Some additional notes on the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge (KR) were named ("mockingly") by Norodom Sihanouk, president (former king and prince) of Cambodia. It started as a group of leftist "subversives," according to the Sihanouk government, supported by North Vietnamhence the "red," as in communist. So, in French (Cambodia being a former part of French Indochina): les Khmer Rouges. Khmer is the ethnolinguistic group of most of the population of Cambodia.
There are really three phases to the story.
The first took place during the Vietnam War. Between 1970 and 1973, they took part in a civil war for control of the country which had already lost its former leader when he was displaced in a coup by US-supported Lon Nol. They worked with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). When the NVA pulled out of Cambodia in response to the Paris Peace Accords, it left the KR in control of much of the countryside. The civil war continued.
And so did the US bombing, hoping to maintain the American-friendly Lon Nol government. According to the CIA director of operations, the KR were able to use the devastating bombing by the US as a means of recruitment, something that was reported to be "successful" and "effective" (Pilger, The New Statesman). The bombing, the tonnage of which far exceeded all the bombs dropped on Japan in World War II combined, ended in August 1973, but the civil war continued.
In 1975, the KR finally, after a siege of the capital, Phnom Penh, gained control over Cambodia. They were greeted with cheering. 17 April 1975 was called Year Zero.
The years the KR were in power are what is generally focused on, during which they committed genocide of a substantial amount of the population (see below). The widespread killing didn't commence in earnest until around 1977, but by then conditions of famine and disease were already at work (not to say the killings didn't begin until 1977, because they had).
The KR were doing more than destroying what it felt to be an internal enemy, it began lashing out at the Vietnamese in border skirmishes, where they would murder, loot, and rape the "enemy" of Cambodia. Animosity between the two countries had a long tradition that was likely exploited in addition to whatever other reasons the KR used to justify the attacks (including fear that Vietnam was attempting to "strangle" Cambodia after a cooperation treaty was signed between Vietnam and Laos).
Day 1978, Vietnam invaded with some 100,000 troops. Within weeks it had retaken the capital
and proceeded to install its own government. Shortly after, the atrocities of the KR came to light. Not only the particulars but the incredible scale
on which they were committed.
The occupation lasted over a decade, during which the KR continued to fight the Vietnamese and the Cambodian government that was propped up by them. They already had long time support from China, but this time there was another ally: the US. From early on, the US managed to support the KR in a number of ways. This included encouraging China in its support.
Through its ally Thailand (the location of refugee camps where most of the KR were living at the time), it was able to give arms, information, and aid to the KR , which at the time were desperate and in sorry shapeaid arranged through the World Food Program and other outlets provided much needed "humanitarian" aid to the guerillas. Without which, they might have been eventually defeated or made inconsequential. Not only did US involvement in Cambodia bring about conditions that allowed the KR to come to power, it furnished the means for it to remain a force in the country following the genocide.
The CIA helped run things through the US embassy in Bangkok, providing supplies and munitions and arranging for other sources of aid. One came in the guise of British SAS officers who provided training and arms (particularly land mines). Another was Singapore which would directly provide arms from the US, Thailand, or China (or indirectly by manufacturing arms at a government-owned company, paid for by the US or one of the others). Throughout this time, China and the US made sure the KR retained its seat in the United Nations as the "legitimate" government of Cambodia.
This became a problem, so in order to give the KR a veneer of respectability, a "coalition" of it and two other "noncommunist" groups was created by the US and China (made of other Cambodians looking to oust the Hanoi-backed government, one being Norodom Sihanouk). This made it easier to pass aid through Congress and elsewhere. The other forces, though working with the KR, had little choice against the foreign-installed government. The only forces of any significant strength or effectiveness were the KR.
In 1991, following the Peace Accords (which called for disarmament of the "coalition," though the KR did not comply), UN peacekeeping forces came in and organized elections (1993), from which the KR pulled out a month early. By the late 1990s, the KR was largely gone, through attrition and defection, but not completely.
The next phase has yet to be written, which may or may not include a tribunal intended to try former KR for crimes against humanity. The US has deliberately dragged its feet on the issue and the UN has largely followed along. Pol Pot was actually tried in 1979, in absentia, and found guilty of genocide by the Vietnamese-supported government. Perhaps others will stand trial for real.
Why was the US so quick to support the KR despite its making Cambodia into a hell on earth? Two things that are related. One, to punish Vietnam for the US failure during the war. Two, to contain communism. The US continued to maintain the "veracity" of the Domino Theory, which stated that countries in the region of a communist nation(s) would be subject to "infection" by communist ideas (or outright takeover) and become communist. As one would fall, so would the othersas a line of dominoes. Related to both is the fact that the Soviet Union supported Vietnam, therefore a "victory" against Vietnam (or rather, the government it installed in Cambodia) would be a "victory" against the "Evil Empire."
One might be (justifiably) suspicious of reason one, but there was serious concern and numerous bruised egos over the failure to "win the war." One US official put it into words: Cambodia was America's "last battle of the Vietnam War" to be fought "so that we can achieve a better result" (Pilger, The Nation). It was a way to reestablish US dominance in the region after being ousted by Vietnam.
This is not so far-fetched as some might think. One should recall that the invasion of Grenada had similar elements of communist containment in an area that the US considered under its sphere of influence and control. The invasion helped it reestablish its "honor" and "prestige" as the most powerful force in the world (in the eyes of the US). Another battle to help wipe away the failure of Vietnam. This, of course, was more personal.
Even if unconvincing to some, no other serious explanation has been offered. And there is little question that the US support of the KR had little or nothing to do with the well-being of the people of Cambodia or the victims of the Pol Pot era. It certainly wasn't about justice.
The people who died during the initial civil war (part I) are not really what is being referred to when one speaks of the Cambodia genocide. Nor are the numbers that undoubtedly died following the invasion and occupation by Vietnam.1 The death toll assigned the KR is in reference to the actions that took place during its reign as the government of Cambodia: April 1975 to Decemeber/January 1978-1979.
The first thing to remember is that no one really knows how many.
There are a numerous of estimates, starting at over one half million and going up to and in excess of three million. Cambodian scholar Michael Vickery is generally felt to give the lowest estimates of any "serious" scholar (750,000). But a detailed study by at the "Democide: Murder by Government" site (www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.TAB4.1A.GIF) gives a low range of 600,000 between 1975 and 1979 (mid range being two million and the high being three million). The site, itself, accepts a 2.4 million estimate for the KR. The Campaign to End Genocide (www.endgenocide.org/genocide/cambodia.htm) gives the range as one to three million
A study by the Finnish government estimates one million dead. Genocide Watch (www.genocidewatch.org/genocidetable.htm) gives 1.7 to 2.2 million. The Mennonite Central Committee in Cambodia (www.mcc.org/areaserv/asia/cambodia, a religious organization that has been in the country since 1981) estimates 1 to 1.5 million. In the April 1993 issue of the New Internationalist (www.newint.org/issue242/contents.htm), Ben Kiernanwho would later be the founding director of the Cambodian Genocide Programgives an estimate of 1.5 million. The current estimate by the CGP is 1.7 million.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia, in a 1999 analysis (www.bigpond.com.kh/users/dccam.genocide/qcahc.htm) based on mapping of mass graves, gives a possible estimate well over three million, though admits to the limitations of the methodology. Regardless, the numbers are substantial by any of the estimates. Genocide is genocide.
Another thing of consequence is just "who" was being killed and "how." The second will be addressed first.
The stories of horrible torture and mass executions (as well as more "personal" methods of murder) are widespread and easy to find. This is what characterizes the common view of what happened. What is most overlooked is that the "executions" only made up about 30% to 40% of the deaths (some estimates put it as high as 50%).
What killed off more Cambodians than direct murder were famine and disease. Cambodia was and is a primarily rural country of subsistence farmers. The bombing that left the country scarred and portions unusable (large numbers of livestock were also lost). This was compounded by the civil war of the early 1970s. When the KR came to power and began to dismantle and destroy all remnants of the modern world to create their alleged utopian ideal, all modern farm implements and techniques were gonethings that might have given them a chance. Further complicating things was the mass evacuation of any city, particularly the capital. This put further strain on the already woefully inadequate capacity for the land to sustain the population.
As bad or worse, the infrastructure (that remained) was eliminated, as well. Doctors and nurses and hospitals and medicine. Those who suffered from starvation and malnutrition had no recourse. People who got sick were on their own. Once set in motion, it all worked together to grind down the people of Cambodia. Slower, perhaps, but just as dead.
What was that make up of the victims? Like many countries, there was a certain diversity of ethnic groups in Cambodia. All were hit hard by the genocide.
The largest group, the Khmer, lost an estimated 15% of its rural population and 25% of its urban population. There was a large population of ethnic Vietnamese. Many left the country prior to "Year Zero," others were expelled or fled when it became clear what was happening. Others were killed along with the rest.
There had been 425,000 ethnic Chinese in Cambodia. About half survived. The Cham ethnic group (primarily Muslim) had a population of about 250,000. Around 90,000 lost their lives. As many as 60,000 Buddhists were wiped out and a few thousand "foreigners."
Much more detailed writeups on the Vietnam War and the post-1979 era, specifically the US involvement, will eventually be written (the original versions were lost). Patience.
1No good estimates for the years following 1979 relating to people killed by the KR were found in researching this.
(Sources: in addition to the ones listed above, a great many were consulted, one of the most valuableespecially for the pre-Year Zero historywas http://edwebproject.org/sideshow; the two John Pilger articles are available at www.zmag.org/meastwatch/pilgerpot.htm and www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Secrets_Lies/Friends_PolPot.html, respectively; a more substantial list will be available when the other writeups are completed)