The Khmer Rouge killed nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, spreading like a virus from the jungles until they controlled the entire country, only to systematically dismantle and destroy it in the name of a Communist agrarian ideal. Today, more than 30 years after Vietnamese soldiers removed the Khmer Rouge from power, the first genocide trials have started — a bittersweet note of progress in an impoverished nation still struggling to rehabilitate its crippled economic and human resources.
The Khmer Rouge took root in Cambodia’s northeastern jungles as early as the 1960s, a guerrilla group driven by communist ideals. In 1970, as the country descended into civil war, the Khmer Rouge presented themselves as a party for peace and succeeded in mobilizing support in the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge succeeded in capturing the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975, they evacuated the entire population of the city — more than 2.5 million people — to camps in the countryside. The soldiers wore black and marched in single file along the wide boulevards. At one o’clock, they ordered the city abandoned. The sick and wounded were forced at gunpoint from their hospital beds; families were separated; the old and disabled fell beside the road. “Don’t take anything with you,” the men in black ordered. “You will be coming back tomorrow.” Tomorrow never came.
The Khmer Rouge were planning the steps necessary for a radical shift to an agrarian society. During the Khmer Rouge’s nascent days, the movement’s leader, Pol Pot, had grown to admire the way the tribes on the outskirts of Cambodia’s jungles lived, free of Buddhism, money or education, and now he wanted to foist the same philosophy on the entire nation. Pol Pot envisioned a Cambodia absent of any social institutions like banks or religions or any modern technology. He sought to triple agricultural production in a year. Khmer Rouge members bragged they would “be the first nation to create a completely Communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.”
With the cities emptied and the population under Khmer Rouge control, Pol Pot’s means of implementation was to begin exterminating anyone who didn’t fit this new ideal. He declared that he was turning Cambodia — now renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea — back to “Year Zero,” and intellectuals, businessmen, Buddhists and foreigners were all purged. “What is rotten must be removed,” read a popular Khmer Rouge slogan at the time, and remove they did, often by execution but sometimes simply by working people to death in the fields.
It’s impossible to tally the total number dead with any precision, but it is generally assumed that the Khmer Rouge killed between one million and two million people during their reign. Thousands more died of malnutrition or disease, and the upper classes of Cambodian society were all but wiped out. The killing continued unabated until Vietnamese troops, tired of border combats with the Khmer Rouge, invaded in 1979 and sent the Khmer Rouge back to the jungles.
The Khmer Rouge regime has left undeniable psychological scars on a population bathed in trauma. Demographically, Cambodia is currently experiencing the effects of a “lost generation”. Two major issues in modern-day Cambodia arise from these deaths. Firstly, the elderly who survived Khmer Rouge now have no one to care for them in their old age, since their children were killed. The second issue that arises because of this “lost generation” is tied in to the economic impacts of the Khmer Rouge; that is, there is a loss of skilled workers. Because of this demand, Pol Pot ruthlessly killed professors, doctors, lawyers, artisans, economists, and the like, to ensure that their intellect would not threaten his powers. In the present day Cambodia, this genocide means that there are not enough seasoned, educated professionals in the workplace to adequately balance and manage the number of rising intellectuals.
The children who PSE takes care of, those children that were found working on the dumpsites by Christian and Marie-France des Pallières in 1995, those who roam the streets aimlessly, unschooled and working from the age of five, those are the children whose parents were children during the reign of the Khmer Rouges. Their parents were taught to deny their own families, to kill, to hate, to become soldiers for the Khmer Rouge. Thirty years later, is it any wonder that they are intensely traumatized, that they are often violent, irresponsible, even alcoholic? They were never given the gift of education, so they may not understand why they should send their own children to school, thus perpetrating the vicious circle of poverty.