I visited this school doing field work for DCCAM in 2018, around the back of the classrooms to the left is a mass grave.
The notion that the Khmer Rouge, or the ideologues and leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) ‘decided to kill anyone who wore glasses’, (or that this is simply what happened) is commonly shared when relaying some of the horrors associated with life in Cambodia during the revolutionary period (1975-1979). While it is useful in a sense (like how a sort of broad ‘fable’ might be in simplifying, condensing and distilling some complex story down to a single ‘saying’), there is also truth to the claim, but perhaps not in a way that confirms the general idea that ‘the Khmer Rouge killed everyone with glasses’.
So.. I will try and unpack that a little and hopefully give you an idea of why this is such a common thing to say about the Khmer Rouge and to the extent that it maps onto reality.
Its helpful to begin this answer with a couple of slogans that were commonly used by Khmer Rouge cadre that emphasise some of the CPK’s ideology in relation to education.
With the Angkar, we shall make a Great Leap forward, a prodigious Great Leap forward
This is sometimes translated as ‘super great leap forward’, but regardless of which you choose the relationship of the CPK leaders to Maoism is apparent in this slogan. The CPK leadership, particularly Pol Pot, had seen China during the ‘great leap forward’, and had assumed (as the Maoist propaganda would have confirmed) that it was indeed a great success (it super wasn’t). 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 Pol Pot’s Little Red Book:
“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 included ‘The spade is your pen, the rice field your paper’, or ‘if you have a revolutionary position 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. The Cambodian revolution favoured those who were closer to their ‘ideal revolutionary’; the peasant farmer who was not hindered by the trappings of imperialism, capitalism and basically modernity. The quintessential example of that kind of person was the urban/city dwelling class (probably a quarter of the entire population) who had not actively supported the revolution and were associated with the ‘losing side’ of the country’s civil war. Those that had stayed in the city were tainted by what was seen as a choice to not support the revolution. These people were renamed ’17 April people’ or ‘new people’ once the cities had been emptied, and were now firmly on the bottom of the new social hierarchy that the CPK set up in Cambodia.
This is exemplified by another slogan of the Khmer Rouge ‘Those who have never laboured but slept comfortably, those must be made to produce fruit’, or ‘Comrade, you have been used to a comfortable and easy life’, these were pointed towards these ‘new people’ and highlight the attitude of the Khmer Rouge to them that also shows the vengeful nature of the Cambodian revolution. This idea of vengeance explains some of the excesses that led to a saying like ‘they killed everyone with glasses’ being so commonly associated with the period. 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 only been taught that the people they were fighting against, and what they were fighting for, was pure and correct. These ‘new people’ were often not seen as anything more than parasites. Most people have heard the most famous saying that explains this viewpoint: ‘To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss’.
Ok so to the glasses...
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, the first refugees accounts that began to slowly come out as time went on told of an abomination. In Elizabeth Becker’s book she says that
‘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.’
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’. One thing that someone may have looked for would be a stereotype such as wearing glasses, or sometimes (as seen in the film the Killing Fields) checking someone’s hands to see if they were well worn or soft. This would supposedly indicate whether they were suitable to the manual labour of the regime or whether they had an educated (which was the same as being an elite) background. Remember this is a peasant revolution, and to the peasants class in Cambodia there was little difference between being ‘educated’ or being ‘rich’, both of these classes looked down upon you – but not in the new revolutionary society.
The point is that this would have undoubtedly happened – perhaps a lot – but it was not a concrete decree by the leadership of the CPK. There is no telegram that went out saying ‘kill everyone with glasses’, there were indoctrination sessions were people were taught to look out for enemies constantly – and which classes were more revolutionary than others – but a death sentence was routine in Democratic Kampuchea for a great deal of offences, however this was not exactly ‘spelt out’ to lower ranking cadre. Cadre were told to check biographies, and if yours was considered to be sufficiently ‘anti-revolutionary’, (that is considered to be so tainted by your former life that you were simply not a candidate to become part of the revolution) you would be killed. But having glasses – in and of itself – was not a death sentence. It certainly wouldn’t put you in a positive position though.
Philip Short, another journalist who wrote a book about the Cambodian revolution, stated that the ‘glasses fable’, was not even unique to the Khmer Rouge 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.
Somewhere around 2 million Cambodians died during the roughly four years that the CPK were in power around 900,000 of that number were ‘new people’ or part of urban social groups. The majority died from malnutrition, disease and overwork, however of the total 2 million people who perished, common estimates of death by execution ranges from around 500,000 to 900,000.* About one third of the total ‘new people’ died during the regime, they suffered disproportionately to the ‘old people’ class. The amount of deaths associated with having a ‘bad biography’ are probably in the hundreds of thousands, and of those there is no doubt some significant number that were targeted due to a loose association of elite/intellectual/capitalist with their ‘glasses’. However, as Becker points out the ensuing idea that ‘they killed everyone with glasses’ is more of a way of explaining some of these complex ideas related to the period rather than an actual aim of the CPK, who never said that ‘all intellectuals should die’. .Democratic Kampuchea operated within a system of administrative levels and zones that led to rather different applications of some of the ideologies of the CPK by some zone leaders than others, some places were worse off than others. However, this is not to say that the ‘general ideology’ of the CPK didn’t lead to some cadre actively targeting those who wore glasses as enemies of the revolution.
I hope that, in an around about way, began to answer your question.
Sources I used included: Locard Pol Pots Little Red Book
Becker When the War Was Over
Short Pol Pot
Kiernan Khmer Rouge Regime (for death toll statistics)
For most people the phrase 'Cambodian Genocide' refers to the two million people who died during the time that Pol Pot's Communist Party of Kampuchea was in control of Cambodia. The people who died were, by a vast majority, ethnic Khmer. Although the numbers are hard to judge, it is thought that less than 100,000 ethnic Chams died, as well as more than 10,000 Vietnamese and slightly lower numbers of other minority groups. As the ECCC verdict in November 2018 was announced, most of those familiar with the tribunal had no doubt that the accused would be found guilty of genocide - and they were.
Nuon Chea was found guilty of genocide of Vietnamese and Chams, while Khieu Samphan just Vietnamese. So, officially, the Khmer Rouge regime had been found guilty of genocide. But this was for two ethnic groups that are... not Cambodian. There is a reason that these two men were not charged with the genocide of Cambodians, because the treatment of the Khmer that led to more than 2,000,000 deaths was not genocidal in nature. It is much more accurately described as crimes against humanity - which the surviving leaders have been found guilty of. There is a wider (and often politicised) debate in the literature about the definitions of genocide and their applicability in the Cambodian case, however I feel that I fall within the category of those that believe the phrase 'the Cambodian Genocide', is not accurate.
So, when creating this podcast, I faced the decision of choosing the obvious and much easier searched/found name for the series; "the Cambodian Genocide Podcast", or going with the phrase that I feel truly encapsulates what I feel the show is about; 'In the Shadows of Utopia'. Unfortunately, I still need to make the show searchable, and there is a slim chance of someone thinking, 'hey I wonder if there is a podcast about Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge... I wonder if it's called 'In the Shadows of Utopia'. So, on some videos on youtube and the comments for some posts I will add 'the Cambodian Genocide Podcast', but this is more out of the need to make the show easy to find for those looking.
Toward the end of the series I plan on having a few episodes that basically just act as essays that can explore some of the 'debates' around this period of history, ones that will make sense once the 'story' is over, but be interesting for those who might look at this content with an academic background. So until I can get to the episode on explaining why the 'Cambodian Genocide' is not an accurate term, I will just leave this post here explaining why I, still find the term useful.
So, I am still sitting on this one. I do not quite know when the best time would be to release this. I first met David in 2012, but there was a gap of 6 years between us meeting a few times in the library at Monash to going to his house for this interview. I was pretty nervous, but at least I had had a great time talking with his son a few months earlier.
I had a really short time to prepare for our discussion, I was just finishing my thesis and preparing on heading to Cambodia in a few weeks. I decided I would ask him some fairly straightforward questions that I felt would show people who were unfamiliar with perhaps the biggest historian of Cambodia, revolving mostly around his time at the ECCC and his views on some broad topics. What I really wanted to ask him though, was the questions that I had been wondering for years but thought I'd never get the chance to casually bring up.
Once he opened the door I felt comfortable again and we caught up briefly as he showed me around his home. I had recently spent a few afternoons in the Matheson Library at Clayton pouring through his 'special collection', which was comprised of a lot of his personal memoirs and correspondence, so I felt like I'd been in a one way conversation with him for months while studying. Once we got over some initial awkwardness my extremely sub-par interviewing skills kicked in (it was only my second one ever), I never really 'started' the interview... I had it all written down with the questions I would ask, but we kind of just got to talking, about things that I wanted to ask but weren't 'for the show'.
The problem was... I wasn't recording it, or at least not all of it. The interview had no structure, and when David asked me how much longer the interview would go for I had to say - sheepishly - 'oh, sorry, it hasn't... really started yet'.
It was embarrassing and I had to awkwardly steer the conversation to the 'normal questions' I had written down just so the audio would have some of the normal fixens of an interview like 'hello Professor Chandler, please tell us about yourself'... kind of stuff.kk
I've been sitting on the audio for about 6 months now and I have not listened back yet. As much as I want to sit down and get to grips with it in editing, I fear that if I did release it now, those who are unfamiliar with the historiography of the period would have no idea what is going on - and those who don't even know what happens from 1975-79 will be even less interested.
I feel the best way to do it might be to release it as another bonus episode but just on youtube for now, that way anyone who is just looking for an interview with David will be able to find it, and if they know what he is talking about they will no doubt found it fascinating.
So thats where I am with that at the moment. It's done, but its more or less sitting in a draw for now. I worry it will have aged just slightly ans well, notably because we sat down to record one day before the ECCC handed down the guilty verdict in Case 002/02.
After one year, more than 2000 downloads and 5 hours of released content I am really happy with how the podcast is coming together. It feels really good to have gone through that crucial phase of talking about doing it for what seemed like ages, to actually sitting down and making it happen. I have a clear view of how I would like to move going forward, and what I think the series will eventually be.
What I believe the podcast will function as in the end is a great entry point for people into the history of Cambodia and the tragedy that occurred throughout the 1970's. If the search optimisation works well than googling something like 'Cambodian genocide podcast', should send people in the right direction. In this 'golden age of audio' I feel excited and privileged to be creating what I believe to be the first podcast dealing with this exact subject matter in as much depth as I am attempting to do.
What I also want the podcast to be is a valuable asset for people who want to keep learning about Cambodia. I am motivated to try and create a series that I myself would have found really valuable on my own journeys in Cambodia or in the literature about Cambodia. For example, I think the podcast could be the perfect accompaniment to famous books like First They Killed My Father, or the film The Killing Fields. But also for 'higher' levels, by authors who are writing for a more defined audience. The first time you read The Pol Pot Regime, or Brother Number One, try as you might it can still be hard to fill in some of those explanatory gaps that perhaps authors don't need to explain. I feel like if I had this podcast when I was 18 I would have had a much better time of understanding the different ways that this history has been explained. So many references are laid into these works that were common knowledge for audiences when these author's originally wrote them, but for an untrained audience or even someone who simply didn't grow up in these times then some of this information can be hard to fully digest.
That is what the podcast will be, everything that you would need to know in order to have a great general knowledge of the Khmer Rouge revolution that would allow for an even better eventual understanding when built upon by further reading and research... so in a sense, I am making the podcast for myself... my past self though, and hopefully it will be useful for at least one person that follows a similar path.
The script is ready for episode 5, which will be the second episode dealing with Cambodia's "middle period" from about 1450-1850. As I was unable to record today I decided it would be useful to touch up the website and update some things:
1: The support page has been updated with my paypal details if you would like to help out the show's running costs which currently sit at about... $30 AUD per month. The financial aspect of this is a bit weird for me as I really did not start the podcast with money being a motivator, especially considering the content that I am producing. That being said... I have to pay to produce and keep it up on the internet so if people want to help out with that then that is also fine. Anyway its there now. As is a link to a genuinely great charity that deserves your money more than me.
2: I've cleaned up the website flow and added some photos that I took from my last trip to Cambodia at the end of 2018. I particularly like the typewriter that is at the top of this page, it was sitting in the archives at DCCAM and I think it is great.
3: I've added a genuine blog section! I often have things I write on reddit or have ideas for little articles about what might be going on at the tribunal or an old review of a book or something like that so I thought I would add this section so I can expand on some things that I might not be able to in the podcast or I can also talk about things that we are probably more than a year away from discussing anyway.
As a general update, I have started a new full-time job so that's good, last year I was working part-time but also writing my undergrad thesis so I had very little time to actually work on the podcast (I can't believe I got three episodes out!) So with this new job I have ample time on weekends to write, record and edit so hopefully I will be able to get more content out more often. As I said at the start, episode 5 is ready to record, and episode 6 shouldn't be more than 8 weeks along from that. As the narrative moves closer to the 20th century I become far more familiar with the history so actually researching the episodes as the series goes on will get easier and easier.
I had time to sketch out a general timeline for the series a few weeks ago and I can see it being finished by the end of next year, which isn't too bad considering the circumstances. Hey, if Dan Carlin can only do 2/3 per year than surely I can be cut some slack!
For anyone that has taken the time to come to the website or has listened to some of the content, thank you so much. I've really enjoyed being able to produce something that I think actually has some value to people rather than just writing academic jargon that no one really cares about. If you've come all this way please consider writing a review for the show on itunes or wherever you might get the show from, or give it a good rating if you have the time.