Cambodian Genocide

Cambodian Genocide 2

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime governed  Cambodia with the purpose of restoring the nation to its ancient glory days. Francois Ponchaud, a French Roman Catholic priest who lived and worked in Cambodia during the period before the KR took power, described the regime’s effort as a resetting of Cambodian history to “Year Zero”[1]. Regime rhetoric stated the newly named Democratic Kampuchea (DK), led by revolutionary and now DK primar minister Pol Pot, would be purged to produce a purer Cambodia, a utopia reminiscent of the Angkor empire. In the name of this restoration the KR established a radical communist system, ran labor camps on an agrarian model, and suppressed traditional and modern cultural institutions such as family, religion, and education. The grand vision turned into a devastating delusion. In a population of nearly 8 million, between 1 and 3 million people died from disease, starvation, torture, or murder [2].

Historiography of the Genocide

In the years since 1979, initial studies regarding the genocide primarily focused on the experiences of the years under the DK. David  Chandler, Ben Kiernan, and Michael Vickery led the historical research in this area during the late 1970s. Other disciplines have contributed to the field since then. Anthropologists May Ebihara and Judy Ledgerwood conducted studies in Cambodian communities to explore  cultural responses to the genocide. Ian Harris discussed DK policies toward religion. Evan Gottesman and Alexander Hinton covered political developments in Cambodia since 1979. It was in the last decade when more research about the memory of the genocide became more prolific. Rachel Hughes, as well as Judy Ledgerwood and Alexander Hinton, have added to this conversation by looking at the politics of memory in Cambodia. Thus far, the historiography of the Cambodian genocide has drawn from various sources—political documents, the reports of journalists, and oral histories to name a few.

Modern Justice & Retribution

Today, the history of the genocide is the matter of legal talk at the joint United Nations-Cambodian tribunals that began in 2008 to prosecute the named high-level DK administrators: the Tuol Sleng prison director Kaing Guek Eav (Duch), head of state Khieu Samphan, chief ideologue Nuon Chea, foreign minister Ieng Sary, and Sary’s wife and the DK minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith. (Pol Pot had died in 1998.) The defendants were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Thus far the only trial completed was for Duch, whose 2010 sentence to 19 years in prison was amended to life in prison in February 2012. And in March 2013, Sary, who served as the DK foreign minister, died. Conflict over continued international funding of the tribunal and internal dispute over court proceedings have been feeding frustration with the tribunals in the last couple of years, making some individual doubtful of the efficacy of obtaining legal justice for the genocide.

[1] Francois Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, trans. Nancy Amphoux (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), 192.
[2] The statistics regarding the human toll of the DK regime have ranged from 700,000 to 3 million, however studies by David Chandler (The Tragedy of Cambodian History), Ben Kiernan (The Pol Pot Regime), and Michael Vickery (Cambodia: 1975-1982) suggested the number being closer to between 1.7 and 3 million.

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