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)