8. External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology



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8. External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology

Ben Kiernan


The Dutch scholar J. C. Van Leur once remarked that European historians tended to see Southeast Asia “from the deck of the ship, the ramparts of the fortress, the high gallery of the trading house.” Yet, Van Leur argued, the external impact on Southeast Asia had been superficial: “The sheen of the world religions and foreign cultural forms is a thin and flaking glaze; underneath it the whole of the old indigenous forms has continued to exist.”1

Michael Vickery has applied this to Hindu-Buddhism in early Cambodia. He suggests that “the Indic façade of script and temple art” may only obscure the underlying indigenous Khmer culture of the pre-Angkor period.2 In the first millennium, Cambodia and Java adopted similar elements of Indian culture, but despite “heavy accretions of Indic cultural traits they are different in almost every detail.” Parallel or contradictory developments may occur autonomously and separately in different societies, despite superficial similarities to a third, external cultural source. Vickery argues that the Cambodians merely embellished “indigenous traits with Indic garb”: “Of course the Cambodians learned and adapted Indic writing, Indian names for deities, and became acquainted with Indian religious literature and practices, but the degree of syncretism which is being increasingly revealed suggests that we would be closer to reality in calling the result “Khmerization” of Indic traits rather than “Indianization” of the Khmer.”3

In archaeology and prehistory, this is a long-debated issue, akin to the “nature vs. nurture” standoff in psychology. In 1942 the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe anticipated globalisation when he stressed the borrowings made by European societies. “The richness of our own cultural tradition is due very largely to diffusion, to the adoption by our progressive societies of ideas created by many distinct groups … even more striking is the growth of intercourse and interchange … Cultures are tending to merge into culture.”4 Much of this diffusion -- what one might call the original globalisation -- came from the East. “European barbarism was being increasingly penetrated by radiations from Oriental civilization.”5

Taking a different view, Colin Renfrew showed in 1973 how the “Radiocarbon Revolution” suggested much earlier dating of archaeological finds in Europe. “[T]he east Mediterranean innovations, which were supposedly carried to Europe by diffusion, are now found earlier in Europe than in the East. The whole diffusionist framework collapses…” Thus, developments “supposedly brought about by contacts with ‘higher’ cultures in the Orient, may be seen instead as the result of essentially local processes.”6

Now, the pendulum has swung back. Some believe Renfrew went too far in ruling out the evidence for diffusion.7 Yale archaeologist Frank Hole says: “We take both local development (evolution) and diffusion into account as the context seems to warrant.  That is, a dogmatic approach to one or the other is out.” 

The contrasting conceptual models of diffusion and autonomous development provide a framework for examining the emergence of an idiosyncratic, genocidal state: Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK). If the origins of Khmer Rouge ideology and practice were external, where did they come from? If they were indigenous, does that rule out any historical precedent for such a regime ? How important is the social and political context that acted on outside influences ?

Components of Khmer Rouge Ideology and Practice


The Khmer Rouge perpetrators of the 1975-79 Cambodian genocide at first hid their ruling Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) behind the secretive term Angkar (“The Organisation”). But on Mao’s death in 1976, Pol Pot proclaimed DK’s allegiance to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. A year later the CPK declared itself to be a Communist Party. Stalinist-style collective labour projects, political and class purges, and mass population deportations marked its four years in power. Hence, one could characterize DK as a product of ideological diffusion.

Yet such Communist aspects of Khmer Rouge ideology and practice also combined disastrously with more indigenous features of the regime. These included territorial expansionism; racial and other social discrimination and violence; rhetorical idealization of the peasantry; repression of commerce and cities in favour of autarky; communalism; and assaults on the family. These features of DK resulted at least in part from longstanding Khmer cultural and historical forces which informed local decisions – autonomous development. Local characteristics of that regime illuminate indigenous factors that, in conjunction with global external influences, can give rise to genocide.



Expansionism. The CPK leadership compiled a long record of aggressive militarism. It launched a peacetime rebellion against the Sihanouk regime, and after the 1973 Paris Agreement, continued attacking Lon Nol’s regime until victory.8 DK then launched attacks in 1977-78 against all three of Cambodia’s neighbours: Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The leadership harboured irredentist ambitions to reunite Cambodia with ancient Khmer-speaking areas once part of the Angkor empire. It thus attempted by force to redraw Cambodia’s borders around contiguous heartlands (in northeast Thailand, and Vietnam’s Mekong delta, known as “Kampuchea Krom” or Lower Cambodia). Throughout 1977-78, numerous Khmer Rouge officials publicly announced their ambition to “retake Kampuchea Krom.” DK also unilaterally declared a new expanded maritime frontier. Such expansionism required both “tempering” (lot dam) the country’s population to become hardened purveyors of violence, and mobilising primordial racial rights to long-lost territory.9

Racism. Traditional Khmer racism proved a key component of DK ideology, one that gave force to its territorial imperative, but existed alongside Communist ideology.10 Such racism had a long history. In 1751, a French missionary wrote: “The Cambodians have massacred all the Cochinchinese [Vietnamese] that they could find in the country,” at the order of the Khmer king. “[T]his order was executed very precisely and very cruelly; this massacre lasted a month and a half; only about twenty women and children were spared; no one knows the number of deaths, and it would be very difficult to find out, for the massacre was general from Cahon to Ha-tien, with the exception of a few who were able to escape through the forest or fled by sea to Ha-tien.” Of the “numerous” Vietnamese in Cambodia before 1751, the missionary reported finding no survivors, “pagan or Christian.”11

Two centuries later, in 1977-78, DK officials hunted down and exterminated every last one of 10,000 or so surviving Vietnamese residents in the country.12 The CPK also perpetrated genocide against several other ethnic groups, systematically dispersed national minorities by force, and forbade the use of minority and foreign languages.13 While banning all religions, the Khmer Rouge especially persecuted religious minorities, the Vietnamese Christians and Cham Muslims.

Entrenching its grip on power, DK pursued pragmatic as well as ideological or race-based policies. This proved deadly to domestic dissenters, even those of the supposedly privileged race. Thus the CPK killed many of the majority Khmer ethnic group: defeated Lon Nol officials and soldiers, Khmer intellectuals and teachers, and CPK members accused of being pro-Vietnamese. In May 1978, Khmer Rouge radio exhorted its listeners to “purify” the “masses of the people” of Cambodia. The same broadcast also urged Khmers to kill thirty Vietnamese for every fallen Cambodian, thus sacrificing “only 2 million troops to crush the 50 million Vietnamese, and we would still have 6 million people left.”14 Xenophobic racism, expansionism, and massive domestic slaughter all went hand in hand.

The majority of DK’s victims, over a million people, were from Cambodia’s ethnic Khmer majority. But the CPK disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities. The death rate among the Khmer majority was high, at 15-20% in four years, but the toll among the Cham Muslims was 36%, the Lao 40%, and the Chinese 50%, and of the Vietnamese remaining in Cambodia after 1976, virtually 100% perished.15



Other Social Divisions. DK divided the population into geographic, racial and political categories. At first, the “base people” (neak moultanh) comprised ethnic Khmer peasants, and the “new people” (neak thmei) were from the towns contaminated by foreign and capitalist influence. This geographic discrimination placed the urban working class in the enemy camp. Onto this division, the Khmer Rouge grafted a three-fold racial and ideological hierarchy. The lowest category of “deportees” comprised urban evacuees and dispersed ethnic minorities like Chinese and Chams. The “candidates” were the rest of the “new people” conquered in 1975. And the “full rights people” were the “base people,” minus rural ethnic minorities like the Cham. The three new social castes were soon sub-divided on kinship, political and geographic criteria, with up to eleven sub-castes proliferating.16

Rural Idealization. Distrusting urban workers, the Khmer Rouge idealized the ethnic Khmer peasantry as the true “national” class, the ethnic soil from which the new state grew. The CPK recognized “only the peasants” as allies.17 Former workers, along with other expendable Cambodians became an unpaid agricultural labour force, and the economy became a vast plantation. The countryside became a “checkerboard” of huge new ricefields fed by earthen irrigation canals. DK propaganda emphasized the slogan, “With water we have rice, with rice we have everything.” By 1977, the regime claimed, “the water is gushing forth. And when there is water the scenery is fresh, life is pleasant, humour is lively, culture is evergreen.”18

In their violent repression, the Khmer Rouge regularly used agricultural metaphors such as “pull up the grass, dig up the roots,” and proclaimed that the bodies of city people and other victims would be used for “fertiliser.” But as they demolished the small raised dykes dividing traditional peasant plots, the CPK also demolished all three pillars of Cambodian peasant life: the peasant farm, the family unit, and the Buddhist religion. While the Khmer Rouge idealized the peasantry and liked to say they were leading a peasant revolution, they destroyed the Khmer peasant’s way of life.



Repression of Commerce and Cities. The CPK regime saw cities as both the gateway for foreign influence and the cause of rural underdevelopment. It portrayed ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and others as exploitative city-dwellers, workers and shopkeepers consuming rural produce without benefiting the Khmer peasantry in return. The regime’s first act on April 17, 1975, was to empty the cities of their population, including the two million people then living in the capital. The CPK also quickly abolished money and markets. The next year a confidential Khmer Rouge document denounced, in a single breath, “markets,… cities, confusion. Slavery.”19 DK tightly controlled foreign trade, virtually restricting it to the export of raw materials to China, North Korea, and Yugoslavia in return for weaponry and agricultural aid.

Communalism and Repression of Family life. An early CPK wartime propaganda song likened family relations to class exploitation, as a connection to be broken.

You depend on your grandparents, but they are far away.

You depend on your mother, but your mother is at home.

You depend on your elder sister, but she has married a [Lon Nol] soldier.

You depend on the rich people, but the rich people oppress the poor people.20

From the CPK victory in 1975, a barracks lifestyle largely replaced the family hearth. The regime instituted compulsory communal eating by 1977. Parents worked different shifts in the fields or at remote worksites. When at home they ate meals in mess-hall sittings, separately from their children. The Khmer Rouge criticized “family-ism” (kruosaaniyum) as an ideology to be discarded.21 A 1977 propaganda song entitled, “We Children Love Angkar Boundlessly,” compared pre-revolutionary children to orphans abandoned by “the enemy” – implicitly, their parents:

Before the revolution, children were poor and lived lives of misery,

Living like animals, suffering as orphans.

The enemy abandoned all thought of us…

Now the glorious revolution supports us all.22

The CPK framed its destruction of family life as women’s emancipation, and claimed to have established full gender equality. But just as the CPK idealized peasants and destroyed their lifestyle, and just as it denounced parents as “enemies” who “orphaned” their own children, it viewed spouses as oppressors and celebrated unpaid work removed from the family as women’s liberation.

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