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The Extreme Violence Under the Khmer Rouge Between 1975 and 1979

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Subject: The extreme violence under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

Reportedly up to 21 % of the population[1] has perished under the Khmer Rouge[2] regime. After years of struggle, 1975 has marked the KR’s seizure of power orchestrated by Pol Pot. Soon enough will a totalitarian form of government emerge, under which extreme exactions and violence will target the populations, leaving behind difficult memories[3]. Lasting until 1979, these five years will come to be addressed as the “Cambodian Genocide[4]”.  

This work attempts to understand how the state ideology has left a freeway for different extreme forms of violence to be enforced; and “violence” will refer to the deliberate use or threat to use force towards a targeted population. To what extent has the violence deriving from the initial KR ideology progressively escaped control between 1975 and 1979 in Democratic Kampuchea[5]?

We will demonstrate that the ideology was intrinsically violent before focusing on its “spillover” effects, providing further explanations as to how unplanned violence has increased the death toll.

The KR have embodied the legacy of the Angkar Empire[6], while promoting strong nationalist and xenophobic sentiments directed towards the peoples they judged threatening for the survival of Democratic Kampuchea. The ideology was essentially in quest for the “purity” of the population (as was Mao in China), necessary condition to complete the KR project. Thus, violence was legitimized and glorified by the totalitarian government.

Laurence Picq’s[7]  “Le Piege Khmer Rouge” depicts the progressive shift towards state terror through the radicalization process of the KR political ideology from 1975 to 1979.  Beginning with the abolition of private property, the introduction of collectivization and the suppression of fundamental freedoms, policies aiming at abolishing the “ego” will follow. This killing of the identity was enforced through population exodus, separation of couples and parting children from their parents. The first purges date back to 1977, and were reinforced by 1978 with a KR policy singling out the “Inside enemy”, accused of not being unconditionally dedicated to the party.

Karl Jackson has demonstrated the link between the ideology and the annihilative character of the regime, deriving from the combination of inflexible communism and total autarky[8].  The extensive lists of enemies included the intellectuals, the nationals from bordering countries, collaborators from Lon Nol’s government[9], and members of the religious society… encouraging additional violence.  


Angkar was the backbone and manipulative weapon of the KR. Considered as the only legitimate authority, individuals were brought to believe and execute all its orders. Failure to comply resulted in death, and denunciations were encouraged in sessions of criticism and self-criticism[10].

The numerous forms of direct violence included mass executions in killing fields, arbitrary detainment and torture sessions to get confessions of disobedience towards Angkar. Capital punishment was inflicted using primitive methods, and the preferred weapons were bamboo sticks and knives. Corpses were thrown in mass graves. Organized famines, restricted access to medical supplies and forced labor were responsible for around 36 % of the total death toll[11].

Nicknamed the prison of no escape, the Security Prison 21 (S-21) had the habit of taking pictures of its prisoners at two occasions: at their arrival (right) and at their near death, or death (left). Thus, the regime had proof that the enemy was eliminated. The author of these pictures was Nhem En, then a young KR[12].  [pic 1]



The KR ideology has proven to intrinsically promote violence. However, it seems that the spillover effect of an ideological instability has driven a violence that was unplanned.

The regime’s utopic objectives had pushed the violence to new levels, and instilled a climate of hesitation and even rebellion from within the organization, as internal disputes and “coups” attempts have been reported as early as 1976. Pol Pot’s leadership was challenged by party cadres for whom the violence initiated by the radical ideology of Angkar had went too far. He responded to the threat with massive purges, causing additional violence, and ultimately starting a process of auto-destruction. These purges can be compared to that of Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938) and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when they needed to restore their leadership.

 A form of paranoia was soon installed in the party, directed towards what some authors call imaginary enemies, as this party publication from July 1978 sums up:  “There are enemies everywhere within our ranks, in the center, at headquarters, in the zones and out in the villages”[13]. As in Stalin’s USSR, death targets were installed, soon creating a ratchetting up effect of violence.

The indoctrination of the KR Youth and the Milgram experiment provide an additional framework for explaining the way such a degree of violence was attained between 1975 and 1979.

With Angkar as the only legitimate authority, that of the parents’ towards their children was swept away, and the KR have used the gap to indoctrinate the youth, and turn them into actors of the violence. Dith Pran, survivor of the Killing Fields, suggested that the children aged 12 to 15 years old made up the most brutal share of the KR soldiers, after being brain washed in indoctrination camps, in which processes of dehumanization of the enemy were carried out[14]. Cases where children were asked to execute members of their family were not rare.



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