Cambodian Year Zero

Among the seemingly unending horrors carried out by Marxist sympathizers during the 20th century, the Cambodian genocide was likely the most perverse in per capita terms. The tragedy was so all-emcompassing and far-reaching that even today, Cambodia is struggling to put this chapter of its history behind and move forward.

A false serentity filled the streets of Phnom Penh as Khmer Rouge troops entered the city on the morning of April 17, 1975 ending a civil war of five years. For the most part, the residents of the Cambodian capitol welcomed the troops as liberators. By mid-afternoon, the city's residents were ordered to evacuate the city, the reason given that the city was going to be bombed and safety would be found away from the city. Little did the residents of Phnom Penh know, there were no plans for any bombings at all. Rather, the excuse was simply a ruse to abandon the city. They were given 24 hours to evacuate the city, and among the chaos, many lost their closest relatives forever. During this initial evacuation, approximately 10,000 died.

The Khmer Rouge believed that city life represented the evils of capitalism, referring to Phnom Penh as "the great prostitute of the Mekong"[1]. They viewed peasant life as the ideal of communist society - simplicity, diligence, non-exploitive. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to transform the former city dwellers, "New People", into peasants, "Old People". It did not matter what the New People did for a living, what religion they subscribed to, or what political convictions they held. By choosing to live in the cities, they had made their allegiance to capitalism known, and thus became enemies of the new communist state.

Other cities were similarly evacuated and in the next few days, nearly 50% of the total population of the country was on the road.

The "Year Zero" was declared, a new start to history. Private ownership, money, and religion were banned. Family relationships were eliminated. Cities were abandoned, schools and factories closed. The goal behind the massive restructuring was to "make socialism in the fields". Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot developed a "Four Year Plan" to increase rice production to triple its peacetime levels. Workers were made to work the fields for 12 hours a day without adequate food, rest, or water. Many fell ill and died due to the Khmer Rouge's refusal to use Western medical methods, instead relying on traditional, ineffective remedies. Foraging for food was a capital offense, even in the face of meager food rations.

Many of the "New People" resorted to pretending to be one of the "Old People". Yet, if any person was found to have been one of the "New People" - educated, a former government official, a monk, a business owner, a French speaker, or a former soldier - he would be killed. Khmer Rouge soldiers often took people during the day from the fields to a distant forest area, where they were made to dig their own grave. The soldiers would bludgeon them in the back of the head. Whether they died or not, they would be buried.

Taking advantage of the termination of family life, children became the targets for brainwashing and communist indoctrination. They were seen as blank slates, untainted by the evils of capitalism, ripe for propangda. Some methods were so successful that children often spied on their own parents. If they revealed their parents as "New People", they would be rewarded, even as their parents were dragged away to their deaths.

Perhaps the most horrific remnant of the Cambodian genocide is the photographic record of those executed at S-21, a Khmer Rouge interrogation center. While over a million Cambodians were dying in the killing fields, a select few were executed at such interrogation centers. S-21 was located at the former high school in Phnom Penh known as Tuol Seng. An estimated 20,000 people entered S-21; only 6 are known to have survived. Confessions were extracted by whatever means necessary, including electric shocks, hanging torture, hot metal, and repeated bludgeoning. Nearly 5,000 photographs remain today from the confession files of prisoners. The pictures were taken before execution as proof of their deaths. What does a person look like when death is staring him in the face? See for yourself.

As time passed, the regime began to crumble from within. Paranoia was rampant, and perhaps none was as paranoid as the man at the top of the hierarchy - Pol Pot. Any suspicion of disloyalty was met with mass purges and liquidations. He even executed friends he had known for decades to make sure there was absolutely no dissention in the ranks. Eventually, most of the people passing through S-21 became Khmer Rouge agents accused by their comrades of treason. Accusations of treason, whether based on merit or not, became the only means of survival in the struggle for power.

Eventually, the Khmer Rouge was defeated by invading Vietnamese troops in late 1978. As the Vietnamese took control of Phnom Penh, Pol Pot escaped by helicopter. Although the Vietnamese themselves had been involved in brutal war for many years by that time, their discoveries in Cambodia shocked them - killing fields, execution centers, and mass graves throughout the countryside.

Estimates vary, but somewhere between one million and two million people lost their lives during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge holds a notorious distinction: they killed a greater portion of their own people than any other regime in history. In merely four years, they killed anywhere from 10% to 25% of the entire population of Cambodia, depending on varying estimates.

In the quest for a classless society, the Marxist Khmer Rouge nearly succeeded in wiping clean any trace of the old Cambodia. For the millions who perished in their wake, today, we remember them.

fn1. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution Since 1945, David P. Chandler

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I've been to Toul Sleng and

I've been to Toul Sleng and it's an absolutely harrowing experience. The worst section of it, for me, is their newer photo exhibit which looks at the former guards (who were just children) and what they do today and how they feel about it. They're just normal people, and it was shocking to see "the banality of evil", knowing that, walking around Cambodia, many of the people I see have been part of such a terrible atrocity. The Vietnamese invasion was an oddly humanitarian intervention, and our reaction to it was appaling. After the Vietnamese took control the US supported Khmer Rouge guerillas to fight against them. Interesting...