I didn’t know anything I was just as child. If I didn’t obey orders. I would’ve been killed.”
The perfect recruit for the Khmer Rouge was a poor, illiterate teenager who had been subjected to hardships because of the Vietnamese or Americans. In their training, children stabbed scarecrows dressed like Vietnamese soldiers and shouted “I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them!” as they were doing so.
Under the Khmer Rouge, family life was outlawed. Children were separated from their families. Husbands were removed from their wives. People were forced into communal dining halls and barracks, where men and women were segregated and slept in 45 foot collective beds. Children were taught to be killers and were encouraged to inform on their parents. There were bans of love and even laughter. People who disobeyed orders, and children that said they missed their parents and tried to find their families were executed.
Khmer Rouge survivor Kosal Phat of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “I was born on 5 October 1974 in Prasat Village, Kampong Kdey Sub-District, Che Krech District. My native village is part of a region liberated by the Khmer Rouge since 1972. My father was the only son in his family that completed his baccalaureate in Siem Riep Province. Because he loved and missed his parents so much he searched for a way to leave the provincial town that was still under the control of the government and returned to his native village. My father was the son of Khmer peasants and my mother was the daughter of wealthy Chinese who had a stone house and a large business and worked as creditors. [Source: Kosal Phat, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/37 ^^]
“My parents were the very last couple the communist Khmer Rouge forced to marry according to village custom. After they were married, their belongings were removed and placed in the collective. On 17 April 1975, my mother told me that in the village there was a broadcast in the speakers, congratulating the victory over the Lon Nol army and the U.S. imperialists. They said that the entire country had been liberated. My mother told me that everyone in the village was very happy, because our country was no longer at war. We would no longer have to flee or hide in the trenches from the B-52 bombs or the warplanes. ^^
“Not long after that day, even emotional sentiments, belonged to the collective. My father went to raise the dam and plowed the fields. The Khmer Rouge forced my mother to sew clothes in the cooperative. My mother knew how to sew because she was a well-known seamstress in the old regime. My mother’s family was evacuated to work in a cooperative far away because they had light skin. At that time, I was not even one year old. The old grandmothers in the village looked after me. She told me that I drank a lot of milk when she breast-fed me. I drank as if I had stopped breast-feeding for a long time. She was only able to breast-feed me in the evening when she returned from sewing in the cooperative. My mother told me that every day she worked hard at sewing, without rest, in order to fulfill the cooperative quota. It is her luck that she was still young and strong. She was only nineteen years old and she was able to endure the difficult work. She told me that the old grandmothers told her that when I cried, I cried until my jaws became stiff, because I cried for so long. But when I reached my mothers arms I stopped crying immediately. Through my mother’s vivid descriptions, all my senses return to the period 25 years earlier when I witnessed the misery and suffering. I keep thinking that the grandmothers certainly did not take care of me who was screaming for my mother. ^^
“April 17, 1975 was the day in which peace was stolen from my family and it was the day in which I, who was not even one year old, had to sacrifice the love and care of my parents. I did not even have nutritious food to eat. But this is also the day in which I thank my parents for caring for and protecting my life and allowing me to live and for loving me in such a difficult circumstance. I thank especially my mother who was forced to endure so much after she had barely given birth.” ^^
Media Under the Khmer Rouge and Western Media Coverage of Cambodia
Kong Duong was the voice of Khmer Rouge radio. He denounced the U.S., Vietnam and any other groups or countries that leader Pol Pot identified as enemies of the communist revolution. The program director for Khmer Rouge radio said he was in almost daily contact Pol Pot, who personally approved songs and pieces of propaganda that were broadcast. “Being director of Khmer Rouge radio was a very sensitive position,” he said. “There could be no mistakes. If a mistake was made, you had a serious problem... Very serious, Was I afraid? Absolutely. All the time.” The same station still broadcasts today It does not sell advertising.
On attempts by the Western media to cover the dark years in Cambodia, Mark Magnier and Brendan Brady wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Although the Cambodia war received far less attention than its counterpart in neighboring Vietnam, 36 correspondents working for foreign news operations were killed or reported missing during the conflict, compared with 33 in Vietnam, according to the Associated Press. The toll included nine ambushed and killed by the Khmer Rouge on a single day in May 1970. Of the 36 international and Cambodian journalists, photographers and cameramen killed or missing during the period — not counting an untold number of Cambodian freelancers killed by the Khmer Rouge after 1975 — 25 perished in the first six months of combat between Khmer Rouge communists and the government's U.S.-backed forces. Among them was Sean Flynn, a photojournalist and son of Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, who was captured and killed in Cambodia.[Source: Mark Magnier and Brendan Brady, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2010 #]
“Briefings were rather vague in those years, in part because the military spokesmen often had little idea what was really going on in the field. That forced correspondents to head down dangerous roads to find out for themselves, said James Pringle, a former correspondent for Reuters, Newsweek and the Sunday Times of London. #
“For many correspondents working during the Cambodian civil war before the Khmer Rouge takeover, evenings were spent knocking back stiff drinks around the pool of the colonial Le Royal hotel or frequenting Phnom Penh's opium dens to unwind. After a dip in the pool and a meal at one of the city's finer French restaurants, the journalists sometimes capped their evenings with a visit to Madame Chantal's opium den, where diplomats and some of the local elite also congregated, Pringle said "We would take off our clothes and put on a sarong, and we would just lie there and chat," he recalled. "After you had a pipe, the tension would abate and the B-52 strikes that you'd hear in the distance would grow fainter and fainter." #
“Releasing stress was often de rigueur, given that the front lines in the war were even more vague than in Vietnam, the rules of engagement less defined, and there were no U.S. helicopters to extract distressed reporters from harm's way. Many who lived had close calls. "I looked up and could see the bombs falling, and I thought, OK, adios, but they ended up 200 meters beyond me," said Jeff Williams, who worked for the Associated Press and later CBS. #
“At the time of the 1970 right-wing coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk as head of state and led to the civil war, U.S. journalists were barred from Cambodia. Williams sneaked into the country posing as a professor and became the only American to cover the overthrow. "I have an exclusive, and I can't get it out," Williams said. "It took two days to get it out." With telephones and other communication shut down, he eventually arranged for a car to meet him at the border and ferry the film and copy back to a newsroom. #
School and the Khmer Rouge
Under the Khmer Rouge, schools were closed and destroyed and intellectuals were executed. Educators and teachers were subjected to, at the least, suspicion and harsh treatment and, at the worst, execution. Children were regarded as pure and uncorrupted blank slates who were best able to absorb Khmer Rouge dogma. Khmer Rouge "schools" were set up to this end.
Like the radical exponents of the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge regarded traditional education with unalloyed hostility. After the fall of Phnom Penh, they executed thousands of teachers. Those who had been educators prior to 1975 survived by hiding their identities. Aside from teaching basic mathematical skills and literacy, the major goal of the new educational system was to instill revolutionary values in the young. For a regime at war with most of Cambodia's traditional values, this meant that it was necessary to create a gap between the values of the young and the values of the nonrevolutionary old. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
In a manner reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, the regime recruited children to spy on adults. The pliancy of the younger generation made them, in the Angkar's words, the "dictatorial instrument of the party." In 1962 the communists had created a special secret organization, the Alliance of Democratic Khmer Youth, that, in the early 1970s, changed its name to the Alliance of Communist Youth of Kampuchea. Pol Pot considered Alliance alumni as his most loyal and reliable supporters, and used them to gain control of the central and of the regional KCP apparatus. The powerful Khieu Thirith, minister of social action, was responsible for directing the youth movement. *
Hardened young cadres, many little more than twelve years of age, were enthusiastic accomplices in some of the regime's worst atrocities. Sihanouk, who was kept under virtual house arrest in Phnom Penh between 1976 and 1978, wrote in War and Hope that his youthful guards, having been separated from their families and given a thorough indoctrination, were encouraged to play cruel games involving the torture of animals. Having lost parents, siblings, and friends in the war and lacking the Buddhist values of their elders, the Khmer Rouge youth also lacked the inhibitions that would have dampened their zeal for revolutionary terror. *
During the Khmer Rouge years, the great strides made in literacy and in education during the two decades following independence were obliterated systematically. At the beginning of the 1970s, more than 20,000 teachers lived in Cambodia; only about 5,000 of the teachers remained 10 years later. Soviet sources report that 90 percent of all teachers were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Only 50 of the 725 university instructors, 207 of the 2,300 secondary school teachers, and 2,717 of the 21,311 primary school teachers survived. *
The meager educational fare was centered on precepts of the Khmer revolution; young people were rigidly indoctrinated, but literacy was neglected, and an entire generation of Cambodian children grew up illiterate. After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the educational system had to be re-created from almost nothing. Illiteracy had climbed to more than 40 percent, and most young people under the age of 14 lacked any basic education. *
Blackboards at one Khmer Rouge school read: “No stealing. No drunkenness. No prostitution. No marriage outside the commune. No commerce without permission. No contact with outsiders. No listening to any radio station other than that of the Khmer Rouge. Anyone who disobeys the Angkar will be killed." Angkar was a Khmer Rouge organization.
Children were taught the revolution was the only thing that mattered. Some schools taught guerilla warfare techniques to children and instructed them how to make victims “break into convulsions and die.” On the blackboard at one school it was written that contacting outsiders was a crime punishable by death.
Health and Health Care Under the Khmer Rouge
Health facilities in the years 1975 to 1978 were abysmally poor. Many physicians either were executed or were prohibited from practicing. It appears that the party and the armed forces elite had access to Western medicine and to a system of hospitals that offered reasonable treatment but ordinary people, especially "new people," were expected to use traditional plant and herbal remedies that usually were ineffective. Some bartered their rice rations and personal possessions to obtain aspirin and other simple drugs.
Clinics and hospitals had no medicine and no doctors—they had all been shot. Some people were able to treat themselves with medicinal plants they gathered in the forest. Patients were treated by acupuncturists with three days of training. Francios Bizot wrote in The Gate , “I saw an acute era infection treated by pushing a needle several centimeters inside a prisoner’s ear. Anyone who was ill was nevertheless bound to consult them, as evidence of his unshakable trust in the revolution.”
In 1979 according to observer Andrea Panaritis, of the more than 500 physicians practicing in Cambodia before 1975, only 45 remained. In the same year, 728 students returned to the Faculty of Medicine. The faculty, with practically no trained Cambodian instructors available, relied heavily on teachers, advisers, and material aid from Vietnam. Classes were being conducted in both Khmer and French; sophisticated Western techniques and surgical methods were taught alongside traditional Khmer healing methods. After some early resistance, the medical faculty and students seemed to have accepted the importance of preventive medicine and public health. The improvement in health care under the PRK was illustrated by a Soviet report about the hospital in Kampong Spoe. In 1979 it had a staff of three nurses and no doctor. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Getting Sick and Dying in the Khmer Rouge Years
The survivor Sok Sunday reported: “Most distressingly, a few days after the death of my younger sibling, the village chief summoned my father and other new people of about the same age to make biographies. My father told the village chief the truth that he was a former naval captain at Chroy Chanva. Other people also told him exactly about their former occupations. Three months later, my grandfather began to get sick. At first it was minor, but this barbarous regime did not have medical care. He later died. The village chief told us to bury him. We had no coffin to put him in, we had only sleeping mat to wrap his body. In just three months, three people in my family had perished.[Source: from petition was forwarded from the UN’s Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/38 # ]
“Five days passed, my younger (three-year-old) sibling drank unclean water, which caused vomiting and diarrhea. My parents brought my sibling to the sub-district hospital, but as the hospital had no medicine, my younger sibling died soon after being brought back home. Later they evacuated my family to Battambang province by boat. After staying in Ponhea Leu pagoda for two or three days along the way, a few trucks arrived to take evacuees waiting in the pagoda to a train station to Battambang. Because my uncle had paralyzed legs, they said that the journey required some walking after the train journey and no one would be able to carry him a long way. They told us to unload our belongings and stay. We waited many more days for a boat to bring us back to the village we left. In the pagoda, they let us stay in an abandoned, unwalled coffin storehouse with no bed. We slept on the ground and as we looked up we saw scary coffins stored on the attic. #
“Days passed and we were running out of food. We collected plants to make salted rice soup. When the boat arrived, we were all sick, unable to get up, except my grandmother, who at the village took thin rice soup from the cooperative kitchen for us. My crippled uncle and grandmother’s older sister were unable to recover and had serious diarrhea without medicine. They died soon afterward. Before we gained full recovery, unit chiefs called my mother and two uncles to dig a water channel and fetch water for the workers at the work site. The water source was 7 kilometers from the village and we did that everyday. #
“In mid-1978, my two uncles fell ill with knee injuries. The Khmer Rouge accused them of pretending to be sick to avoid working, so they took them, along with other four or five patients, to be killed at Prey Sva pagoda. This pagoda was a large killing field where people of all age groups, male and female, were brought from other provinces and ruthlessly executed. Execution tools consisted of a long knife, a hoe, and a bamboo pole. There were 30 to 40 mass graves containing 20 to 30 bodies each. In around September 1978, as the pagoda was flooded, the bodies swelled, pushing up from under the shallow graves. Dogs tore and ate the rotten flesh. #
Medical Treatment Under the Khmer Rouge
Modern medical practices and pharmaceuticals have been scarce in Cambodia since the early 1970s. The situation deteriorated so badly between 1975 and 1979 that the population had to resort to traditional remedies. A Cambodian refugee described a hospital in Batdambang Province in the early days of the Khmer Rouge regime: "...the sick were thrown into a big room baptized `Angkar Hospital,' where conditions were miserable. Phnom Srok had one, where there were 300 to 600 sick people `nursed' by Red Khmer, who used traditional medicines produced from all sorts of tree rooths [sic]. Only few stayed alive. The Red Khmer explained to us that the healing methods of our ancestors must be used and that nothing should be taken from the Western medicine." [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 ]
The survivor Sok Sunday reported: “One day the cows became agitated and pulled the rope through my palm. The rope cut through the corner of my thumb and the wound bled heavily and I cried. I was all alone and had no medicine. I urinated on the cut to prevent it from getting infected. Then I tied the ropes around my wrists and walked back to the village.[Source: from petition was forwarded from the UN’s Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/38 # ]
“When we arrived at the cooperative kitchen, the chief’s son called out two women to Kaos Khchal me [a.k.a. dermabrasion - a traditional Khmer way of curing fever and faintness by scraping one’s skin with a coin until the skin becomes red]. One woman kept me from moving, while the other scraped my back like a butcher scrapes fur from the skin of a pig. My body became red [as if whipped]. Afterwards, the chief asked, “Are you hungry?” I said yes. Then he took out a bowl of rice with salt. As I ate, he rested one leg on my chair and asked, “How is rice with salt?” I told him it was delicious and sweet. Later he let me tend only two cows. I brought my cows to higher ground and no longer fed them on farm dikes, nor did I let go of the rope. #
After the Khmer Rouge came to power it took control of all businesses and farms. Money, private property and private businesses were abolished; markets were closed. The central bank in Phnom Penh was blown up as part of their effort to create a cashless society. The population was organized into work teams and communes with collectivized ownership, production and distribution.
Under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia underwent a brutal and radical revolution. When the communist forces took power in Phnom Penh in April 1975, their immediate goals were to overhaul the social system and to revitalize the national economy. The economic development strategy of the Khmer Rouge was to build a strong agricultural base supported by local small industries and handicrafts. As explained by Deputy Premier Ieng Sary, the regime was "pursuing radical transformation of the country, with agriculture as the base. With revenues from agriculture we are building industry which is to serve the development of agriculture." This strategy was also the focus of a doctoral thesis written by future Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan at the University of Paris in 1959. Samphan argued that Cambodia could only achieve economic and industrial development by increasing and expanding agricultural production. The new communist government implemented the tenets of this thesis; it called for a total collectivization of agriculture and for a complete nationalization of all sectors of the economy. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
“Strict adherence to the principle of self-reliance constituted the central goal of the Khmer Rouge regime. A Phnom Penh radio broadcast in early May (about a month after the Khmer Rouge arrived in the capital) underscored the importance of Cambodian self- reliance and boasted that during the war the Khmer Rouge had used scrap iron and wrecked military vehicles to manufacture their own bullets and mines. The statement made it clear that the policy of self-reliance would continue in peacetime. In another move aimed at reducing foreign influence on the country, the regime announced on May 10 that it would not allow foreigners to remain in Cambodia but that the measure was only temporary; and it added, "We shall reconsider the question [of allowing foreigners to enter the country] after the re-establishment of diplomatic, economic and commercial relations with other countries." Although Cambodia resumed diplomatic relations with a number of nations, the new government informed the UN General Assembly on October 6, 1975, that it was neutral and economically self-sufficient and would not ask for aid from any country. On September 9, however, the Chinese ambassador arrived in Cambodia, and there were soon reports that China was providing aid to the Khmer Rouge. Estimates of the number of Chinese experts in Cambodia after that time ranged from 500 to 2,000. The policy of self-reliance also meant that the government organized the entire population into forced-labor groups to work in paddies and on other land to help the country reach its goal of food self-sufficiency. *
Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014