Racial discrimination in the Cambodian Genocide

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RACIAL Discrimination

in the Cambodian Genocide

Liai Duong

Genocide Studies Program,

MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies,

Yale University

GSP Working Paper No. 34


The author is grateful for the comments and suggestions of Professor Ben Kiernan of Yale University, in addition to generous funding provided in 2005 by the Mellon Undergraduate Research Grant.


Among the nearly two million people who perished during the Cambodian genocide, were members of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities. In other instances of genocide, it is clear that those in power performed horrific acts of racial discrimination against minority groups. During the Holocaust, for example, Nazi antisemitism resulted in the German government’s implementation of discriminatory policies, which targeted millions of Jews for execution. In comparison to the Holocaust, it is more difficult to determine whether the Democratic Kampuchea government practiced racially discriminatory policies towards ethnic minorities during the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-79, because of the complexity of delineating what constitutes racial discrimination. Some scholars have disputed the existence of discriminatory policies towards ethnic minorities and have even argued that the ruling Khmer Rouge regime was innocent of genocide. This paper will examine whether the Khmer Rouge implemented racially discriminatory policies towards Cambodia’s minority groups. Although Cambodia is composed of many ethnic groups, over 80% of its people are Khmer; only the larger minority groups with the most extensive documentation will be discussed in this paper: the Vietnamese, Chams, and Chinese.

It will be argued that in the experience of all three minority groups, the Khmer Rouge’s policies betrayed traces of racial discrimination; however, the severity and type of racial discrimination varied.

The term “racial discrimination” is often liberally used without a clear understanding of its meaning. In order to determine whether the Khmer Rouge’s policies towards ethnic minorities were racially discriminatory, it is important to present a clear definition of the term. For the purposes of this paper, the definition of racial discrimination will be taken from Article 1 of the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which defines this phenomenon as:

any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.1
When discussing racial discrimination it is also important to recognize the different forms in which it may occur. Often, people may associate racial discrimination with assumed biological superiority, meaning they believe that those who discriminate based on race do so because they feel they are inherently better than those they discriminate against. However, existence of a notion of superiority is not always necessary for racial discrimination to take place. As will be seen in the case of the Cambodia genocide, the Khmer Rouge’s racially discriminatory policies did not necessarily arise out of a sense of biological supremacy. Instead, racial discrimination can arise from other motivating factors, such as politics, culture, and economics. When stereotypes surrounding these factors are applied to other groups, the threat of engaging in racial discrimination arises. For example, wealth was a factor that influenced how an individual would be treated by the Khmer Rouge. During their revolution, the Khmer Rouge initially divided the Cambodian population into two categories: “base people” (mostly peasants) and “new people” (mostly those who had lived in the cities).2 The new people were typically treated the worse because they were forced to work harder and under worse conditions.3 It will be shown how the Khmer Rouge’s belief in the stereotype that all ethnic Chinese were economically affluent and were urban “new people,” resulted in racially discriminatory policies directed towards them. Since the Khmer Rouge considered most Chinese a part of the wealthy class, the regime racially discriminated against the Chinese by treating them harsher than the Khmer.

It is also important to discuss whether motivation is a vital aspect of determining the existence of racial discrimination. For example, if the motive of the Khmer Rouge was to promote their own security, and to do so they felt they needed to persecute a particular race, does it follow that their actions were racially discriminatory? Motive is irrelevant to whether racial discrimination (or genocide) exists because even if the motive of a policy is not racialist, the predictable effects of a policy can be racial. Whether or not the goal of achieving security coincided with a determination to persecute a particular race, the policy itself still could result in targeting a specific group based on its race, making the policy a racially discriminatory one.

However, it is crucial to note the complexity in determining whether racial discrimination existed during the Cambodian genocide because it is hard to isolate how much of the discrimination towards these minority groups was based on race, rather than on other confounding variables. As in the previous discussion of the Chinese, it is difficult to determine which perceived characteristic, race or wealth, played a stronger role in influencing the treatment of a minority. All of these points need to be kept in mind when evaluating whether ethnic or racial discrimination was present in the Khmer Rouge’s policies.

Upon their victory in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodian society, seeking ways to attain national autonomy and fulfill notions of economic equality.4 In order to achieve these goals, they imposed various policies, including forced evacuation of the urban population to collectivized rural labor communes. Over time, different types of policies would now be forced upon parts of the population, some of them with a stronger impact on minorities than on the ethnic Khmer majority. Khmer Rouge policies that were either specifically directed towards minorities or had significant effects on them can be divided into four categories:

  1. imposition of uniformity,

ii) expulsion,

  1. extermination, and

  2. other forms of discrimination.

The Khmer Rouge sought to impose uniformity on the population by using “forced Khmerization,” requiring minorities to abandon aspects of their distinct culture and to become “Khmer.”5 To facilitate this imposition of uniformity, the Khmer Rouge implemented policies that banned portions of cultures, such as minority languages and all religions, and they dispersed sectors of the population. According to journalist Elizabeth Becker, the Khmer Rouge sought to “revive the glory and honor of Cambodia and to ensure the perenniality of the reinvented Kampuchean race.” This explanation details the reasons why they forced minorities to assimilate into Khmer culture.6 Furthermore, Becker claims that “the decree banishing minorities was a license to harass and murder thousands of innocent victims.”7 As will be discussed later, the policy of imposed uniformity was particularly directed at the Chams and Chinese.

In addition to imposing uniformity, the Khmer Rouge adopted a policy of expulsion, in which they forced people out of the country. This policy was directed initially at the ethnic Vietnamese. The decision to expel the Vietnamese minority was a result of the poor political relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the social stigma that had been projected onto the group. This will also be addressed later in the paper.

Furthermore, amongst all three minority groups, there is some evidence of a policy of extermination. There were frequent incidents that involved the Khmer Rouge killing many members of these minorities. Whether these killings were based on a conception of race has to be determined. Finally, the fourth type of policy encompasses all other types of discrimination. Examples include cases in which the Khmer Rouge prohibited members of all three minorities from holding political or military power.

In order to explore whether elements of racial discrimination existed in the Khmer Rouge’s policies, the fate of each minority group will be examined in the context of the policies directed towards them. The case of the ethnic Vietnamese will be the first to be observed.


Historically, tense relations between Cambodians and Vietnamese existed on both a social and political level. According to historian William E. Willmott, out of all the minority groups in Cambodia, the Vietnamese suffered from the most prejudice. On a social level, this prejudice against Vietnamese communities may be one result of the multiple historical Vietnamese invasions into Cambodia.8 Furthermore, this acrimony may be a consequence of Vietnam’s perceived past attempts to force its culture and institutions onto Cambodians.9 One Cambodian, Chlat, explicitly expressed his anti-Vietnamese sentiments:

I hate them [the Vietnamese]. I don’t have words to tell you how much I hate them… History and their actions clearly show that the Yuon [term for Vietnamese] have repeatedly done bad things in Cambodia. They learn the tricks of thieves. They steal from [our] economy. They start many fights. They have come to live in Cambodia, but they don’t respect the rights of the Khmer. And their biggest professions are stealing and prostitution.10

In addition to social animosity, Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam was fairly tense on a political level. Prior to their victory, the Khmer Rouge had quite a cooperative relationship with the North Vietnamese, who played a crucial role in their success during Cambodia’s 1970 to 1975 civil war. Working side by side, the Vietnamese had provided military training and personnel to aid the fight against General Lon Nol’s Republican regime.11 However, within weeks after their victory, the relationship between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese would deteriorate as animosities arose between them. Even though they had cooperated during the civil war, according to political scientist King C. Chen, the Khmer Rouge had always regarded the Vietnamese as “the enemy.”12 The regime’s policy decisions demonstrate its anti-Vietnamese attitude, and the decisions would only heighten tensions. These decisions include Cambodia’s invasion of Vietnamese territory, such as areas in the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island, and the executions of Vietnamese-trained soldiers.13 Finally, the Vietnamese saw the Khmer Rouge as ungrateful for the help the Vietnamese gave them during the civil war that brought them to power.14 The Vietnamese had sought a “special relationship” with Cambodia because of their mutual cooperation prior to 1975. However, based on past Vietnamese attempts to dominate Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge feared that the Vietnamese desired to establish an “Indochina Federation,” in which Cambodians would be subservient to Vietnamese power.15 These political tensions eventually resulted in the Khmer Rouge’s decision to isolate Cambodia from Vietnam. Cambodia formally cut all ties with its neighbor in 197716 and attacked across the border.

The social and political tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam had a detrimental effect on the Khmer Rouge’s treatment of the ethnic Vietnamese civilian population in Cambodia. Of the four types of policies, in the case of the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge used expulsion and extermination.

Immediately after their victory, the Khmer Rouge sought to expel the Vietnamese from Cambodian territory. Chea Sim, then a Khmer Rouge district party secretary, claimed that “Pol Pot spoke a lot about the question of Vietnam. He stressed the importance of the issue of evacuating all of the Vietnamese people out of Cambodian territory.”17 In May 1975, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea proclaimed their official plans to expel the Vietnamese, who they believed “had secretly infiltrated into Kampuchea and who lived hidden, mixed with the population.”18 In a matter of months, approximately 150,000 Vietnamese were driven from Cambodia.19


In mid-1976, the Khmer Rouge’s policy towards the Vietnamese changed. Now, the regime allowed no more to leave the country.20 Although the Khmer Rouge had expelled most Vietnamese from the country, not all had left. Some remained in the country for various reasons, such as the desire to stay with their Khmer spouses.21 The regime massacred these ethnic Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia. The persecution of the Vietnamese coincided with the rising political conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam.22 Specific orders were issued by the Khmer Rouge in April 1977 to arrest ethnic Vietnamese and anyone remotely associated with them, even those who simply knew their language.23 As previously mentioned, even ethnic Khmer who were trained by Vietnamese military were executed. The extent of the massacres was significant. In May 1977 alone, approximately 420 Vietnamese in Kompong Chhnang province were executed.24 Not only were Khmer Rouge officials active participants in the killings, but officials also forced Khmer spouses to kill their Vietnamese wives.25


It is apparent that the extermination and expulsion policies enacted towards the Vietnamese were forms of racial discrimination because these policies targeted a group based on race and at the very least, “impaired” their “exercise” of “fundamental freedoms.” The Khmer Rouge did not force any other sector of the Cambodian population to leave the country. Perhaps if the regime had forced other groups to leave, then the presence of racial discrimination would have been less convincing, since everyone would have been subject to equal treatment. Instead, the Khmer Rouge allowed other minorities to stay within the borders and in some cases did not harm them if they had undergone “Khmerization.” In contrast, the regime did not give the Vietnamese the option to remain. The extermination of the Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia was also racially discriminatory. The regime did not give ethnic Vietnamese the option to relinquish their ethnic identity as a mechanism for survival. One Khmer Rouge cadre stated, “If a person was ethnic Vietnamese, it was certain that they wouldn’t survive. Once they were discovered, that was it. ”26

The Khmer Rouge’s specific orders to exterminate the Vietnamese provide compelling evidence that the ethnic Vietnamese were singled out for persecution. Furthermore, the massacres that occurred revealed no signs of provocation aside from race. Since the Khmer had preexisting prejudices against the Vietnamese, transforming these prejudices into discriminatory acts might have taken place relatively easily. Additionally, race was a significant factor in determining who to eradicate because even those remotely associated with the Vietnamese, including Khmer, were also killed. In this case, even being somewhat “tainted” by the Vietnamese, for instance knowing their language or being trained by their military, justified slayings of non-ethnic Vietnamese. The willingness to kill fellow Khmer reveals the determination of Khmer Rouge to eliminate any remote traces of the Vietnamese in their country.

To their misfortune, the Vietnamese were seen by the Khmer Rouge as enemies, and died because of their ethnicity. I would argue that compared to other minorities like the Chams and Chinese, ethnic Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia suffered more of an immediate threat to their livelihood because the policies enacted towards them did not tolerate even their mere physical existence. Unfortunately, the ethnic Vietnamese were not the only group who suffered from racial discrimination. Groups such as the Chams also experienced racial discrimination that threatened their lives and welfare.



The Chams are a minority group culturally distinct from the Khmer because of their language and Muslim faith, and the group was mainly composed of farmers and fishermen. In 1975, approximately 250,000 Chams lived in Cambodia.27 Of this number, roughly 36%, or ninety thousand, would lose their lives by 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime.28

The attitude of ethnic Khmer towards the Chams prior to the rise of Democratic Kampuchea varied. As in the case of the Vietnamese, the ethnic Khmer may have held negative attitudes towards the Chams. According to historian Michael Vickery:

Many Chams claimed before the war that they were held in contempt by the Khmer and were objects of discrimination… Many Khmer regarded Chams with a mixture of awe and fear. They were believed to be accomplished in the black arts; and Phnom Penh ladies used to cross over…to get predictions about the future, love potions for husbands and lovers, and noxious prescriptions for rivals.29

In addition to this awe and fear, other stereotypes about the Chams existed. According to Becker, some Khmer had the perception that the Cham women were promiscuous because they possessed exotic features and others believed that the Chams were “commercial thieves” because they “dr[ove] hard bargains” when selling cloth.30

Contrary to these claims, it is quite possible that many other Cambodians were receptive to the Chams. The existence of intermarriage of Chams with the Khmer, as well as by some of the Chams’ willingness to assimilate into Khmer society by giving up their language demonstrates this receptivity.31 However, it is clear that any cordial relations with individual Khmers were not enough to spare them from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

The regime had distorted impressions about the Cham population. For example, in a 1973 document entitled Class Analysis and Class Struggle, the Khmer Rouge claimed that “All nationalities have laborers, like our Kampuchean nationality, except for the Islamic Khmers [Chams], whose lives are not so difficult.”32 However, the statement did not accurately represent the Cham population. Historian Ben Kiernan argues that although many Chams were peasants, the Khmer Rouge viewed them all as independent petty bourgeoisie or fishermen.33 Falsely believing that the Chams lived easy lives may have only given the Khmer Rouge more reason to target them. For instance, according to Mat Sman’s experience as a Cham living under the Pol Pot regime, the Chams in his village were all treated as new people regardless of whether they were “old people” (base people).34 Consequently, being identified as new people meant that the Chams in Mat Sman’s village would be subjected to harsher living conditions.

However, the relationship between the Khmer Rouge and the Chams was fairly cooperative during the early stages of the revolution. Some members of the Cham community supported the insurgent Khmer Rouge prior to the regime’s victory. Becker claims that the Chams hoped that if the Khmer Rouge came into power, the new regime could mitigate the benign discriminatory policies of pre-revolutionary officials towards their community.35 Some Chams even joined the Khmer Rouge’s fight and took positions in the military. The Cham support of the Khmer Rouge would soon dwindle. Significant problems would arise when Khmer Rouge policies directly conflicted with the Cham religion. The Khmer Rouge’s policies against the Chams generally fell within the categories of enforced uniformity, extermination, and discrimination.


In 1976, the Khmer Rouge began to enforce a policy of sameness by “Khmerizing” the population. Some Khmer Rouge officials claimed that “there are to be no Chams or Chinese or Vietnamese. Everyone is to join the same, single, Khmer nationality.”36 To eliminate all ethnic diversity, the regime banned cultural practices and forced minorities to assimilate into Khmer culture. The regime took strict measures to achieve this uniformity. In the case of the Chams, the Khmer Rouge enforced physical uniformity by prohibiting females from using their traditional headdress and by requiring them to cut their hair.37 They also required Chams to change their identity by forcing them to adopt Khmer names. However, perhaps what affected the Chams the most was the Khmer Rouge’s decision to ban all religion—which included Islam, an intimate part of the Cham identity. To eradicate Cham religious practices, the Khmer Rouge forced them to violate their religion by consuming pork.38 Ya Mat, a Cham witness, claims that:

In 1975 there was a phrase that they used to instruct us: There was a document saying that now, if we did not eat [pork], they would not let us ‘live in the revolution.’ They would abolish us… We had come to live in Kampuchea, but there were [to be] no Chams, no Chinese, no nothing. People who obey…survive.39
Death was often the consequence for those who refused to obey the Khmer Rouge’s orders. For instance, Cham survivor Lee Seyla witnessed the Khmer Rouge beating an estimated 10 Chams to death for merely refusing to eat pork.40 Therefore, for Chams to increase their chances of survival, it was necessary for them to obey the regime and its policies. Not only did the Khmer Rouge take measures to eradicate all cultural identity in the population, but they also attempted to prevent the transmission of culture to future generations—essentially attempting to extinguish the Cham culture.

To help achieve this, the Khmer Rouge banned the use of all languages except for Khmer, and physically dispersed Cham families. Preventing the use of an ethnic language can be a mechanism to separate children from their culture. Saleh, a Cham who was a young child during the Pol Pot regime, was not allowed by the Khmer Rouge to live with other Cham children, to prevent him from speaking Cham.41 Because the regime prohibited the Cham language, many children could not speak their native tongue by the time the genocide was over.42 Therefore, to some extent, the Khmer Rouge successfully extinguished part of the Cham culture. Physically dispersing the Chams into ethnic Khmer communities also helped to enforce uniformity and eradicate the race. A February 1974 document regarding the Decisions Concerning the Line on Cooperatives of the Party in Region 31 demonstrates the existence of a formalized policy of dispersal of the Chams. The document stated that “…it is necessary to break up this group [Islamic Khmers] to some extent; do not allow too many of them to concentrate in one area.”43 Another Cham survivor, Abraham, asserts that the Chams were being dispersed into Khmer villages. He estimates that Chams composed only 5% of the population in his village.44 Physically dispersing the Chams made it more difficult for them to perform religious practices. For example, Chams are required to pray five times a day to perform the vachip, their religious duties. In some cases, Chams sent to live among ethnic Khmer could not perform the Chum At and Chum Ah prayers because they could not gather the required 40 Chams to carry out their prayers.45 The dispersal of the Chams made it more difficult to practice their religion and consequently, more difficult to pass their culture onto their children, thereby helping to slowly extinguish the culture.

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