URC

“When it is my turn, there will be no one to bury me. ”

Ideology, Social Mobility, and Individual Agency in the Cambodian Genocide

Will Plowright
University of British Columbia


Abstract

Children and youths were the primary vehicle to enact the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide. Explanations for the involvement of people on an individual level often assert the primary role of ideology. However, by analyzing primary accounts and contrasting them with known contextual factors from the time, it can be shown that a lack of social mobility and fear of the regime obliterated the role of ideology, restricted individual agency, and forced youths and children to enact the regime’s policies.

In the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, children were used as a primary vehicle for enacting the ideologies of the ruling regime. It was children and young adults that carried out some of the most brutal acts of the Cambodian Genocide. Were children ideologically committed to the revolution or were they willing participants for other reasons?

In the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, children and uneducated youths were the primary vehicle for enacting the ideologies of the ruling regime, carrying out some of the most brutal acts of the Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979. In conducting an etiological study on causations of the mass killings in the transitory Democratic Kampuchea, there is difficulty in ascertaining the motivations of the individual perpetrators. There is great danger of using counterfactual historical methods of analysis that overemphasize ideological motivations as the primary cause of individual involvement. This, however, is a method of historical hindsight—imposing the official policy of the regime onto the child combatants and political officers in the same manner it was forced on them by the Khmer Rouge. Instead, a methodology must be adopted that separates the ideological motivations of individuals into two rubrics. Namely, there was ideology at the time of recruitment to the party and during the period of genocide. An over-emphasis on the role of ideology ignores the aspect of individual agency, especially in regard to the lack of social mobility within Khmer Rouge society. The stressing of ideology as a primary motive suggests that individuals had a choice—or at least perceived that this choice existed, which was not the case in a society dominated by surveillance and coercion. Social mobility, though limited, was possible within the party and also as a means of basic survival of non-cadre individuals. The perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocides were not primarily involved as willing ideologues, instead they were compelled to partake due to a rational self-interest that came through fear of punishment as well as limited means of social mobility and subsistence.

Within the context of any genocide, eliminationist ideology plays an integral role at both individual and collective levels, and the Cambodian Genocide is no exception to this. Ben Kiernan noted the “genocidal pragmatism” of the Khmer Rouge in carrying out the mass killings. This pragmatism stressed not just the purported ideological motives of the regime but also the manner in which pragmatism emphasized the strategic necessities of removing certain portions of the population to protect the ruling regime.1 Just as there was a contradistinction between the ideology and practice by the state, so too was there a “genocidal pragmatism” of the children and youths that served as the foot soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. Within this context, it is necessary to examine not just ostensible ideological motives but also the primary accounts of those involved. There is danger in the use of causational excuses provided by killers in retrospect, and therefore such accounts do not warrant universal credulity. Consequently, a methodological approach is used which contrasts the accounts of perpetrators with the contextual factors of individual agency that existed at the time. This shows whether or not the crimes were motivated by conscious intention and ideological alacrity or due to coercion and other situational pressures.

In order to understand the majority of individuals involved in the genocide, analysis must focus upon mass growth of the party and not necessarily upon the intellectual origins of the party or its initial supporters. Instead, it is imperative to investigate those that enacted the actual mass-killings, predominantly youth and children.2 Although never holding great preponderance of numbers, the austere Khmer Rouge rebellion grew substantially in the short period after 1969.3 A primary reason for the early support for the Khmer was the American bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Eastern Cambodia.4 During this bombing campaign in 1969 and 1970, up to 500,000 civilians died.5 Estimations place the population decline of Eastern Cambodia at 25 percent, due primarily to deaths in the American bombing raids and the flight of refugees.6 The Prime Minister at the time, Norodom Sihanouk had granted tacit approval to the Viet Minh to conduct transfers of soldiers, arms, and logistical support through Cambodian territory.7 This is complicated further by that fact that many believed Sihanouk had betrayed them by allowing the American bombings.8 The ranks of the Khmer Rouge swelled with the suffering peasants of the region, due to the seemingly contradictory reasons that Sihanouk simultaneously supported the Vietnamese and Americans.9 Wilfred P. Deac acknowledged that these bombings not only gave greater support to the Khmer Rouge but also further radicalized the agenda of the leaders.10 In this first pre-genocide stage, therefore, the Khmer Rouge did receive initial support due to ideological alignment of a significant portion of the rural population with official party platform of peasant support and anti-Americanism.

Verification of the reasons for support at this stage exists in primary accounts. It is difficult to enumerate the amount of recruits gained, but it is still possible to assert the dominant reasons for enlistment in the Khmer Rouge. The account of a Khmer Rouge recruit named Khel explains why he worked at an extermination camp. He noted that at the age of 15 he joined the Khmer Rouge, because “The American B-52s dropped too many bombs. The people became seized with painful anger . . . and wanted to fight.”11 This is a view that continued under the regime of Lon Nol, who overthrew Sihanouk in a coup in 1970.12 Lon Nol led an autarchic regime that was adamantly pro-American and anti-communist.13 The ranks of the Khmer Rouge were augmented still further with those seeking to fight the right-wing regime of Nol as well as moderate leftists who sought to return Sihanouk to power.14 Of these two groups, neither completely aligned ideologically with the Khmer Rouge but instead their motives conflated as they combated the American-backed regime.

In analyzing the motivations of genocide perpetrators, it is necessary to separate two phases of Khmer Rouge action; its rise to power, and its attempts at Maoist social engineering after it defeated the Nol regime in 1975. As noted above, three key reasons for which many individuals joined the Khmer Rouge were the American Bombings, opposition to the Sihanouk regime, and opposition to the Nol regime. However, this occurred during a context of individual agency when many perceived some level of choice in which faction to support, even if it was severely limited at times. This ideological volition vanished once the genocidal regime of Pol Pot was in power. An engineer named Ung Pech from the Kompong Song region initially volunteered to work with the Khmer Rouge due to his opposition to Nol and the American bombings. He noted that when the Khmer Rouge defeated the Nol government in 1975, many people supported the new regime because “they believed that a happy and peaceful life had begun.” He goes on to note that once he realized the genocidal goals of the Khmer Rouge, it was too late for him to desert.15 To assume that people like Pech supported genocide, because they aligned ideologically to the Khmer Rouge when recruited, is an anachronistic approach that yields counterfactual results.

Once the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, they created a political system with no individual freedom for the common person. This system was one that R. J. Rummell described as a “nationwide concentration camp in which all suffered the torments of hell.”16 In its attempts to return Cambodia to “Year Zero,” the regime sought to extirpate all intellectuals, former government officials, ethnic non-Khmers, or anyone tainted by foreign influence.17 To this end, they enacted a system of mass population transfer and emptied urban areas to create communes of forced labour.18 In the rural areas, sufficient food and housing were scarce or non-existent for these new arrivals. The terrible results of Pol Pot’s “Super Great Leap Forward” destroyed agricultural production, forcing the average Cambodian to the brink of starvation.19 An account by one forced migrant, Luong Ung, noted, “The government continues to reduce our food rations. I am always hungry and all I think about is how to feed myself.”20 Once the Khmer Rouge rose to power, therefore, there was no individual freedom, little or no social mobility, and a population that was undernourished and overworked. In the mass-killings, disease, and famine that were to follow, more than 1.5 million of Cambodia’s 8 million people perished.21 This context is integral to comprehending perpetrator motivations, which were not cognitive ideological beliefs. Instead, they were pragmatic ones of self-interest in a setting of extreme hardship under a brutal regime.

The two overwhelming motivations of the killers were a need for social mobility within Kampuchean society and a fear of the regime itself. In terms of the former, the aspect of social mobility can include bureaucratic self-interest within Khmer Rouge society but can also include the simple motivation of moving oneself from a status of near-starvation to a position of survival. Village communes and labour camps were governed with an iron fist; orders were not to be questioned, simply obeyed. The only possible route for social mobility within this context was through the party and its local institutions. One lower-level party member told how he began to serve a party cadre named Boan because “No one dared make trouble around him for fear that he would have them taken away and killed . . . . We went hungry, while he ate his fill.”22 Returning to Loung Ung’s account, she reported that her brother began to work with genocidal cadres because, “his favoured position brought the family the extra food they needed to survive.”23 In addition to the extra rations that soldiers received, another eyewitness noted that many were attracted to assist the killings because it meant they did not have to involve themselves in the arduous labour that all others did.24 As these testimonies show, the concept of social mobility could be as simple as mere survival. To do this, people changed themselves in the eyes of the party, from a member of the brâchechon tmey (“new people,” those targeted for extermination) to brâcheachon chas (“old people,” or peasants).25 Social mobility was impossible in this anomic society, except in reduced means through the Khmer Rouge. Even if this social mobility was limited to moving from a position of starvation to limited hunger, working with the party was often the only recourse of individuals for whom recalcitrance or resistance meant certain death.

It is also possible to show the role of social mobility as a key factor by examining those in higher levels of the party itself; individuals who were cadres already sought to strengthen or maintain their elevated positions in society. In his study of perpetrator motivations, Alexander L. Hinton placed emphasis on the importance of competition between party cadres and officials, who were encouraged to report each other’s supposed crimes. These accusations often resulted in punishments of demotion or death of rivals and opponents.26 This system of perfidiousness and competition is visible in the story of Proh, a high-ranking regional cadre who survived the conflict. He described how he and his colleagues would “report to Angkar [the Khmer Rouge] that their rivals were traitors in the hope that Angkar would drop or kill the accused individual,” As a result, they could increase their own rank while also fighting off potential threats.27 A similar story of Tuay Mien noted that he reported 700 of the 999 families in his region as being Lon Nol supporters, using different families to accuse each other through their own hopes of self-survival.28 These accounts display the manner in which the Khmer Rouge society based itself on an all-pervasive system of surveillance and coercion. A popular slogan at the time was that Angkar had “as many eyes as a pineapple.”29 This surveillance included methods whereby individuals were encouraged to report friends, families, and co-workers to the authorities as traitors. Often, this could come as the only means of survival and self-protection against others trying to do the same.

The system of surveillance and cross-checking operated by the Khmer Rouge also showed the role that fear and self-protection played in those supporting the assiduous campaign of genocide. It is important to remember that killings occurred under constant supervision of superiors.30 Survivor Sokkhom Ngep described that, for soldiers in the Khmer Rouge, the choice when ordered to enact genocide was “kill or be killed.”31 An account by a Khmer Rouge soldier, Lohr, at the infamous prison Tuol Sleng reported that the first time he killed he used an iron club to beat bound men. He received orders to do so from a superior officer, and he was too scared to respond negatively.32 The Tuol Sleng Prison, in which more than 20,000 perished, is one of the most famous Khmer Rouge institutions of torture and death.33 In his study of perpetrator motivations at Tuol Sleng, David Chandler agreed with accounts like that provided by Lohr, noting that they were compelled to act primarily by “situational pressures” that left them with little choice of whether or not to obey orders.34 As noted above, this was a “kill or be killed” scenario where individuals had no choice except to tow party line. Social mobility was impossible outside the party, and fear was all pervasive for even those within the Khmer Rouge.

Three final narratives of perpetrators shed further light on the concept of fear and social mobility. An account by Vatey Seng from the Cham Muslim minority told how she recognized the prison supervisor of her re-education centre as a boy from her own ethnic tribe. The boy, El, confessed to her that he joined the Khmer Rouge at the age of 11 in order to hide within the ranks, the last place he felt killers would look for the Cham.35 For children as young as El, ideological alignment with the Khmer Rouge could not exist at any stage. The account of Chrey Thom described the constantly agitated and ill at ease of the child soldiers as they killed and tortured their victims in front of their superiors.36 Finally, a soldier by the name of Men Khoeun described his first involvement in killing of suspect Lon Nol supporters. He told of how his commanding officer ordered him to assist killing two and a half thousand prisoners or face trial as a traitor. He commented, “After hearing that, we had no choice but to obey. If we failed to kill, we would be killed.”37 Even victims were aware of the insecurity of the Khmer Rouge killers. Um Oeurn, a forced labourer and designated “new person” in the Taches Commune, noted “the Khmer Rouge lived under coercion, and consequently cannot be held entirely responsible for the bad things they may have done during the revolution.”38 The role of ideology in the killings thus diminishes, due to the ubiquity of party surveillance and coercion. The comparison of the above accounts to known contextual factors within Democratic Kampuchean society at the time shows that individuals had little or no agency or volition.

The child perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide were not primarily involved as willing ideologues. The assertion of ideology as a primary motivation suggests individual agency—that people actually had a choice whether or not to follow the regime. I nstead, individuals were compelled to become involved due to a rationality that came through need for survival as well as a lack of social mobility. This summation is one that does not necessarily condone the soldiers for their non-volitional self-interest but it does seek to explain such actions. Essentially, individuals found themselves in a position where their only option was to select whether they should become the victims or the perpetrators of the regime’s crimes. Although, certainly, the Khmer Rouge ranks initially swelled with recruits supportive of the regimes ostensible goals, this changed once genocide began. A final account—that of Kuan Pung—described the cognitive perception he held as he buried one of his victims. He recalled saying aloud, “ Sorry my friend, I didn’t want to hurt you. At least you have someone to bury you. When it is my turn there will be no one to bury me.”39 Accounts such as Pung’s show the incredible pervasiveness of Khmer Rouge society and its act of auto-genocide as one that coerced victims into becoming perpetrators.


References

‘Boan’ as cited in Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology Carlton, VIC: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

‘Khel’ as cited in Alexander Laban Hinton. Why did they Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Khouen, Men as cited in Howard J. De Nike, John Quigley, & Kenneth J. Robinson, eds. Genocide in Cambodia: Documents from the trial of Pol Pot and Ileng Sary. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

‘Lohr’ as cited in Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology Carlton, VIC: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Ngep, Sokkhom as cited in Sarah Steedd, Leaving the House of Ghosts: Cambodian Refugees in the American Midwest (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2002

Oeurn, Um as cited in Elin Skaar, Siri Gloppen, & Astri Suhrke, eds. Roads to Reconciliation (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005

Pech, Ung as cited in Howard J. De Nike, John Quigley, & Kenneth J. Robinson, eds. Genocide in Cambodia: Documents from the trial of Pol Pot and Ileng Sary. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Poek , Thma as cited in Karl D. Jackson. Cambodia, 1975-1978 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989),

‘Proh’ as cited in Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology Carlton, VIC: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Pung, Kuan as cited in Deborah Mayerson “The Holocaust and Genocide” 27 April 2009. Online mp3 file. Accessed on 30 April 2009. http://app.lms.unimelb.edu.au

‘Sat’ as cited in Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons & Israel W. Charny, eds. A Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Seng, Vatey. The Price We Paid: A Life Experience in the Khmer Rouge Regime, Cambodia (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Publishing, 2005

Thom, Chrey as cited in Karl D. Jackson. Cambodia, 1975-1978 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989),

Secondary Sources

Becker, Elizabeth. When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998

Bloom, Alexander ed. Long Time Gone: Sixties America, Then and Now. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Chan, Sucheng. Not Just Victim: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003.

Deac, Wilfred P. Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997.

Etcheson, Craig. After the killing fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. The Vietnam Experience: A Concise Encyclopaedia of American Literature, Songs and Films. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

Hinton, Alexander Laban ed. Annihilating Difference: the anthropology of genocide. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Hinton, Alexander Laban ed. Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002

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Kissi, Edward. Revolution and Genocide in Ethiopia and Cambodia. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006.

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1 Ben Kiernan & Robert Gellately, eds. The Spectre of Genocide: Mass murder in historical perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 31.

2 Alexander Laban Hinton, ed. Annihilating Difference: the anthropology of genocide (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 182.

3 Alexander Bloom, ed. Long Time Gone: Sixties America, Then and Now (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 58.

4 Sucheng Chan, Not Just Victim: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003), 8.

5 James A. Tyner, The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmaking of Space (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 70.

6 Samuel Totten & Paul R. Bartrop Dictionary of Genocide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 320.

7 Stephen J. Morris. Why Vietnam invaded Cambodia: political culture and the causes of war (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 42.

8 Usha Welaratna, Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 21.

9 Laurie Collier Hillstrom, The Vietnam Experience: A Concise Encyclopaedia of American Literature, Songs and Films (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998), 186.

10 Wilfred P. Deac. Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997), 50.

11 ‘Khel’ as cited in Alexander Laban Hinton. Why did they Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004, 58.

12 Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre, eds. Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and Southeast Asia (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 53.

13 Marie Alexandrine Martin & Mark W. McLeod. Cambodia: A Shattered Society (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 111.

14 Elizabeth Becker. When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 13.

15 Ung Pech as cited in Howard J. De Nike, John Quigley, & Kenneth J. Robinson, eds. Genocide in Cambodia: Documents from the trial of Pol Pot and Ileng Sary (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 75.

16 R. J. Rummell, Death By Government. (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 181.

17 Toivo Koivukoski & David Edward Tabachnik. Confronting Tyranny: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littleford, 2005), 47.

18 Roland Paris, At War’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 80.

19 Edward Kissi, Revolution and Genocide in Ethiopia and Cambodia (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006), 66.

20 Luon Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (New York: Harper & Collins, 2000), 101.

21 Alexander Laban Hinton, ed. Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 254.

22 ‘Boan’ as cited in Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (Carlton, VIC: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 164.

23 Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 179.

24 ‘Sat’ as cited in Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons & Israel W. Charny, eds. A Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts (New York: Routledge, 2004), 367.

25 Laurence J. Kirmayer, Robert Lemelson & Mark Barad. Understanding Trauma: Integrating Biological, Clinical and Cultural Perspectives (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 437.

26 Alexander L. Hinton “Why did you kill? The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” The Journal of Asian Studies, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 93-122.

27 ‘Proh’ as cited in Nancy Scheper-Hughes & Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace, 166.

28 Thma Poek as cited in Karl D. Jackson. Cambodia, 1975-1978 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 202.

29 Craig Etcheson, After the killing fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), 21

30 Scheper Hughes, Violence in War and Peace, 165.

31 Sokkhom Ngep as cited in Sarah Steedd, Leaving the House of Ghosts: Cambodian Refugees in the American Midwest (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2002), 108.

32 ‘Lohr’ as cited in Scheper-Hughes, Violence in War and Peace, 157.

33 Benny Widyono. Dancing in the Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia (Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 11.

34 Benjamin A. Valentino, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20 th Century (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 56.

35 Vatey Seng, The Price We Paid: A Life Experience in the Khmer Rouge Regime, Cambodia (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Publishing, 2005), 89.

36 Chrey Thom as cited in Jackson, Cambodia, 1975-79, 238.

37 Men Khoeun as cited in de Nike, Genocide in Cambodia, 220.

38 Um Oeurn as cited in Elin Skaar, Siri Gloppen, & Astri Suhrke, eds. Roads to Reconciliation (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005), 211.

39 Kuan Pung as cited in Deborah Mayerson “The Holocaust and Genocide” 27 April 2009. Online mp3 file. Accessed on 30 April 2009. http://app.lms.unimelb.edu.au


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