With the conviction last summer of former Khmer Rouge officials Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea for crimes against humanity, the subject of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 received a small amount of attention in the Western mass media. What the media failed to mention was how the Khmer Rouge was maintained as a military and political force long after its fall from power. Nor has it been suggested why, at Western insistence, the scope of investigations at the tribunal would exclude the period after 1979.
After taking power in Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied every city and town, marching the urban population into the countryside. Nearly everyone in Cambodia was herded into labor camps, where they were compelled to live in primitive conditions and work twelve hours a day at exhausting manual labor. Cambodia’s new rulers regarded city dwellers as ideologically suspect, terming them “new people,” sending many of them to their deaths. Those who showed signs of having had an education were murdered outright. Ethnic minorities such as the Cham and Vietnamese were systematically exterminated or driven away.
Crop yields were poor, and a large percentage of the nation’s rice production was earmarked for the export market. Little food remained for those who worked the land. The daily rice ration was just 250 to 500 grams, a grossly inadequate diet to sustain people working long hours at harsh labor. Vast numbers of people perished from malnutrition and hunger, and anyone who in desperation picked up stray grains of rice from the ground or picked wild berries could count on being executed. Truckloads of people routinely departed the camps, bound for execution sites. In all, there were around 150 execution centers in Cambodia, including the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, in which many thousands of people were tortured and killed.
Out of a total population of just under 8 million, it is estimated that 1.7 million people died under Khmer Rouge rule from execution, hunger and overwork. During its four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge achieved a record of barbarism rarely equaled in history.
Khmer Rouge leaders had a manic hatred for the Vietnamese and expended considerable effort in trying to whip up anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Claiming Southern Vietnam as their territory, the Khmer Rouge launched numerous cross-border raids, burning down villages and massacring their inhabitants. In all, around 30,000 Vietnamese civilians lost their lives in the attacks.
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