From rice fields to killing fields

The Pol Pot Regime - Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-80

October 4, 1996

In this authoritative work, Ben Kiernan, Khmer-speaking director of Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Programme, explores the reasons why Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge revolution became a Cambodian nightmare. In a tour of Thailand and Cambodia, he chronicled eye-witness accounts of life under Pol Pot's regime by Cambodian refugees. During this period, the country was turned into a vast open prison, in which the Khmer Rouge killed or starved to death at least a million people - a seventh of the population.

Kiernan describes how, after Pol Pot overthrew the United States-supported General Lon Nol's government in 1975, his guerrilla peasant army entered the capital and forced the people at gunpoint to abandon their homes. He then began to carry out a massive attempt at social engineering: the creation of a leftwing, cashless society where everyone would work for the state and the state would provide. One cannot help but wonder how many lives worldwide might have been saved had Karl Marx kept his political and economic theories to himself.

In Phnom Penh hospitals were emptied and patients were pushed along the road in their beds, pregnant women gave birth at the roadside, elderly people died and their bodies were left in the fields. Those who paused were killed by soldiers.

Within 12 months the rice fields were turned into "killing fields" as the soldiers, police and officials of Lon Nol's defeated government were hunted down and murdered. Their wives and children were shot, strangled or beaten to death with hoes and bamboos. Teachers and anyone who appeared educated, disappeared. Simply to wear spectacles was a death warrant.

With his two-year United Nations experience in Cambodia, Jamie Frederic Metzel has also written a very readable book that analyses the West's lack of positive reaction to the news of the slaughter.

The massacres were eventually disrupted when Vietnam launched its armoured columns deep into Cambodia and liberated the deserted capital of Phnom Penh, before pushing on to the border with Thailand. Although the starving Cambodian villagers saw the Vietnamese troops as liberators, the Asean Pact countries saw the invasion as a violation of Cambodia's sovereignty and refused to recognise the new People's Republic of Kampuchea, claiming the deposed Khmer Rouge regime was the legitimate one.

Ignoring the suffering and abuse of human rights that continues in parts of Cambodia still held by the Khmer Rouge, the western nations treated the Vietnamese invasion as an extension of Soviet influence along the Pacific rim. As Metzl demonstrates, the issue of human rights abuses disappeared from the foreign policy agenda to be replaced by the politics of national interest.

Richard Gough is an author of books on Southeast Asia.

The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

Author - Ben Kiernan
ISBN - 0 300 06113 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 477

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