Racial discrimination in the Cambodian Genocide

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As in the case of the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge also targeted Chams for execution. However, different factors contributed to their deaths. Unlike the ethnic Vietnamese, many Chams rebelled against the regime’s policies. These rebellions frequently resulted in the massacre of many Chams. For example, one account describes a village that resisted the Khmer Rouge’s request to close a mosque. Fighting occurred because of this resistance and five Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed. As a result, according to one account, the Khmer Rouge sent “thousands and thousands of troops” to the village, annihilated the village, and took away Cham families.46 The incidents where the Chams attempted to protect their culture and resist Khmer Rouge policy would only generate a negative official perception of their entire community. Some of the regime’s cadres would even warn other Khmers to be careful of the Chams. One Cham claimed that Khmer Rouge officials had told other ethnic Khmer to not “trust the Chams… It is normal that enemies who have been defeated will not lie still…In their [Chams’] hearts they are still traitors to us.”47 Distrusting the Chams because of their perceived rebellious nature may have been a way for the Khmer Rouge to justify their killing.

Secondly, Kiernan writes that “in the eyes of the Pol Pot group [the Chams were] omens of a dark Kampuchean future, one that the CPK deliberately set out to erase from the historical agenda. Kampuchea would never disappear the way Champa allegedly did.”48 The Chams were viewed as a dying race and were a reminder of the ominous danger of Cambodians following this similar fate. Erasing the Chams from their memories would be a way for the Khmer Rouge to get rid of the reminder of this omen. Extermination may have been a mechanism for this erasure.

Finally, according to anthropologist Alexander Hinton, some officials preferred to kill Chams rather than Khmer “new people.” To give reason as to why only two Cambodian families were killed compared to 50 Cham families in Ta Khong village, one Khmer Rouge official states, “It’s really difficult because they gave me orders to kill Khmer. But I can’t cut off my heart and do so. So we take Chams instead, though there aren’t many of them.”49 This account suggests that when given a choice, some Khmer Rouge cadres racially discriminated and targeted the Chams for persecution; rather than killing those from their own ethnicity.


As in the cases of the other minority groups, the Khmer Rouge banned Chams from engaging in political or military life. After the 1975 rebellion, Cham soldiers were demobilized.50 In 1976, Chams holding power, such as village chiefs and committee members, were forced to leave office in the Kor Subdistrict.51

Other Chams were accused of being associated with the Vietnamese whom the Khmer Rouge saw as their enemy. Mat asserts that they “accused us of wearing our hair long like Vietnamese, and being under Vietnamese influence.”52 Since many Khmer possessed anti-Vietnamese sentiments, linking the Chams to the Vietnamese was likely not a positive association. These negative anti-Vietnamese sentiments could have influenced the severity with which the Khmer Rouge treated the Chams.

The question of whether the Khmer Rouge’s policy towards the Chams was racially discriminatory in nature is highly contested. However, I would argue that the policies aimed at the Chams were racially discriminatory. In regards to the policies of uniformity, according to Kiernan:

Had all Kampuchea’s villages been deliberately dispersed, and had all Kampucheans of whatever race been forced to behave in ways that they were all equally unaccustomed to, such as to eat bread and speak only English, only then might one conclude that there was no racial discrimination in DK [Democratic Kampuchea] policies towards the Chams.53
One may interpret Kiernan’s argument as claiming that the Chams experienced racial discrimination because the Khmer Rouge’s policies were relatively harsher for the Chams than for the ethnic Khmer. For example, policies that prohibited all languages except Khmer made life harder for minority groups, such as the Chams. Because of the difficulties that forced assimilation can create, advocating uniformity seems inherently racial if only one group is forced to adopt aspects of a different culture. By not allowing diversity, the Khmer Rouge may have inadvertently racially discriminated against the Chams when they decided to make everyone adopt the Khmer culture.

In an attempt to argue that some policies of enforced uniformity were not racially discriminatory, Michael Vickery contends that forcing the Chams to consume pork was not racially discriminatory. He writes:

[O]ne must think carefully about stories that they were forced to eat pork, since the general complaint of all refugees is that there was too little meat of any kind. It may have been true that Chams found themselves in places where pork was the only meat ever distributed at all, since it had always been the most commonly used meat in Cambodia, but that does not necessarily signify discrimination by the new authorities.54
It is conceivable that pork was given to the Chams because it was the only meat available and not solely because it was used as a humiliating tool to eradicate their traditional culture. However, the evidence that the Khmer Rouge forced Chams to eat the meat against their will counters Vickery’s claim that the use of pork was not racially discriminatory. Although other ethnic groups were given pork to eat, none of them were punished for not consuming it. As in Ya Mat’s account, if he and other Chams did not eat pork the Khmer Rouge would not allow them to “live in the revolution.” Forcing only the Chams to eat pork and not other groups is itself racial discrimination. Arguably, members of other ethnic groups may not have refused eating pork, so the Khmer Rouge may not have needed to force them to eat it. However, even if this statement is true, it fails to address the concept of relative harshness, and fails to take into account how eating pork directly conflicted with the Cham religion and not with Khmer beliefs. The Khmer Rouge recognized how consuming pork violated the Cham religion, and in the end, they distinctively made sure that the Chams ate their pork. Forcing the Chams to eat pork when it was served impaired their exercise of fundamental cultural freedoms and was therefore racially discriminatory.

Similarly, the dispersal of the Chams into other communities is an act of racial discrimination. One counterargument to this claim may be that the Khmer Rouge dispersed all Cambodians into different zones in the country, so the policy of dispersal was not unique to the Chams. Therefore, the dispersal of the Chams was non-discriminatory since everyone was treated with the same policy. However, even if the act of dispersing the Chams was not motivated by racially discrimination, the repercussions of the act were discriminatory. The Chams were fewer than the ethnic Khmers. This means that in comparison to the Khmer, the Chams would become more thinly spread out throughout Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge dispersed them. As previously mentioned, when too few Chams existed in one area, it was more difficult for them to practice their culture, such as fulfilling their prayers. However, regardless of the Khmer Rouge’s motivation, the outcome of the dispersal policy was racially discriminatory. In relation to the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, restricting the Chams to certain geographical regions “nullifies” their ability to “enjoy or exercise” their “fundamental freedoms” in culture, thereby making the policies of dispersal racially discriminatory.

Philip Short, a French-based British writer, attempts to debunk the claim that the Khmer Rouge’s dispersal of Chams was racially discriminatory. According to Short:

It may be argued, of course, that ‘dispersal’ was itself a form of racism; but in that case the same label must be accepted for such measures as school bussing in the United States to achieve desegregation. That, too, involved the dispersal of pupils of one race among those of another.55

This analogy fails to make the case. First, a policy of dispersing “one race among those of another” in schools is not necessarily racially discriminatory. Proving that requires demonstrating a “distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference” based on race. Thus, it must be shown that the individuals selected to be bussed were chosen because of their race, and not because of other confounding variables (such as their socioeconomic background). Furthermore, it must be demonstrated that the outcome of the policy was racially discriminatory. Although it is possible for school bussing policies to be considered racially discriminatory, it is highly unlikely. Neither of these two requirements can be demonstrated in today’s bussing policies, particularly since diverse groups of students are regularly bussed, and bussing policies improve educational conditions instead of infringing on students’ abilities to “enjoy” or “exercise” their “human rights and fundamental freedoms” in public life. The Chams in Cambodia retained no such benefits. Therefore, Short’s analogy does not directly refute the contention that the permanent forced dispersal of the Cham communities was a form of racism.

As in the case of the Vietnamese extermination, the Cham extermination can be seen as racially discriminatory. Cambodian researcher and genocide survivor Ysa Osman writes:

…in late 1978, the Khmer Rouge gathered all those accused of ‘crimes,’ both Cham and Khmer, into a house in Trea village, Krauch Chhmar district, Kampong Cham province. All the prisoners were asked one question: “Cham or Khmer?” Those answering Cham were sent to one side and the Khmer to the other. All of the Khmer prisoners were released. All but six of the approximately 100 Cham prisoners disappeared. The six… survived because they lied and said they were Khmer.56
Osman’s example provides compelling evidence that race was a determining factor in extermination. Since the Khmer Rouge accused both the Khmer and Chams in the group of “crimes,” then both groups qualified for extermination. However, in this instance, the regime racially discriminated and chose to execute the Chams based on their race. Contrary to this evidence, it is possible to argue that the policy of extermination against the Chams was not racially discriminatory because many ethnic Khmer were also targeted for execution. Therefore, the Khmer Rouge did not “discriminate” because they killed all races. It is true that the regime did kill many ethnic Khmer. However, this does not prove that extermination was a racially non-discriminatory policy. The regime did not kill Khmer because they were Khmer; rather the ethnic Khmer chosen for execution were discriminated against not because of their race, but because of other alleged characteristics they possessed. Again, as previously mentioned, many ethnic Khmer were killed because they were associated with the Vietnamese, while other sectors of the Khmer population, such as educated individuals and professionals, were killed because they were viewed as exploiters of the peasant class.57 Unlike ethnic Khmer, Chams could be executed because of their race. This is why in the case of many such Chams, their extermination can be considered racially discriminatory. Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge’s decision to remove Chams from involvement in political and military life was racially discriminatory, since it was because of their race that they were prevented from participating in these activities.

It is possible to argue that the motivation behind the policies against the Chams as a whole was not racially discriminatory: that the Khmer Rouge enacted their policies towards the Chams to protect their revolution because Chams had resisted and rebelled against the regime’s policies. So the choice to discriminate against the Chams was not racial in motive; rather, political. Under this rationale, it would logically follow that had other groups rebelled, those groups would likely have experienced similar types of policies that the regime directed towards the Chams. However, this argument is faulty for several reasons. First, as stated earlier, the motive of the Khmer Rouge’s policies is irrelevant, so long as the discrimination is deliberate. That the regime targeted the Chams solely for security purposes does not make the policy non-discriminatory, because the policies it implemented in the end correlated with race, targeted a minority, and produced racially discriminatory results. For example, the Khmer Rouge’s decision to massacre groups of Chams may have been made out of a motivation to protect the regime’s security; however, the very fact that this policy singled out a group based on race still makes it a form of racial discrimination. Furthermore, the policies the Khmer Rouge used to “protect their revolution” would align with the definition of racial discrimination because the policies still “distinguished” based on race and “nullified” and “impaired” the ability of the Chams to exercise their fundamental freedoms on an equal footing with other ethnic groups. Secondly, if the Chams were really targeted only because they were a threat to the revolution, then those Chams who were not a threat should not have been punished. Yet the evidence shows that Chams not resistant to the regime’s polices were also punished. For example, Mat describes on incident in Kravar Subdistrict where the regime loaded twenty Cham families into trucks who were never seen again. Mat claims that they had “eaten pork and so on, and still they were killed.”58 This example demonstrates how Khmer Rouge policies were directed towards all Chams, and unfairly generalized the population and punished all of them—regardless of whether they resisted or agreed to assimilate to the regime’s polices. This is also considered racial discrimination because the Khmer Rouge created a policy based on a stereotype that would specifically target everyone in the race regardless of their threat or compliance.

As in the case of the Chams, the Chinese also faced discrimination; however, in their case, whether the discrimination was based on race is more difficult to determine because of other potential confounding variables that affected the Khmer Rouge’s policies towards them.


The initial immigration of the Chinese to Cambodia was a result of trade expansion. By the 1960s most ethnic Chinese in Cambodia worked in commerce.59 According to Willmott, relative to the other minority groups the Chinese had cordial relations with the Cambodians.60 Willmott attributes this to the fact that ethnic Vietnamese already consumed much of the Khmers’ hostility and compared to Vietnamese, many more ethnic Chinese assimilated to Khmer culture.61 However, Becker asserts the Chinese were “held in awe by the Cambodians, despised and envied for their industry and their seeming lack of scruples” and that they included “people who had held the country’s peasantry in ransom, who had hoarded rice until the price shot up to intolerable levels, and who had charged interest rates that bankrupted families in the city as well as in the countryside.”62 Even prior to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, Becker claims that President Lon Nol also went after the ethnic Chinese in Cambodia by bringing attention to their alleged greed and lack of loyalty to Cambodia. To him, they were a “foreign devil in his configuration of hell.”63

From 1975 to 1978 nearly half of the ethnic Chinese population in Cambodia died.64 Although the significant number of deaths may suggest racism was present, it is still important not to overlook other potential underlying factors that caused the deaths of the ethnic Chinese, and to evaluate whether these deaths were indeed a result of racially discriminatory policies. The types of Khmer Rouge policies imposed on the Chinese include enforced uniformity, and extermination.

Like the Chams, the Chinese were subjected to the Khmer Rouge’s desire to create national homogeneity. The Chinese were prohibited from communicating in their language and from practicing their religions. Additionally, the regime desired to create class uniformity by destroying the capitalist class, which was mainly composed of Chinese.65 The Khmer Rouge’s desire to create class uniformity resulted in harsher work conditions for the Chinese whom the Khmer Rouge considered as “new people,” not “base people.”66

The Khmer Rouge also achieved uniformity by dispersing the Chinese. Although some of the ethnic Chinese were initially physically segregated from other races, they were eventually dispersed to live amongst ethnic Khmer. For example, Be Kheng Hun, an ethnic Chinese woman, was initially placed into a “Chinese village” after the Khmer Rouge evacuated her from the city, but the village was then dispersed and she lived with over 40 Khmer families in 1975.67 As in the case of the Chams, mixing the Chinese with other races was arguably a way to eliminate their ethnicity because it facilitated the Chinese’s forcible assimilation into Khmer culture by limiting the opportunities in which they could interact with each other to practice their culture.

Another method the Khmer Rouge used to extinguish the Chinese culture was to physically segregate Chinese children from their parents. According to researcher Sambath Chan, segregating children from their parents served to “system[ati]cally undermin[e] the social structures linked to the perpetuation of culture and community.”68 In one account, Muk Chot saw his children, all under the age of 10, only once every two months.69

The emphasis on uniformity led to the elimination of all aspects of the Chinese ethnicity. In general, the Chinese who survived the genocide were those who had erased their ethnic attributes.70

There is substantial evidence of Chinese being targeted for execution; however, the reasons for the executions are not always clearly linked to race. According to El Yusof, “Chinese and Chams were preferentially selected [for execution]… though for the most part only those Chinese who were ‘new people.’”71 In El Yusof’s account, it was difficult to determine whether the Chinese were executed because of their race or because they were “new people.” A contrasting example occurred in Chup Village in 1977. When the Khmer Rouge caught two women speaking Chinese, the women were executed, and along with them, twenty-nine ethnic Chinese families were consequently buried alive.72 Although the two women killed had violated the Khmer Rouge policy, the other families were seemingly innocent and were executed because of their race. As with other ethnic groups, the regime killed ethnic Chinese who did not abide by their polices; however, their decision to kill those who disobeyed their policies was inconsistently implemented. In regards to language, for instance, the two women were executed in Chup Village, but some Khmer Rouge officials in other villages allowed ethnic Chinese to communicate in their native language, and did not severely punish them.73


Determining whether Khmer Rouge policies were racially discriminatory is extremely difficult in the case of the Chinese because of its greater degree of variation and the presence of confounding variables in their treatment. It is important to recognize that the Chinese were treated differently depending on where they were geographically located. According to Kiernan, Chinese in the Southwest and Eastern zones “fared better” than those in other regions, meaning they had relatively better living conditions.74 Chan also claims the Khmer Rouge specifically targeted the Chinese for persecution in the West, where rations of food and executions did not fall in their favor.75 Individual witness accounts from the Chinese themselves also vary in regards to their experience. Ngoy Taing Heng, a Chinese witness, claimed the Khmer Rouge spared his life because he was Chinese. In 1978, approximately 1.5 million individuals from the Eastern Zone in Cambodia were moved to the Northwest Zone, among them was Heng who describes his arrival:

Some of us were killed, some spared, selectively. I was spared because I was of Chinese origin. They did not kill Chinese, they killed the base people from Prey Veng… The Khmer Rouge…said they had to kill the Eastern Zone base people.76
If in fact Heng was indeed spared for being Chinese, this may demonstrate that at that time and place the Khmer Rouge did not necessarily have a policy that targeted the Chinese. To further support this contention, ethnic Chinese living in Phum Sambou-Pun claimed they could speak Chinese and to avoid death they had to work hard.77 Again, the existence of lenient treatment towards the Chinese might suggest that there was no central Khmer Rouge policy directed towards them; rather, there may be other factors influencing their treatment.

The next two accounts demonstrate how wealth may have been a confounding variable that influenced the Khmer Rouge’s perception of who they should target. Han Tao, a Chinese businessman, describes his experience during the genocide:

We got the wateriest gruel…We were the last to receive clothes. The cadre would say: ‘You are Chinese capitalists, you do not need clothes.’ Then we were cursed and called white-face.78
Tao’s description reveals how the Chinese were treated worse compared to others. Similarly in another account a Chinese witness states:

They [the Khmer Rouge] immediately killed any 17 April people (“new people”) whom they suspected of being enemies… They spared only dark-skinned people…[one cadre] hated the ethnic Chinese…. In 1976…they began looking for “capitalists,” rich people, meaning people who had cars, brick houses or owned factories—who were mostly Chinese where I was…The old people [base people] got rice, we got gruel…79

Since Tao was a businessman, it is unclear whether or not the regime treated him worse because he was Chinese or because he was rich. Similarly, the second account describes how the Khmer Rouge specifically looked for “capitalists” whom they associated with the Chinese. The persecution aimed at capitalists could also have involved a discriminatory prejudice against all Chinese as capitalists.

Another confounding variable may have influenced the way in which the Khmer Rouge’s policy towards the Chinese is perceived. The fact that most of the Chinese were from urban regions may have affected the degree to which they suffered because they were not accustomed to life in the fields.80 One ethnic Chinese claimed that out of the 4600 people in his village, 1000 died from disease and starvation while at least 10 were executed.81 In this instance, the relatively low number of executions strongly suggests that if there were many Chinese present in his village, most of their deaths would have been attributed to disease and starvation. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that the large number of ethnic Chinese deaths may have been caused in part by factors outside of racial targeting, such as Khmer Rouge prejudice against wealth, and the Chinese’s unaccustomed experience with field labor.

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