Racial discrimination in the Cambodian Genocide

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An additional factor to note is that unlike the Vietnamese and the Chams, the Khmer Rouge spared the lives of Chinese who were able to prove or to pretend they were base people.82 For instance, in order to avoid execution, another witness, Hong Var, lied about her occupation claiming that she sold fried bananas when in reality she was a teacher in Phnom Penh.83 Her survival suggests that at least some Khmer Rouge allowed those not associated with the capitalist class to live.

Given that the Khmer Rouge’s treatment of the ethnic Chinese varied greatly and that other factors may have contributed to their persecution, can the policies towards the Chinese be considered racially discriminatory? According to Kiernan there was no “racialist vendetta” against the ethnic Chinese, particularly when compared to the experiences of the Vietnamese and Chams whom the Khmer Rouge killed even though many were clearly by no means part of the capitalist class.84 The testimonies described earlier from the ethnic Chinese do indicate that the Chinese may have had a better chance for survival under the Khmer Rouge regime if they were not associated with the capitalist class and were able to endure the rigorous labor. However, this is not to deny any elements of racial discrimination towards the Chinese. The Khmer Rouge’s policies of enforced uniformity and of extermination directed towards the ethnic Chinese can still be seen as racially discriminatory.

In regards to uniformity, the act of eliminating an ethnic identity is itself inherently racially discriminatory. Like the Chams, the Chinese experienced the policy of coerced “sameness.” However, it is likely that compared to the Chams, the Chinese did not have as difficult a time assimilating because their background in the Buddhist religion may not have conflicted with Khmer Rouge policies as directly as did the Islam of the Chams. For instance, the Chinese did not have to face problems such as avoiding pork or assembling enough individuals to complete their prayers. Yet if the degree to which the policies affected the Chinese may not have been as harsh, most Chinese still faced racial discrimination because they were forced to become “Khmer.”

Although there were cases in which the Khmer Rouge did not impose their policies of uniformity upon the ethnic Chinese, such as in Phum Sambou-Pun village, these cases do not mitigate the fact that the Khmer Rouge’s national policy was racially discriminatory in nature. Regardless of whether the policy was effectively imposed upon the entire ethnic Chinese population, it still was effectively imposed on parts of it. Official racial discrimination, therefore, did exist in the case of the ethnic Chinese, although the extent to which the ethnic Chinese were affected by the policy may have been less frequent as compared to the cases of the Vietnamese and Chams.

As for the Chinese executions, it is again very difficult to determine whether the Khmer Rouge attributed these killings deaths to their race or their wealth. Even though the executions may not be racially discriminatory, the fact that the Khmer Rouge automatically assumed that the Chinese were capitalists was a prejudice that resulted in other racially discriminatory actions against them. In terms of the definition of racial discrimination, the Khmer Rouge relied on a stereotype that assumed all Chinese were economically wealthy. Based on this stereotype, their policies distinctively targeted the ethnic Chinese and impaired their fundamental freedoms and right to life (i.e., they were killed). Clearly, prejudices against race and wealth were not mutually exclusive, rather mutually reinforcing. The fact that the Khmer Rouge targeted the Chinese because they associated them with perceived negative stereotypes, demonstrates the presence of racial discrimination in the Khmer Rouge’s policies.

It is also possible that the Khmer Rouge’s “leniency” of treatment towards the Chinese relative to other minority groups resulted from Cambodia’s relationship with China. Like the other minorities, the Chinese suffered their share of prejudice prior to the rise of DK. Even during the genocide, the Chinese were subjected to racial slander, such as Tao’s allegation that the Khmer Rouge called him “white-face” and other epithets equivalent to the term “chink.”85 This presence of racial prejudice strongly suggests that racism could have affected the policy towards the Chinese. Becker goes even further by claiming that only the relationship between Beijing and Cambodia “saved the Chinese from as complete a purge as the Buddhist monks or the Muslim Chams.”86 Perhaps if Cambodia did not strongly depend on China for political and military support, its policy towards the ethnic Chinese would have been much harsher.

In the case of the Chinese, even if the Khmer Rouge had no racial vendetta towards them, the policies directed towards them were racially discriminatory because the policies of enforced uniformity were inherently racialist and because the Khmer Rouge relied on stereotypes to distinguish the ethnic Chinese from other groups thereby forcing them to work in harsher conditions. However, keeping in mind that the policies towards the ethic Chinese were inconsistent, I would argue that compared to the
Vietnamese and Chams, the Chinese faced fewer or less severe effects of racially discriminatory official policies.


Race is a difficult subject to discuss because of its layers of complexity. This is particularly true in the case of the Cambodian genocide because of the multitude of factors that came into play when the Khmer Rouge generated their policies. Based on the definition of the phenomenon given by the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, evidence suggests that there was racial discrimination in the Khmer Rouge’s policies towards the ethnic Vietnamese, Chams, and Chinese. This racial discrimination is revealed in the different types of policies the Khmer Rouge directed at minorities, including the enforced imposition of uniformity, expulsion, extermination and discrimination. Although all three ethnic minorities experienced elements of racial discrimination, the degree to which they experienced it varied, with the ethnic Chinese experiencing the least effects of racially discriminatory policies. Regardless of whether or not the Khmer Rouge designed their policies to be racially discriminatory is irrelevant, because racial discrimination can be opportunistic or even inadvertent. Even though the Khmer Rouge’s desire to harm ethnic minorities can be debated, the harmful effects of their discriminatory policies are incontestable. To the nation’s misfortune, by enacting their political dreams, the regime quickly turned life into a tragic nightmare for many Cambodians who till this day continue to suffer from repercussions of this catastrophe.

1 Ratified December 21, 1965. Entered into force January 4, 1969. http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/d_icerd.htm.

2 Ben Kiernan, “The Ethnic Element in the Cambodian Genocide,” in Ethnopolitical Warfare : Causes, Consequences, and Possible Solutions. Ed. Daniel Chirot and Martin E.P. Seligman. (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2001) 87.

3 Benedict Kiernan. The Pol Pot Regime (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1996) 288.

4 David P. Chandler. A History of Cambodia (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 209.

5 Elizabeth Becker. When the War Was Over (New York: Public Affairs, 1986), 243.

6 Becker 243.

7 Becker 243.

8 William E. Willmott. The Chinese in Cambodia (Vancouver: Publications Centre, University of British Columbia, 1967) 35.

9 Chang, Pao-min. “Kampuchean Conflict: The Continuing Stalemate” Asian Survey 23 (1987): 748-763; p. 750.

10 Alexander Laban Hinton. Why Did they Kill? (Berkely: University of California Press, 2005) 216. Author’s interview with Chlat.

11 Gareth Porter, in David W.P. Elliot, ed., The Third Indochina Conflict (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981) 71.

12 King C. Chen. China’s War With Vietnam, 1979 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1987) 23.

13 First reason comes from Wilfred Burchett, The China Cambodia Vietnam Triangle (Chicago: Vanguard Books, 1981) 145; second comes from Chen 33.

14 Chang, Pao-Min. “Some Reflections in the Sino-Vietnamese Conflict Over Kampuchea.” International Affairs 59 (1983): 381-389.

15 Stephen P. Heder. “The Kampuchean-Vietnamese Conflict” in The Third Indochina Conflict. p. 35.

16 Ramses Amer. “Sino-Vietnamese Normalization in the Light of the Crisis of the Late 1970s,” Pacific Affairs 67 (1994): 357-383.

17 Ciernan, Pol Pot, 58.

18 Ciernan, Pol Pot, 107.

19 Nayan Chanda. Brother Enemy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1986) 16.

20 Kiernan/Pol Pot 296. Interview, Kompong Trach.

21 Kiernan/Pol Pot 296.

22 Hinton 219.

23 Kiernan/Pol Pot 297. From United States Department of State Interview.

24 Kiernan/Pol Pot 297. FBIS, IV, 2 September 1977, p. H1, Bangkok Post, 1 September 1977.

25 Kiernan/Pol Pot 296. Interview with Heng Samrin.

26 Hinton 219.

27Ben Kiernan. “The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia.” Critical Asian Studies 35 (2003): 585-597.

28 Kiernan/Demography of Genocide 590.

29 Michael Vickery. Cambodia, 1975-1982 (Boston: South End Press, 1984) 181.

30 Becker 251.

31 Ben Kiernan “Orphans of Genocide: The Cham Muslims of Kampuchea under Pol Pot.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 20 (1988): 7. Information from Marcel Ner’s “Les Musulmans de l’Indochine Francaise,” BEFEO XLI (1941), pp. 169, 175, 192, 194-95.

32 Kiernan/Bulletin 9.

33 Kiernan/Bulletin 9.

34 Mat Sman. Interview by Nate Thayer. September 1984. No. 13. Transcripts provided by Ben Kiernan.

35 Becker 251.

36 Kiernan/Bulletin 14.

37 Ysa Osman. Oukoubah (Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2002) 3. Interviews with Ly Khadijah, Math Dullah.

38 Osman 3.

39 Kiernan/Pol Pot 279.

40 Lee Seyla. Interview by Nate Thayer. August 1984. No. 7. Transcripts provided by Ben Kiernan.

41 Saleh. Interview by Nate Thayer. September 1984. No. 14. Transcripts provided by Ben Kiernan.

42 Osman 5.

43 Kiernan/Bulletin 9.

44 Abraham. Interview by Nate Thayer. August 1984. No. 1. Transcripts provided by Ben Kiernan.

45 Osman 97.

46 Kiernan/Bulletin 12.

47 Kiernan/Bulletin 15.

48 Kiernan/Bulletin 9.

49 Hinton 207.

50 Ben Kiernan, personal communication.

51 Kiernan/Bulletin 14.

52 Kiernan/Bulletin 15.

53 Kiernan/Bulletin 32.

54 Vickery 182.

55 Philip Short. Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (London: John Murray, 2004) 585.

56 Osman 6. Information is gathered from author’s interviews.

57 1999 Report of the Group of Experts for Cambodia established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 52/135 accessed at University of Minnesota Human Rights Library; <http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/cambodia-1999.html>27.

58 Kiernan/Bulletin 23.

59 Willmott 94, 63.

60 Willmott 40.

61 Wilmott 41.

62 Becker 243-244.

63 Becker 126.

64 Ben Kiernan. “Kampuchea’s Ethnic Chinese Under Pol Pot: A Case of Systematic Social Discrimination.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 16(1986): 18-29; p. 18.

65 Becker 228.

66 Sambath Chan. “The Chinese Community in Cambodia.” Searching for the Truth April 2003: 15-22; p. 20.

67 Kiernan/Kampuchea 22.

68 Chan 21.

69 Kiernan/Pol Pot 294.

70 Becker 250.

71 Kiernan/Bulletin 17.

72 Penny Edwards. “Ethnic Chinese in Cambodia.” Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic Groups in Cambodia (Phnom Penh: Center for Advanced Study, 1996): 142.

73Edwards 144.

74 Kiernan/Pol Pot 289.

75 Chan 19.

76 Kiernan/Kampuchea 24.

77 Edwards 144.

78 Becker 245. According to Becker, the term “white-face” was one of the “racist taunts of the new order.”

79 Kiernan/Pol Pot 293.

80 Kiernan/Pol Pot 288.

81 Kiernan/Kampuchea 22.

82 Kiernan/Pol Pot 295.

83 Kiernan/Kampuchea 26.

84 Kiernan/Kampuchea 20.

85 Becker 245.

86 Becker 228.

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