Stage 1 classification

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Categorization is unavoidable as people naturally distinguish themselves along racial, national, and religious lines. Stanton reminds us that in "bi-polar societies" in which diversity is limited to two main groups there is more of a predisposition to genocide. 


Preceding the genocide the most divisive factors were political allegiances and historical tensions.  
                        Photo Courtesy of WikiCommons.


In his book Genocide, A Comprehensive Introduction, Adam Jones lays out the key elements of the Khmer Rouge's genocidal ideology. And within those elements can be seen a classification system that separated individuals along racial, national, religious, political, and class lines. 
Jones sees the following as basic elements of the Khmer Rouge world view:

  • Hatred of "enemies of the people"

  • Xenophobia and messianic nationalism

  • Peasantism, anti-urbanism, and primitivism 

  • Purity, discipline, militarianism

"Base People" VS. "New People"
The Khmer Rouge's dichotomous worldview led to an us versus them mentality. As part of their attempt to realize their utopian vision, they branded several groups as "enemies." One of their foundational dichotomies was "Base People" versus "New People," which roughly translates into the rural peasant class versus the urban city-dwellers. The Khmer Rouge believed that Western influences in the city had "tainted" urbanites, and they felt it necessary to "cleanse" the country of this Western influence by identifying urbanites as "new people" and either executing them outright or "re-educating them."


According to Jones, "Like the Chinese communists, but unlike the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge gleaned most of their support from rural rather than urban elements" (Jones 289). 

In her memoir First They Killed My FatherLuong Ung, who was a young girl during the KR period, provides an account of the treatment of "new people" under the Khmer Rouge:
The new people are considered the lowest in the village structure. They have no freedom of speech, and must obey the other classes. The new people...cannot farm like the rural people. They are suspected of having no allegiance to the Angkar [i.e., the KR leadership] and must be kept under an ever-watchful eye for signs of rebellion. They have led corrupt lives and must be trained to be productive workers. To instill a sense of loyalty...and break what the Khmer Rouge views as an inadequate urban work ethic, the new people are given the hardest work and the longest hours.


Other Targeted Minorities

As noted by several scholars, such as Gregory Stanton, Ben Kiernan, and David Chandler, in addition to targeting intellectuals and urbanites, the Khmer Rouge targeted the following minority groups within Cambodia:

  • Muslim Cham -- According to Greg Stanton, in his essay "Blue Scarves and Yellow Stars," a Khmer Rouge Central Committee directive ordered, "The Cham nation no longer exists on Kampuchean soil belonging to the Khmer. Accordingly the Cham nationality, language, customs and religious beliefs must be immediately abolished. Those who fail to obey this order will suffer all the consequences for their acts of opposition to Angkar."

  • Ethnic Chinese 

  • Ethnic Vietnamese

  • Christians


Also among the early stages of genocide, symbolization refers to how people apply symbols to these different categories. This is done through language  (labeling groups "communists" and "Khmer Krahom" and "Khmer Sar" and "Khmer Serey"), or other symbols. 
Courtesy of WikiCommons.                          

As with categorization, the danger is when symbolization is used to invoke hatred. The classic example is the Jewish star which was used by Nazis to classify people as "Jews." Roughly three decades later in Democratic Kampuchea, we see a parallel to the Nazi symbolic categorization in the blue scarf, which the Khmer Rouge assigned to people from the Eastern Zones of Cambodia to facilitate the purge. 

The Khmer Rouge targeted symbols which they associated with imperialism, the West, intellectuals, religion, ethnic minorities, and other "enemies" of the revolution such as Vietnamese, high officials, and former Lon Nol soldiers. 

Those who wore glasses were killed, because they signified that the wearer could read. Therefore glasses symbolized class enemies.

The city is also an important symbol. The KR conducted a policy of urbicide, in which cities where eradicated as spaces of social life. This opposition to cities is in stark contrast to the Soviet communist revolution which was centered around the urban proletariat. The Khmer Rouge ideology of "peasantism" and focus on self-sufficiency, was strongly against against urban organization, although many city building were turned transformed to suit the DK government organization (see: Organization). 


Historically, genocidaires have dehumanized targeted groups by depicting them as animals, vermin, insects, diseases, or tumors. This rhetoric constructs a narrative which justifies the "cleansing" of society. The mass murder of a people or peoples is facilitated through this process.

Dehumanization literally means to deprive a person or group of human qualities or attributes.  

                        Courtesy of DCCam. Tuol Sleng Prison. 

It should noted that classification, symbolization, and dehumanization all reinforce one another and are deeply intertwined. Racially or ideologically inspired hate speech inherently dehumanizes the "other", but is also simultaneously sharpens divisions within society and strengthens the power of hate symbols.    

Dr. Alexender Hinton discusses how genocidal regimes "manufacture differences," creating dangerous dichotomies: us versus the enemy, workers versus exploiters, patriotic versus treasonous, etc. 


Below is a passage from Hinton's Why Did They Kill?, which describes the process of dehumanization under the Khmer Rouge:
"If the crystallization of difference involves essentialization, the “marking of difference,” a second dimension of manufacturing difference, is concerned with the processes through which the victim groups are stigmatized. This ideological marking, which follows the contours of the crystallized differences, further sets “them” apart from the larger social community through devaluation. As less than fully human beings, these “others” are depicted as legitimate targets of violence whose execution should not pose a moral dilemma. Killing them is not murder, but rather like the slaughter of a lowly animal. Haing Ngor captured this sense of dehumanization during DK when he explained why his commune leader, Comrade Chev, killed and ordered the execution of so many people: “We weren’t quite people. We were lower forms of life, because we were enemies. Killing us was like swatting flies, a way to get rid of undesirables.”
Khmer Rouge ideology demonized the “oppressor classes” and its other “enemies,” likening them to an impurity that threatened the wellbeing of the revolutionary society. In fact, the marking of difference is frequently characterized by metaphors of purity and contamination depicting “them” as permeating the boundaries that have been envisioned and crystallized by the genocidal regime—as an invasion that infects “us.” Like the human body, which is endangered by “microbes” or spirits crossing within, the sociopolitical body is threatened by “them.” Such beings are, to use Mary Douglas’s phrase, “matter out of place,” a dangerous source of pollution that needs to be eliminated" (Hinton 284).

Genocides do not occur spontaneously; they are planned. Organization, the fourth stage, simply refers to how a genocide is organized. Stanton explains that organization does not presuppose formal organization. Indeed, many times organization is informal or decentralized. 

During the Cambodia Civil War and Vietnamese War, the Khmer Rouge had  time to prepare. Their organization involved plans to take control of the government as well as how to rid the country of Vietnamese, foreign influence, and "enemies" who needed to be re-educated (murdered).


                          Courtesy of DCCam. Khmer Rouge Cadres.

Methods of Organization:

  • Evacuation of Phnom Penh

  • Distribution of "old people" and "new people" into work collectives: Old people were the peasant class and new people were city dwellers. The KR gave preferential treatment to the "old people". 

  • Separation of families

  • Separation of children and adults

  • Processing city-dwellers and asking them to provide autobiographies in order to document their class background

  • Documentation and photographs of prisoners at Tuol Sleng


Polarization, the fifth stage, occurs when extremists attempt to intensify divisions (oftentimes fabricated) between groups. In this stage, moderates are usually under attack.   
Alexander Hinton discusses how regimes "manufacture differences," creating dangerous dichotomies: Us versus the enemy, Workers versus exploiters, Patriotic versus Treasonous, "new" person vs. "old" person.

             Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons. Tuol Sleng Victims

As described in the classification section, the Khmer Rouge classified individuals according to several different dichotomies:

  • Base People versus New People -- As noted by several scholars, new people often received fewer rations and more physically strenuous work assignments

  • Us versus the Enemy -- The Khmer Rouge deemed anyone suspected of being a threat to their ideology as an "enemy." This included intellectuals, city-dwellers, anyone with ties to the West, religious leaders, and ethnic minorities. 

As noted in the Dehumanization section, the rhetoric employed enabled soldiers to view their victims as an "other," as something less than human, which in turn made killing easier. 


The preparation stage is the stage before the actual extermination. Once a situation has reached this level on the genocide spectrum, Greg Stanton advises a genocide emergency should be declared. At this point, a blueprint for genocide is drawn out. Death lists are written. Society is polarized. Victim groups are identified and oftentimes relocated or evacuated.


                               (photo courtesy of DCCam.)

The Khmer Rouge was secretive from the very start. They had an agenda that did included the eradication of Vietnamese Communists in Cambodia, yet they relied on them as allies. In preparation, the KR in Cambodia secretly killed off Cambodians that had been trained by the North Vietnamese communists. They were also forced to remain low key because they were violently attacked by Sihanouk's government. Ironically, after his exile, he would join forces with the KR. But the alliance with Sihanouk, as with the Vietnamese was superficial. The KR had their own highly radical agenda.

The forced evacuation of Phnom Penh of April 17th 1975 by the Khmer Rouge certainly was a preparatory step in the genocide. Adam Jones describes this as a policy of urbicide, meaning "deliberate attempts at the annihilation of cities as mixed physical, social and cultural spaces." The KR constructed a national assembly out of a theater in Phnom Penh

Space under the Khmer Rouge were transformed. The sinister S-21, otherwise known as Toul Sleng, is a school that was turned into a torture and killing center. Under the supervision of Kaing Guek Eav (otherwise known as "Duch"; see "Justice" section) at least 12,272 people were killed at Toul Slang.


Extermination, the seventh stage, is the actual mass killing of targeted groups. This is what people see as genocide, which legally it is, but Greg Stanton illustrates to us that when we apply the stages we see that extermination is facilitated by the fulfillment of preceding stages.  

                                        Courtesy of DCCam.

Adam Jones, in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, points to three Khmer Rouge Genocidal Institutions that led to "extermination":

  • Forced Labor -- the Khmer Rouge imposed a strict work regime that required both new and base people to work grueling hours, from dusk until dawn. Starvation was rampant as local cadres provided little food and would not allow workers to supplement their rations by growing their own food.

  • Mass Executions -- the Khmer Rouge targeted both "class enemies" and ethnic minorities like the Muslim Chams, Vietnamese, and Chinese. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands were executed by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1978.

  • Internal Purges -- As leadership paranoia increased and as local cadres failed to be meet ambitious production goals, the central leadership began to carry out widespread purges. Several victims went through Tuol Sleng, a prison in Phnom Penh that was one of the several such centers across Democratic Kampuchea.

Cultural Genocide

Courtesy of DCCam.

This picture shows the destruction of pagoda and Buddha's statute, an action which constitutes cultural genocide. More than just physical violence, genocidal regimes seek to destroy the identity of a group or groups. The Cham Muslim population of Cambodia were fiercely oppressed during the KR reign. During this time they were forced to eat pork (going against their religion), forbidden by punishment of death to speak their native non-Khmer languages, and forced to watch and partake in the destruction of their religious symbols and their holy book, the Q'ran. 


According to Greg Stanton, denial always necessarily follows a genocide and "is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres." To deny their guilt, perpetrators hide evidence and coerce victims into not speaking the truth. As long as perpetrators are allowed to act with impunity genocide is likely to occur again. 
We discuss the Denial component of the Cambodian genocide in detail in the Justice section of our site. Here are some pictures from mass grave excavation sites shortly after the Vietnamese takeover:

Excavation of Graves
Photos courtesy of DCCam.

the history place - genocide in the 20th century

pol pot in cambodia 1975-1979 2,000,000 deaths

An attempt by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulted in the deaths of 25 percent of the country's population from starvation, overwork and executions.

Pol Pot was born in 1925 (as Saloth Sar) into a farming family in central Cambodia, which was then part of French Indochina. In 1949, at age 20, he traveled to Paris on a scholarship to study radio electronics but became absorbed in Marxism and neglected his studies. He lost his scholarship and returned to Cambodia in 1953 and joined the underground Communist movement. The following year, Cambodia achieved full independence from France and was then ruled by a royal monarchy.

By 1962, Pol Pot had become leader of the Cambodian Communist Party and was forced to flee into the jungle to escape the wrath of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of Cambodia. In the jungle, Pol Pot formed an armed resistance movement that became known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) and waged a guerrilla war against Sihanouk's government.

In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted, not by Pol Pot, but due to a U.S.-backed right-wing military coup. An embittered Sihanouk retaliated by joining with Pol Pot, his former enemy, in opposing Cambodia's new military government. That same year, the U.S. invaded Cambodia to expel the North Vietnamese from their border encampments, but instead drove them deeper into Cambodia where they allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge.

From 1969 until 1973, the U.S. intermittently bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. As a result, peasants fled the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and settled in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh.

All of these events resulted in economic and military destabilization in Cambodia and a surge of popular support for Pol Pot.

By 1975, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam. Cambodia's government, plagued by corruption and incompetence, also lost its American military support. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army, consisting of teenage peasant guerrillas, marched into Phnom Penh and on April 17 effectively seized control of Cambodia.

Once in power, Pol Pot began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia inspired in part by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution which he had witnessed first-hand during a visit to Communist China.

Mao's "Great Leap Forward" economic program included forced evacuations of Chinese cities and the purging of "class enemies." Pol Pot would now attempt his own "Super Great Leap Forward" in Cambodia, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.

He began by declaring, "This is Year Zero," and that society was about to be "purified." Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favor of an extreme form of peasant Communism.

All foreigners were thus expelled, embassies closed, and any foreign economic or medical assistance was refused. The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shuttered, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world.

All of Cambodia's cities were then forcibly evacuated. At Phnom Penh, two million inhabitants were evacuated on foot into the countryside at gunpoint. As many as 20,000 died along the way.

Millions of Cambodians accustomed to city life were now forced into slave labor in Pol Pot's "killing fields" where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease, on a diet of one tin of rice (180 grams) per person every two days.

Workdays in the fields began around 4 a.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., with only two rest periods allowed during the 18 hour day, all under the armed supervision of young Khmer Rouge soldiers eager to kill anyone for the slightest infraction. Starving people were forbidden to eat the fruits and rice they were harvesting. After the rice crop was harvested, Khmer Rouge trucks would arrive and confiscate the entire crop.

Ten to fifteen families lived together with a chairman at the head of each group. All work decisions were made by the armed supervisors with no participation from the workers who were told, "Whether you live or die is not of great significance." Every tenth day was a day of rest. There were also three days off during the Khmer New Year festival.

Throughout Cambodia, deadly purges were conducted to eliminate remnants of the "old society" - the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Ex-soldiers were killed along with their wives and children. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot, including eventually many Khmer Rouge leaders, was shot or bludgeoned with an ax. "What is rotten must be removed," a Khmer Rouge slogan proclaimed.

In the villages, unsupervised gatherings of more than two persons were forbidden. Young people were taken from their parents and placed in communals. They were later married in collective ceremonies involving hundreds of often-unwilling couples.

Up to 20,000 persons were tortured into giving false confessions at Tuol Sleng, a school in Phnom Penh which had been converted into a jail. Elsewhere, suspects were often shot on the spot before any questioning.

Ethnic groups were attacked including the three largest minorities; the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims, along with twenty other smaller groups. Fifty percent of the estimated 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 perished. Khmer Rouge also forced Muslims to eat pork and shot those who refused.

On December 25, 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia seeking to end Khmer Rouge border attacks. On January 7, 1979, Phnom Penh fell and Pol Pot was deposed. The Vietnamese then installed a puppet government consisting of Khmer Rouge defectors.

Pol Pot retreated into Thailand with the remnants of his Khmer Rouge army and began a guerrilla war against a succession of Cambodian governments lasting over the next 17 years. After a series of internal power struggles in the 1990s, he finally lost control of the Khmer Rouge. In April 1998, 73-year-old Pol Pot died of an apparent heart attack following his arrest, before he could be brought to trial by an international tribunal for the events of 1975-79.

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