Politics / Southeast Asia

“Khmer bodies, Vietnamese minds”: genocide & justice in Cambodia

by Vinita Ramani
Length 18 min

From 1975–1979, over 1.7 million people died brutally at the hands of the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime. In November 2018, a United Nations-backed international tribunal ruled that these acts constituted crimes against humanity and genocide. But is it enough to help Cambodians come to terms with their brutal past?

Genocide in Cambodia

On 16 November 2018, an international court in Cambodia finally declared that the most heinous crime of genocide had taken place more than forty years ago in the country.

It began on 17 April 1975, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea (also known as the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmers), came into power and established the state of Democratic Kampuchea. Much like the Mao’s People’s Republic of China, the Khmer Rouge’s goal was to take a “great leap forward” by implementing a massive socialist revolution in Cambodia. Any detractors were enemies who had to be exterminated. From April 1975 to January 1979 the regime decimated the country’s population through forced resettlement, forced labour, starvation, rape, torture, and mass executions.

More than 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population, died.

The senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, including Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, leng Sary, leng Thirith, and Duch.
The senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea. Photo credit: Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

Two aging senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge stood trial for the brutal crimes they orchestrated and oversaw during the regime’s rule. The first was the former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Nuon Chea, 92, who was found guilty of genocide against the Cham Muslims and Vietnamese. The second, 87-year old former Head of State Khieu Samphan, was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese. Both were also found guilty of crimes against humanity. The remaining senior leaders charged by the court, including Ieng Sary (Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs during regime’s rule), and Ieng Thirith (Minister of Social Affairs), died before trials against them could proceed.

Kaing Guek Eav, the chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison was arrested in 2007 and was the first person to be on trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on 3 February 2012 for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The process of acknowledging these atrocities only came to fruition in 1997 when the Cambodian government asked the United Nations to assist with the process of prosecuting the most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In 2003, the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia signed an agreement to try the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those most responsible for the national and international crimes committed at the time. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established within the Cambodian judicial system and officially inaugurated on 2 July 2006.

The court allows for victim participation: survivors are allowed to become civil parties to the proceedings, which enables them to have pro bono legal representation, submit evidence to the court, and importantly, to seek “moral” and “collective” reparations. In a nation of victims, monetary compensation was never a viable option. The defendants standing trial also claimed they were indigent from the onset.

Almost everyone living in the country was targeted. This made it notoriously difficult to prove that genocide had taken place in the country.

Cambodians often say “Khmer killed Khmer” and that the country became a “prison without walls”.

As a result, guilty verdicts at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal held significant weight for the collective psyche of Cambodia. Finally, there had been acknowledgement of a dark time in Cambodia’s history. Yet, these mass crimes did not happen in a vacuum. They were catalysed by global politics and foreign intervention in Indochina.

 

The rise of communism in Indochina

Immediately after World War II, global alliances split between a US-led western bloc and an eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union and China. While these nations remained in a “Cold War”, actual conflicts broke out in countries that had been colonised by European western bloc nations. Galvanised by communist ideology, movements sprang to resist colonial rule and gain independence.

B-52 Stratofortress releasing a 'bomb train' over targets in Vietnam during the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War.
B-52 Stratofortress releasing a 'bomb train' over targets in Vietnam

The ripple effect of this in mainland Southeast Asia—particularly Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos— were proxy wars. The Second Indochina War (known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War) started in 1955 and lasted over twenty years. Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, led the fight against the U.S. as the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Until 1972, the Vietnamese actively supported the Khmer Rouge in their fight to overthrow the American-backed Lon Nol government of Cambodia.

A time lapse of the Second Indochina War.
Second Indochina War. Pluvier, Jan M. ‘Historical Atlas of South-East Asia’. New York: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Cambodia paid a heavy price for their alliance with the communist Vietnamese. Foreseeing defeat in Vietnam and fearing the rapid spread of communism in the region, the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs across 113,716 sites in Cambodia during the war. This staggering figure outstrips the total tonnage of bombs dropped by the Allies during all of World War II.

Estimates show that close to 300,000 Cambodians may have died as a result of this bombing campaign alone. The Khmer Rouge—just ragtag guerillas in the 1960s—swelled in numbers and on 17 April 1975, they defeated the Lon Nol government, taking over the city of Phnom Penh.

“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

U.S. Airstrikes in Indochina. Video credit: United States National Archives

Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea, and the regime’s key architects banished religion, money, and ownership of private property. In 1976, the country was divided into administrative zones with numbered regions for efficient management. A four-year plan (1977-1980) was announced to collectivise property and devote all energies to rice cultivation. City dwellers in Phnom Penh were dubbed “new people” and seen as traitors who adored western culture in contrast to “base people” who toiled in rural provinces and had true revolutionary zeal.

The first phase of evacuations began immediately as millions of people were forcibly evicted from their homes, separated from their families, and sent to live in cooperatives across the country.

The regime itself became an omniscient, omnipresent entity called Angkar and a slogan came to be associated with it. “Angkar has the many eyes of a pineapple.” They were also subjected to indoctrination lessons to cultivate loyalty to the regime. Strangers were paired off and forced marriages were conducted en masse to create new families built on ideological union.

A forced marriage between two Khmer Rouge cadres that took place at S-24, one of the numerous prisons established by Democratic Kampuchea.
A forced marriage between two Khmer Rouge cadres that took place at S-24, one of the numerous prisons established by Democratic Kampuchea. Photo credit: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Despite such extensive control, the regime lived in a state of paranoia, constantly fearing enemies. Enemies were perceived to be spies for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Russian secret police (KGB) or Vietnamese infiltrators. But the list of enemies kept growing— city people, former Lon Nol government officials, Buddhist monks, ethnic minorities, alleged traitors, and intellectuals. To tackle, the regime established close to 200 prisons, which they called “security centres” and kept meticulous records of prisoners’ biographies and ethnic backgrounds, forcing long confessions out of detainees following months of torture.

As the prisons proliferated, so did the mass graves. Detainees were taken to “killing fields”, where they were executed by a blow to the back of the head or a gunshot. Bodies piled up in pits and shallow graves became commonplace across the country.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia undertook a 10-year project (1995-2004) to map mass graves, prisons, and genocide memorials across the country. This map shows 196 prisons and 19,733 mass grave sites in 388 clusters from the Democratic Kampuchea period

S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison)

The main building of S-21, or Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The main building of S-21, or Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Democratic Kampuchea’s most important and most infamous prison was S-21.

Situated in southern Phnom Penh, the two main buildings that constituted the prison were a former primary school and a former high school. Heavily guarded, and fenced with electrified wire, the classrooms were converted into small cells for single prisoners, while others held as many as 40 to 50 prisoners.

Over 1,000 people worked as staff at S-21, led by its chief, Duch (Kaing Guek Eav). Arrests began as early as 1976 and staff were trained to keep meticulous records of confessions by prisoners, which sometimes ran into hundreds of pages. Even former cadres and members of the Khmer Rouge ended up in the prison. Under pain of torture, prisoners betrayed each other and gave false confessions. Initially, bodies were buried in nearby sites. As the graves filled and land ran out, prisoners were taken to Choeung Ek, a site located 13 km southwest of Phnom Penh. Here, they were executed and buried in shallow graves.

In total, about 14,000 prisoners were held at S-21 and only 12 detainees survived because they had skills required by the prison: they could paint portraits glorifying the regime and its leaders, or were mechanics and could fix machinery.

Bou Meng and Chum Mey attending the hearings at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal on 3 February 2012. They were both civil parties for a case against Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch.
Bou Meng and Chum Mey attending the hearings at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal on 3 February 2012. They were both civil parties for a case against Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch. Photo credit: Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

No one was immune from the regime’s scrutiny. Yet, evidence gathered by historians, forensic experts, and court officials, corroborated by testimonies from survivors showed that the Khmer Rouge did target specific groups for extermination. Records from S-21 and investigations reveal that while foreign nationals were detained at S-21, the majority of these were Vietnamese. In all, estimates suggest that up to 345 Vietnamese detainees—soldiers, civilians, women and children—were held in the prison and perished there.

Vietnamese detainee from S-21 or Tuol Sleng prison.
Vietnamese detainee from S-21 or Tuol Sleng prison. Photo credit: Documentation Center of Cambodia

One signage in S-21 obtusely hints at how and why the Vietnamese were targeted. It is a set of regulations for detainees and Regulation 8 states: “Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.”

A sign at S-21 highlighting regulations that applied to detainees.
A sign at S-21 highlighting regulations that applied to detainees.

Who were the Khmer Krom and why was this regulation referring to them, and by extension, to the Vietnamese?

 

“Khmer Bodies, Vietnamese Minds”

A map showing the changing borders defining Khmer and Vietnamese territories, as well as Khmer Kampuchea Krom, from the 14th century to the 20th century.
A map showing the changing borders defining Khmer and Vietnamese territories, as well as Khmer Kampuchea Krom, from the 14th century to the 20th century. Illustration by Kontinentalist. Data from Pluvier, Jan M. ‘Historical Atlas of South-East Asia’. New York: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Despite being close allies before the Khmer Rouge came into power, there were deep and divisive historical tensions between Vietnam and Cambodia. The Khmer Krom were at the heart of that mutual mistrust.

The Khmer Krom are the “lower Khmers”—Cambodians of the lower Mekong delta region or Khmer Kampuchea Krom. Historically, they had distinct surnames, different accents from other Khmers and nuanced cultural practices that set them apart. But in 1949, that territory was transferred by the French colonial government to Vietnam and was re-named An Giang.

During this time, the Khmer Krom formed a pro-independence, anti-communist movement called the Khmer Serei. Following independence, a new movement called the White Scarves sprung up and they focused their efforts on trying to reclaim their territory from the communist Vietnamese.

In the context of the Indo-China wars which involved international actors like the U.S., China and Russia, the Khmer Krom were perfect recruits for the American forces fighting against the communist Vietnamese. They had geographical familiarity with the border areas and many could speak Vietnamese; they could handle protracted guerilla warfare; and they showed an ability to forge strategic allegiances to fight for their cause.

Along with several indigenous and ethnic minority groups, many Khmer Krom were enlisted into the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), a U.S. government programme that was created during the war to fight against the communist Vietnamese forces. That made them traitors and enemies in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge—literally Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “spies”. In one instance, 68 Khmer Krom soldiers crossed the border into Cambodia and asked to see Khieu Samphan, in the hopes of joining the Khmer Rouge to fight against the Vietnamese. Their leader was taken to Tuol Sleng, where he was tortured and executed. The remaining 67 were gunned down. Sometimes, they were identified merely by the fact that they had long hair and drank milk: the drink of western imperialists.

Yet, it was their malleable identities that made the Khmer Krom easy enemies of the Khmer Rouge. The fact that they spoke Vietnamese and blended with the “enemy” meant they were not just American spies. They seemed Khmer, but they were, in fact, Vietnamese. Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds.

So, Regulation 8 at Tuol Sleng came to refer to both the Khmer Krom and the Vietnamese. Both were enemies, their fates interwoven.

 

Wrapped in death: coded scarves and mass purges

The heaviest clusters of prisons and mass graves follow a trail from the East and Southwest Zone (bordering Vietnam) towards the Northwest Zone. As the war with the Vietnamese intensified through 1977 and 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and in some instances, took Cambodian civilians back with them.

An illustrative map of the Democratic Kampuchea divided into administrative zones, based on the original 1976 map used by the regime.
Democratic Kampuchea divided into administrative zones, based on the original 1976 map used by the regime. Illustration by Kontinentalist. Data from Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Incidences like that, along with the protracted battle, heightened paranoia in the regime. Thereafter, massive purges began.

In Kraing Ta Chan and Wat Pratheat security centres, situated in the border province of Takeo (Southwest Zone), the bulk of the detainees tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge were Khmer Krom. Others from Eastern Zone provinces were forcibly transferred and brought to Phnom Penh for processing by the Khmer Rouge Central Committee. In a calculated strategy of ethnic cleansing hauntingly reminiscent of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge gave Eastern Zone people blue and white scarves, which they were to wear at all times. These scarves marked them for subsequent purging.

Tun Soun, a Khmer Krom survivor, points to one of the mass grave sites near Wat Pratheat (pagoda) in Kiri Vong district, Takeo province. The area was one of Cambodia’s most notorious prison and torture centres.
Tun Soun, a Khmer Krom survivor, points to one of the mass grave sites near Wat Pratheat (pagoda) in Kiri Vong district, Takeo province. The area was one of Cambodia’s most notorious prison and torture centres. Photo credit: Justin Min (2010)

Khmer Krom from these zones were asked to identify themselves during screening sessions. Fearful of not providing an honest story, most complied. They were then taken away, sent to provinces like Pursat (in the Northwest Zone) on trains and trucks and ended up in Phum Veal security centre, where they were tortured and executed. Bodies filled mass grave sites like Prey Krabau. Men and women lost their Khmer Krom spouses, and children who chose to go with their Khmer Krom parent on “assignments” were also executed.

These border zones came to represent the final frontier in the conflict. The people who lived here, or who had been forcibly moved here by the regime, were targeted because they could be Vietnamese or Khmer Krom infiltrators. Either way, two communities and two peoples were targeted for ruthless mass executions.

But was it genocide?

 

Genocide: an extraordinary crime

Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944, after carefully studying the policies and acts of the Nazi regime in Germany and the systematic destruction of Jewish people across Europe during World War II, in what came to be known as the Holocaust. He subsequently campaigned to have genocide recognised as an international crime. In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly officially recognised it as a crime under international law. Two years later, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) was adopted by the General Assembly.

The Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with [the] intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It spells out how these acts intend to cause mental and physical harm; create conditions of life that make survival impossible by deliberately preventing births or targeting children from that group, ensuring that they cannot survive.

Ample evidence was put before the court to prove that the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide against the Vietnamese and Cham Muslims. They were rounded up, singled out and executed en masse. Cham Muslims were forced to give up their religion, eat pork, and stop wearing their traditional attire. After more than three decades of living under the shadow of collective trauma, these two ethnic groups were vindicated when the regime’s senior leaders were found guilty of genocide. But what about the Khmer Krom?

Khmer Krom villagers in Pursat province respond with a show of hands when asked if they want justice for the crimes they suffered under the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Krom villagers in Pursat province respond with a show of hands when asked if they want justice for the crimes they suffered under the Khmer Rouge. Photo credit: Rothany Srun (2010)

Justice delayed or justice denied?

The Khmer Krom occupy a grey area that historians and court investigators alike, have grappled with understanding in the context of genocide by the Khmer Rouge. But the evidence from the Eastern Zone purges and from the Northwest Zone were too significant to ignore.

In 2015, the court’s co-investigating judges determined that there would be further cases, namely Case 003 and 004, of which the latter specifically addresses genocide against the Khmer Krom. To date, the Khmer Krom are still waiting to share their testimonies in court and only one Khmer Krom survivor has testified so far in Case 002.

For survivors like May Sokhan, a Khmer Krom Buddhist monk who was disrobed and tortured in the Eastern Zone, peace has come in the form of reconstituting a torture site into one for prayer and healing. Wat Pratheat pagoda stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, with its vast murals depicting the Khmer Krom Tree of Life and its modest stupas housing the bones of victims found in the area.

The 64-year-old Khmer Krom monk May Sokhan talks about being tortured and disrobed by the Khmer Rouge. At Wat Pratheat pagoda, he is the "keeper of the bones" and has performed ceremonies for the deceased.
64-year-old Khmer Krom monk May Sokhan talks about being tortured and disrobed by the Khmer Rouge. At Wat Pratheat pagoda, he is the "keeper of the bones" and has performed ceremonies for the deceased. Photo credit: Rothany Srun (2010)

More than 4,000 civil parties came forward to participate in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in the first two cases. The ability to testify in court and participate in public forums has been a vital step towards achieving some measure of peace in Cambodia. With the court’s endorsement, moral and collective reparations have included proposed changes to the school curriculum to include the history of the Khmer Rouge in history books. Organisations like the Documentation Center of Cambodia have mounted exhibitions and education programmes to document the narratives of survivors and former Khmer Rouge cadres. Counselling support for victims still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are ongoing.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide giving testimony as a form of therapy.
Counsellors provide support for a survivor sharing his life story during a testimonial therapy session. Photo credit: Justin Min (2010)

These efforts have lifted the veil that has hung like cloud over the nation, allowing sufferers to find the language, however broken, to communicate their pain.