The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

by Ben Kiernan

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About the Author:
Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, professor of international and area studies, and the founding director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300096491
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/28/2002
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, professor of international and area studies, and the founding director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University ( His other books include Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur and How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930–1975, published by Yale University Press.

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The Pol Pot Regime

Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14434-5

Chapter One

Introduction: The Making of the 1975 Khmer Rouge Victory

Sixty-eight long-haired soldiers trudged across the border from southern Vietnam. In their American uniforms they looked like troops of the defeated Saigon regime. It was April, the hottest time of the year in Cambodia, and they must have been relieved to get there. Dressed in khaki uniforms and U.S. army boots, white sweat bands on their wrists, they dripped with grenades and firearms. Some carried U.S.-made M-16 rifles, others M-79 grenade launchers and packs of rice rations. They were all in their twenties, except for the leader, who was over fifty but also wore his hair long. He carried a Chinese-made AK-47 rifle and an automatic pistol.

Not far inside the border a crowd of workers, dressed all in black, labored in the sun, apparently digging earthworks for irrigation. Unbeknown to the newcomers, they were deportees from the now-empty city of Phnom Penh, mute testimony to the nature of the revolution unfolding in Cambodia. Around them the parched lower Mekong plain stretched for miles in every direction, broken only by a few hillocks, their rocky slopes plunging into ring-shaped verdantoases of fruit trees and coconut palms. Here were Cambodian villages. The newcomers headed for the nearest patch of shade, the village of Svay Sor, and asked to meet local officials.

The soldiers were Khmer Krom, or Lowland Khmers, members of Vietnam's million-strong ethnic Khmer minority. Recruited by U.S. Special Forces in the 1960s to fight communism in the Mekong Delta of south Vietnam, these troops had developed into an independent force opposed to all Vietnamese. Trained for the American unit known as Mike Force, they became instead "White Scarves." They described themselves as the liberation movement of Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, as many Khmers called Vietnam's Mekong Delta. In this cause they had even turned their guns on Americans. For a year now, they had held out doggedly against the communist victors in the Vietnam War. Finally driven across the border, they had come to make common cause with the Pol Pot regime in what they considered their Cambodian motherland.

Local officials quickly arrived, headed by the subdistrict chief, Ngaol. They listened to the newcomers' story and asked them what they wanted. Replying in his native Khmer, the commander told Ngaol he wished to see "brother Khieu Samphan," the new president of "Democratic Kampuchea" (DK). "Right, but let's eat first," was the answer. "And please put down your weapons." They did. Nen, chief of the youth movement of Kirivong district, spoke some words of welcome. He agreed that they were all fighting a common fight against the Vietnamese. Peasants brought coconuts for the soldiers, and a pig and a cow were slaughtered for them to eat. President Samphan would be notified of their arrival. They all sat down to a hearty meal.

Khieu Samphan was busy. Following Prince Norodom Sihanouk's resignation as head of state on 4 April 1976, a new cabinet had just been announced in Phnom Penh. On 14 April, Samphan had replaced Sihanouk, becoming "Chairman of the State Presidium." And a certain Pol Pot had been named Democratic Kampuchea's new prime minister. The next day, Samphan addressed a mass meeting to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolutionary victory against "the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys of all stripes," including "the Saigon puppet forces." This victory, he said, was a "masterpiece written with fresh blood and achieved through the sacrifices of flesh and bones of our people." It was also "a new and brilliant page of history for our race."

Samphan did not mention other races. At this very time, just downriver from Cambodia's seat of government, local DK officials were suppressing one of Cambodia's significant ethnic minorities, the Muslim Chams. As the White Scarves waited in the neighboring province for a response from Samphan, DK officials banned Islam, closed the local mosque, and dispersed the Cham population as far as the northwest provinces. Some Muslims were forced to eat pork, on pain of death. On 11 April, local officials also arrested fifty-seven Arabs, Pakistanis, and Indians, including forty women and children, who were sent to their deaths in the capital. In order to emphasize that this was no mere assault against Islam, Cham was now banned as "a foreign language." The officials began killing any who infringed these regulations. One local peasant recalls: "Some Cham villages completely disappeared; only two or three people remained. We were persecuted much more than Khmers." Half a dozen Cham families escaped across the border into Vietnam. Relatives left behind were singled out for punishment.

It was not long before the White Scarves received their reply from Phnom Penh. Their leader was discreetly taken aside. Then his troops were loaded onto seven small Daihatsu trucks. They drove a short distance to a nearby rice field. The first truck pulled up, and as the long-haired soldiers disembarked from the rear, a waiting Khmer Rouge squad quickly opened fire, cutting them down. The soldiers on the remaining trucks saw what was happening. They all jumped to the ground and scattered for their lives. But the Khmer Rouge troops pursued each one of them across the dry rice fields. It was over within minutes. All sixty-seven of the disarmed men were massacred.

Several days after the slaughter of his soldiers, the Khmer Krom commander reached the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Before his execution, he "confessed" under torture that he was an "internal enemy" of Democratic Kampuchea.

Back in Kirivong district, righting had broken out with Vietnamese troops across the border. A local DK village chief announced that "Cambodian forces were attacking and were going to liberate Kampuchea Krom." The troops penetrated ten kilometers inside Vietnam. A couple of months later, in mid-1976, subdistrict chief Ngaol proclaimed at a military parade: "We have to take back the territory of Kampuchea Krom." But other local officials boasted that they had now killed over two thousand Khmer Krom, remnants of Mike Force. The head of the district security forces claimed that "American slaves" were identifiable because they "had milk to drink."

The fate of the sixty-eight White Scarves showed the colors of the Pol Pot regime. Its two major enemies, U.S. imperialism and Vietnam, were embodied in this pathetic group. Born in Vietnam, country of the "hereditary enemy," they wore long hair in the "imperialist" fashion. Despite their ethnicity and their new, racially driven embrace of Democratic Kampuchea, the regime considered them dangerous. They were "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds." This slogan, which was to echo throughout the DK experience, suggests the readiness of the Pol Pot regime to suppress not only ethnic minorities like the Cham, but also huge numbers of the Khmer majority. This readiness was justified on the racial grounds that they were not really Khmer, evidently because their minds could not be controlled. Racial ideology expressed political suspicion.

The White Scarves were dispatched in a manner that was to make Democratic Kampuchea infamous: cynical deception and stupefying violence. Given DK's aim of "retaking Kampuchea Krom," no political group could have been a better candidate to become the innocent ally of Pol Pot. But Democratic Kampuchea did not favor allies. It could not trust those outside its creation or control. It distinguished territory from people, race from citizens. The longhaired soldiers were destroyed because of the presumption that they might one day become enemies. In a way, this was well founded. Though dedicated to Cambodia's independence, they would have reeled at the transformation it was undergoing. Such newcomers could not be expected to marvel at the "correct and clear-sighted policies and leadership" of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea once they had seen it from the inside. Among Cambodians, racial preference rarely provoked reflection, but the practical cost to them of any political or territorial windfall for their "race" was discouraging. And then, the White Scarves' American and Vietnamese background may have told against the revolution. The risk was too great. It was a case, in DK parlance, of "spare them, no profit; remove them, no loss."

The DK regime believed the transformation of Cambodia to be both a necessity for and a guarantee of its independence. It would eventually destroy it.

The Cambodian Scene

At first glance, mid-twentieth-century Cambodia seems a society resistant to transformation. Compared to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, it was geographically compact, demographically dispersed, linguistically unified, ethnically homogeneous, socially undifferentiated, culturally uniform, administratively unitary, politically undeveloped, economically undiversified, and educationally deprived. Cambodia was more isolated and landlocked than any other Southeast Asian country except Laos. It had also been mummified by ninety years of a French colonial protectorate, which preserved, even enhanced the country's traditional monarchy and social structure. France walled Cambodia off from other foreign influences, especially Vietnamese ones and especially communism, until French rule in Indochina broke down under the impact of-precisely-Vietnamese communism, and Cambodia found itself with a new neighbor.

Prerevolutionary Cambodia was 80 percent peasant, 80 percent Khmer, and 80 percent Buddhist. First, it was an overwhelmingly rural economy. Its village society was decentralized, its economy unintegrated, dominated by subsistence rice cultivation. Compared to Vietnam's, its villagers participated much less in village-organized activities. They were often described as individualistic; the nuclear family was the social core. May Ebihara, the only American anthropologist to study a Khmer village in Cambodia, wrote: "In village society there are no larger, organised kin groups beyond the family or household.... The family and the household are the only enduring and clearly defined units." The broader kindred did not "crystallize as a group." Most villagers usually did not recall their grandparents' names. Subsistence was usually a personal or a family matter.

The only Cambodians who participated in the international economy were garden farmers along the riverbanks and rubber plantation workers in the country's east, totaling at most 10 percent of the rural population, and the 15 percent of the population who lived in towns. Therefore Cambodia nearly comprised two separate societies, with little exchange between them: one rural, producing for subsistence, the other largely urban, producing a few goods for the world market and consuming mostly international commodities. Rice growers provided food for the city dwellers, but the cities offered little for rural consumption.

Second, Cambodia was ethnically quite homogeneous, as were Thailand and Vietnam. But unlike its two neighbors, Cambodia had had much less exposure to external cultural influence, which, when it came, was potentially destabilizing. Mostly as a result of French colonial policy in Indochina, Cambodia acquired substantial but unintegrated minority populations of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lao, as well as Thais, the large Cham Islamic community, and approximately sixteen other small tribal groups. Eighty percent of Cambodia's residents were Khmer, but Chinese and Vietnamese dominated the cities. And the rural Khmers' geographic dispersal often made concentrations of non-Khmer populations regionally significant, especially in strategic areas of Cambodia's periphery but also, in the case of the Chams, along the riverine arteries on which Cambodia depended for lack of a modern road grid. Moreover, the legacies of medieval Cambodia, the resurgence of its neighbors, and the mapmaking of the French colonial authorities left ethnic Khmer minorities of a million each in both Vietnam and Thailand.

Third, Cambodia was overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Khmer, Lao, and Thai are all Theravada Buddhist, while Chinese and Vietnamese are usually Mahayana Buddhist. Of the two Theravada monastic orders, the reformist Thommayuth never rivaled the Mohanikay order for Khmer adherents, as it did in Thailand. Cambodia's non-Buddhist communities are limited to Catholic Vietnamese, Islamic Cham, and animist highland tribes. The Vietnamese Cao Dai sect, which did enjoy popularity among Khmers in the 1920s, was banned by French officials, and Christian missionaries never converted more than a few thousand Khmers.

Yet the country had already undergone major transformations by the middle of the twentieth century. Under French colonial rule from 1863, traditional Cambodian intellectual institutions, such as Buddhist pagoda schools, had severely declined, but the authorities provided no modern education system to take their place. By 1954 elementary schools enrolled only a small proportion of school-age children. A full secondary education only became available in the country from 1933, and only 144 Cambodians had completed the baccalauréat by 1954. The number in secondary schools was fewer than three thousand. Cambodia had no tertiary education at all. In the 1940s, the tasks of modern nationalism, and even communist organizing, fell to those with a traditional, religious education.

There was rapid change in the Sihanouk period (1954-70). The number of high schools rose from eight in 1953 to two hundred by 1967, with 150,000 students. Another eleven thousand students were attending nine new universities. Nearly all Khmers now had the opportunity of achieving basic literacy, and the country produced over one million educated youth, 20 percent of the population. A mass of politically aware teachers and students comprised an entirely new Cambodian phenomenon, and the Paris-educated Pol Pot group was able to capitalize on their grievances. Even after the disappearance of the last veteran communist leader with a traditional religious education, they probably felt it unnecessary, as well as inadvisable, for communism to rely on its former sources of recruitment such as the Buddhist monkhood.

They did see the peasantry as key. But by 1970 there were two peasantries in Cambodia. Most were poor and indebted, but a majority were small landowners. A minority were landless. (There was a tiny landlord class.) This was the result of another, more ominous transformation of the Sihanouk period. Between 1950 and 1970, the proportion of landless farmers increased from 4 to 20 percent, and the number of dispossessed no doubt increased greatly during the war and the U.S. bombardment. They probably never formed a majority in the Cambodian countryside. But they were numerous enough for Pol Pot to build a viable recruitment strategy targeting poor peasants, and particularly their teenage children, who had no enduring ties to land or traditional village community.

Fish and Rice

Five thousand years ago the land of Cambodia did not exist. It lay submerged beneath the South China Sea, between two peninsulas. At its mouth the Mekong River poured silt into the ocean near what is now Cambodia's northern border. The silt gradually filled up the bay, and Cambodia emerged, a country so flat that what had once been islands still stand out prominently as hillocks in a vast alluvial sea. Owing to the large volume of silt, and the great speed of the Mekong when the vast flow from Tibet's melted snows is supplemented by the heavy tropical rainfall in mainland Southeast Asia, the bay filled up relatively quickly.

The land outflanked the sea. Now landlocked, an arm of the bay gradually became an inland lake. The saltwater fish, some of enormous size, slowly adapted to a new freshwater ecology. This is now known as the Tonle Sap, or Freshwater River. It is the world's richest fishing ground, yielding up to thirty times as much per square kilometer as the North Atlantic. The reason for the abundance of fish is that the great volume of water in the Mekong still heads in two directions: to the sea and to the lake that once was an arm of the sea. Each September the Tonle Sap reverses its flow as the Mekong pours into it at Phnom Penh. Upriver, the lake triples its size, inundating most of the vast flat plain of Cambodia. "You can sail across Cambodia," wrote a Chinese visitor to late-thirteenth-century Angkor. "In no other part of the world have I ever had the sensation of being surrounded by fish in whatever direction I turned," wrote an Australian visitor to mid-twentieth-century Cambodia. Fish swim across the country from September to November. They nibble the grasses and spawn in the shallows.


Excerpted from The Pol Pot Regime by BEN KIERNAN Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Third Edition     ix
Preface to the Second Edition     xxv
Acknowledgments     xxxiii
List of Acronyms     xxxvii
Glossary     xxxix
Introduction: The Making of the 1975 Khmer Rouge Victory     1
Wiping the Slate Clean: The Regime Takes Shape
Cleansing the Cities: The Quest for Total Power     31
Cleansing the Countryside: Race, Power, and the Party, 1973-75     65
Cleansing the Frontiers: Neighbors, Friends, and Enemies, 1975-76     102
Writing on the Slate, 1975-77: The CPK Project
An Indentured Agrarian State, 1975-77 (I): The Base Areas-The Southwest and the East     159
An Indentured Agrarian State, 1975-77 (II): Peasants and Deportees in the Northwest     216
Ethnic Cleansing: The CPK and Cambodia's Minorities, 1975-77     251
The Slate Crumbles, 1977-79: Convulsion and Destruction
Power Politics, 1976-77     313
Foreign Relations, 1977-78: Warfare, Weapons, and Wildlife     357
"Thunder without Rain": Race and Power in Cambodia, 1978     386
The End of the Pol Pot Regime     440
Select Bibliography     467
Index     471

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The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ben Kiernan does a good job with this subject, as far as he goes. I commend him for exposing the the killing in Cambodia as genocide, and found the book full of anecdotal testimony to the horrors of Pol Pot's regime. Too full. The problem I found with the text is the repititious nature of the evidence. We get the same thing over and over and over. What he says in 450 pages could be said in 250. He does a thorough job describing 'who,' 'what,' and 'when,' but doesn't answer 'how' or 'why.' In reading this book, I wanted to know why the people who made the decisions did so, why the soldiers and speical ops followed orders to kill innocents? How did the process start; how did the procedures come to be? Perhaps this will be the subject of Mr. Kiernan's next book!