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The Khmer Rouge was the nickname given to followers of the communist totalitarian party that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their name comes from Khmer, the autonym of ethnic Cambodians, and rouge, the French word for red, the colour of communism. The party, led by Pol Pot, seized control amid the chaos partly caused by spillover from the Vietnam War into Laos and Cambodia, and promptly followed the usual pattern adopted by communist revolutionaries who find themselves in power:
- Turn the country into an international pariah
- Change the name of the country to something that sounds democratic, in this case Democratic Kampuchea[note 1]
- Execute dissenters and people deemed to be counter-revolutionary - except in this case "wearing glasses" made you fit the bill
- Institute glorious plans to build a utopia by revolutionizing the economy, resulting in the collapse of agriculture and the death of millions - except in this case it wasn't the countryside that was robbed to industrialize the cities, but the cities that were depopulated to "help" with agriculture - with predictable results
- Engage in social engineering, forcing people to adopt beliefs and ideologies agreed by the ruling party. The religious were heavily persecuted, and the regime had a strong distrust of educated people.
The Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia was short but spectacularly brutal even by the standards of other communist dictatorships, resulting in some 2-3 million deaths from forced labour, starvation, and disease as well as plain old genocide. After severely pissing off their neighbours with their hostility and aggressiveness, newly unified Socialist Vietnam invaded in 1978, defeated the Khmer Rouge, and installed a friendly and less repressive government. Regime change worked in this case. The casus belli was arguments over the Mekong Delta and the Khmer Rouge killing ethnic Vietnamese, and attacking Vietnamese villages near the border. (Vietnam for its part was "punished" by Red China in what became the Sino-Vietnamese Border War.)
The Khmer Rouge's beliefs were in origin a form of Maoism, an agrarian and populist form of Marxism that focuses on the role of the peasantry in developing and achieving communism, and there is no doubt the leaders of the party saw themselves as Marxists, though the depth of their theoretical knowledge has been questioned. However, the movement was unique among forms of Marxism in that they had a strong reactionary bent and sought to emulate what they saw as a purer form of ancient communism as practiced in the Cambodian countryside. Although contrary to popular belief they did want to eventually industrialize the country, their xenophobia and anti-Western attitudes meant they shunned modern technology to a great extent, including Western medicine.
Because the Khmer Rouge were so notoriously brutal, they have the dubious distinction of being the only historical communist regime that even hardcore tankies won't try to defend, and most do not consider them to be true communists. Instead, they try to shift the blame for the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror onto the United States by claiming they came to power due to the Vietnam War and imperialist meddling in the region. However, other Marxist-Leninists have also correctly pointed out that the Khmer Rouge's ideology was a deviation from orthodox Marxism in that it had ethnic supremacist and racist traits, singling out minority groups as part of their broader extermination campaign. This made Democratic Kampuchea look more in practice like a bizarre blend of fascism and agrarian socialism than it resembled most other communist countries. What everyone can agree on is that they were totalitarian as hell.
Khmer Rouge crimes
Investigators have uncovered and examined the remains of 1.1 million Cambodians (later raised to 1.39 million, and with some arguing that the full toll may meet or even exceed 1.5 million) found in mass graves near Khmer Rouge execution centers whose cause of death has been determined to have been execution by the former Khmer Rouge regime. Because only about 1/3 (according to a widely dismissed estimate) to ½ (according to the most widely accepted estimate) of those killed by the Khmer Rouge were executed (the rest having died from other causes like state-created famine, the deliberate withholding of basic necessities by the state, the refusal by the state to allow foreign aid, the abolishing of medicine and hospitals by the state, systematic overwork and slave labor, and brutal mistreatment by the state), the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that the former regime killed or otherwise caused the unnecessary deaths of, between 2 and 3 million Cambodians, or about 2 ½ million people. A UN investigation reported 2-3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated 3 million dead. Demographic estimates went as high as 4 million killed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1978. Even the Khmer Rouge acknowledged that 2 million had been killed, though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion. By late 1979, UN and Red Cross officials were warning that another 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to “the near destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot,” who were saved by international aid.
The brutality of the Khmer Rouge had long been evident. As late as 1972–1973, it was a commonly held belief, both within and outside Cambodia, that the war was essentially a foreign conflict that had not fundamentally altered the nature of the Khmer people. By late 1973, there was a growing awareness among the government and population of the total lack of concern over casualties, and complete rejection of any offer of peace talks, which "began to suggest that Khmer Rouge fanaticism and capacity for violence were deeper than anyone had suspected". During 1973, the communist party fell under the control of its most fanatical members, Pol Pot and Son Sen, who believed that "Cambodia was to go through a total social revolution and that everything that had preceded it was anathema and must be destroyed".
Reports of the brutal policies of the organization soon made their way to Phnom Penh, and into the population, foretelling a violent madness that was about to consume the nation. There were tales of the forced relocations of entire villages, of the summary execution of any who disobeyed or even asked questions, the forbidding of religious practices, of monks who were defrocked or murdered, and where traditional sexual and marital habits were forsworn. War was one thing; the offhand manner in which the Khmer Rouge dealt out death, so contrary to the Khmer character, was quite another.
Desperate yet determined, units of Republican soldiers, many of whom had run out of ammunition, dug in around the capital of Phnom Penh and fought until they were overrun as the Khmer Rouge advanced. By the last week of March 1975, approximately 40,000 communist troops had surrounded the capital and began preparing to deliver the coup de grâce to about half as many Republican forces.
Lon Nol resigned and left the country on 1 April, hoping that a negotiated settlement might still be possible if he was absent from the political scene. Saukham Khoy became acting president of a government that had less than three weeks to live. Last-minute efforts on the part of the U.S. to arrange a peace agreement involving Sihanouk ended in failure. When a vote in the U.S. Congress for a resumption of American air support failed, panic and a sense of doom pervaded the capital.
Of the estimated 250,000 Cambodians who died in the civil war, about 200,000 of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge, while about 30,000 were killed by the US bombing.
Because Pol Pot wiped out between 1/5 and 1/2 of his country's entire population in less than 4 years, he was arguably the "greatest" mass killer in human history.
An internationalist case study in "how to stop a genocide"
The Khmer Rouge are frequently pointed to as yet another example of the claim that genocides can only be stopped by forcibly removing the genocidal regime from power. The same pattern can be observed with the Rwandan genocide and the Nazi genocides, which stopped when their regimes were removed from power through war. A similar argument was made in favor of intervention in the Kosovo war, though the Cambodian precedent was not brought up, perhaps because the U.S. had actually opposed intervention in Cambodia at the time and were now clamoring for NATO intervention against Serbia. The reason for U.S. avoiding direct military involvement in Cambodia was not necessarily an upsurge in isolationist sentiments but rather wariness of Southeast Asia, having completely withdrawn in 1973.
- Horseshoe theory
- Juche, another batshit form of authoritarian socialism
- North Korea, their nearest equivalent today
- Third Position, another godawful ideology that combines far-left economics and far-right racial views
- Countries with names that describe them as being belonging to the people or democratic have an odd habit of being anything but. Examples include: the German Democratic Republic (aka the East Germany that built a wall to prevent its content citizens from running away), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka North Korea, that bastion of freedom), the People's Republic of Poland (the Polish were free to do what they wanted, so long as it also happened to reflect the wishes of Moscow), and the People's Republic of China (no comment needed on this one). One of the few exceptions was the People's Republic of Cambodia, which managed to pass over the astonishingly low bar of being less shit than their predecessor.
- Archive copy at the Wayback Machine
- William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience (Touchstone, 1985), p115-6
- Khieu Samphan, Interview, Time, March 10, 1980
- New York Times, August 8, 1979.
- Time magazine:CAMBODIA: Help for the Auschwitz of Asia Nov. 05, 1979