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Seeking to create an agrarian socialist society Pol Pot’s government forcibly relocated the urban population of Kampuchea to the countryside and forced it to work on collective farms. His radical communist government forced the mass evacuations of cities, killed or displaced millions of people, and left a legacy of brutality and impoverishment

Cambodia was briefly known as Kampuchea, also known as Indo-China at some point of time. It is a country known for the largest religious complex of the world, now in ruins-the Angkor Wat. This article is about the most dark part of their recent history. A brief duration of 4-5 years when one in four person was either killed or died of starvation or was just went missing. As per different estimates, the number of persons killed were between 1 million to 3 million.

Cambodia is a small country lying in South -East Asia. It has Thailand in its East, Vietnam in West and Laos in North. Roots of Hinduism were sown here in the 6th century. It was ruled by Hindu Kings for a few centuries and large temples and cities were built. Later, they converted to Buddhism. The heads of Hindu deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Rama were replaced by Buddha later. More Buddhist temples were also built till the 14th century.

Who Did It?

Pol Pot. A revolutionary in the mould of communism who was also an astute politician and became an absolute dictator like Adolf Hitler. He was born Saloth Sar in a farmer’s family and studied in France. Here he formed leftist notions and had the vision of creating an agrarian society- equality to all. He formed a revolutionary group in 1953, later called Khmer Rouge. In the 1970s he received support from communist Viet Congs who were fighting Americans for freedom in Vietnam (neighbouring country of Cambodia). The Americans also supported the monarchy government against Cambodian communists. His moment of power came in 1976 when he overthrew the monarchy and ran a totalarian diktat for over 4 years with a band of his loyal cadre.

Pol Pot PC: Wikipedia

The Victims

As a revolutionary against the perceived corrupt administration, Pol Pot managed to enroll large number of poor youth and children of farmers. These cadres were brainwashed against corrupt administrators and the educated population who, he said, were exploiting farmers. On seizing power, the hard core of the cadre was used to bring the ex-government officials for questioning. School No 21 in Phnom Penh was closed and the interrogation chambers were created. Torture took place here. In 4 years time there were 196 such prisons. Later, teachers, doctors and ex army officers were also booked. In the last phase, anyone wearing eye glasses or a watch was also caught. They were tortured and housed in tiny cells. Married person’s family members, including children and infants were also picked.

Class rooms converted to cells PC: Free Two Roam

As the tortured people made too much noise by howling while they were being tortured, they were deported in closed trucks to far flung, isolated places where they were made to work as slaves. Pol Pot set ambitious targets of tripling farm output from these slaves. However, not knowing the alphabets of farming, the intelligentsia failed miserably. They got very little to eat. Many died of starvation, others of exhaustion and others were beaten to death. How many women ‘prisoners’ were raped is a matter of conjecture. How many babies and young children were killed is also unknown. The 129 sites they were housed are called ‘Killing Fields’.

Killing Field Monument PC: Expedia

Many died here. Some of his own ministers who were either ‘soft’ or under his suspicion were also brought for questioning and ultimately killed with their entire family. Even the Royal family was not spared. They were put under house arrest and made to work in their garden for growing food. Rice and fish was given only twice a week. The present king was sent a telegram with fake message of his father to return home. He too, was arrested.

Religious and Cultural Destruction

Pol Pot envisioned that religion numbed the working skills, much like Mao Tse Tung who said,”Religion is the opium of the masses”. So he started a campaign of destruction of temples. Almost half the temples were destroyed. More than one third of monks were also killed. When his economic policies failed, Pol Pot ordered chopping off the heads from the Lord Buddha and Vishnu statues of the ancient monuments like the Ankor Wat. These heads were sold in the black-markets of the underground collectors and resellers for high prices to sustain the economy.

Lands mines were planted by Khmer Rouge around their sites and many other places. Not only Khmer Rouge but the Viet Cong guerrilla and other forces also laid mines. The ignorant civil population of Cambodia lost their legs or even life if they accidently stepped on it.

End of An Era

Eventually, in 1979 there was hue and cry in international media. The Vietnamese army entered Cambodia and seized power. Pol Pot went into hiding but still managed to retain some power in many remote areas for next 15 years as he was supported by China. The questioning and killings were, however, stopped. The Pol Pot saga with Khmer Rouge affected almost all homes of their country. It was one Cambodian group which initially tried to build a utopian society but ended up in massacring it’s own country people. There has been many such massacres in the past. Hitler cleansing Germany and the captured countries from Jews. Pakistan army’s killings and rapes in East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh. Starvation deaths of millions of Indians by Britain’s Churchill in 1942 was a classic example of indirect massacre by a foreign ruler. However, Pol Pot stands out. A sad story indeed, but a lesson for the world. Let us remember that we must not give too much power to one individual.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

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By Major General Krishan Chauhan (AMC)

Maj Gen Krishan Chauhan (Retd) Army Medical Corps., is the alumni of Sainik School Kapurthala, IG Medical College Shimla and AFMC Pune. Part of PG Community Medicine. He is a fellow of the Indian Public Health Association. He was part of core groups in establishing ECHS and ACMS Delhi. He was Addl DGMS Army prior retirement.