By Marpheen Chann
Genocide is a process that develops in ten stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The process is not linear. Stages occur simultaneously. Each stage is itself a process. Their logic is similar to a nested Russian matryoshka doll. Classification is at the center. Without it the processes around it could not occur. As societies develop more and more genocidal processes, they get nearer to genocide. But all stages continue to operate throughout the process. — Genocide Watch
April is a bittersweet time for many Cambodians. It is a month not only meant for the celebration of Cambodian New Year, but it also marks the anniversary of the Cambodian genocide and Khmer Rouge takeover from 1975 to 1979. In just four years, by 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, purges, and forced labor in what became known as the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia.
Brief taste of freedom
The events leading to the genocide were set in motion by the power vacuum created by the collapse of French colonialism and imperialism in Southeast Asia following World War II. King Norodom Sinahouk, who had been living in exile during the colonial period, returned and the Kingdom of Cambodia was reborn. But Cambodian independence came under immediate threat as the Cold War dawned.
Cambodia declared itself neutral in the escalating tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.). Even so, the United States saw Cambodia as a potential buffer zone against the rising influence of communism in Southeast Asia, particularly North Vietnam. North Vietnam and the Communist bloc, too, saw Cambodia as a vital chess piece in its wargame against the West.
Sihanouk, feeling the pressure of the two superpowers and their respective blocs, stepped down as king in 1955 and took on the title of “Prince and Prime Minister.” He initially aligned with the U.S. and western powers, accepting military and financial assistance. But, as the years went on and Sihanouk faced domestic opposition, he distanced himself from the U.S. and allied himself instead with Pol Pot, a young communist who was educated in France and who enrolled in the French Communist Party before returning home to found the Khmer Rouge.
U.S. bombing campaigns kill Cambodians
In 1965, the U.S. launched a coordinated bombing campaign in Cambodia in an effort to target the Viet Cong. Western-backed forces, led by Marshal Lon Nol, staged a successful coup in 1970, sparking a civil war with Sihanouk and the then-Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge.
This coincided with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s orders to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who told his military assistant: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
In 1973, the newly formed Cambodian government, fearing defeat at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese allies, received U.S. assistance for another bombing campaign that killed approximately 300,000 citizens. From 1965 to 1973, about half a million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, nearly matching the number of U.S. bombs dropped in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
Evidence suggests that U.S. involvement and the bombing of Cambodia helped give rise to the Khmer Rouge as the rural population, mostly peasants, joined their ranks to avenge loved ones killed during these bombing runs. Even the U.S. CIA Directorate of Operations was aware of this, including it in an International Information Cable:
“Cambodian insurgent (KI) [Khmer Rouge] cadre have begun an intensified proselyting campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents . . . in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organizations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.”
From 1969 to 1973, the Khmer Rouge saw their ranks grow from 10,000 to more than 20,000, becoming an increasingly bigger threat to Lon Nol’s Cambodian Republic backed by the United States. Even after the Paris Accord was signed in January 1973, Nixon continued to bomb Cambodia in support of Lon Nol until the U.S. Congress called an end to the bombings later that August.
Khmer Rouge takeover
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, ousted Lon Nol, and established Democratic Kampuchea.
What ensued in the following years could only be described as pure hell for the Cambodian people as the Khmer Rouge adopted extreme Maoist and Marxist-Leninist reforms.
According to the Cambodian Tribunal Monitor website:
“They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Cambodian culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops, and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps, and granaries…. During this time, everyone was deprived of their basic rights. … If three people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested or executed.”
Still, the U.S. hoped that Cambodia could be a buffer against the spread of communism in Vietnam and sought to improve relations with the new regime.
Henry Kissinger, who stayed on in the Gerald Ford administration after Nixon resigned, asked Thailand’s foreign minister to relay a message to the Khmer Rouge that “we bear no hostility towards them. We would like them to be independent as a counterweight to North Vietnam…. [S]hould also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”
Legacy of intergenerational trauma
What the Khmer Rouge did went far beyond the killing of millions of their own countrymen and women. Khmer Rouge thought reforms and their cultural revolution tore apart the very social fabric of Cambodian society and has led to deep and pervasive intergenerational trauma.
Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s ideologist, borrowed heavily from Joseph Stalin’s handbook to extract obedience and devotion out of the Cambodian people. Not only that but children were separated from their families and made to live in communes. They had to attend nightly meetings where they were forced, under pain of death, to listen to speeches, recite mantras, and engage in the criticism of others and self-criticism – to doubt everyone and everything except for the Khmer Rouge leadership.
Children were brainwashed to betray, reject, spy, and turn on and turn in their family members.
One can only imagine the psychological and spiritual toll this inflicted, not only on individual children, but on entire generations subjected to such cruel social engineering.
The genocide resulted in mass displacement and migration of the Cambodian population. During the Khmer Rouge era, around 200,000 people fled to either Thailand or Vietnam. After the collapse of the regime, over 600,000 fled in the years 1979 to 1981. An additional 200,000 left in the years following, with about 136,000 people being resettled in the U.S., including some right here in Maine.
In fact, from 1999 to 2001 and again in 2002-03, the Cambodian student population in Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest school district, was the largest cohort of English Language Learners. Khmer students remained the second largest cohort of ELL students from 2003-10, with Somali students making up the largest population during those years.
Today, according to U.S. Census data, the Cambodian population in Maine, numbers around 2,000 people. Since first arriving in Maine as refugees, the Cambodian population has spread throughout southern Maine, and people have found work in a variety of industries, but especially in Maine’s seafood and fishing industries. In this way, Cambodians have found a connection to Cambodia, a country dependent on its rivers and coasts for food, recreation, and economic development.
Despite decades of living in Maine, first-, second-, and third-generation Cambodian Mainers still struggle to integrate and to access affordable healthcare, and face significant cultural and language barriers. Many also deal with the intergenerational trauma resulting from the Cambodian genocide. This will require substantial effort and resources to overcome, and fortunately Khmer Maine and its partners exist to help lead that work. For more information about Khmer Maine’s resources, see their website: khmermaine.org/.