The village politics of the Khmer Rouge

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Tue Aug 22 10:00:57 PDT 2000

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The village politics of the Khmer Rouge

By: Eric Krebbers

This spring a Dutch translation was published of "First they killed my father", the deeply moving autobiography of Loung Ung. Ung was 5 years old when in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. It took them some 4 years to kill almost one third of the population. In Ungs book the Khmer Rouge does not seem to be communist, but rather national-socialist.

Right after the seizure of power all inhabitants of the cities were forced to live in peasant villages. The Ung family left the capital of Phnom Penh. After a long and terrible march they were drilled to become "real Khmers" in the village of Krang Truop. Like many others Ungs father and mother were one by one taken away and executed. Ung herself was educated to be an child soldier until she was liberated in 1979 by the Vietnamese.

The Khmer Rouge was founded in the sixties by a group around Pol Pot. They splitted off from the communist party because that party was according to them no "authentic representative" of "the Khmer people". Many of the founders of the Khmer Rouge were students in Europe in the years before. There they had become admirers of the writings of the nineteenth century German "völkische" nationalist Fichte, who was also an important source of inspiration to the nazi's. Fichte's ideals of a strong and closed state, combined with a self-sufficient agrarian "völkische" community, became the starting point of Khmer politics as was written in their basic document "The Kampuchean economy, aspects of its future development". In her book Ung tells us what it all came down to in real day to day life when this "future development" was indeed started off by the Angkar, the people's organisation of the Khmer Rouge.

Foreign threats

According to Fichte a "real völkische community" would egalise itself once the nationalist consciousness started growing. All members of this community would be entitled to a fair and sober existence, if they would keep themselves far away from "foreign influences" and "decadent luxury". Just like Fichte, the Khmers believed the "völkische" body to be a biological organism that could only remain healthy when completely isolated from "foreign countries".

"Daddy says the ethnic cleansing is an obsession to the Angkar. The Angkar hates everyone who is not a real Khmer. The Angkar wants to clean the democratic Kampuchea from all other races. They are seen as the source of all problems, all corruption and all injustice. Only when they are gone, the real Khmer culture wil florish again", Ung writes in her book. She must keep at distance from "ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and other minorities that are racially depraved". Ung is afraid to become a victim too: "The other kids hate me because my skin is lighter. They say I have Chinese blood." And: "Mother must also be careful to what she says, because she speaks with a Chinese accent."

Especially "the West" is supposedly dangerous to the "völkische" body. During her education as a child soldier Ung is tought "the philosophy of the state to build a new, agrarian society, without crime, treason, tricks and western influences. By all wearing the same we liberate ourselves from noxious Western vanity." Television, radio and other apparatus are "imported from abroad and have to be considered contaminated. Everything that is imported is bad, because other countries have been able to infiltrate Cambodia with it, not only physically, but also culturally."

Working machines

"The workers" were central to the Khmer Rouge, just as to many communists. But the Khmers didn't think of them as a class that makes history by its struggle against capital. They considered "the workers" simply as the producing parts of the "völkische"body. The right to survive depended on ones usefullness to the "volk". Ung writes: "Whoever stepped on a mine and lost an arm or leg lost his value to the Angkar. The soldiers would then finish the job by killing the victim. In the new society that was completely aimed at agrarian production there was no place for the handicapped."

"One often hears the soldiers say that women have duties to the Angkar", writes Ung. "It is their duty to do what they are made for, that is giving birth to children for the Angkar. If they do not fulfil their duties, they have no value and might as well not exist. They are then good for nothing and their food rations could better be given to somebody who does cooperate in rebuilding the country." Part of this population politics were forced marriages and harsh restrictions on non-reproductive sexual contact.

Back to the village

"You will have to obey the rules that the Angkar made for you. Only then you can stay free from the crimes and depravity of the city people", a military instructor tells Ung. Illiterate peasants were considered "model civilians" because "they have never left their villages and were not corrupted by the West". City people were killed, for instance because they were educated or wore glasses. "He says that the Khmer regime considers science and technics bad, and also everything that has something to do with machines, which means that these things should all be abolished or destroyed. According to the Angkar the possession of cars and electronic appliances such as watches, clocks, radios and television sets have led to a deep antagonism between the rich and the poor." Technics as the foremost evil.

Strong man Pol Pot

"Later that evening daddy tells Kim that the Angkar wants to get rid of all foreigners. They want to revive the glorious past in democratic Kampuchea. They dream of the time when Kampuchea was a large empire that possessed parts of what is now Thailand, Laos and South-Vietnam. The Angkar says that is only possible if we have nothing to do with anybody else."

Already in 1952 Pol Pot dreamt of a large and powerful empire when he wrote about the "holy identity of the Khmer-kingdom". Under his leadership, of course. Therefore he designed a leadership cult around his own personality. "All songs are about the worship of Pol Pot, the strong leader", writes Ung.

Pol Pots march to power involved the wholescale extermination of all Left-wing and internationalist groups in Cambodia. He therefore received financial support by the United States, England, China and Thailand. They saw him as a great warrior against the Sovjet supported communist

Vietnamese. Many Maoïst groups in Western Europe also supported the Khmer Rouge. An unknown number of their members have, not surprisingly, joined the far Right in the eighties.

(The quotes from Ungs book have been translated from Dutch to English by me, because I couldn't get hold of the English original. The quotes may therefor differ slightly from the original work.)

Eric Krebbers is a member of the Dutch anti-racist organisation De Fabel van de illegaal, based in Leiden (Holland). More articles like this one can be found on our homepage

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