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Revisiting the Killing Fields: The Khmer Rouge and Globalization

Rachel Rinaldo, Department of Sociology
Culture, Society, & Globalization
Professors Arjun Appadurai and Ronald Khalidi
April 1997

"Although it is fruitful to study Cambodian political history from a Cambodian perspective, the country's location, topography, and demographic weakness have meant that its fate for over two hundred years has been entangled with Thailand and Vietnam." (1)

Most scholarship on the rise of the Khmer Rouge conforms to a state-centered framework. Scholars usually focus on events in recent Cambodian history and society, or on the impact of the Vietnam War, to explain one of the most murderous regimes in modern history. Despite excellent research and thoughtful explanations, questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, within the already existing scholarship on Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge period, there exists ample evidence for the idea that the rise of the Khmer Rouge resulted from the complex interaction of global and regional events of the 1960s and 1970s with localized socio-political conditions.

Such an explanation requires an understanding of not only the specific external and internal factors, but also the way in which, following Appadurai, among others, the process of globalization recreates the local in new ways. I believe that it is possible to argue that, not unlike the recent example of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Khmer Rouge were, at least partially, a reaction to the loss of political sovereignty and the social dislocation wrought by the regional wars of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as an extreme and localized response to the growing question of Khmer identity in a region dominated and fought over by world and regional powers.

Clearly, I have neither the time nor the space to accomplish the task of fleshing out this entire explanation here. I will, however, weed through some of the arguments about the Khmer Rouge's rise, and show that out of them it is possible to weave together an expansive, narrative that takes into account recent concepts of globalization. This approach, I believe, provides some fresh answers.


Problems of the Major Explanations

Most of the previous explanations of the rise of the Khmer Rouge (KR) fail to answer key questions. I will briefly go through some of the major accounts to highlight their deficiencies.

In Sideshow, Shawcross argues that the secret and destructive U.S. bombing campaigns pushed Khmers into the arms of the guerrillas. Certainly the bombing was one of the major factors, but it cannot explain everything. The U.S. had similarly destructive bombing campaigns in Laos and Vietnam, yet neither country saw the emergence of a movement of comparable savagery to the KR. Sideshow does not account for why the Khmer Rouge was so different from (and in fact, loathed) the Pathet Lao, the Vietcong, and the regime in North Vietnam.

In Cambodia, 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death, the articles by Karl Jackson and Kenneth Quinn maintain that the Khmer Rouge's vicious regime, ironically known as Democratic Kampuchea, was the result of a mixture of Maoism, Stalinism, underdevelopment theory, and sectarian fury. There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge leaders, who were educated in France and visited the Soviet Union and China, were substantially influenced by authoritarian communism. And we can attribute some of the policies of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, such as mass collectivization and purges, to ideological forerunners, particularly the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In fact, these are such well-known and obvious points that I feel no need to detail them in this paper.

However, the ideological argument does not explain how the Khmer Rouge were able to gain power. It implies that they were a tiny, isolated group with no mass appeal who reaped extraordinary benefits from a power vacuum and aid from China and North Vietnam. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary of indigenous peasant support. Moreover, as Ben Kiernan and Craig Etcheson have argued, other than in a coup d'etat, which was not what took place in 1975, it seems unlikely that a cell with no support could win a civil war, control the countryside, and carry out a revolution.

Moreover, the ideological argument is sociologically problematic in its assumption that ideology predicts action. We have only insufficient and conflicting evidence about what ideologies the Khmer Rouge leaders found most compelling, and it is difficult to know to what extent these beliefs, such as Maoism, were actually pervasive and convincing beyond the core group. Further, the underdevelopment theories of Samir Amin and others, which Jackson cites, were widespread; they did not lead to drastic results everywhere and did not advocate anything as authoritarian as the Khmer Rouge's revolution. If one accepts that people read and interpret subjectively, then it is questionable to assume such a direct causal link between a body of ideas and human action.

Francois Ponchaud in Cambodia: Year Zero relies on cultural factors. Ponchaud points to significant sociocultural circumstances, which I will detail later, but this argument, too, is lacking. If socio-cultural factors were mostly responsible, then why did such a revolution happen when it did? To what extent were cultural factors shared? What about the 20% non-Khmer in Cambodia? Ponchaud raises intriguing ideas but lacks sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that cultural factors played a primary role.

Some recent scholarship has already begun to focus on promising new themes. Kiernan's emphasis on racism and nationalism in The Pol Pot Regime opens up a compelling discussion of the role played by these social, discursive factors. Kiernan implies that the Khmer Rouge's obsession with ideological and national purification was less a reflection of their brand of Maoism than it was a particularly violent economic, social, and political nationalism that led them to carry out mass killings and to isolate themselves from the world.

By tying the Khmer Rouge to a virulent nationalism rooted in the regional/international events of the 1960s and 1970s and in Cambodian culture itself, Kiernan moves toward reinterpreting the revolution in the light of globalization processes. The other explanations I have discussed fall largely into two groups-those emphasizing external causes, and those relying on internal factors. Kiernan's work suggests the need to synthesize them in a broader, more convincing explanation that is not dependent on a few determining factors.



An understanding of globalization allows such a synthesis by transcending and undercutting the state-centered approach, and moving beyond simplistic ideological/cultural explanations, while not rejecting any of those as significant elements.

Globalization is a process of the spreading of cultures, organizations, economies, polities, technologies and products across borders. Since the 1960s, changes in technology, particularly communications, have fostered globalization at an awesome pace, and it increasingly affects all levels of societies. With this comes a diminution of the nation-state, formerly the most important unit of political organization: "Where states could once be seen as legitimate guarantors of the territorial organization of markets, livelihoods, identities, and histories, they are now to a very large extent arbiters (among other arbiters) of various forms of global flows." (2)

The term globalization encompasses a great deal and theorists approach it from differing angles. Nevertheless, a number of features of the process that have relevance to the emergence of the Khmer Rouge.

Stuart Hall links the concept of ethnicity to notions of territory. The nation-state with its national cultural identity ruling over a certain territory is under great pressure from global processes, and this erosion may result in xenophobia when identity comes under attack, he writes. "...When the era of nation-states in globalization begins to decline, once can see a regress ion to a very defensive and highly dangerous form of national identity which is driven by a very aggressive form of racism." (3)

But globalization also creates localism. It operates, and is mediated, though local economic and political sites. It engenders both opposition and enthusiastic embrace; indeed, the two are inseparable: "What we usually call the global, far from being something which, in a systematic fashion, rolls over everything, creating similarity, in fact works through particularity, negotiates particular spaces, particular ethnicities, works though mobilizing particular identities and so on." (4)

Appadurai also views the nation-state as a form in decline, like Hall, positing territorial space as the major question in the relationship between the two: "The relationship between states and nations is everywhere an embattled one... That is, while nations seek to capture or co-opt states and state power, states simultaneously seek to capture and monopolize ideas about nationhood." (5)

In a globalizing world, there is tension between cultural homogenization and heterogenization. States may open or close to the global, and their growing unease and fears about sovereignty, contends Appadurai, play out in debates over national heritage. Embattled states employ mass nostalgia, nakedly appealing to mythical national pasts, often with violent results, as we have seen in places like the former Yugoslavia.

Globalization produces localities, which threaten the nation-state. As Hannah Arendt asserted, when the nation-state has been connected to the idea of a homogenous state-people with standardized rights, growing claims of immigrants, refugees, and minorities undermine long-held understandings and modes of thought, sometimes producing a dangerous conception of the minority as non-citizen. (6) Globalization may produce ethnic separatism on one side, and state-level violence on the other.

Michael Watts as well emphasizes that globalization recreates the local. Describing an Islamic fundamentalist uprising in the 1970s in Kano, Nigeria, Watts shows how global forces reacted with local social structures to produce a distinctive grassroots movement. The international oil boom that precipitated large-scale social change in the city "was experienced in class terms, and yet the social and cultural character of this class experience in Kano was, to use Marx's language, inherited from the past and was irreducibly local." (7) The ideologies of Islam and Capitalism were filtered through local experience and social structure. "Each world system was both global and local in its constitution; as a global abstraction each force field was experienced, transmitted, and as it turns out, contested in demonstrably local ways." (8) Hence, to understand local, particular events requires a "global sense of place."

The scholarly literature on the Khmer Rouge era reveals the existence and consequences of the aspects of globalization outlined above. Issues of state sovereignty, ethnicity, national cultural identity, and the local versus the global were distinguishing features of Cambodia's political landscape from the 1960s onward. This is not to argue that globalization always produces deleterious, violent effects-indeed, as Hall, Appadurai, and others have discussed, the outcomes of globalization vary according to instance and specific location. Rather, I am attempting to examine one particular and unfortunate instance in which global flows played a crucial role.

With that in mind, my examination of the literature on Cambodia leads me to believe that it is both feasible and fruitful to argue that from the early 1960s until the Khmer Rouge dramatically shut it off from the world stage in 1975, Cambodia was globalized territory. It was influenced and demarcated as much by global and regional factors as by its own state apparatus, which was utterly beholden to them. The country was an arena for superpower conflict and competition, both political and military in scope. It was inexorably pulled into the Vietnam War, which was actually a regional war with international participation. Simultaneously, Cambodia was reluctantly drawn into the globalizing world economy by massive inflows of foreign aid and increasing western-style economic development. Porous borders, a weak state, weak national integration loss of sovereignty, and involvement in a war it had tried hard to avoid were some of the more immediate effects of these external forces on Cambodia. Furthermore, the interaction of these state-transcending factors with local social conditions-particularly Khmer cultural features, nationalism/racism, peasant culture, and economic byproducts of globalization such as an urban-rural split and growing landlessness-shaped the individuals who formed the Khmer Rouge as well as the circumstances that enabled them to seize power.

The evidence to support such an argument appears throughout previously existing research and analysis of Cambodia from the 1960s to the present. Having examined accounts of Cambodian history, the rise of the KR, and Democratic Kampuchea, I will now weave together and assess some of the global/regional and local forces and their consequences and then explore the characteristics of the Khmer to explicate the ways in which those forces played out and interacted.


External Flows

Above all, Cambodia from the early 1960s onwards was an arena for superpower conflict and competition, as well as regional conflict. "With the exception of the Indian subcontinent there is hardly any other corner of the world in which the direct security interests and spheres of influence of the three great powers, the United States, the Soviet Union. and China are, in the same manner, so fundamentally in opposition to one another." (9)

Historically, Cambodia was caught between regional powers too, particularly Vietnam, China, and Thailand. Gradually, despite King Sihanouk's efforts, this unfortunate geographical position involved the country in the destructive Vietnam War.

Shortly after its independence in 1954, Cambodia felt the pull of hegemonic powers. The U.S., China, and Vietnam already had significant interests in the country, but Sihanouk maintained control and a declared neutrality by playing off one state against another. China was one of the first countries to send aid after independence, initiating military aid in 1963. China supported Sihanouk publicly throughout his tenure as king and president, and Zhou Enlai, a longtime friend of Sihanouk, strongly supported him, but as the Cultural Revolution widened, radical factions in the government supported the KR, then the inner circle of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Etcheson surmises that this division reached into the CPK itself, splitting the Maoist core that formed the nucleus of the Khmer Rouge from the more moderate, Vietnamese influenced intellectuals. (10)

The United States viewed Cambodia through the manichaean lens of the Cold War and the struggle for world power, in which the Domino Theory held sway. At independence in 1954, the U.S. tolerated Sihanouk's nonalignment. and extended economic aid. Two years later, though, when China surpassed the U.S. commitment, the U.S. suspended general aid and decided to build up the Cambodian military while secretly aiding the Khmer Serei, nationalist and anti-colonialist guerrillas who had formed the resistance to the French. In the early 1960s, U.S. aid accounted for about 30% of Cambodia's police and military budget, about $12 million a year, and Sihanouk later wrote in his memoirs that total U.S. aid between 1954 and 1963 amounted to $300 million. (11) "In the final accounting, U.S. aid exceeded PRC and Soviet aid." (12)

For Hanoi, Cambodia was a buffer state against the U.S. influenced regime in Thailand. Increasingly, however, the North Vietnamese viewed Laos and Cambodia in the context of the war against South Vietnam- friendly guerrilla movements and neutral regimes in both countries were crucial for victory. From the beginning, the Khmer communist movement was trained and aided by Hanoi, yet always took a back seat to the more important cause of Vietnamese national liberation. General Nguyen Vo Giap saw all of Indochina as a battlefield. "A corollary was that Indochina constituted an economic whole, with interdependent parts." (13)

From the 1950s to the mid-1960s, Cambodia prospered. Modernization, development, and substantial foreign aid flowed in under Sihanouk's rule. "As in the past, however, this prosperity was dependent on the behavior of Cambodia's neighbors and on the policies of larger, more distant powers. Cambodia was neutral and at peace for as long as it served the interests of other states." (14)

Sihanouk's rule was also authoritarian, brooking no dissent. By the late 1950s, there was already the beginning of a communist resistance in the form of the CPK, mostly supported by North Vietnam. A number of the CPK's leaders, including Saloth Sar (who later became Pol Pot) and Ieng Sary, both only recently returned from studying in France, left Phnom Penh in 1963 under threat of repression to organize underground resistance in Cambodia's northeastern provinces.

From the mid-1960s, Cambodia became more and more entangled in the regional war. By the early 1970s, as the Khmer Rouge gained strength and control over vast areas of the countryside, the war had swallowed Cambodia. In a White Paper circulated by the Cambodian delegation to the UN in early 1970, the Cambodian government complained (and received no reaction) that between 1962 and May 1969, American, South Vietnamese, and Thai troops had violated Cambodian borders 1,364 times by land and 5,149 times by air. (15)

China was still heavily invested in North Vietnam, and saw Cambodia as a resource. In 1965, Sihanouk signed a deal with China for the port of Sihanoukville to be used as a conduit for supplies; the port was one of the major sources for arms for the Vietcong, the NVA, and the Khmer Rouge throughout the war. (16)

In 1965 the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese started using Cambodia as a major conduit for supplies, building the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the eastern regions of the country. Sihanouk signed a deal with the NVA in 1965 to allow them to build bases in the eastern zone-he later justified his action in his memoirs by asserting that he could already see that the North would win the war. By the late 1960s, there were NVA bases in the country, and when the Khmer Rouge took up armed struggle in 1969, NVA troops assisted them.

Nonetheless, the most significant external force in the 1965-1974 period was the United States. The U.S. began running secret mission across the Vietnam-Cambodia border as early as 1965, using disguised mercenaries and Khmer Serei fighters for covert sorties into Cambodia and Laos. (17)

The U.S. bombing campaign began in March 1969, though the formal invasion began in 1970, and lasted until Congress brought it to a stop in 1973. From 1969-1970, the U.S. and the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) flew 3,360 B-52 raids on Cambodia, and altogether, dropped 540,000 tons of bombs on the country, over 100,000 of them in the last six months of the campaign, (18) which was "nearly twice as many tons of bombs on rural Cambodia as they had dropped on Japan in World War II." (19)

Although Nixon and Kissinger later insisted that Sihanouk permitted the bombing, Shawcross asserts that Sihanouk, had no alternative to allowing both the American bombing and the Vietnamese intrusion. Monarch of a weak, sparsely populated country caught between far stronger powers, " the context of United States law Sihanouk's attitude was irrelevant." (20)

The bombing destabilized Sihanouk, and in March 1970, army colonel Lon Nol staged a coup. most likely with U.S. assistance. As the war moved west, all of Cambodia turned into a battlefield: "... By the end of March little or no attempt was being made to restrain the South Vietnamese from crashing across the border when they wished. Simultaneously, the North Vietnamese moved westward into Cambodia with the apparent intention of securing their lines of communication." (21) After Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge to fight Lon Nol in the National Front for the Union of Kampuchea (FUNK), initiating the civil war, the U.S launched the massive invasion, as well as continuing to arm the Cambodian military and fly in Khmer Serei for the worst battles. (22)

The bombing of Cambodia was subject to fewer restraints than in Vietnam. American and South Vietnamese bombers targeted populated areas and falsified reports, operating under a veil of official secrecy. (23) Meanwhile, U.S. support propped up the deeply unpopular Lon Nol regime, even after he was largely disabled by a stroke. As the bombing created millions of refugees and social dislocation on a massive scale, the economy faltered, and food shortages appeared, even as economic aid flowed into Phnom Penh. "From the beginning of 1971 until April 1973... United States aid was the dominant factor in almost every aspect of political, economic and military affairs in Cambodia." (24)


Internal Conditions

Though global factors clearly transformed Cambodia largely against its will after the 1960s, internal sociocultural conditions set the stage for the results that followed. In the process of sifting endogenous conditions, a few stand out: Khmer cultural factors, the discourse and history of nationalism and racism, peasant culture, and the effects of economic development in a global economy.

Ponchaud and others have identified as central traditional Khmer cultural elements such as deference to authority, patron-client relationships, millenialism, communalism, violence, and certain aspects of Khmer Buddhism. Ponchaud, Thion, and Chandler highlight the Khmer Rouge's continuity with these traditional Khmer cultural features. It is a controversial theme, but revolutions do not come out of a vacuum: "As a theoretical matter, it seems inconceivable that a terrestrial human culture could 'break' with its own historically derived nature to the point of discontinuing those facets of culture that find their roots in human environmental relationships, such as geopolitical and geoecological elements." (25)

Khmer culture tends toward respect and fear of authority. Veneration for elders is paramount, and Khmers view the country as one large family, with the monarchy as chief elders: During their rule, KR cadres in the villages simply replaced traditional authorities, and, according to Frieson, received the traditional public deference designed for survival: "To peasants [the KR] represented the new political authority in their lives which displayed the same bossy character of former leaders." (27)

Cambodia has a heritage of patron-client relationships, linked to the system of deference to authority. The patron-client system, with its hierarchy of linear, personal loyalties, may have allowed the Khmer Rouge to substitute itself for the rule of the monarchy. Thion holds that, "the complete lack of full-fledged intermediary structures between the population of peasants and the higher authorities left the way open for the unfettered exercise of dictatorial power." (28)

Historically, adds Thion, Cambodia has had a millennial model of revolution, promising wealth for all, invulnerability, and the leadership of a great ruler. This model harks back to the autocratic rulers of the Khmer Empire, especially Jayavarman VIII, who built much of Angkor Wat with slave labor. In fact, the KR referred to Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire to emphasize Cambodia's glorious past and the ability of ordinary people to accomplish huge tasks through sheer will; Chandler has observed that Democratic Kampuchea was more comparable to Jayavarman's regime than any other.

As the religion of over 90% of the population, Buddhism is extremely important in Khmer society, and tendencies of Khmer Buddhism are pertinent in a discussion of the Khmer Rouge, especially given the significant support the group received from rural monks. Etcheson and Ponchaud have observed that Khmer Buddhism is marked by anti-individualism and radical egalitarianism, as well as stress on internal self-purification, self-denial and extreme asceticism, and anti-materialism. Ponchaud, moreover, wonders whether the widely-held belief in reincarnation serves to devalue life in the present.

Such a devaluation of life may underlie the historically high levels of rural violence in Cambodia, a feature noticed by French colonizers in the early part of this century. Though organized violence had been rare, in the aftermath of the 1970 coup, thousands of Vietnamese Cambodians were killed in bloody pogroms in Kompong Cham, and the civil war was noted for brutality on all sides. Karl Jackson maintains that "The fact that massive amounts of blood were shed by the Khmer Rouge diverged from the Khmer norms in scope rather than kind." (29)

The history of nationalism and racism in Cambodia is considerable enough to merit scrutiny. Far from being an ugly invention of the Khmer Rouge, national chauvinism has long marked Cambodian politics. "Indeed the extreme chauvinism cum xenophobia which has so often colored Cambodian political thought, both before and after independence, was a feature of DK pronouncements from the beginning." (30)

Cambodians feared and distrusted Vietnam, which remains a regional power; stories still circulate about atrocities perpetrated by the Vietnamese against Khmers in the 18th century and earlier. Some of the suspicion arises from the fact that the Vietnam/Cambodia border generally marks the historical cultural split in Southeast Asia between Indian influence and Chinese influence. Numerous Cambodian regimes have laid claim to the Mekong Delta, a formerly Khmer region which the French gave to Vietnam. Vietnam's expanding population overflows its borders, and as a result, Cambodia has absorbed thousands of Vietnamese immigrants. The 1970 pogroms were just one awful example of the historically shaky status of Vietnamese Cambodians. Carney commented of Democratic Kampuchea, "The regime clearly believed in an external threat to its existence. In a sense, this is bred into Khmer bones, menaced through centuries, first by aggressive neighbors, the Thais and the Vietnamese, then by a French protectorate whose real intentions came to be viewed with suspicion...A sense of national danger was firmly instilled." (31)

Thus, it takes little imagination to comprehend the resonance of anti-Vietnamese, nationalist ideology in Cambodia. "Without any socialist or internationalist component in Cambodian nationalism, one could proclaim Cambodia's intrinsic greatness, referring repeatedly to Angkor and making racist slurs against the Vietnamese." (32)

James C. Scott's classic discussion of peasant culture in Southeast Asia is also relevant to any discussion of social conditions endogenous to Cambodia, whose population in the 1960s remained over 80% peasant.

Scott maintains that the subsistence ethic defines peasant culture in Southeast Asia, and produces a specific set of social relations, including patron-client ties, reciprocity, and forced generosity. These traits, as seen in the previous discussion of Khmer culture, are also prevalent in Cambodian village society.

Scott reasons that the subsistence ethic engenders particular models of protest. When subsistence takes priority, rebellion occurs if it is threatened, and revolts are defensive, rooted in traditionalism. Because authority is connected to the ability to provide, the failure to do so means loss of legitimacy, which Scott links to what he calls the "moral character" (33) of peasant revolts. In a related discussion, Ponchaud also mentions the moral aspect of peasant rebellions, but links it to an old Khmer literary tradition of killing and rebirth themes. (34)

Finally, one more apt internal situation to consider is the effect of a rapidly globalizing world economy on a developing country. A corollary of integration into the global market, noticed by many scholars, is an urban-rural split, a feature prominent in 1960s Cambodia. As the urban economy developed, an urban elite emerged; this elite was tied to the cities, and disconnected from resentful peasants. After 1970, peasants chafed against the Lon Nol regime, which they identified as an urban-centered regime that ignored their plight. (35)

As the economy developed from subsistence agriculture, more peasants became landless, and indebted to local Chinese merchants, who loaned money at exorbitant rates. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of landless farmers increased from 4% to 20%. (36)

In addition, many Cambodians later recalled, and Thion remarked, on an early visit to the Khmer Rouge Zone, on the sharp contrast between the morality of the Zone, where gambling, drugs, and prostitution were illegal, and the immorality of the cities, especially Phnom Penh, where corruption was rife.

Moreover, the cities housed Cambodia's minority population. According to Ponchaud, prior to the rise of Democratic Kampuchea, the urban population was 30% Chinese and 28% Vietnamese. The members of the new elite were often of Chinese descent, as were merchants. Rural Khmers perceived a loss of tradition, and a bias against peasants in the new cosmopolitan urban culture. Finally, cities had schools, the link to 'foreign' ideas and values: "On the one hand, schools promoted a fascination for knowledge, progress, and anything foreign. On the other, a reaction set in within part of the educated class, notably among some of the teachers having a moral responsibility for the countryside youth, breeding a form of nationalism that became increasingly exacerbated." (37)

Such burgeoning nationalism and hostility to all things foreign on the part of both the peasants and a sector of the educated class was soon to prove pivotal. Perhaps Ponchaud's reference to teachers was pointed, for Pol Pot and several other top Khmer Rouge leaders worked as high school teachers for a number of years.


Immediate Effects

As Shawcross, Kiernan, Chandler, and other scholars have argued, the external forces that swept Cambodian social and political life in the 1960s and early 1970s left a trail of influential changes and consequences in their wake. Their effects, primarily the spread of the Vietnam war into the Cambodian civil war encompassed social dislocation, economic ruin, loss of political sovereignty, and armed insurgency:

"By 1970 Cambodia's frontier with Vietnam was breaking down. It was unable to withstand the pressure exerted by the two mighty contending forces that had been expanding and straining against one another in the limited space of southern Vietnam since the escalation of 1965. The pressure was economic, demographic political, and military. Cambodia's rice crop drained into devastated Vietnam, while both Khmers and Vietnamese fled into Cambodia, with the U.S. military and airforce in pursuit." (38)

Although the expansion of the war is well-enough known that I will not discuss it here, it is helpful to examine some of the other consequences of external forces in detail.

Refugees were one of the most visible byproducts of the war and the U.S. bombing. Peasants from targeted areas flooded the cities, and the population of Phnom Penh doubled to 1 .2 million in the first few months of the war-in a country with a population of 7.9 million. (39) Shawcross says that by the end of 1971, two million Cambodians had been displaced. (40) After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a Finnish Inquiry Commission estimated that throughout the 1970s some 70-80% of the population was refugee or subject to involuntary transfer. (41)

The impact of the war on the economy was devastating. Due to bombing and fighting on the ground, acreage for rice planting dropped from 6 million to 1 million, creating food shortages. (42) The deteriorating economy depended entirely on American aid and the black market. By 1973, services comprised most of the economy, with imports reaching $42 million while exports dropped to 4.9 million. (43)

The U.S. propped up the Lon Nol regime until the very end, even after his stroke meant that governance of the country fell mostly to his advisors. In reality, Hanoi and Washington had more real influence on Cambodian life than anyone in the Cambodian government. Lacking authority over borders or territory, Cambodia effectively ceased to be a functioning nation-state: "... The fighting in Vietnam, exacerbated by U.S. intervention, reduced Cambodia's capacity to remain neutral or to control its frontier with Vietnam. The loss of sovereignty embittered many Khmer..." (44)

The immediate effect of the 1970 coup in the countryside, Sihanouk's traditional stronghold, was bloody. Violent rioting and unrest ensued, and peasants murdered Lon Nol's brother. Most important, thousands joined the Khmer Rouge's insurgency. The Khmer Rouge went from having just a few thousand armed troops in early 1970, to having 12,000 by the year's end. And in 1971, the DIA. reported that "Vietnamese communists" (referring to the Khmer Rouge in coalition with North Vietnamese comrades) controlled 65% of the land and 35% of the population. with an army of 10,000. (45)


Violent Interactions

The ways in which global forces interacted with localized social and cultural conditions shaped the expansion of the Khmer Rouge and the political vacuum in which they were able to seize power. It matters little that the Khmer Rouge were a small group and hardly representative of the country-they grew out of specific events and conditions, and the group and the surrounding social forces were a product of a particular location in time and space. Although to separate out conditions from effects and determine exact causality is not feasible, it is possible to infer how external and local forces affected the Cambodian political scene by examining how they played out in the characteristics of the Khmer Rouge itself. We can discern these outcomes in the Khmer Rouge's ideology and actions, and in the popular reaction to them.

Although the Khmer Rouge's ideology was incidental to their actual victory and the support of the peasants, it was certainly an important factor in affecting the conduct of the group. Their declared ideology was a strange admixture of elements of Stalinism and Maoism, but it would be a mistake to impute the actions of the group solely to these particular imported doctrines, especially when a careful analysis of the group reveals a number of more general elements. Among the more notable characteristics of the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea were autarchy, authoritarianism, brutality, secrecy, reliance on willpower, extreme communalism, obsession with purity and purging, upholding of the poorest peasants as the true Khmers, anti-Vietnamese hysteria, and extreme nationalism.

Political and economic autarchy was one of the most obvious hallmarks of Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge insisted on ruralism, with an economy based only on crafts and traditional agriculture. When they seized power, their first action was to empty the cities. Shortly after, they demolished banks and churches, and abolished money. The government enforced total self-sufficiency, outlawing trade and modern medicine, even turning away badly needed food imports.

Authoritarianism characterized the Khmer Rouge. They used little manipulation or propaganda to garner support, preferring instead to impose a dictatorship from above, using outright brutality, psychological manipulation, and control of food to dominate on the local level. Ponchaud records that the Khmer Rouge cadres in the villages superimposed themselves as the elders of the village, and were addressed as "dad-mom," with the power to determine who was part of the 'family' of the village. (46)

And the Khmer Rouge, of course, were famously brutal. There is no need to describe in detail here, as the facts are well-known. Their songs and anthems celebrated blood and killing, and the regime has forever become synonymous with evil for turning the country into a gigantic workcamp. Forced labor, torture, executions, and starvation as a weapon were daily occurrences in Democratic Kampuchea.

They were also secretive. During the war, peasants who joined the Khmer Rouge army rarely knew anything about the group's goals, beyond vague notions of overthrowing the existing rotten system. Khmer tradition expected that peasants defer to authority, and few asked questions or criticized the guerrillas.

In some ways, the peasants' docility facilitated the Khmer Rouge's ideological insistence on willpower, something they may have borrowed from Maoism and visits to China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The regime attempted to use human power alone to reshape the landscape for the expansion of agriculture, primarily rice planting. The Khmer Rouge looked to the building of Angkor Wat as a model of the strength of ordinary people-it was also a model of slave labor.

Forced labor took place on large collective farms, as the regime organized the entire country into a system of agricultural cooperatives. This extreme communalism went as far as to abolish most personal possessions, enforce communal eating, and require that everyone wear black peasant clothing. Control over collectivization required massive population dispersal, mostly from urban areas to less populated rural areas.

The KR's obsession with purity led to systematic and destructive purges to rid the party itself, and then the entire country, of foreign, corrupt influence. Jackson has observed that KR ideology resembled extreme sectarianism in its obsession with morality and purity, with complete perfection as a stated goal. Such ideological absolutism requires constant enemies, and the KR found them in abundant supply. They carried out purge after purge to achieve the goal of ideological purity; as time went on, the purges reached deeper into Khmer society until no one was safe:

"The KCP leaders wished to reorganize Khmer existence along the line of an extremely chauvinistic conception of a 'pure Khmer society,' obliterating only those aspects of Khmer culture that they regarded as having been borrowed from or influenced by foreign cultures. The tragedy was that the Khmer people have always been great borrowers, and thus almost everything was 'contaminated.'" (47)

Not unexpectedly, given the KR's anti-urban ideology and the rural backgrounds of many members, KR cadres claimed to be repulsed by the social mores of cities. In a propaganda statement released shortly after the takeover, one of the first lines read, "The morality of the cities under Lon Nol was not pure and clean like in the liberated areas." (48) They saw the largely urban elite as hopelessly decadent and corrupt and people from the cities, known as the 'new people' as opposed to 'base people,' were singled out for harsh treatment in the work camps. The evacuation of the cities was strategic, stemming as much from the need to institute absolute control as from an intense hatred of everything the city represented.

The KR defined the base peasants, the poorest group in Khmer society, who represented about l5% of all peasants, as the only legitimate group, the true Khmers. Clearly, the emptying of cities corresponded to the goal of turning all Khmers into peasants. The acceptable definition of Khmer included only base peasants and soldiers; base peasant life and culture were synonymous with Khmer life: "This was neither a communist proletarian revolution that privileged the working class nor a peasant revolution that favored all farmers. Favors, in Democratic Kampuchea, such as they were, were reserved for approved Khmers." (49)

Related to the preoccupation with Khmer-ness was the intense loathing of Vietnam. The KR pushed Cambodia's historical antipathy toward Vietnam to its worst extreme. KR units started attacking NVA units in the early 1970s, and some of the first Cambodians to perish in the revolution were returning KR cadres who had been exiled in Hanoi. Later, DK provoked Vietnam into a bizarre border war by massacring border villages, claiming several islands, and urging each Cambodian to kill 30 Vietnamese. (50) The purges also had an anti-Vietnamese element -- Kiernan contends that the entire Eastern Zone of Cambodia, bordering on Vietnam, and tending to somewhat more liberal control than other areas, was purged starting in 1977, because the central government identified it with Vietnamese influence. Eastern Zone people were marked with blue scarves and sent to work camps and torture centers in other regions. (51) In all, Kiernan estimates that over 250,000 people, accused of having "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds" died in this region in the 1977 and 1978 purges. (52)

The anti-Vietnamese fixation was one of the major features of the Khmer Rouge's fanatical nationalism.

Kiernan has convincingly demonstrated that race (and/or ethnicity) was one of the defining themes of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, and was tied to a continuing struggle for central control. Minorities and the 'contaminated' Eastern Zone inhabitants endured the worst effects of the regime.

Purges against the Vietnamese in the Khmer Rouge zones began as far back as 1969, according to Kiernan. In 1975, the revolutionary government ordered all Vietnamese to leave the country. 150,000 were rounded up and left, but about 10,000, most of whom had Khmer spouses, remained. All 10,000 were eventually killed. Tellingly, among the stated goals of the revolutionary assembly held in 1975 were the expulsion of all Vietnamese and the dispatch of troops to the borders, both of which were soon completed.

In public statements and propaganda sessions, KR cadres reinterpreted Cambodian history to de-emphasize Vietnam. The resistance to French colonialism arose entirely from Khmer peasants, they argued, omitting the history of Vietnamese training and leadership of the anti-colonial struggle. The "Black Paper" issued in 1978 insisted that the country was 99% Khmer, effectively denying the existence of minorities. Kiernan maintains that the evacuation of cities was also linked to the dispatching of troops to the Vietnamese border. "The emptying of cities was part of a strategy of continuing warfare to reunify the country's ancient territories on the basis of racial homogeneity. For this campaign, Cambodia would be in better fighting shape without vulnerable population centers." (53) Not only did the evacuation facilitate authoritarian power and ensure that a possible base of resistance was wiped out, it also made the ensuing ethnic cleansing possible by granting the regime physical control over the foreign minorities it feared and despised.

Vietnamese were the prime targets of Democratic Kampuchea's race obsession, but others suffered as well. The Chains, an indigenous Muslim minority, were the first people to be deported on a large scale from Khmer Rouge zones in the early 1970s. DK outlawed their religion and forbade them to practice cultural traditions. All languages other than Khmer were banned. In their abhorrence of 'cultural imperialism,' the Khmer Rouge not only banned any foreign material items, but neutralized all people deemed externally influenced. "The Cambodian masses were to be 'purified,' ironically, in 'defense of Cambodian territory and the Cambodian race.'" (54)

Kiernan's breakdown of the differential death tolls is revealing. Overall, he estimates that the death toll under Democratic Kampuchea from 1975-1979 was 21% (about 1.5 million) of a population of 7.9 million. The death toll for Vietnamese inhabitants stands at 100%, while the death toll for the Chinese was 50%, the Chains 36%, and Lao 40%. For those defined as 'new people,' the total death toll was about 29%, while for all 'base people' it was 16%, and for rural Khmers l5%. (55) And one estimate indicates that as many as 400,000 people may have died in the Eastern Zone, a death toll of 27%. (56) Plainly, those who fit the allowed definition of Khmer, the Khmer-speaking base people of rural origin, suffered somewhat less than members of minorities or groups tainted by 'foreign influence' (Eastern Zoners and 'new people'), who bore the brunt of the regime's cruelty.


Popular Reaction

Democratic Kampuchea did not emerge from a popular mass movement or a true peasant revolution, but neither was it merely the work of a few insane leaders, or a coup d'etat. The war, in combination with global/regional forces and internal social factors, created a situation in which many Khmers were willing to give the KR a chance. Without this critical opening, the KR would have encountered serious resistance much earlier and certainly could not have carried out immediately after their victory the massive implementations that granted them complete control. Indeed, the KR had a certain amount of popular support at the time of their 1975 victory. They relied on fear and terror to promulgate their sweeping changes, however, and popular support quickly deteriorated; it is doubtful that anyone other than cadres supported the regime after 1977.

How large was the KR's support base? The core of the group, from which emanated the real power and all decisions, and included individuals like Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, probably never grew much larger than a core of 15-20. Because of this small governing center, some scholars erroneously consider the KR to have been a tiny group. On the ground, though, the Khmer Rouge, had fairly substantial numbers of soldiers and lower-level cadres. In early 1970, they had about 4,000 (57) armed troops, and grew to 12,000 (58) by the end of the year. By the time of the take-over in 1975, Carney estimated that the KR had 60,000 soldiers, along with 14,000 non-army members. (59) Given a population of 7.9 million, then, the active membership of the KR comprised nearly 1% of the total. As a basis for comparison, it is instructive to look at the current situation in Zaire. As of December 1996, rebel leader Laurent Kabila had between 3,000 and 7,000 troops.(60) By now, he may have anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000, and most observers believe that he has substantial enough popular support to seize power imminently. If we estimate his troops at 10,000, then with Zaire's population of 45 million, Kabila's forces constitute about .022%, a minuscule group indeed.

Although KR cadres moved to rural areas in the 1960s, the group did not gain much peasant support until the war and the bombings in the early 1970s. However, they built a solid base of support among the poorest, landless peasants who responded to their focus on land ownership. More peasants joined as a direct result of the bombings, and as other scholars have noted, the support of rural Buddhist monks was influential. In 1972, Thion found rule in the villages lenient, and noted, "In the villages, people took part spontaneously, mostly because they were bombed and machine-gunned by the Lon Nol airforce." (61)

Kiernan suggests that in many areas, particularly the Eastern Zone, peasants worked closely with KR cadres: "The evidence suggests a rather close relationship between many cadres and peasants that was to persist until the deaths of both at the hands of another group of outsiders from Phnom Penh." (62) Quotations from peasant survivors indicate an initial approval of the KR's stated goals.

Etcheson adds that the KR probably experienced a 'bandwagon effect' after attaining a critical level of success, adding to their popular support. Moreover, the war fostered a vacuum of authority and a certain demystification of the monarchy which may have radicalized many.

The base peasants were the core of the KR's support and comprised many of the 60,000 "mostly illiterate" peasant soldiers remarked upon by Carney. Their resentment of urban dwellers carried over to a strong prejudice against the 'new people' arriving in their villages. The base peasants, Kiernan argues, identified with the victors, though they themselves were not really in control: "Even so, peasant support for the regime enforcing the sanctions remained surprisingly high until 1977. Support for an established order, perhaps especially a new revolutionary one, is another option for peasants, one that many base people chose." (63)

Yet, base peasants were not the only supporters. New people, too, were initially eager to rebuild and reorganize society. At the time of the victory, the Lon Nol regime was so despised that most Khmers assumed the new regime could only be better. "In 1975-76 nationalism was pervasive, victory sweet, hope millennial. The regime talked incessantly about empowering peasants and raising living conditions. Many were prepared to give it time. And to sacrifice much." (64) Only later did the scarcity of food and the total lack of subsistence make the regime intolerable and push peasants over the breaking point into rebellion.

The KR also had a significant youth contingent because of an organized and highly intensive program of youth indoctrination. They used children as spies and informers, and placed many in special training camps for integration into the army at age 12: "There soon emerged an extremely militant corps of youthful cadres totally committed to Angkar's instructions." (65) The KR recruited from the poorest, most isolated rural villages, and by 1975 had thousands of tough, uneducated, disciplined fighters, mostly under the age of 20. Kenneth Quinn describes these young cadres as completely rural, with no exposure to urban life, motivated by intense hatred and anger, and addicted to torture and murder. They were the shock troops of the revolution.



By freely adopting concepts from recent theoretical elaborations of the process of globalization, one may analyze the rise of the Khmer Rouge in a way that transcends the state-centered framework. Globalization concepts, particularly the dialectic of the local and the global, illuminate fresh understandings of the Khmer Rouge. Many scholars have concentrated on external causation, while conversely, others have analyzed internal, local conditions. Both, though, have everything to do with the historical process of globalization. On its own, each is only part of the story. The globalization framework integrates the two outlooks, revealing how the interaction of the local and the global shaped Democratic Kampuchea. To discern this fusion clearly, I examined both the effects of global forces and the social circumstances of the 1970s that shaped the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, as well as salient features of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.

Cambodia's position in the middle of Southeast Asia during the volatile 1960s and 1970s forced questions of national sovereignty to the fore. The ancient Cambodian state was closely identified with a national Khmer culture, and the total loss of sovereignty and control of territory nourished an embattled sense of ethnic identity. The Khmer Rouge's obsessively nationalist, autarchic ideology reflected this increasingly fearful and resentful identity, and national purity was the leitmotif of the Democratic Kampuchea regime. National purity commingled with ideological purity, a potent combination that underlay the intensifying purges, the savageness, the totalitarianism, the inexplicable war with Vietnam. Localized social conditions filtered and mediated global forces and the ideologies of nationalism and communism. The Khmer peasants' cultural practices, along with their resentment of minorities, distrust of modernization and urbanization, and outrage at the war's destruction of rural communities, all exacerbated by uncontrollable and destructive global processes, enabled the germination of the Khmer Rouge. In the end, the singular and potent constellation of global forces and local conditions at a particular moment in history shaped a small group, a political vacuum, an insurgent peasantry, and ultimately, a regime that committed one of the century's worst crimes against humanity.

1. Chandler, David. The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Westview Press, 1996, p. 242.

2. Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, p.49.

3. Hall, Stuart, "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity," from Culture, Globalization and the World System, ed. Anthony D. King, Department of Art and Art History, SUNY Binghamton, 1991, p.26.

4. Hall, p. 62.

5. Appadurai, p.39.

6. Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973.

7. Watts, Michael, "Mapping Identities: Place, Space, and Community in an African City," from The Geography of Identity, University of Michigan Press, 1996, p. 78.

8. Watts, p. 94.

9. Kampuchea in the Seventies, Report of a Finnish Inquiry Commission, 1982, p. 8.

10. Etcheson, Craig. The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, Westview Press, 1984, p. 57.

11. Etcheson, 63.

12. Haas, Michael. Genocide by Proxy, Praeger Press, 1991, p'77.

13. Haas, p. 54.

14. Chandler, p. 189.

15. Sethi, S.S., Kampuchean Tragedy: Maoism in Action, Kalainkar Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1979, p.30.

16. Shawcross, William. Sideshow, Simon and Schuster, 1979, p. 65.

17. Shawcross, p.24, 67.

18. Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, Yale University Press, 1996. p. 19.

19. Chandler, p. 8.

20. Chandler, p. 94.

21. Shawcross, p. 130.

22. Shawcross, p. 130.

23. Shawcross, p. 215.

24. Chandler, p. 220.

25. Etcheson, p. 28-29.

26. Ponchaud, Francois, "Social Change in the Vortex of Revolution," in Cambodia 1975-1978, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 164.

27. Frieson, Kate, "Revolution and Rural Response in Cambodia: 1970-1975" from Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia, Kiernan, ed., Monograph Series No. 41, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1993, p. 39.

28. Thion, Serge. Watching Cambodia, White Lotus, Bangkok, 1991, p. 176.

29. Jackson, Karl. "The Ideology of Total Revolution," in Cambodia 1975-1978, p. 72.

30. Chandler, David. "Seeing Red: Perceptions of Cambodian History in Democratic Kampuchea," from Revolution and its Aftermath in Kampuchea, Chandler and Kiernan, eds., Monograph Series No. 25, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1983, p'46.

31. Carney, Timothy, "The Organization of Power," in Cambodia 1975-1978, p. 96.

32. Chandler, History of Cambodia, p. 182.

33. Scott, James C. The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Yale University Press, p.188

34. Ponchaud, from Cambodia 1975-1978, p. 161.

35. Etcheson, p. 62.

36. Kiernan, p. 6.

37. Ponchaud, from Cambodia 1975-1978, p. 157.

38. Kiernan, p. 19.

39. Shawcross. p. 222.

40. Kiernan, 24 and Shawcross, 222.

41. Kampuchea in the Seventies, p. 43.

42. Haas, p. 16.

43. Kampuchea in the Seventies, p.13.

44. Chandler, p. 243.

45. Shawcross, p. 249.

46. Ponchaud, p. 165.

47. Etcheson, p. 28.

48 Kiernan, p. 62.

49. Kiernan, p. 26.

50. Kiernan, p. 393.

51. Kiernan, p. 408.

52. Kiernan, p. 386.

53. Kiernan, p. 63.

54. Kiernan, p. 387.

55. Kiernan, p. 458, table 4.

56. Kiernan, p. 405.

57. Frieson, p. 34.

58. Haas, p. 17.

59. Carney, p. 57.

60. Der Spiegel #50, December 9, 1996, p'1 68.

61. Thion, p. xiv.

62. Kiernan, from Revolution and its Aftermath in Kampuchea, p. 141.

63. Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p.213.

64. Kiernan, p. 214.

65. Etcheson, p. 162.



1. Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large. University of Minnesota, 1996.

2. Chandler, David and Kiernan, Ben, eds. Revolution and its Aftermath in Kampuchea. Monograph Series No. 5 Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1983.

3. Chandler, David. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Westview Press, 1992.

4. Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia, second edition. Westview Press, 1996.

5. Etcheson, Craig. The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, Westview Press, 1984.

6. Haas. Michael. Genocide By Proxy: Cambodian Pawn on a Superpower Chessboard. Praeger. 1991.

7. Hall, Stuart. "Ethnicity and Difference," Radical America Vol. XXIII. 1989.

8. Jackson, Karl, ed. Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death, Princeton University Press, 1989.

9. Kampuchea in the Seventies, Report of a Finnish Inquiry Commission, 1982.

10. Kiernan, Ben, ed. Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia, Monograph Series No. 41. Yale University Southeast Asia Studies. 1993.

11. Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, Yale University Press, 1996.

12. Kina Anthony D. Culture, ed. Globalization and the World System, Department of Art and Art History, SUNY Binghamton, 1991.

13. Mlinar, Zdravko, ed. Globalisation and Territorial Identities, Avebury, 1992.

14. Ponchaud, Francois. Cambodia: Year Zero Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.

15. Pradhan, B.B. Super Powers and Non Alignment in Third World Conflicts: A Study of Kampuchea, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1990.

16. Scott, James C. The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Yale University Press, 1976.

17. Sethi, S.S. Kampuchean Tragedy: Maoism in Action, Kalamkar Prakashan Pyt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1979.

18. Shawcross, William. Sideshow, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

19. Thion, Serge. Watching Cambodia, White Lotus, Bangkok, 1993.

20. Yaeger, Patricia, ed. The Geography of Identity, University of Michigan Press, 1996.


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