Cohort V has the distinct pleasure to include Chenda Seang, our first student from Cambodia. Throughout the year our students sat together in classes with Chenda, but recently Chenda was in the front of the classroom sharing about the Cambodian genocide. Here’s a bit of what he shared:
The Khmer Rouge party was founded in the 1950’s, they grew from a small group of ideological radicals to an organization which overthrew the corrupt government in 1970, led by General Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge aligned themselves against this government but also against the western bloc and the communist bloc, though the Khmer Rouge was communist, it pushed back on Russian and Chinese communist agendas. They designed their own Cambodian communism. Because of their refusal to work with either Russian communists or the Chinese communists the Khmer Rouge government gained support from the US government, who was fearing a domino effect in Asia. American support is clearly complicated, nevertheless a direct line of American support is noted.
American foreign interests were specifically concerned about Vietnam, Cambodia’s neighbor. The Vietnam War spilled over national borders into Cambodia; American intelligence thought that Vietnamese guerilla outfits were stationed in Cambodia, so a series of secret bombardments were carried out in Cambodia between 1969 to 1973. These bombings didn’t end communist influences in Cambodia rather it strengthened it, specifically the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people turned to the Khmer Rouge. They offered security, food, and shelter.
When, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, led a march into Phnom Penh, the capital city, the people welcomed him thinking the new Communist regime would bring peace to Cambodia. One of the first actions as established rulers in Cambodia, was to implement mass killings of soldiers, political enemies, and anyone associated with the old government. Then they turned on intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and other professional people. Thousands were killed immediately and brutally by the Khmer Rouge.
Throughout the Khmer Rouge reign, confessions were held through severe torture, most did not survive. The confessions made during these torture sessions resulted in a long list of names of people who were also supposedly politically subversive to the Khmer Rouge party. This led to chaos in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge “gangsters,” as they called themselves, murdered people openly in the streets and secretly in the forests for example, without any real cause other than allegations that the victims belonged to the old regime.
The Khmer Rouge saw city-dwellers as dangerous because cities held out the longest against communist influence, while rural populations were more easily swayed. As a result, the Khmer Rouge evacuated all cities, with a vision for a more agricultural society. City residents were told that the US was planning to bomb the cities so they had to evacuate quickly, but they would return to their homes in a few days, consequently most did not pack sufficiently for the long journey ahead, thousands died from starvation and exhaustion.
In the villages a sort of ranking began, “base people” or “old people,” those who had lived in the villages before April 17, 1975 were deemed safe, but “new people” or those who were forcefully deported to the villages after April 17, 1975, were regarded as unsafe, and were kept at a distance. Most villages weren’t fit for the massive population growth and many died from poor living conditions.
The Khmer Rouge’s vision for a more agricultural society meant an industrial development of agriculture with unrealistic expectations. Their Four Year Plan included a doubling of the rice production between 1977 and 1978. This resulted in exhaustion which led to starvation and death. Most of the land, even with industrial improvements, wasn’t able to cultivate these amounts production, so the Khmer Rouge cut food rations. They realized that land in the Northwest was more fertile, but because of drought even they weren’t able to meet goals. This region was also, according to Pol Pot, more susceptible to Vietnamese influence. As a result, the Northwest and Eastern-zone regions were “purged” of Vietnamese influence.
In one of the most inhumane acts of the Khmer Rouge, residents of this area were forced to march into the interior, many died along the way. During the march, Khmer Rouge members gave blue striped scarves to those they deemed most ideologically dangerous, these scarves acted as symbols for the Khmer Rouge members to kill them in their new destinations. Chenda brought one of these scarves with him to Israel, and he wears it often. He explained this is part of Cambodian culture to bring your scarf with you wherever you go.
Chenda’s research makes him particularly interested in post genocidal aftermaths, because he lives in a post-traumatic society. This is one of the reasons Chenda chose to study the Holocaust. Chenda says that there is a loss of trust in Cambodian society and many young people wonder about their backgrounds. The trauma of genocide makes a division between the old and the young in the nation. Chenda shared with us that his mother was a survivor of the genocide, and she told much of her history to him. As a trend, children of survivors know their parents’ stories. But Chenda’s father was a member of the Khmer Rouge, and they never talked about his involvement. Many of the Khmer Rouge members were never tried in court, but after the fall of the regime, continued with their normal lives. Essentially, Chenda is hoping to bring restoration and healing to Cambodian society, and we hope that we’ve helped him through the resources we’ve offered as a result of our program.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information here.