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Conflict Report: The Cambodian Genocide

cambodian genocide

khmer culture

A Brief History of Cambodia:

Cambodia is a beautiful country located in Southeast Asia with a rich cultural heritage dating back before 500 B.C., long before the rise of the Khmer Empire. During this time the geographic region was under the control of the ancient Chinese Kingdom of Funan which later evolved into the city-state of Chenla until 802 A.D. when the Kingdom of Cambodia was formed. Hinduism was the primary religion as traders frequented Java which had strong ties with the Bengal region of India and modern day Sri Lanka. The peak of the Khmer Empire flourished between 802 A.D. and 1431 A.D. at which time they were the most powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia leaving their legacy behind in the form of the historical site of Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world (constructed between 1113-1150). Today the people of Cambodia speak Khmer and Sanskrit and the primary religions of the nation are Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.

angkor wat temple

Rise of the Khmer Rouge:

khmer rouge

Many westerners were not even aware of the country of Cambodia and had little clue about the rich history of this country and their former empire. This would all change in 1975 at the start of the Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge began as a political party referred to as the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1968, influenced by the Vietnam People’s Army from Northern Vietnam. The leading figure of this party was Pol Pot along with his associates Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan. Amid the growing popularity of communism throughout Asia at the time the Khmer Rouge in alliance with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Viet Cong staged a revolution which turned into the Cambodian Civil War. Support from the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was provided to oppose this revolution in the form of military intervention, unfortunately most of the assets were relocated and tied up in the Vietnam War so the assistance provided was insufficient to quell the rebellion. This coup lasted between 1970 and 1975 before bringing an end to the former government of Cambodia.

In April of 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia placing Pol Pot as the leader where he was nicknamed “Vach du Mach” (One with the Gun). The country would remain essentially without a government until the Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea was established by the Khmer Rouge on January 5th, 1976. Unlike the communist revolution in China, Pol Pot and the new constitution did not provide provisions to allow the bourgeois (aristocratic society) to play any role in the social reconstruction of the nation and instead sought to oppress and exterminate people outside of the working class and members of the former government.

Forced Deportations:

the cambodian genocide

Deportations of all major cities began in Phnom Penh, which previously held a population of 2.5 million people, forcing the displaced to live in the countryside and adopt the lively hood of the laborers in the fields. Even patients in the hospitals of Phnom Penh were forced to leave, many of which died due to the horrendous conditions of their deportation. The displaced peoples were referred to as “new people” in the countryside and were forced to live in the lowest unit of social classes called the krom (group). The “old people” who made up the previous working class were isolated from the “new people” who had little privacy in almost every aspect of their lives. Reports state that the “old people” although portrayed as having favor shared similar conditions as the newly displaced. Before long Phnom Penh was practically a ghost town, those who chose not to leave in a timely manner were slaughtered in the street with impunity.

The peasants who inhabited the countryside showed their support for the Khmer Rouge as they held disdain for the aristocratic society who inhabited the cities. This led the displaced people, forced out of their homes, to fear everyone they encountered not knowing who they could fully trust. Children were used as recruits to spy on the adults and soon became ingrained in the military and political views of the Khmer Rouge regime. The “new people” were forced into re-education programs where they were brainwashed with propaganda to align themselves with the beliefs of the regime.

Cambodian Genocide: Year Zero

During the rule of Pol Pot people with any background of sophistication and intellectualism were stigmatized severely fated to execution, imprisonment or re-education to leave their old ways behind. Physicians were forced out of practice or outright executed leaving health conditions abysmal throughout the country. Scholars, poets, musicians and other members of cultural society shared the same fate. Executions and prison camps became commonplace for the people of Cambodia which were enforced by the group the Santebal literally meaning “keeper of the peace” who acted similarly to the SS of the Third Reich in Germany during World War II.

The term “Year Zero” was coined to describe 1975 where money became useless, religion banned and cultural society became nonexistent. The next three years would essentially become the dark ages for Cambodia where terror and violence would reign supreme.

the cambodian genocide 2

Life in the Prison Camps:

The most infamous prison camp was Tuol Sleng (S-21), formerly a high school, responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of civilians. The level of detailed used to document the prisoners, torture techniques and execution was astounding in Tuol Sleng where it is estimated that approximately 20,000 prisoners were killed. Despite the notoriety of this prison, at least 150 other known sites like this existed throughout Cambodia during this 3 year period of violence.

Prisoners arriving at the camp were initially photographed and forced to provide autobiographies in great detail to the prison authorities. Prisoners were either shackled to the walls and floor in smaller cells or to other prisoners in larger cells. Prisoners were awoken at 4:30 AM, stripped and searched for instruments that could be used to commit suicide before being fed meager portions of rice porridge and soup containing only leaves (only 4 spoonfuls were provided to each inmate). Needless to say the desire for prisoners to commit suicide was high leading guards to implement a policy to combat suicide rates. Inmates did not receive showers or baths and instead were hosed down once every four days. Beatings and torture were inflicted upon anyone who disobeyed the authorities including drinking water without permission of the guards.

Torture techniques used in the prison included beatings, electric shocks, searing metal instruments, cutting with knives, pulling out fingernails, pouring alcohol on wounds, waterboarding, and for female inmates rape often was used despite the Democratic Kampuchea’s official policy against sexual abuse. Execution methods included hangings, suffocation with plastic bags, starvation, and leaving inmates to bleed out although outright killing was frowned upon in “re-education camps” since the purpose of these were to force the prisoners to confess to crimes the regime stated they committed. Perhaps the worst fate of all was for those who visited the “Medical Unit” of Tuol Sleng which conducted “medical experiments” on prisoners including removing organs without anesthetics or sedation. Interrogators documented every instance of torture and aspect of the prisoner’s lives in surprising detail which was later discovered by the CIA in records held by the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng is actually where the CIA got the idea to employ waterboarding in their enhanced interrogation techniques. Today Tuol Sleng has been converted into the Genocide Museum honoring the memory of those who died and suffered during the senseless reign of the Khmer Rouge.

The Killing Fields:

the killing fields

The most notorious extermination site is Choeung Ek which is marked today by a Buddhist stupa housing 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the mass grave, organized by sex and age. Almost everyone associated with the former regime were arrested and executed by the Khmer Rouge as an attempt to purge their country of its past. The Cham (Cambodian Muslims) had the worst fate of all who received no sympathy from members of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Cham, Christians and Buddhist monks were targeted for persecution and execution by the regime. Despite this discrimination the majority of those killed off during the genocide were ethnic Cambodians. Those destined to be executed were often forced to dig their own graves, most being shallow due to malnutrition and starvation, before being executed by young men and women from peasant families.

Estimations of the total amount killed during this 4 year period range from 1.7 million to 3.42 million with an exact number difficult to pinpoint due to the large number of mass graves sites throughout the countryside. The Khmer Rouge officially acknowledges their responsibility for killing 2 million people which is generally referenced as the death toll for this conflict. Many of the bodies of victims may still remain undiscovered to this day.

The Khmer Rouge Overthrown:

In 1978 a communist rebellion took place in eastern Cambodia leading Pol Pot to announce via radio broadcast his intention to exterminate 50 million Vietnamese along with Cambodians he labeled as having “Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds”. 100,000 communist supporters were killed throughout the next 6 months which spurred the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to invade the country and oust the Khmer Rouge. Despite being overthrown in 1979, the Khmer Rouge political party existed all the way up until the 1990s. Pol Pot fled the invasion into Thailand along with many of his former party members where he lived in relative peace until his death in 1998 in his bed due to suspected heart failure. His death occurred on the night of April 16, 1998 just hours after he listened to the radio broadcast “Voice of America” which slated him to be turned over by the Khmer Rouge to an international tribunal to face war crimes.

the cambodian genocide 1

The Final Toll:

The Cambodian Genocide today is often labeled as the most senseless genocide known in history. There was no clear plan set in place for the country or government once toppled by the Khmer Rouge with the main focus seemingly on killing off the intellectual members of the country as the primary motivation of an angry peasant rebellion. 21% of the country’s population was slaughtered in a period of just 3 years. Making this atrocity worse, members of the former regime sought political asylum in Thailand and went completely unprosecuted up until 2009, the most famous occurring in September 16th, 2010 when the second in command Nuon Chea was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN tribunal. Many to this day still remain ignorant to the atrocities that occurred during the Cambodian Genocide along with other similarly horrifying events throughout history.

Why Long Beach?

cambodian dancer

Most of the Cambodian Refugees that fled during this period of conflict sought asylum in Thailand and the United States. Today Thailand is the host of the largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia and Long Beach, California holds the largest community of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia. The question has been left for many to ponder, why Long Beach? Naturally one would take a look at the immigration patterns of other countries and would assume San Francisco or New York City as these are the largest ports on the Eastern and Western seaboards. There are two driving factors which lead the population of Khmer refugees to settle in Long Beach, those being Cal State Long Beach and Camp Pendleton.

In 1953 Cambodia gained its independence from France becoming a sovereign nation again after nearly a century of colonization (1863 – 1953). Almost a decade later in 1961 California State University Long Beach admitted the first 4 Khmer students as a part of their Industrial Arts program. Incentives were offered by the University to Khmer students in an attempt to gain U.S. favor in the development of the budding country, with what they expected to be a hopeful future for a fledging nation. This began the cultural root of Khmer heritage in Long Beach although only about 10 families remained in the city after graduation.

During the Khmer Rouge reign refugees who reached Thailand safely were offered asylum in United States. They left Southeast Asia with the two primary destinations of arrival being Fort Chafee, Arkansas and Camp Pendleton, California. Arriving in the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the families that remained in Long Beach quickly organized the KSA (Khmer Solidarity of America) which was later renamed the CAA (Cambodian Association of America) which helped the arriving refugees settle around the Long Beach area.

The “second wave” of Khmer refugees came after the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. At this time Cambodians were officially offered political refugee status for the first time and the organization setup by the federal government, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, attempted to disperse the population of arriving refugees in what was called “the Cluster Project”. The Cluster Project attempted to prevent large populations of refugees from settling in the same city which could become taxing on an individual state’s resources and also inhibit assimilation in American life as well as leaving little incentive to learn English.

Despite these efforts by the federal government the Cluster Project was largely a failure and most of the refugees decided to settle into Long Beach to reunite with their families. Part of this was due to the fact that almost all of the refugees arriving in the “second wave” had been exposed to severe psychological, emotional and physical trauma as a result of the war. In almost all cases, these refugees not only lost at least 1 family member during the violence but personally saw the deaths of their loved ones in the atrocities that occurred during the war and genocide. In 2001 with approval from the City of Long Beach Cambodia Town was officially designated which is now referred to as the Cambodian capital of the United States.

khmer girl

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