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.