Death Of A Nation: The Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia
We didn’t come to Cambodia to talk about the genocide. We came here to talk about the country, the past and present alike. But to truly explain the backdrop of modern Cambodia, it’s just something we can’t ignore. Let’s look at the Khmer Rouge. But before we get into today’s story, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who’s watched, who’s liked, who’s commented, subscribed, taken part in any way. It means so much to us. This is a unique and new thing and it is so cool to have you along for the ride. In addition, we’re in a new country. Welcome to Cambodia. And with a new country, we’re gonna implement a couple of new styles, maybe change up the camerawork a little bit. We really hope you like it, but either way let us know in the comments below. But for now, let’s get back to this story. Okay, so back to Cambodia. This country is primarily inhabited by the Khmer people. They were once rulers of a great empire based in Angkor. But their golden age was in the 1200’s and that was quite some time ago. Since then, Cambodia has been constantly invaded by Vietnam and Thailand, and in the Colonial Era, France. And when French colonialism collapsed, America stepped in as part of its war in Vietnam. And the war brought unrest. The revolution came to Cambodia in the form of Viet Minh soldiers camping in jungles across the border to hide from the French and American bombs. But it was a bit too Vietnam-focused for the nationalist Cambodians. They banded around the leadership of a Paris-educated elite called Saloth Sar, or more commonly known by his pseudonym, Pol Pot It formed the basis for what would eventually be called the Khmer Rouge. They’d started small, just a rebel group in a distant jungle fighting against a beloved king. But everything changed when America began to bomb Cambodia. Without even declaring war, they began bombing the country in force. The United States dropped more explosives on Cambodia than were dropped in the entirety of World War II by all the Allies combined. It was meant to stop communist guerrillas, but it only made more of them. After all, you can imagine what this was doing on the ground. Civilians were being blown out of their homes with their only sources of income destroyed. Tens of thousands were killed indiscriminately. It drove people right into the arms of the Khmer Rouge and thoroughly weakened the central government. And then there was the coup. The king didn’t suppress communism loudly enough. He was walking a tightrope, but America was fighting a war. They installed a military dictatorship that hated communists the proper amount. And the king, with nowhere to turn for support, publicly promoted the Khmer Rouge. They promised to reinstate the throne. And this opened the floodgates. The average person joining didn’t understand the ins and outs of Pol Pot’s doctrine, but they understood loyalty to king and country. As the Vietnam War ends and Saigon falls, Cambodia’s dictatorship falls with it. They’ve been heavily reliant on U.S. money, support, and military to stay in power, and now the U.S. is gone. The Khmer Rouge come out of the forest and replaced this military dictatorship with something far more brutal. And they waste absolutely no time in implementing their evil plans. They immediately make the city disappear into the countryside. Leave everything behind, give all of your money and items and food over to the Khmer Rouge and start walking. They kill administrators, soldiers, teachers, anyone they consider elite immediately on the spot and turn everyone else into a countryside peasant. Within hours, the government decided that education was unnecessary. After all everything you needed to know in life you could learn working in a rice field. They killed people who wore glasses simply because they seemed elitist. They started to turn all the schools into prisons and work camps like the infamous S21 here in Phnom Penh. Once a high school, it was quickly turned into the most infamous prison in the Khmer Rouge regime. 99% plus death rates of prisoners. It didn’t matter your age, your gender, your creed, your position in the party, if you entered the walls of that prison you would eventually end up here, in the killing fields just outside town. The Khmer Rouge believed that they were making a perfect society. In their eyes they would change everything until all people were the same. Not equal, but the same. The same thoughts, the same ideas, the same life, the same experiences. An impossible ideal, but they were willing to kill for it. Loving someone without party permission meant death. And they weren’t giving up jobs based on skills or experience because that would imply that people weren’t the same. They were giving them out based on loyalty, on who was a member of the party. There was even a 12 year old who ended up running an entire section of the country. An administrative task that she definitely was not up for. And so, you end up immediately with starvation, of course. But once starvation comes in, people aren’t allowed to forage for food, because foraging implies individuality. It implies that you’re not eating the same as everybody else and therefore you can’t be the same. The government literally preferred that their people starve to death then show even the slightest hint of individualism. Soon as the country began to collapse, the party decided to blame spies from within. This is always so common. It’s not our fault. It must be saboteurs within the party who are stopping us from achieving these lofty goals. And the only way to get rid of saboteurs is to kill them. They didn’t just kill them though, because whenever they tortured them they made them give names. There were no names to give. These were innocent people. They had not done the crime they were being accused of. So what names would they give? They gave the names of people they knew. Maybe they didn’t like them. Maybe just whoever, under torture. It ended up killing families. These prisons would take friends, families, co-workers, anyone you’d associated with, and kill them alongside. And for 3 years straight, around the country, in killing fields such as this one, the regime repeated their terrible pattern. It wasn’t sympathy from abroad that stopped the Khmer Rouge but hubris from within. Even though their population was starving, their leadership had been purged and their army was weak, they decided to invade Vietnam. It was the sort of tactical leadership you’d expect from the Khmer Rouge. It was the sort of idea that could only come up if everyone was afraid to say no to you. Vietnam wiped the floor with them. It was barely even a war. Within a few days, they had already taken almost every major city. The Khmer Rouge fled back into the forest and Vietnam set up a government of its own like it. But the Khmer Rouge weren’t dead yet. They’d survive for another roughly 20 years in the jungles, actually keeping some power and putting a lot of pressure on the government to change, to fear them. It was because they had major powers backing them abroad. People who were so opposed to what was happening with communist Russia. How the Soviets were coming down to Vietnam to impose their style of communism, that they were willing to back the Khmer Rouge despite what they’d done internally. Knowing that the genocide had happened. So the Khmer Rouge stay in the jungles until the late 1990’s. Not really keen on fighting a rebellion in Cambodia, the Vietnamese try to step back but they can’t let the Khmer Rouge take over again. So they sort of find themselves in limbo up until the 90’s, whenever the UN steps in and puts the king back in power. The king from the very beginning. So they’ve basically reverted 30 years before as if none of it’s ever happened. The Khmer Rouge are still in the jungles. The king is in power. There are external threats constantly deciding the fate of Cambodia. Almost as if it’s reset. But of course it hasn’t reset. This terrible thing has happened. This trauma, this homicide, this genocide of the people is looming over everything. To convince the Khmer Rouge to come out of the forest and disband to become part of normal society again, they make a deal that gives them near amnesty. Despite these leaders having committed a holocaust, a genocide of their people, they go unpunished. To this day, despite UN efforts, not a single one of their leading members has been to prison for their crimes. Some have been on trial, but nothing came of it. So 40 years later, the trauma remains unfinished. There’s no catharsis to end this experience. It’s just sort of trickled out. And you can see how it affects everything in the modern day. Cambodia is more than just the story of the Khmer Rouge. It is the story of Angkor. It is the story of modern Phnom Penh. It is a story of a bright, friendly nation seemingly worlds away from the struggles of their recent past. It’s a country of skyscrapers, smiling faces, and optimism for the future. Yet the legacy remains. The Khmer Rouge era is over. It’s gone. But it can’t be forgotten. This is Rare Earth.