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'Enemies of the People' in Context

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

The United States' bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War helped Pol Pot recruit soldiers for the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement, resulting in the Khmer Rouge taking Phnom Penh in 1975. After establishing their regime, the Khmer Rouge forced Cambodia into an agrarian revolution, turning the country on its head. Although the exact number of those who perished during the reign of the Khmer Rouge is not known, estimates range from nearly a fifth to a fourth of the entire country's population (approximately 8 million).

In the aftermath of World War II, many former European colonies declared independence, seeking to express more authentic national identities than was possible under colonial rule. Disputes quickly arose between those who believed their future would be best served by aligning with the West and communists, who rejected any ties to the West.

Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) came of age in the 1950s, as his country, along with many others, struggled to define itself. He studied in Paris, where he came to believe that a strongly nationalistic approach to communism offered Cambodia its best chance at a classless society. When he returned to Cambodia, he secretly joined the communist movement, which until then had been heavily influenced by Ho Chi Minh's Communist party in neighboring Vietnam. Pol Pot and the man who would become his chief ideologist, Nuon Chea, commonly known as "Brother Number Two," were determined to steer their own communist revolution in Cambodia. King Sihanouk referred to them and their comrades as "Red Khmer," or, in French, "Khmer Rouge." This became the name by which the Cambodian Communists, led by Pol Pot, were known.

As Pol Pot rose to power, the United States became mired in the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, picking up where the French left off trying to destroy Ho Chi Minh's Communist forces. The war began to spill over into neutral Cambodia, where Ho Chi Minh's Vietcong army had set up bases. The United States launched secret bombing campaigns on these bases beginning in 1969; 540,000 tons of bombs were dropped, killing somewhere from 150,000 to 500,000 people.

Many people attribute the ascendancy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (and, ultimately, the Cambodian genocide) to the civilian casualties and devastation that resulted from the U.S. bombing campaigns. Former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg said the Khmer Rouge "...would point... at the bombs falling from B-52s as something they had to oppose if they were going to have freedom. And it became a recruiting tool until they grew to a fierce, indefatigable guerilla army." Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw things differently. In his memoir he argued, "It was Hanoi — animated by an insatiable drive to dominate Indochina — that organized the Khmer Rouge long before any American bombs fell on Cambodian soil."

During this time, the United States also backed the overthrow of Cambodia's ruler, King Sihanouk, by his own prime minister, General Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge waged guerrilla warfare against Lon Nol, and the 1970 U.S. invasion and bombing campaign against Cambodia only served to increase sympathy for the Khmer Rouge. The civil war ended in April 1975, when Khmer Rouge forces took control of Phnom Penh.

When Pol Pot and his party came to power, they embraced an ideology that was defined by an amalgamation of communism and a fiercely nationalistic distrust of Vietnam. The regime wanted all remnants of the "old society" erased and aimed to create a pure, agrarian utopia in which there would be no private ownership or anything foreign or modern. The Khmer Rouge called its first year in power "year zero"; they wanted to return to a peasant economy with no educational hierarchies or class divisions. Everyone would be equal and everyone would be tied to the land.

To achieve this, city inhabitants were forcibly moved to the countryside and used as labor on collective farms. The regime considered urban classes "traitors" and "capitalists" who supported free-market activities; ethnic and religious minorities were also targeted. This agrarian reform, which Pol Pot claimed would raise the standard of living for all, led to a famine and starvation of thousands. Although the exact number of those who perished during the reign of the Khmer Rouge is not known, estimates range from nearly a fifth to a fourth of the entire country's population (aprox. 8 million) at the time.

In the first admission of its kind for a Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Chea admits in Enemies of the People that he and Pol Pot ordered a purge of the party to rid it of a "Vietnamese faction," people they believed were conspiring with their erstwhile allies to re-establish Vietnam's historical dominance of Cambodia. Nuon Chea clings to the notion that killings were targeted and justified by the external threat posed by the more powerful Vietnamese. He and Pol Pot believed the killings were justified, he says, because of their belief that the "Vietnamese conspiracy" had infiltrated not only the party, but the entire country. Eventually, Nuon Chea acknowledges how extensive the killings became.

Photo Caption: Thet Sambath on the road in Cambodia; Credit: Courtesy of Enemies of the People

» Cambodian Genocide Group (CGG). "The Genocide."
» Frontline World. "Cambodia — Pol Pot's Shadow."
» Independent Lens. "War and Cambodia."
» Jackson, Karl D., ed. Cambodia, 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
» Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008
» Loy, Irwin. "30 Years After Khmer Rouge, Killing Fields, Cambodia Grows New Generation of Art Conservators." The Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2010
» POV. "Discussion Guide: The Flute Player."
» POV. "Press Release: Enemies of the People."
» Short, Philip. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. New York: Holt, 2005.
» U.S. Department of State. "Cambodia."
» Yale University. "Bombs Over Cambodia. (PDF)"

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