Did the khmer rouge really kill everyone with glasses?
So I originally answered this one on the ask.historians subreddit a year or so ago, it came from reddit user ‘that’s right jay’, who asked;
‘I was listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and at the beginning of the latest episode he said
something about the Khmer Rouge killing everyone with glasses in Cambodia. I am vaguely aware
of the events that took place there but unsure if this glasses cliché was actually what happened.
Could someone explain maybe where this came from, or if it is true? Thanks.’
It was a great question then and it’s a great question now. I’m going to expand on and rephrase a couple of parts of the answer that I had given back then and hopefully give an even better account of this ‘glasses cliché’ as the user put it, as well as where it came from and the extent it maps onto reality.
So lets start with the source the question asker references, the quote from the Hardcore History podcast:
why didnt the khmer rouge take photographs as they wiped out the intellectual class of cambodia, because they thought people with glasses were intellectuals and that intellectuals were a threat to the new world they were creating were everyone was going to live on the land again.
Ok, so I had listened to that episode when it came out, Supernova in the east number two, and naturally my ears pricked up as Mr History Podcast mentioned the Khmer Rouge. The quote itself is in reference to a wider point he makes about Japanese war atrocities, but as the questioner says, Carlin does mention Khmer Rouge targeting the intellectual class as well as insinuating that ‘people wearing glasses’ was a primary way of identifying this class and marking them for execution.
I think it is useful to start ‘zoomed out’ a little bit, examining the wider ideology and motivations of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, before we look closer in at the results of these policies, particularly for someone that may or may not have been wearing glasses living under that regime.
The French historian Henri Locard wrote a useful text called ‘Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar’, and we can use some of these common slogans of Khmer Rouge cadre to get a clear insight into the ideas they were trying to spread into the population. It also lets them tell us what they were trying to do, rather than just supposing that for them.
So, here is one that illustrates their aims quite well:
“With the Angkar, we shall make a Great Leap forward, a prodigious Great Leap forward”
This is sometimes translated as ‘we shall make a super great leap forward’, but either way here we get a solid link between the motivations of the Khmer Rouge and the communist ideology they were influenced by, with this hardly subtle reference to the Maoist policy of the great leap forward.
The CPK leadership, particularly Pol Pot, had been in contact with the Chinese throughout their struggle during the Cambodian civil war and had been enamoured with previous Maoist policies, like the great leap forward and the cultural revolution. Pol Pot had assumed (as the Maoist propaganda would have confirmed) that strategies like the Great Leap Forward were indeed a great success... as opposed to a horrible human disaster.
The Cambodian revolution would borrow heavily from the Chinese, not just ideologically but also materially, and this meant that certain aspects of the Chinese revolutionary zeal, were also imported – such as basing the revolution around the peasant class or focusing on agriculture.
In the words of Henri Locard:
“In brief, the Maoist revolution and above all the ‘cultural revolution’, was the revenge of the ignorant over the educated, the triumph of obscurantism, the meritocracy of our own world turned on its head: the fewer degrees you had, the more power you attained.”
Other Maoist inspired slogans of the Khmer Rouge included ‘The spade is your pen, the rice field your paper’, or ‘if you have a revolutionary consciousness you can do anything comrade’.
These were all part of the CPK’s vision for a Cambodia where basically the entire population was made to work in what could be described as the first modern slave state, where the entire countryside was to be transformed and cultivated to produce enough surplus crops to fund industrialisation and a pure communist revolution.
These sayings also illustrate who was going to be favoured in this new society.
The Khmer Rouge preferred those who were already closer to their prescribed ‘ideal revolutionary’; the peasant farmer who was not hindered by the trappings of ‘imperialism’ or ‘capitalism’. The quintessential example of that kind of person, those influenced by this bourgeoise mindset, were the urban classes who lived predominantly in Phnom Penh. The members of this class, representing perhaps a quarter of the whole population, were not only on the opposite end of the revolutionary spectrum, but they were also associated with the ‘losing side’ of the Cambodian civil war that raged from 1970-1975.
In the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, those that had stayed in the city were tainted by their clear choice not to join the revolution. These people were renamed ‘April 17 people’ or ‘new people’ once they were forced out of their urban dwellings and into the countryside. There they were positioned firmly on the bottom of the new social hierarchy that the CPK established in revolutionary Cambodia. There is a punitive element at play here.
This is exemplified by another commonly heard slogan of the Khmer Rouge; ‘Those who have never laboured, but slept comfortably, they must be made to produce fruit’, or ‘Comrade, you have been used to a comfortable and easy life’, these were pointed towards the ‘new people’ and highlight the resentment toward this group, as well as the slightly vengeful nature of the Cambodian revolution.
This dual notion of ideology and vengeance, as well as emphasising which direction some of this treatment was coming from, goes some way in explaining the perception of these ‘new people’.
This, in turn, led to notions such as ‘the Khmer Rouge would check if you had soft hands’, or, ‘they killed everyone with glasses’ being so commonly associated with the collective memory and testimony of this oppressed group in Democratic Kampuchea.
A lot of power, that is the power to decide whether someone would be sentenced to death or not, rested in the hands of peasant revolutionaries who had fought an extremely brutal civil war, and were now victorious.
They had been taught that the city people that they were fighting against were nasty and bad, and conversely that the revolution they were fighting for, was pure and correct. The poor peasants often regarded the rich and the educated as essentially the same, and having glasses was a mark of education, and because both the rich and educated looked down on them – they were enemies.
To many Khmer Rouge cadre or, for those living under their rule in the years leading up to the end of the civil war, these ‘new people’ or ’17 April People’, were often seen as nothing more than parasites.
Certain directives from the party leadership, also created a general atmosphere of paranoia within Democratic Kampuchea... were enemies were always being sought out, and being an enemy or counter-revolutionary, was treated with little else but murder.
There is something called the 30th of March 1976 Directive, which was a decision made at a meeting of the CPK leadership. This is when they officially delegated the power to kill, or the khmer phrase used ‘komtech’ ‘to smash’, those individuals who were suspected of counter-revolutionary activity, this power was transmitted to zone and district committees. Which means, even fairly low-ranking Khmer Rouge officials in a village co-operative would have the power to ‘smash’ enemies when they saw fit.
With that in mind however, even though power was highly centralised, it must be said that there was no established rule throughout whole country. Survivor of the period and former Engineer Pin Yathay states that ‘Discipline varied at the whim of each village chief, there were good villages in the worst regions and bad villages in the best’. This idea of regional variations is one we might return to in a later essay, but it’s worth remembering when answering a kind of ‘generalised’ question about the period.
Anyway, although conditions could vary from zone to zone or even village to village, local cadre were constantly urged to maintain their revolutionary zeal, which included activities such as identifying and ‘sweeping clean’ enemies.
Here we had a scenario where a new social hierarchy has been implemented after a long and bloody civil war, with a rural, poor peasantry as the new dominant class. They were directed to kill enemies of the regime, and given vague ideas relating to revolutionary consciousness and class struggle in order to identify who these enemies were. The ‘new people’ were naturally going to be under more suspicion due to their class background, and intellectuals or those with links to the previous regime were particularly at risk. These aspects of one’s biography could be considered to make one ‘innately counter revolutionary’ and unable to follow the party line.
Life had very little value in Democratic Kampuchea, and most people have heard the most famous saying that explains this viewpoint: ‘To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss’.
The CPK thought that some elements of this new society were not going to be able to participate in it. This would lead to a massive amount of state sponsored killings and even in some cases, genocide. The Khmer Rouge had to purify their new state, and some individuals, classes and ethnic groups were not only seen as less desirable but adversarial to the aims of the party. One of those groups, were intellectuals.
Which brings us directly to this glasses question and how this became a common reference point.
During the earliest periods of the CPK’s time in power, almost no information leaked out to the world about what was happening within Cambodia. However, when the first refugees accounts began slowly coming out as time went on, they told of an abomination.
In Elizabeth Becker’s book; ‘When the War Was Over’, she directly addresses the question of ‘whether the Khmer Rouge killed everyone with glasses’, firstly stating that, quote:
‘refugees said Cambodians wearing eyeglasses were killed because the Khmer Rouge thought only intellectuals wore eyeglasses. They said that beautiful young women were forced to marry deformed Khmer Rouge veterans. They said there were no dogs left in the country because starving people had killed them all for food.’
She then sates that ‘These were exaggerations, but they were exaggerations such as are fables, based on a truth too awful to explain. The eyeglasses fable reflected how the Khmer Rouge had targeted intellectuals as dangerous and killed thousands for simply having an education.’
Essentially, shes saying that ‘the khmer rouge killed everyone with glasses’, is a kind of like boiling down a generalisation to a short, impactful statement that conveys a lot about what life was like in Democratic Kampuchea - particularly for those from a certain background who had escaped the country - without the statement having to be literally true.
What this means is that the Khmer Rouge cadres would often target someone who they considered to be an ‘enemy’ based on very little, it could be a small infraction, a suspect biography, being accused of wrongdoing, associated with another suspect individual… anything that led to a perception that someone was ‘anti-revolutionary’. Pol Pot’s regime also emphasised the collective over the individual, and things that stood one out from the collective were more likely to be cut away.
The point is that the decision to kill someone based on their wearing glasses, this would have undoubtedly happened – perhaps a lot – but it was not a concrete decree by the leadership of the CPK.
There is no directive that went out saying ‘kill everyone with glasses’, this activity can’t be directly traced back to the leadership itself. But this does not absolve them of guilt.
There were indoctrination sessions were people were taught to look out for enemies constantly, cadre were taught which classes were more revolutionary than others and were told to check biographies, and if yours was considered to be sufficiently ‘anti-revolutionary’, you would likely be killed.
However, just having glasses – in and of itself – this was not a guaranteed death sentence.
Philip Short, in ‘Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare’, stated that the ‘glasses fable’, was not even unique to the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia.
He says that it can also be associated with the Khmer ‘Issarak’, which was a kind of proto-nationalist/semi socialist, anti-colonial movement in the 1940s. This group also reportedly harassed and killed glasses wearing people during this time, in what he says was a similar association of intellectuals to the corrupt society they were trying to overturn – again from an impoverished rural population base.
He does state however, that many members of the party leadership, like Nuon Chea, had been part of that older movement too. They would have known that the poor peasants would target individuals in this arbitrary way, but made no efforts to curb that behaviour or issue a directive not to kill members of that class.
This highlights the fundamental failure of the DK regime to protect its citizens, a failure they managed in every sphere of life… a failure to protect that was coupled with an abhorrent, active sponsoring of other mass killings.
So with all of that in mind, can we really conclude that “the Khmer Rouge killed everyone with glasses”?
Well, yes and no.
Like any kind of highly generalised statement, it does not exactly map onto the reality or complexities of the Khmer Rouge regime, nor was it a stated goal of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who were more general in their identification of who was a ‘counter revolutionary’ or ‘enemy’ of the regime.
I think sometimes people have a vague image in their mind, similar to that of Auschwitz, were a line of people were pointed left or right toward a labour camp or the killing fields, and those with glasses were sent away en masse to be slaughtered.. this is taking the ‘fable’ to that literal level, away from reality.
I have no doubt that many, perhaps even thousands of those who died due to their ‘class background’, were identified on the basis of something as arbitrary as wearing glasses. Afterall, the entire population was subject to the brutality that was Democratic Kampuchea, and the conditions established by the leadership… allowing for lower level cadre to commit murder on this basis, there is enough ‘truth’ here to use this saying as it is commonly expressed.
However, as Becker points out, the idea that the Khmer Rouge ‘killed everyone with glasses’ could also be seen as just a simplified explanation of an aspect of the period, rather than an actual aim of the CPK, who never said that ‘all intellectuals should die’, nor something along the lines of ‘smash those who wear glasses’. I mean, it’s a rather trivial point but some of the leadership themselves wore glasses, like Son Sen, who oversaw the running of S-21.
In a way, it depends on how you turn that phrase and what you mean by it. Saying ‘you could have been killed for wearing glasses’, is closer to the truth than saying ‘the khmer rouge killed everyone with glasses’.
But either way it alludes to the same ideas; that living in democratic Kampuchea was extremely dangerous, that the ideology of the Khmer Rouge established class based hierarchies and that certain groups within that society were targeted for execution as a result of these policies and a basic lack of appreciation for human life.
It is also worth remembering that the crimes of the regime were not very well known or well established, while they were still in power. The phrase as it was uttered by refugees fleeing Cambodia served the purpose of alerting the world to the atrocities that were being committed in an effectively succinct, if generalised, fashion. This may be the reason behind why it has endured so long as a description of life and death under the Khmer Rouge.
I am glad to announce a new part of the show, a series of video lectures/essays on Youtube. The first will be a 20ish minute overview of Cambodian history, tailored to visualise the history rather than just rely on audio. That will be the ‘base’ of what will be different essays about different topics that I feel are often asked about or thought about. I will rely on what I have already produced in large part for the ‘Askhistorians’ Subreddit, so questions like ‘Did the Khmer Rouge kill everyone with glasses?’ or ‘Is the term genocide controversial in its application to Cambodia?’, and perhaps a big breakdown of parts of media produced about the Khmer Rouge, like The Killing Fields.
I’m really excited about this as it gives me an opportunity to reach a new audience, with new/different content. This also presents a chance for those that are eagerly awaiting the podcast series to get to the period around the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, a chance to ask questions about or get a look at that history before the show (eventually) gets there.
While it will be less detailed than the ‘deep dive’ and chronologically developing podcast series, which is basically turning into a 25 hour audiobook, utilising a new way of making content like this allows me to tailor short, specific essays that may not fit neatly into a) the timeline of the podcast, or b) the medium of audio.
The podcast episodes that are already on youtube, if you have ever watched one, definitely have the ‘visual’ aspect as a less important focus… more or less just images that I try to make vaguely relate to what is being said. They aren’t really designed to be ‘watched’ per se. But this new series will be, and I am having fun with new video editing software that isn’t a total pain in the ass and going through my catalogue of images and movies to try and fit in some engaging stuff.
The podcast will still very much remain the focus, but I hope that the two projects can work hand in hand for those that are interested in this topic. Because of the relative time it takes to produce the videos I hope this will allow for subscribers / listeners to be able to start an easy dialogue and perhaps ask me anything episodes or patreon videos can be something that we look at in the future.
Keep a look out for this as I hope to get the first episode up and running in the next couple of weeks.
A recent review left on Itunes gave me a lot to think about today when I saw it. While it was not outright negative (3/5 stars), even generally praising of the show, the reviewer did make a point of saying that the show meandered into territory outside of the scope of initial objectives and that I had 'bitten off more than I could chew' in certain areas that weren't directly related to Cambodian history.
I tend to agree with this person.
I initially thought the show would be ten, 45 minute episodes. A manageable task for someone studying full time and working part time. Two years later, having produced eight standard episodes totalling more than 10 hours of content, without having reached the second world war, I think somewhere the show may have stumbled into unfamiliar territory.
This is one problem of not having an editor, nor a deadline. But it is a problem for those that are listening to the show that may already have a strong grasp on world history, and themes, and are more looking for a series dedicated to just the Khmer Rouge or Cambodia. The problem that I have encountered is that producing a show like this, without really knowing who the audience is can produce issues when tailoring the content of the series for what could be an extremely wide audience.
I think this problem became pronounced when introducing colonialism and these kinds of themes into the show. Explaining why europeans conquered much of the world in the 'age of discovery' relies on many other pieces of assumed knowledge, as does why the french revolution happened when it did, or why.
Cambodian history has been influenced so much by the 'great forces of modern history'; colonialism, european empire, de-colonisation, globalisation, the cold war, nationalism, communism, asian history and world history. It is so hard to explain this story without referencing these ideas, and when they come up, knowing how much to explain them can be a difficult task. One that I am still learning to get better at.
I hope that this listener keeps listening to the show, and enjoys the parts of it that they find interesting. As I've said what I feel like must be at least a few other times in this blog, the show has become a way for me to explain everything that I can to the 'me' in my late teens who wanted to know about why the Khmer Rouge revolution happened. I want people to be able to listen to this show, know what 'enlightenment values' are, or what the 'reign of terror' was or how nationalism was born. I want them to know what the proletariat is. I want them to be able to pick up a book by David Chandler or Philip Short and have that experience of reading a true historian's explanation be enriched because they were aware of the basics that these authors tend to take for granted in what can be a very general audience. Not have to skip over a sentence only half aware of what was being referenced.
However, I feel I can begin to limit the topics that were beginning to creep into the show. I disagree with the reviewer in their opinion that a one hour explanation of the origins of communism was unnecessary. Knowing what went wrong in Cambodia and for other communist experiments is really only possible with reference to the theories that these experiments were based upon. BUT, as I looked over the notes that I had begun preparing for the next episode of the show, 'Part Two' of this exploration, that would have looked at the Soviet Union and Europe between the wars, well... it did strike me as biting off more than I can chew. While we still need to know about how 'revolutions', particularly communist ones, aim for one thing and turn out as another, it certainly can be less intricately explained and I want to shift the focus back upon Indochina and spend more time tracing how these ideas were imported and acted upon by someone much closer to this narrative, the Viet Minh.
So, if the person that left that review ever reads this, I want you to know that I value the fact that you listened to the show intently enough to be able to form such a reasonable reaction to it, and I hope you know that I intend to take your review as intended, constructive criticism. Thank you.
Episode Seven, which felt like it took awhile but fell fairly neatly into that ideal three-month schedule, is out on podcast providers and Youtube. It’s another long one, I think it was about 20,000 words – which I stayed up one night to record (quite hard to avoid noise when you are recording in your home). Eagle-eared listeners might pick up on some birds here or there, or perhaps a couple of slightly slurred words as 3am approached and the one or two whiskeys I’d had to keep myself perky took effect.
But I am happy with the result, happy with the content and glad to have got this one done considering the busy period it was in my life.
I’ve tried to keep up the momentum and begun work on the new episode already. As I discussed in the intro of the latest release, we need to broaden the scope way back and head to Europe again to discuss the ideological birth of Marxism and perhaps the actual start of the Cold War in the wake of WWI. This episode will need to get our vocabulary of terms up to scratch with the slightly complex ideas of Marx and Engels… Proletariat, Bourgeoisie, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks… fun stuff. We need to know how these ‘ideas’ develop for a variety of reasons and I believe the episode will not feature much from Cambodia, perhaps just some of the echoes we can identify between some aspects of soviet ‘terror’ and eventual Khmer Rouge actions, much like we did with the French Revolution.
At the moment it’s looking as though it will cover the industrial revolution all the way up to the beginnings of World War Two, which will fill in the picture that was left dark in Episode Seven quite nicely. Then we will be exploring WWII in Southeast Asia, the end of this conflict, the bipolar world and the ‘proper’ Cold War beginnings – as well as the start of independence movements in Indochina. That will be Episode Nine and soon enough we will get to the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Civil War and the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, hopefully by the end of 2020 (crikey!)
At the end of this year, which basically brings us to the two-year anniversary of the show, I just wanted to thank everyone for listening and engaging with the show. It makes me really proud to produce something that more and more people seem to be connecting with, and if I had shown some of the numbers that I am getting for the show to me from two years ago, I would have been amazed.
I would also like to particularly thank the people that have taken the time to review the show on itunes or wherever they might listen to it. I think the US itunes store has more than 37 ratings and a solid amount of written reviews, a recent one was quite touching. It was from a 33-year-old Khmer person who had immigrated to the US following the end of the Khmer Rouge period, born in a refugee camp. Their parents did not speak much about it but had experienced losses like most Cambodians, including family members being taken away and killed. They said that the show was a way for them to learn about their culture and heritage... something they barely knew anything about. This isn't the first time someone has contacted me with this kind of comment and this really makes me proud to have tried to ‘do something’, however basic, with some of the time and energy I’ve spent learning about this period of history and it makes the energy I put into making the show really feel worthwhile.
Another person spoke about how the podcast had been a companion for them on a recent trip to Cambodia. This was another great example for me because I really hope that the show can act as a kind of contextualisation for what a lot of people see and do in Cambodia.. I know that many people don’t have time to read a book and many movies and documentaries don’t quite tell the whole story. So I hope the podcast can act as a kind of intermediary for some people who visit the country, and that makes me really proud too.
Finally, I’d like to extend a very special thank you to two people who contributed financially to the show in the last year: Will Swope and Bunra Long. Together the amount they gave has covered the cost of the microphone that I purchased two years ago, and probably one or two of the books that I’ve bought to help research the show. I appreciate very much that not everyone is in the position to be able to spare money for a show that they can access for free, and I did not set up this show for financial gain. But the show does cost money to produce and keep on the internet/podcast hosting websites.
For full transparency I will give a breakdown of the costs:
15 AUD per month for an Audioboom subscription which posts the show to numerous providers including Spotify.
18 AUD per month for website hosting with Weebly
40 AUD for the domain name annually
So, around 450 AUD per year (that's about 300 US for those who may be interested)
As I said, this project has not been set up for financial gain. I pay to keep it running. As the support page says, if you’d like to donate to a Cambodian charity like the Cambodian Children’s Fund, I would recommend you do so. But for those in the position to help out with the costs of running the show, if you would like to do so, it does make a big difference and makes the show a sustainable financial prospect for me. So, thank you to Bunra Long and Will Swope once again for doing that, it means a lot.
So, I guess that is about it. If you are reading this prior to December 31st, have a good new year. I will have a new episode up hopefully not too far down the track.
I also have some potentially exciting news regarding an interview with a historian whose work I greatly admire and have mentioned on the show so far… so keep a look out for that too
All the best,
Hello everyone, I've had a few messages lately about when the next episode is coming out (which honestly still kind of amazes me that the audience has grown to a point where that comes up semi-regularly!) so I thought I'd check in here and get some stuff out.
First of all, episode seven (not including the interviews) should be out by the end of this month. I work weekdays but every now and again I have a day off so I can work on the script, and there will be enough weekends coming up to be able to record. Saturday the 30th, or December 1st I'd say. The script is coming along nicely I'm just writing the section on rural Cambodian life based on May Ebihara's PHD. There will be no singing in this one, but we will be establishing key 'Cambodian' issues (the warm/moist air of the hurricane) from the start of the French Protectorate up until the beginnings of WWII. So, French Protectorate, Rural Cambodian life and the beginnings of Nationalism.
I'm excited about this one I think it is going to be a belter.
Now, while I was sat procrastinating... I also figured I'd quickly sketch out what the future of the show might look like... 'Phase two and three' or whatever Marvel does. Here is a very rough idea of when and what to expect going forward:
•E7 – French Indochina until 1939 (nov 19)
•E8 – the long beginnings of the cold war, the state of the world into and after 1945. (Feb 20)
•E9 – independence movements in Vietnam and Cambodia. (April 20)
•E10 – The Vietnam War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. (July 20)
•E11 – The Cambodian Civil War. (September 20)
•E12 – Year Zero (December 20)
•E13 – 1975-1976, goals, constitutions, wiping the slate clean.
•E14 – The Killing Fields
•E15 – The security state, S-21 and the network of prisons
•E16 – Enemies
•E17 – Eating your own Children
•E18 – The state crumbles
•E19 – Aftermath
•E20 – Realpolitik, Reconciliation and elusive justice.
So, I dunno. 2021? Jesus. Well let's hope.
Also, a reminder that you can follow the show on Twitter (please do I've got so few people on there its embarrassing) https://twitter.com/KhmerUtopia
Alright. The new episode is coming together nicely, just thought I would start updating the blog with this kind of content to assure people the show is progressing. I’d say, just in regards to my own circumstances, I am going to perhaps start a teaching role in a high school toward the end of this year and I am already worrying about the impact that doing a masters/being a full-time teacher might have on the podcast… but we will come to that when we come to that!
Anyway, for now I think I have sketched out the next episode pretty well. We are going to start just with the general low-down on what happened right after the French protectorate was established. What did this period look like? What happened? What were the French hoping to get out of this arrangement? Etc.
Then we are finally going to move into the 20th century proper. The flaws in some elements of French control, as well as the tightening of this control – from ‘protectorate’ to ‘colony’. Most texts speak about the period from 1916-1925 as one of basic peace and conformity to the colonial presence in Cambodia (although other events in Southeast Asia will differ) but I will take that opportunity in this historical ‘lull’ to settle down for a moment and just talk about Cambodian culture, particularly life in the rural areas. I will use May Ebihara’s fantastic study ‘Svay: a Khmer village in Cambodia’ to base this information on (yes I know she wrote it in the 60s but there was not much change between the 20’s and 60’s). This will give us a much needed look at the actual ‘people’ of Cambodia again as they have been left out of most texts from antiquity onward and the show has mostly detailed the role of kings and ‘big history’. Another important aspect of talking about this element of Cambodia is the eventual role of the ‘peasantry’ or at least an idealised view of this ‘rural’ lifestyle that will become a hugely important facet of Khmer Rouge ideology. The distinction between ‘old people’ and ‘new people’ after 1975 is fundamental to a study of the Khmer Rouge revolution, and being able to distinguish between the basics of these two groups beyond just ‘those who lived in the city and those who lived in the country’ is something I really want people to be able to get out of the show. The ‘agrarian’ aspect of the Khmer Rouge revolution is often referenced, but I feel that an actual understanding of what ‘agrarian’ life in Cambodia looked like is less understood and not often explained.
Once the sojourn in the village is over we will return to the city and the big themes once again. Nationalism is back and the metaphor for burning coal will be back too. The first flames of nationalism in Cambodia will be discussed as the 1930s approach the second world war – which is where this episode will end. Communism will be mentioned ever so briefly as the Vietnamese workers party extends to the ‘Indochinese’ one, but a full discussion of communism, and the long beginnings of the Cold War will be explained in the next episode when we talk about WWII, independence movements across Southeast Asia and how the post-second world war period will be the framework for the rest of the series.
I will make use of the other metaphor I’ve brought up a couple of times ‘the hurricane’. This episode will very much be about the ‘warm, moist air systems’ coming from Cambodia rather than the ‘cold, dry air’ coming from foreign lands and big historical themes. The next episode, about the cold war – that will be (pardon the pun) much more focused on these ‘cold winds’.
Look out for this one probably in November.
And if you are here reading this, first of all thank you for being interested enough to come all the way here and have a read – second, if you’ve come this far why not leave a review on itunes or castbox or stitcher? They really make my day. Also if you’ve got twitter why don’t you pop a follow there as well – I don’t post often but you’ll stay in the loop and sometimes I drop some fun examples of sources I’ve collected over the years.
Thanks for getting involved and listening to the show,
all the best
The news that broke after the publication of an article found here https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/mahendraparvata-an-early-angkorperiod-capital-defined-through-airborne-laser-scanning-at-phnom-kulen/CAC3E93D6046CC27D862C1E333FD0713/core-reader detailed the pre-Angkorean city of Mahendraparvata. This wasn’t exactly ‘new news’, and the city had been known about and studied for decades – but the sheer extent of the city has now been uncovered by teams on the ground and in the air utilising LIDAR, the technique I explained in the episodes about Angkor.
What I wanted to bring up in regards to the podcast and this discovery is just to reiterate that my study of Cambodia had always been – basically up until the point that I decided to produce the podcast – study of modern history and the Khmer Rouge. My inclusion of pre-modern history into the show is done at an extremely basic level, as I state a few times through out ‘we are skipping ahead hundreds of years here’. Naturally I am giving this part of the picture because it does eventually relate to Cambodia’s position in the 20th century – but not to the extent that the upmost detail was required when telling this part of the story.
As I have begun to realise, the show is transforming into a ‘jumping off point’. It is the content that I wish that I had had before I began studying Cambodia. A ‘101’, a basis for reading more complex texts. Upon finishing the series I expect someone to have quite a detailed knowledge of the history, particularly more than just the basic ideas of ‘Pol Pot = Hitler’ or ‘the Khmer Rouge killed everyone with glasses’ that a very basic glance at this topic might produce. The early episodes have relied heavily on sources like ‘A History of Cambodia’, but to my mind would more or less give someone with little-to-no experience studying Cambodia a ‘briefing’ before reading that text. I’m not sure how everyone else feels about their attention spans these days but I certainly feel that constant exposure to social media, mobile content or just the internet in general has produced a serious inability to really be able to just sit down and read a long, complex non-fiction text without having to stop every few minutes and say ‘wait… what did I just read??’
The podcast, particularly the early episodes (1-7 will probably make up the first third of the series) are intended to set the stage for the events of modern history, not so much to provide the most up to date, precise and detailed historical study of these periods. The story I am telling is akin to a tragedy, as I said in episode two ‘the path from Angkor Wat to Choeung Ek’. So basic elements like Angkor’s transition to Phnom Penh or the dominance of Cambodia by Siam and Vietnam need to be explained – but perhaps not so much the finer details of the archaeology involved. Bringing me to the recent discoveries at Mahendraparvata.
I recently saw a thread on twitter, a historian outlining problems she had found within an article about the decline of Angkor. I agreed with the points she made and the podcast itself was aligned with those points – but I worried that other general statements I made might not stand up the highest historical scrutiny. As I said I am simply not that familiar with the study of medieval/ancient Cambodia – the only piece of writing I’ve produced that I would say was vaguely up to an ‘upper’ academic standard was my thesis about Buddhist influence on Khmer Rouge policies compared to those in Myanmar in the recent attacks on the Rohingya population. I am aware of the historical debates about the Khmer Rouge – not the ones about Angkorean archaeology, at least not the finer details. Something like the discovery of Mahendraparvata, a city I think I mentioned just once in the show, was not in my focus when I was researching those episodes. The importance of this city is huge if I am reading this article correctly and I just wanted to address some of the reasons that it did not figure into my content about this era.
If I was to quote one of the biggest influences on the show, Dan Carlin, I would also claim that I am not a historian. Just a fan of history. And I apologise for any lack of academic rigour that those more familiar with Cambodia’s older periods might find within my own, perhaps ‘shallow’ reading for the content about these eras in the show.
I was 20 when I visited Angkor for the first time. I knew nothing about Cambodia pre-1960. I just hope that I can provide someone who is in a similar circumstance a more detailed knowledge than I possessed at the same time.
Ah, episode seven ‘The Dawn of French Indochina’, is finally out. It took around three months to research, produce the script and then record, edit and release. This episode produced my first full on panic attack as the entire two-hour recording was corrupted by Audacity at a late stage in editing and I was forced to re-record the entire episode. That was not fun.
But you live and learn!
On that note.. two hours? That was a long one. The longest yet – and I hope that I can start getting the episode length back down a little. That may have been why this episode took so long, although I usually take about 2-3 months… and this one was double the size. I dunno, having a long section about the French revolution, I felt that I couldn’t release that as its own episode, because there are other podcasts and people much more qualified to speak about that part of history, but I did need it in this story too.. it couldn’t be skipped, and I couldn’t release it by itself. So there you go – two hour episode.
I am happy with how it turned out, but I am more excited that the content of the series is finally turning toward the 20th century and the history that I am more familiar with. Having to research the history of ancient Cambodia and the middle-ages, as well as Vietnamese, French and European history – all of that falls outside of my general area of comfort which is squared much more on the years leading up to and into the revolution in Cambodia. But we are almost there now. Another reason which led me to start the episode with the story of Pol Pot in Prek Sbau. I wanted listeners to get a touch of actual ‘Khmer Rouge’ content in the series again, as I felt that it had been slightly out of sight for the last few episodes.
In the days and weeks after I release an episode I usually get to work on the youtube version, and I like to take a little break as well. Between a full time job, a girl friend and 5 cats, my life has actually become busy and I’ve finally felt like I have a fraction of the responsibilities and commitments of a full on adult human being.
That being said – I’ve also spent all day just trying to get a social media presence together for the podcast. I deleted my personal facebook account about a year ago and I do not really like that platform… or any of the others if I am being honest. But after seeing how other shows self-promote and how mine basically hinges on people googling ‘khmer rouge genocide podcast’ then I figured maybe I should push the show out there a little bit more.
I have a twitter now. It is https://twitter.com/KhmerUtopia and if you have twitter please follow the show. We are looking at a big fat goose egg on the followers front right now and I am not savy enough to be able to get that up up up by myself.
Also, if you are reading this, and you do like the show, please leave a review on itunes or wherever you might listen to the show. It really makes me happy to read them and know that the time and effort I put into creating this podcast is being turned into enjoyment for other people, I love doing it but I also love hearing people engage with it. Why not tweet about the show if you can? Or share it on social media or reddit if you have the time. I would really appreciate it.
Thanks for listening everyone, should be starting work on the next episode really soon.
If you read the previous post about the discussion I had with David Chandler, recorded in November 2018 but not released until now, you might have a slight idea to why the episode itself sounds a little disjointed. I went there expecting to have a 45 minute ‘interview’, which turned into an almost two hour ‘chat’, where I was able to ask him about all the little things that I cared about but would not really be suitable for an audience who basically might not have a clue about what we were talking about. The 'interview part' started half-way though the chat, so some stuff had to be repeated, other stuff had to get put back... I think the final edit flows 'ok' though.
I had been reading and writing and thinking only about Khmer Rouge for the last year or so because of my thesis and to be able to just … ‘shoot the shit’ or ‘talk shop’ with someone that not only knew what I was talking about but more or less taught me how to think about what I was talking about was … well it was an honour and something of a redemptive moment for me as I had walked away from studying while David was my undergrad thesis advisor when I was 21.
As for the content of the interview itself… well it had to be chopped and swapped around a little to make up for the fact that my recording just kind of started mid-way through a discussion of Michael Vickery. I didn’t end up including this in the final cut, as well as some other comments about other scholars, because I wasn’t exactly expecting them to be part of the original ‘talking points’, nor did it strike me as particularly interesting for those who aren’t aware of the general ‘history wars’ that went on between some of the historians who wrote about Cambodia/DK.
While this part of the chat included a few other historians outside of the recorded interview, it was fascinating to hear how these fractures occurred in this community.
What I did include were the aspects of these fractures that related to the Chams and Vietnamese. As the ECCC was so close to handing down their verdict on the genocide of these groups I thought that David's ideas on the matter - even if it meant outwardly dismissing other scholar's claims - should stay in the final cut, as it was what we had predominantly agreed to talking about in correspondence before the interview and to what David had been recently writing.
Having recently finished my thesis comparing the treatment of the Chams to that of the Rohingya in Myanmar it was a little deflating to hear that he thought the Muslim minority in Cambodia were not subjected to 'genocide' (as defined in the UN definition), but I had come around to this opinion to a large extent toward the end of my own study. I think the argument can be made that they were swept away in trucks and murdered, in large groups as well, contrary to what David claimed in the interview. Tens of thousands died, but again -- roughly in similar proportions to the wider Khmer population.
Anyway, I had a great time talking with David and I hope I can get some other high profile historians outside of the Chandler family to come on the podcast in the future.
Sorry it took me so long to release the episode as well…