Check out the interview I did with Lina Goldberg of 'Move to Cambodia' fame!
In year ten history class, my teacher Mr Kingsley put a video tape of the “The Killing Fields” on that we watched over a couple of lessons. I look back now and wonder just how important that was for my life, would I be sitting here now, fifteen years later, writing a review of the film as part of my own project to explain Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge to a wider audience? Probably not. I think I owe this movie something for the journey that it influenced me taking.
There are a few things you can say about the film that are hard to argue against. For instance, I believe it is the best ‘movie’ about Cambodia made in the West, not that there are very many. It is also fair to say that it is an important movie, and the impact that it raising awareness about the tragedy that had occurred in Cambodia was beneficial. It is admirable in its attempt to recreate locations, events and people to a highly accurate degree. Lastly, I think the portrayal of Dith Pran by Haing Ngor is one of the bravest pieces of acting ever put to screen.
Fifteen years since I first saw it, I would say that I have probably watched the movie more than ten times. Then, in preparation for a ‘commentary track’, I’ve made more of an effort to research the film itself and the characters portrayed in it, watched it through a slightly different ‘lens’ as they say. I re-read The Death and Life of Dith Pran, the article turned into a book written by Sydney Schanberg and the material which the screenplay is based, as well as Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields, Jon Swain’s River of Time and also watched the Khmer Rouge Tribunal footage of Sydney Schanberg and Al Rockoff’s testimony. I tried to formulate my own ‘take’ on the film that I had previously not really bothered to do. I had, more or less, just viewed it as a good movie about a subject I care a lot about.
My ‘thoughts’ about the film have been influenced very much by Al Rockoff, the photographer played by John Malkovich, in an answer to a somewhat bizarre question given the setting of an international tribunal of the Khmer Rouge leadership. When asked by the defence for Nuon Chea if he had seen the film, Rockoff went on a small tangential rant:
“I always get asked that. For the first time back here in 1989, I keep getting asked, ‘you see killing fields? You see killing fields?’ I walk down the street, the tuk tuk drivers, ‘you see killing fields?’, of course I’ve seen the movie, many times. I have my own thoughts on the movie that may not be shared with the public because of how I’m portrayed in the movie. But I consider it a work of art. I might find some fault with how certain personalities are represented or certain facts. But its an important movie.”
It is an important movie, even if some fault can be found with certain representations.
I like The Killing Fields as a movie, it is an important movie with an important theme – but it is a movie. So my criticism of it as history must be tempered by that fact, that it was designed first and foremost to be a compelling experience for your average movie goer – not for the majority of Cambodians, historians or those with an interest in what happened in Democratic Kampuchea. However, the film – like historical writing – does decide what it shows and what it doesn’t, it frames the narrative in certain ways so that your average viewer comes away with an impression of a historical event. For instance, the impression we get of Phnom Penh and Cambodia generally is entirely focused on the US presence, the excess of US bombing, the failure of the US to stop the Khmer Rouge and finally in no uncertain terms Schanberg later blames the insanity of the KR on the effect of a few million tonnes of bombs dropped on them.
Perhaps the cultural context in which the film was made explains some of that angle, the collective need to denounce the US after the Vietnam War, the lack of faith in government, the anti-war movement generally. But because the film is limited in its scope by its reference point of a western journalist bemoaning the way he treated his Cambodian colleague, we get an underwhelming explanation of what else happened or why it happened. Was the US involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia a contributing factor to the Cambodian nightmare? Sure, but it was one of many.
The film also diverges from its own source material in some cases where, if it hadn’t, the whole story might have been made more apparent. In reality, Dith Pran’s exit from the French Embassy lacked a contrived scene of attempted photograph development, but it was no less dramatic. His throwing away of several thousand US dollars, taking on his new identity and getting through a KR checkpoint among the thousands of evacuees from Phnom Penh would have been very interesting to watch. Instead, in perhaps the film’s weakest scenes, the focus is placed on Schanberg in New York. We watch him regret, we watch him slump in a chair. We would have been able to guess his emotional state following his return to the US, but instead we need to be shown that the story is just as much about the US as it is about Cambodia, footage of Nixon, bombs and carnage leaving the audience with a graphic finger pointed at the reason for Democratic Kampuchea. The film spends roughly a quarter of the second half of the film still following the ‘main character’, Schanberg. This, in my mind, was an opportunity to commit to the Cambodian side of this tragedy, experienced by Cambodians, but the script still demands our viewpoint to be concerned with how bad the US should be feeling at this time.
Again, here we come back to the idea that his is a movie, but the lack of subtitles in the Democratic Kampuchea section of the film still places the viewer as the outsider, as the westerner (generally speaking) who must watch in horror as the Cambodians descend into ‘insanity’ because of things we’ve done. Rather than a project that they decided upon and implemented.
The other aspect of the film that I think does need to be criticised – even if it is primarily a movie – is the lack of violence. Cambodian audiences, historians and even those acting in the film (Haing Ngor) voiced their opinion that the film did not go far enough in its depiction of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. You can notice in a few scenes the stunted length of Haing Ngor’s right pinky finger. That part of his finger was cut off during one of his three stints in a rural Khmer Rouge prison near Battambang. The other acts of violence he was witness to at these prisons are some of the most extreme that one can find in studying the regime. And while depicting acts of torture and gruesome violence itself may not have been possible due to ratings concerns, the film does not show the non-violent brutality of the regime. The masses of starving, the sick and the slowly dying.
We are shown ‘the killing fields’, in a tremendous scene yes, but prior to this Pran is helped by a friendly young cadre and after his escape we have him in the company of a moderate commune chief. The percentage of time spent to showing the Khmer Rouge as violent killers is comparable to the amount shown of their accommodating nature. Yes, black and white, victim and perpetrator, these binary distinctions in a period of mass death lack applicability, but I feel the movie does not quite explore this theme satisfactorily – and perhaps goes too far in its attempt to show the grey area, rather than the tragic demise of more than a quarter of an entire population at the hands of one group – the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Alas, it is a movie, and it is a movie that I like very much. I wish it could have shown more of the story as it really happened, but perhaps that is only because I have learned far more about that story since I first saw the film. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the country, but I would certainly not tell them to stop there.
A Question on Reddit by u/DrCharlesTinglePHD)
I'm wondering about this because I have read differing estimates of the count, and differing estimates of the various causes (starvation, murder, etc.). I have many books on Cambodian history, but what I believe to be the most trustworthy one (A History of Cambodia, 4th edition, by David Chandler) is probably out of date.
Also for context, what was the population of Cambodia before Lon Nol took over from Sihanouk? And do we have any idea what was it when Pol Pot took over from Lon Nol?
I'm also interested in the count of executions by motivation - e.g. how many were killed because they were Vietnamese, how many were killed because they were the wrong class, how many were killed for no reason at all, etc.
I would say that the most recent, well researched and accurate estimates of the death toll in Democratic Kampuchea came out of the Demographic Expertise Report titled Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia April 1975 - January 1979 by Tabeau and Kheam. This report was compiled as part of the proceedings of the ECCC and the Office of Co-Investigative Judges. It is an assessment of most, if not all, of the major estimates made of the death toll by various sources and includes much of the information you seek, including cause of death (indirect versus direct), estimates of population sizes and evidence which can be used to base these assessments.
I will be using this document to answer the questions you have but feel free to read it yourself as it can be downloaded here.
The report does not differ too much from the more common overall estimates that you would probably already find in the sources you own, indeed in the one you believe ‘most trustworthy’, Professor Chandler states that Life was hard everywhere. On a national scale it is estimated that over the lifetime of the regime nearly two million people – or one person in four – died as a result of DK policies and actions.
The Demographic Expertise Report places the estimate of the death toll under the Khmer Rouge to be most likely 1.747 to 2.2 million. This estimate is based on the most reliable methods, including projections of population growth based on statistics data prior to and following the regime’s time in power, as well as the death toll linked to mass grave records. This is coupled with research reports, surveys, survivor’s accounts and relevant expert opinions from NGOs and independent researchers. Estimates which posit numbers vastly below this, such as Michael Vickery’s, can come from using a much lower population size at the beginning of the regime. They can also be influenced by what the expert demographers say would be ‘some pre-determined views on what kind of outcome should be obtained’ (read as biased and agenda driven).
Population Prior to DK
The population estimates which the experts find most reliable for the period prior to the regime coming to power (April 1975) is 7.844 to 8.102 million, with the central value of 7.894 million. The population estimates of 1970 (beginning of Lon Nol Period) are from 7-7.662 million. The death toll estimate they feel is most appropriate for the civil war is 250,000, which is generally lower than what is usually given in figures which often exceed half a million.
Causes of Death
As the most likely estimate of about two million deaths is given, you would no doubt be familiar with ideas about how these excess deaths occurred. Starvation, overwork and disease were all prevalent in DK, and much of this prevalence is explained through policies of the Khmer Rouge. What the Demographic Expertise Report suggests however, is that the weighting of these ‘excess deaths’ to ‘direct deaths’ (meaning from violence/executions) may be more even than in earlier estimates. They conclude, and using mass grave data as evidence, that the violent deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge may account for at least 1.1 million deaths. So at least 50 percent of the death toll was the result of execution.
Unfortunately, it is harder to ascertain the answers to some of your follow up questions regarding why certain deaths may have occurred. All that you can work back from are statistics about different ethnic population sizes or in the case of policies relating to targeting ‘class enemies’ (such as the New People/April 17 People) how many from urban backgrounds can be counted before and after the regime. For instance, if there were two million urban Khmer as part of the ‘New People’ category defined under DK, and 500,000 perished, you can make assumptions about that cause of death relating to class status, but you cannot pinpoint the actual reason they died. They died at a higher rate, for various reasons.
There is a similar case in relation to ethnic minorities, and the Demographic Expertise Report notes that Kiernan’s estimates are most convincing, as are his opinions about why they may have been targeted at a higher rate. But they do recognise that there is a degree of uncertainty about the estimates as there are a lack of reliable sources on ethnic groups in Cambodia in the 1970s. Generally it is thought that the remaining Vietnamese within the country, perhaps around 20,000, were all killed during DK. Again, whether 100% of those deaths were the result of these people being targeted on the basis that they were Vietnamese, is hard to nail down.
In an interview I conducted with Professor Chandler in 2018, he claimed that Kiernan’s numbers were subject to significant estimation, based on very little. Watch that interview here
The general estimate of 1.75-2.2 million dying, either indirectly or directly, in DK that has been given in most reputable sources on the matter in the last few decades still holds true. In fact with projects like DCCAM’s Mass Grave Mapping, these estimates have become better evidenced than when they were originally made and can be used to claim even more violent deaths at the hands of the regime than previously thought. While we will never know how many died for precise reasons, the numbers of who were more likely to die and perhaps what policies influenced that treatment are substantiated. If we take the number of those dying directly at the hands of the regime, and presume these killings to be ideologically motivated, than we can say somewhere in excess of one million people were killed for these political reasons during the roughly four years of DK. The most generalised reason you could give to account for their deaths would be under the heading of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, which would take into account killings for breaking rules, for not having the right class background, for being an ethnic or religious minority or a suspected traitor to the regime.
So, it has been more than three years now that I have either been actively planning or making this series! Time flies, and it certainly flies fast during a pandemic.
But three years is a long time, I am so happy that I committed to making this series and I am so proud to have received such positive reactions. Particularly from those Cambodians for whom the show has provided a real access point into their own country’s history, but also from people that have spent a lot of time there or those who only had a vague interest but have found out so much more via the show. I know I’ve made these predictions before but I presume there is about two more years to go, not exactly sure, it used to be one episode would cover a few hundred years… then a few decades… now it is down to about one to five so we are starting to crawl here. But at least we are at the point that most people would presume a podcast about the Khmer Rouge would begin… roughly sometime after the second world war (thanks for hanging in there OG listeners!)
As we approach the 14th episode, detailing the end of the First Indochina War and Geneva and Sihanouk’s rise to prominence, I have been researching and reading and have had the time to check the show and its numbers and engagement obsessively (regrettably) and investigate what others might be doing in the same sphere. I can still confidently say that this is the only series that has taken a long view of Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, as well as dealing with these topics exclusively. There are other, far more popular shows that have had a few episodes dealing with the subject of the Khmer Rouge or Angkor (and nothing in between), but not (if I may say so) to the same level of depth.
But the ‘Khmer Rouge Podcasts’ or ‘Cambodian Genocide Podcasts’ that I listened to seemed to take very shallow views of the period and the regime, many with a kind of semi-light heartedness that I did not particularly enjoy. As well as falling deep into the horror side of things, without spending too much time on the history side of things. With the popularity of ‘true crime’ podcasts, particularly the format where one person reads information and others react, I think this has become more prevalent. I have no doubt that there are audiences which align to that kind of content, with the ‘edge’ of the discussion (and some of the historical accuracy) blunted by the need to include jokes or oversimplification for the sake of expediency… but I am happy with the angle that this series has taken. Slow and steady, heavy on the detail and research. What will end up being close to the length of a book, perhaps more than 30 hours.
This all has a bit of a smelly tone to it though, as I’m sure (particularly for the earlier episodes) that someone could take me to task for including a Simpson’s quote or skipping over some important Angkorean monarch or missing some key bit of Soviet Diplomacy. So, I won’t spend too much time patting myself on the back. Apples and oranges, different people have different tastes.
I've been working on this for more than a week now and I am excited to get it out there soon! M13 is a fascinating and awful institution, operating for four years prior to the CPK taking control of the entire country. Duch was in command of what could be described as the prototype of S21; an 'experimental school of brutality' according to journalist and photographer Nic Dunlop - who was kind enough to share some insights and photos that he took while exploring the former prison sites.
Ok, well – no esoteric setting of the scene today with a little vignette or hypothetical situation to place yourself in. I was trying to toy with some kind of corona virus meets living under a colonial regime and put yourself in ‘these shoes’, but to be honest it just wouldn’t work, it was too much of a stretch and would have dated the show a little unnecessarily – as will dwelling on something I’m not even going to talk about – so, what I do actually want to spend some time speaking about at the start of this episode is history itself.
First things first, I am not a historian, I simply consider myself a student of Cambodian history with a meagre amount of experience living in the country and an even smaller amount of experience working with a historical organisation like the documentation centre of Cambodia.
So my focus has always been primarily on the Khmer Rouge. One thing I’ve found really interesting and a kind of, enjoyable challenge, has been broadening that scope for the purposes of explaining the wider story for this series. Three years ago, if you’d asked me about late 18th century Cambodian history I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much.
Now, part of learning about history, at least in my experience, is that there can be a kind of illusionary aspect to it. Like seeing a mirage in the desert. From a distance, you can look at events or particularly how events played out and be able to think it was pretty clear what happened, why and what happened next.
But the closer you get, the more you read, the more sources you look at or which historian’s you trust to explain those events, well that really begins to change what that picture looks like. That mirage in the distance can look really different from one angle to another. It’s like when we talked about the ‘marxist’ interpretation of history. World War Two looks a lot different if you are reading an economic history of that period as opposed to a history focused on racial ideologies or military tactics.
The point being, and it is probably quite obvious to many who are wondering why I am bothering to touch on this, but there is no ‘one true history’, especially if you are taking a rather large slab of history as your focus. This show has focused primarily on Cambodia, but we’ve had to weave in aspects of Southeast Asian and European history in – and we will need to speak quite a lot about US foreign policy in the episodes to come.
So, given that we have travelled about 2000 years through time, historical explanations or kinds of ‘narrative history’, generally pick up themes or lenses to be able to tell that story through.
The theme of this story is the Khmer Rouge Revolution, everything discussed kind of has some tangential relationship with explaining how and why it happened. It just turns out that involves having to talk about a hell of a lot of stuff.
Now, the reason I am bringing all of this up, is because, often, it can be quite hard to get from that easily discernible ‘mirage’ of history that you see from a distance… to the kind of mirage that changes if you are really close and looking at different angles. I can remember being in my late teens, having written what I thought were some extremely impressive high school essays about the Khmer Rouge, patting myself on the back and thinking to myself ‘wow, I sure do have a pretty good handle on this subject don’t I.’
Skip ten to ten years later, having spent countless hours investigating this subject further, and the feeling becomes much closer to ‘wow, I barely know anything about this do I’. I believe this is called the ‘dunning kruger effect’.
I’m not so humble or modest to say that I don’t know anything about Cambodian history, and I certainly know enough to know how much I don’t know. But I’m aware of the big debates, I’m aware that the mirage can change depending on who you ask, what you read, or what angle you look at it all from.
So as we approach the middle of the twentieth century in this series, and indeed begin approaching the 1970s where my focus has been for many years now, I am much more comfortable giving different perspectives or being able to confidently pick and choose which historians I think have done a good job explaining what happened. However, this will still all be ‘my version of events’, based on other peoples versions of events.
I’m afraid I cannot extend the same level of confidence when relaying histories from countries that I will confess I know much less about. Even Vietnam, the literal neighbour to the country I’ve focused on, is a challenging history for me to confidently relay, and I am relying on a comparatively tiny amount of sources than what I have been using for Cambodian history. The same goes for our discussions of the French revolution or the Soviet Union. The same will be the case for China and the United States.
All of this came to the fore to me while researching this episode, in a variety of different ways. One book I think will make a great source was written by Sihanouk, with the help of a well known socialist journalist, Wilfred Burchett, it was published in 1972. Two years after Sihanouk was ousted in the coup, and three years before the Khmer Rouge come to power. It basically places everything under the banner of US IMPERIALISM = BAD. Which is fascinating considering the events that occur after its publication. Another, by Milton Osbourne, is described by the author as a critical look at Sihanouk, one that will not be so quick to blame the actions of the prince on other actors. The text that really made these ‘versions’ of history apparent was the relatively recent book that Ben Kiernan has written about Vietnam. A kind of all encompassing history of the country, like the one his former mentor, and my own, David Chandler wrote about Cambodia.
I have mixed feelings about Kiernan’s work on Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, but I figured his focus on that history would mean that a book he had written about Vietnam would be a useful source for a show that is predominantly focused on Cambodia, with smaller references to Vietnamese history throughout. Apparently this book had stirred at least a minor controversy on its release, and this was highlighted in the review and Kiernan’s response to the review in a French periodical. He was accused of maintaining this kind of ‘orthodox’ or ‘canon’ view of Vietnamese history, specifically the independence movement and the outcomes of the Indochinese wars. Ideas of Vietnamese history framed by western academic’s views of the Vietnam war or how indeed the Socialist Party of Vietnam has expressed this history. (This exchange can be found here https://www.h-france.net/vol17reviews/vol17no243kiernan.pdf)
While I don’t have any issue with what I’ve read in the book so far, nor much of an opinion either way about which version of history it is promulgating or whether that is more or less a version that maps onto reality, it made me realise just how little I knew about Vietnam – how I had probably already expressed ideas about that country’s history that fit into the ‘distant mirage’ version of events that are more easily accessible. Not only that but the source I have purchased that was supposed to be a ‘safe’ text for me to rely upon, has (just like Kiernan’s work on Cambodia) become something that I should also remain wary of relying too heavily upon.
I feel as though this has rambled on far enough for me to not include it in the episode itself, but rather as a blog post. But I guess the point being, or at least the point that was stuck in my mind as I woke up this morning, is that I hope to be able to give a balanced view of Cambodian history. I want to show the kinds of angles on the Khmer Rouge that perhaps people with that more distant ‘mirage’ view will find interesting. But I can’t say I am confident that I could do the same for the parts of the series that veer into what is for me, relatively unknown territory. But I will do my best.
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.