4 November, 2007
Lavoix Hélène

While working our way through the literature dealing with the Cambodian drama, which took place during the regime known as Democratic Kampuchea (DK) (used somehow improperly to cover the period 1975-1979 and corresponding to the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), when DK technically did not exist before March 1976), it became clear that our understanding of this period of Cambodian history was not only dependent upon the efforts of the students of Cambodia, but also constrained by the broad political and normative environment. It is thus along these lines that we shall present the reviewed scholarship.

In its early stage, as we shall see first, the scholarship has been victim of the characteristics of the Communist rule in Cambodia. Then, the second wave of scholarship has been partly dependent upon considerations linked to international politics. However, these difficulties prove to be beneficial. Indeed, they generated, at the empirical level, a wealth of documentation and archives that are not usually available in the countries having known such transformations. This second wave of scholarship will continue, research being notably dependent upon access to new archival material. At the theoretical level, efforts by students of Cambodia to correct previously flawed or incomplete explanations led to controversies out of which came a greater and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the Communist period, of its pre-conditions and of its grim achievements.

This conducted to a new phase of research, partly overlapping the previous one, characterised by a focus on processes, and greatly benefiting from previously accumulated scholarship, which furthermore endeavoured to study a potential link between genocide and nation-ness, this term referring to a collective feeling or consciousness that characterises the specific identity, “the nation”. Indeed, in the Cambodian case, references are made throughout the whole body of knowledge to the nationalist character of DK, or more exactly to its “ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, chauvinistic or racist” stance, while, more generally, the significance of nationhood and of some of its potential components such as racism, has bearing for genocide, notably in the framework of the UN genocide definition.

I. The First Wave of Scholarship: Dealing with Secrecy and Closure

The first difficulty that scholars had to face was the near complete closure of the country after the “Khmer Rouge” took power on 17 April 1975. When most foreigners were evacuated, the frontiers closed and the few accredited diplomats assigned at residency without contacts with Cambodians (Becker, 1986: 166). Despite the Chinese and North Korean experts that were allowed to stay and work in Cambodia (Locard, 1995: 2), and the visits of a few journalists in 1978 and of some delegations of Communist Parties (Becker, 1986: 315, 398-341), our knowledge of what was happening within Cambodia vanished.

Hence, the first task at hand, even before thinking to explain or understand the events, was to trace those very events and attempt to establish the facts.

Beyond cases of willed distortions by unscrupulous individuals, as denounced most famously by Chomsky and Hermann but also by many other scholars as reported by Burgler, the information that filtered out of the country was sparse and difficult to cross-check (Chomsky and Hermann, 1979: 169-171; Burgler, 1990: 1-2, 283). It originated in refugees’ accounts, in the experience of those few who were evacuated from Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge at the beginning of the period or had had contact with the Communists before the country’s closure, in very few direct foreign accounts at the end of the period and in official National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) then DK radio broadcast (Becker, 1986: 315, 398-341; Carney, 1977; Ponchaud, 1977: 11).

Understandably, those who endeavoured to make sense of these patchy and often unverifiable sources were taking the risk to produce work far from the scholarly ideal of “verifiable truth.” Yet, this work had to be done and first explanations had to be attempted, as expressively described by Maguire (Maguire, 2005: 50-56). Ponchaud, in the preface of Cambodge: Année Zero, (1977) stresses these difficulties met in his attempt to reconstitute the facts. His conclusions, mainly that the Kampuchean revolution was one of the most radical revolution ever accomplished, aiming at eliminating the past, and grounded on class disparities and race oppositions, despite ulterior criticism, emanating first from Michael Vickery, do not depart much from later work or later controversies (Ponchaud, 1977: 229; Vickery, 1984: 48-51). Ponchaud (1977) underlines that the revolution stemmed from specific interactions between peasants and intellectuals, thesis that was then followed by other authors, such as Vickery (1984) or more recently Nairn (1997). He also notes the hysteria of purification, the concentration of power in a few hands and the excessive character linked to the extremist application of an ideology (Ponchaud, 1977), all factors that are often singled out or demonstrated in many later works (Heder and Tittemore, 2001; Hinton, 2001; Kiernan, 1996).

The remaining early scholarship, as reviewed by Quinn, underlined three main themes to explain the extremist side of the Kampuchean revolution, and the emptying of the cities (Quinn, 1989: 215-219). Schanberg, Porter, Lacouture and Shawcross stressed the brutalities of the war and its effects on the Khmer Rouge, referring to the US air strikes and to the 1970-1975 war waged between the [Lon Nol->90] Republic and the FUNK (Schanberg, 1975; Porter in U.S. Congressional Testimony, 1977; Lacouture, 1978, Shawcross, 1978a & 1978b). Barron and Paul underlined the mental illness of the Khmer Rouge leaders (Barron and Paul, 1977). Finally, Lacouture and Schanberg suggested the possibility of strong peasant resentment against the cities and landowners, and the possibility of a genuine peasant revolution (Lacouture, 1978; Schanberg, 1975).

These first two explanations have since then been rejected as untenable, on their own. The war cannot explain alone, for example, the planned terror of the FUNK then DK regime, nor its assumed beginning in 1972 (Quinn, 1989: 217). However, the 1970-1975 war is still deemed as a factor that may have contributed to push peasants to mobilise behind the FUNK, and was treated as such by the FUNK mobilising propaganda (Ablin and Hood, 1987: xxix; Frieson, 1992: 38; 1993; Gough, 1983: 218; Haas, 1991: 8; Kiernan, 1985: 349-357; 1996: 16-25, Margolin, 2003: 5-7). Regarding the mentally ill Khmer Rouge leaders, it was denied by the scholars and journalists who interviewed them (Jackson, 1989: 38).

On the contrary, the explanation in terms of true peasant revolution and the extent of peasant resentment against the cities outlasted this early period and became a matter of controversy. It was a focal point of one of the major works that opened the second wave of scholarship.

II. The Second Wave of Scholarship: the Rise of Controversies

The defeat of the DK regime on 7 January 1979 following the Vietnamese invasion and the installation of the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) ended partially the reign of secrecy and closure that had surrounded Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

However, the same event also dragged Cambodia even further and deeper into the cobweb of a Cold War that was complicated by the Sino-soviet split. According to Locard, “the Vietnamese invading army, shortly after their takeover of the Cambodian capital, on 7 January 1979, shipped off some government archives to Hanoi. Until these are not returned to Phnom-Penh or made available to researchers, conclusions as to the methods and the responsibilities of the genocide can only be incomplete,” while access to North Korean and Chinese archives would also be necessary (Locard, 1995: 2).

Furthermore, the American and Chinese side came to support the Khmer Rouge resistance movement. Meanwhile, the PRK, partly for legitimisation needs, equated the DK regime with Hitlerian fascism, thus downplaying the Khmer Rouge socialist or communist credentials and emphasised the Cambodian genocide. The new international configuration removed hope for peace. It created difficulties regarding empirical research and access to archives. It may have made the task of scholars attempting to understand the Cambodian tragedy as genocide more difficult because of the highly politically charged connotation of such a work, as we shall see in the next part. Yet, the scholarship on Cambodia showed a renewed effort at giving a more detailed and more analytical account of what happened under CPK rule, how and why.

The first task at hand was to reintroduce regional and temporal variations into an understanding of Cambodia that had become monolithic. It was epitomised by Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-1982 (Vickery, [1999] 1984) grounded in field work and interviews undertaken mainly in 1980, notably in the refugees’ camps, in published or unpublished articles by other scholars similarly using direct sources, in interviews by other scholars such as Heder, and in witnesses accounts (Vickery, 1984: xiv-xvi, 29-38). Kiernan similarly realised interviews in 1980 included in his How Pol Pot came to Power (Kiernan, 1985). This work was soon followed by collections of essays regrouping some of the main experts on Cambodia or by work by individual scholars or journalists (Ablin & Hood, 1987 [a 1982 conference]; Kiernan & Boua, 1982; Chandler & Kiernan, 1983; Etcheson, 1984; Gough, 1983; Scalabrino, 1985; Becker, 1986; Jackson, 1989). Once this work done, analytical accounts that would give rise to debates and controversies could flourish.

The end of the Cold War, the slow return to peace in Cambodia, and its reinsertion, despite vicissitudes, into the international community, marked a new era for the Cambodian scholarship. Empirical research would be increasingly facilitated by the new openness and by initiatives such as the 1994 US founded Yale Cambodian Genocide Program that created the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), independent since 1997, or more recently by the 2004 CNRS and CERI founded Online Encyclopaedia of Massacres and Genocide.

Against the “Standard Total View”

Vickery, with his forceful attempt at destroying what he calls the Standard Total View (STV) that had emerged from the previous wave, may be considered as opening the round of subsequent controversies. Vickery defines the STV concerning the DK period as:

“DK tried to exterminate all those who during the Sihanouk and Lon Nol periods had served in the military or had held civilian administrative posts, were otherwise urban elite, and all other '‘intellectuals,' meaning all who had more than basic primary schooling…and the members of these groups who survived only did so by concealing their identities between 17 April 1975 and early 1979, or whatever earlier date they managed to escape from Cambodia” (Vickery, 1984: 39).

Thoroughly reviewing the sources that gave rise to this STV, showing the danger of partial or biased recollection by interviewee, most generally refugees, Vickery greatly enhanced our understanding of Cambodia under DK by outlining and describing dynamically the “patterns of zonal and regional differences” (Vickery, 1984: 29-68, 69-145).

Vickery also argues that the Cambodian revolution was motivated by hatred between peasants and city-dwellers and close to a utopia, that it was “a case in which nationalism, populism and peasantism really won out over communism” (Vickery, 1984: 303; 270, 275).

The peasant angle of the revolution has been questioned by Frieson’s research (Frieson, 1993). She contends, on the contrary, that the insufficiently developed popular support among the peasantry contributed to the fall of the DK regime, despite, for example, the disruption to peasant life created by the [Lon Nol->90] backed bombing, or the illegitimacy of his regime in the peasants’ eyes (Frieson, 1993: 33-34). She also suggest, relying on interviews, that the Communist agitation campaign among the peasantry stressing nationalism and class struggle met usually with negative or passive answers.

Anthropologist Ebihara, in her analysis of a Cambodian village under the Khmer Rouge, underlines that poor peasants were included in the category of the new people if they had taken refuge in the cities to escape the war, as logically follows from Vickery detail of the Cambodian communist societal groupings (Ebihara, 1993: 52; Vickery, 1984, 87). These official categories into which the DK had divided the society were “full right,” (poor peasants, lower and middle strata of the middle peasants and workers, “candidate” (upper-middle peasants, wealthy peasants and petty bourgeoisie) and “depositee” (capitalists and foreign minorities). However, for the ex-urbanites, the really meaningful division was between the evacuees or “new people” and the “old” or “base” people, i.e. the peasants that were full rights or candidates and had lived in revolutionary area before 1975 (Vickery, 1984: 87).

Ebihara’s analysis undermined part of Vickery’s thesis on the dichotomy between city-dwellers and peasants, and on peasant outburst and rage against “new people” as explaining some of the atrocities of the DK regime, unless during the violent outburst differentiation was made spontaneously between peasants and city-dwellers.

Moreover, Heder and Tittemore (2001), Jackson (1989a), Kiernan (1985), and Locard (1995) show that state and power were much more centralised than Vickery’s thesis regarding the role of peasant outrage let us assume, even if such peasant outbursts may have happened.

As far as nationalism is concerned, Vickery shows that the Khmer Rouge emphasis on self-reliance existed similarly in the version of nationalist leader Son Ngoc Thanh, while “chauvinism” was “one aspect of Thanh’s movement in its last phase, and [which] also characterised the [Lon Nol->90] regime” (Vickery, 1984: 270, 275), and underlines that the anti-Vietnamese stance adopted by the “Paris group” (the Communists having studied and lived in Paris) probably originated in the “hereditary enemy” indoctrination, (Vickery, 1984: 282).

The rise of controversies and major relevant factors

Six major related controversies can be found in the field of “DK studies.” Their main topics are the outcome or the evaluation of the number of victims, culture or the essentialist Khmer character of the genocide, the conditions of revolutionary victory, the ideology of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and DK, the centralised and totalitarian character of the regime, and the relation of the CPK-led Kampuchea to history and to the past.

To these debates, analysis of relevant factors should be added: those linked to the first level of analysis (the leaders), the continuities with the historical past, mainly geopolitical factors and historically built political system and finally the discontinuities among which one must stress the disappearance of restraints on violence.

Counting Death

The estimated death toll figures, for the period, “have ranged all the way from the tens of thousands to 3 million” (Vickery, 1984: 55). Despite the near impossibility to find out with certainty the death toll of the period, accrued notably because of the uncertainty surrounding the 1970 demographic data and the excess deaths linked to the 1970-1975 war, the controversy continues. In a recent article reviewing the matter and grounded in the works of the demographers Banister and Johnson, Heuveline, Migozzi, and Sliwinski, Kiernan, showing that the 3 million deaths suggested by Etcheson were unrealistic, reaches the conclusion that the most likely figure for the death toll of the 1975-1979 period is “between 1.671 and 1.871 million people, 21 to 24 percent of Cambodia’s 1975 population” (Banister & Johnson, 1993; Migozzi, 1973; Heuveline, 1998; Sliwinski, 1995; Kiernan, 2003; Etcheson, 2000).

Culture as causal factor

Two ways to define “culture” can be found in the scholarship. First, “culture,” may be seen as a set of historically constructed norms that come to be internalised by a society, what Norbert Elias describes as habitus (Elias, 1989: 1-2). As such, they play a role in politics in interactions with other factors through specific processes. Second, the essentialist vision of these norms considers “culture” as a-historical givens and fails to integrate them into larger processes.

This essentialist cultural argument tends to creep in the best and more thorough accounts and only a few examples will be reviewed her. It has been particularly used to explain a specifically Khmer violence, in reaction to the previous - not less essentialist - view of the “gentle Khmer,” as is clear from Vickery’s reference to the Issarak violence and atrocities or from Elizabeth Becker’s account (Vickery, 1984: 1-28; Becker, 1986: 66-69). If this rectification of a previous erroneous understanding of Khmer society was necessary, it does not explain much about the reasons for the happenstance of Cambodian tragedy, nor account for its timing. Gough selects as one of her five explicative factors, “a set of ancient traditions” that includes “Khmer traditional violence,” the custom of killing globally the whole families of enemies or criminals, and the custom of eating one’s enemy liver (Gough, 1983: 209-226). Ponchaud stresses that, “without in any way seeking to justify the excesses of [Pol Pot->87], it appears that this revolution bears the stamp of the Khmer culture” (Ponchaud, 1989: 152). He then underlines the importance of the opposition between hinterland indigenes and foreigners, the antagonism between youth and elders, or the role of Theravada Buddhism (Ponchaud, 1989: 152).

If the cultural traits singled out and given above as examples certainly exist in Khmer society, they are in no way specific to this particular society, but may be found in other societies under sometimes different guises and do not necessarily lead to mass murder.

Essentialist cultural arguments not only obscure understanding and explanation, but are also dangerous because, as emphasised by Chandler, “we allowed [S-21->97] to happen because most of us are indifferent to phenomena of this kind happening far away to other people. Evil we like to think, occurs elsewhere” (Chandler, 1999a : 147). A less dangerous way to integrate culture would be, while retracing the construction and historical evolution of cultural norms and habitus, which furthermore inform nationhood, to wonder under which conditions and through which process violence, for example, comes to overwhelm a society in such a planned, organised and total way. But this would oblige us to confront the shadow within us, this “banality of evil” (Arendt, 1963, 1971: 417) recently revisited by Sémelin (Sémelin, 2005: 330-343), thus to accept, as Chandler underlines, that “to find the source of the evil that was enacted at S-21 on a daily basis, we need look no further than ourselves” (Chandler, 1999a: 155).

On the contrary, Hinton’s anthropological work on the cultural dimension of genocide, also addressing our own shadows, struggles against essentialism notably by using a cultural model emphasising relationships between the “instituted” or “extrapersonal” and “mental” or “intrapersonal” realms, allowing for change, appropriation, and interactions between the micro and macro levels (Hinton, 2005). His approach allowed explaining the motivations of the many anonymous perpetrators and the processes that link them to a genocidal regime, contributing thus to our understanding of the inner working of a genocidal situation (Hinton, 2005).

The conditions of revolutionary victory

The debate here is about the relative importance of external versus internal factors. At one side of the spectrum, Vickery “considers that foreign relations and influences are very nearly irrelevant for an understanding of the internal situation” (Vickery, 1984: xvi). Although, later on, he concedes an importance to the 1970-1975 war, it is primarily seen as a war between the countryside and the city, an exacerbation of already existing trends (Vickery, 1984: 26). At the other side of the spectrum, Haas (1991) is mainly concerned with explaining the Khmer Rouge regime and the length of the civil war in Cambodia from an international perspective, emphasising the role and responsibility of the US. More recently, such a focus on foreign policy, from Thailand’s perspective, was adopted by Rugswasdisab (2006:73-118)but dealt with the CPK rule and the continuation of the guerrilla after DK’s fall. In-between these two perspectives, one may find most of the scholarship.

What finally emerges from the works reviewed is that the revolutionary victory depends on the rise and evolution of the revolutionary movement and of its ideology, on the one hand, and on the movement’s ability to harness profound societal disruptions resulting from international and domestic changes and mobilise them towards the achievement of its objectives, on the other hand.

We thus find works studying the rise of the CPK from a Cambodian (Heder, 1978; Kiernan, 1985) or Vietnamese angle (Engelbert & Goscha, 1995; Goscha, 1995), in the perspective of an interaction between both (Heder, 2004), or studying these relations through Soviet archives (Mosyakov, 2006: 41-72), which necessitates to replace this last study in the context of the others. Meanwhile, Chandler’s work (1992) brings a broad understanding of the rise of Communism in Cambodia.

The commotion occasioned by the war is underlined, as seen, besides the disruption, polarisation, and disconnection between different segments of society favoured by foreign aid, (Kiernan & Boua, 1982; Kiernan, 185, Introduction; Chandler, 1999a : 137-141, 159-167; Osborne, 1979), or besides a reassertion of state-power on the everyday life of the inhabitants, as in the case of Samlaut (Vickery, 1984).

The mobilisation did not only take place at the peasant level but also needed to involve members of the “intelligentsia,” which became possible following the high increase in education levels (Kiernan, 1985: 6-7; Chandler, 1999a : 123). Nationalism is mentioned as a “matter of fact” way to mobilise. On the contrary, Thion questions the nationhood of the Cambodian masses at this time (Thion, 1982: 127). If Thion’s claim had been correct, we may wonder how a party vanguard may have mobilised something that did not exist yet. Indeed, Anderson’s (1991) and Nairn’s (1997) theoretical work and subsequent scholarship on Cambodian nationalism (Edwards, 1999; Lavoix, 2005) show that nationhood did then exist in Cambodia.

Marxism-Leninism? Stalinism? Or Maoism?

This debate is relatively easy to delineate. It opposes the proponents of DK’s ideology as non Marxist-Leninist, such as Vickery, to those who believe that Marxism-Leninism in different guise is relevant, as in most of the literature reviewed (Vickery, 1984: 309). Among the latter, some, through analogies, find a more or less pure Stalinist pedigree to the Khmer Rouge brand of Marxism-Leninism, such as Burgler, Etcheson, Heder, Jackson, or Quinn, who thinks that Stalinism is relevant to the Khmer Rouge definition of in-groups and out-groups (Burgler, 1990: 260-273; Etcheson, 1984: 164-180, 216; Heder, 1997: 104-108; Jackson, 1989: 249; Quinn, 1989: 231). Some see a Maoist origin to the DK ideology, which is then evaluated according to the original model, as Burgler, Chandler, Gough, Kiernan, Margolin, Ponchaud, and Quinn (Burgler, 1990: 260-273; Chandler, 1992: 244-246; 1999a: 110-142, 150; Gough, 1983: 210, 219; Kiernan, 1996: 27, 123; Margolin, 2003: 10; Ponchaud, 1989: 151; Quinn, 1989: 231). Some, such as Chandler, see a Khmer Rouge ideological syncretism, and as Etcheson, find different ideological trends per faction (Chandler, 1992: 244-246; 1999a: 110-142, 150; Etcheson, 1984: 164-180, 216). Finally, some scholars feel the need to add a nationalist component to their ideological characterisation (Jackson, 1989: 250; Gough, 1983: 210, Sher, 2004). Meanwhile, Maoism is used to explain the Khmer Rouge emphasis on self-reliance and Stalinism to try to understand the purges.

Thus, searching for an ideological model and evaluating its application might not be that helpful to understand DK and its grim achievements. Indeed, Vickery advises to pay closer attention to the “home-made” quality of DK (Vickery, 1984: 308), and Chandler suggests to listen to the Khmer Rouge ideology, including its nationalist component, possibly acknowledging the source of its different elements (Chandler, 1999a: 150). This approach was recently adopted, for example, with a study of the Vietnamese influences on the Communist Cambodian movement (Heder, 2004).

A totalitarian and centralised regime?

This debate relates to the degree of power and control that the CPK-led regimes exerted over society. It is intrinsically linked to the state-apparatus and to its centralisation and points towards specific processes existing between regime, state, and society. The use of terror by DK is a related issue (Barnett, 1983; Burgler, 1990; Chandler, 1999a: 110-142, 150; Heder, 2005; Margolin, 2003; Thion, 1983; 1993: 171; Quinn, 1989: 179-208).

Beginning with Barnett study of the highly centralised character of DK (Barnett, 1983) then with Jackson’s stress (1989a: 3-12; Jackson, 1989b: 37-78) on the total character of the revolution and its sectarian quality, the controversy has evolved in the direction of a consensus recognising a centralised and totalitarian regime, as shown by O’ Kane (1993: 735-748), Kiernan (1996), Heder and Tittemore (2001), despite the existing regional and temporal variations. Yet, Locard (1995: 7) underlines that the “absolute power of life and death over members of the collective” enjoyed by local leaders was only apparent. Both findings suggest that further research could be endeavoured towards understanding whether the use of terror by totalitarian regimes could be indicative, among other variables, of a weakness of the linkages between state and society. This line of explanation is followed by Margolin (2003: 17-18) when he underlines that the frailty of the CPK rule added to the timing of the CPK victory on the Communist time-ladder allowed for a “strategy of total war … against the Cambodian people,” triggered by the more classical 1970-1975 war.

Furthermore, Heder (2005), as we shall see further below, brings in a more detailed picture of the inner workings of a centralised and totalitarian regime, showing that not only centralisation and totalitarianism tend to be overemphasised and do not describe correctly the entire situation but also that, on their own, they could not explain the whole extent of murders.

Debates on terror and totalitarianism tend to include references to nationhood, nationalism, or racism. The most famous example is Kiernan’s work underlining that “the two most important themes in the history of the [Pol Pot->87] regime are the race question and the struggle for central control” (Kiernan, 1996: 26). One also finds Jackson (1989b: 72), who mixes cultural argument and nationhood and suggests that “the revolutionaries sought to harness the darker, more violent side of Khmer national character by giving violence a new cultural and political legitimacy.” Thion (1993) stresses, alongside the use of terror and coercion, the “narrow nationalism” and the “desperate nationalistic vision of a country returning to his buried roots.” Yet, no relation between the “nation-hood component” on the one hand, and the totalitarian or terror one, on the other, is detailed, as pointed out by Heder regarding Kiernan’s thesis, nor is the choice of this particular component or expression of nationhood explained (Heder, 1997). Finally, Mann, using previous scholarly research, adds to the totalitarianism of the regime, despite its factionalism and regional variations, the fact that “race and class were uniquely entwined in Cambodia,” creating “an organic conception of the nation as proletariat,” as explanation for the mass-murders (Mann, 2005: 339-350, 343).

Returning to the past or destroying it?

The goal that the CPK-led regimes were trying to achieve, despite their forward-looking statements, must have displayed contradictory elements considering the contradictions found on this topic in the scholarship. Part of the literature stressed that the aim of the “Khmer Rouge” regimes was to destroy the past (Burgler: 1990: 281; Etcheson, 1984: 28; Ponchaud, 1977: 229; Scalabrino, 1985: 35; Chandler, 1999a: 273; Heder, 2002), while another part emphasised a wish to return to a pure, original, mythic, Angkorian past and a longing for past glories (Ablin and Hood, 1987: xxxvi; Barnett , 1990; Gough, 1983: 218; Kiernan, 1996: 8; Ponchaud, 1989: 162; Quinn, 1989: 229; Thion, 1993: 169-171) or ideological continuities with previous regimes in DK’s emphasis on “Cambodia’s glorious past” (Chandler, 1999a: 238).

Tackling the contradiction, Marston (2001) showed how Khmer Rouge thought was informed by both “tradition” and “conceptions of modernity,” while an application to the Cambodian situation of the findings of Levinger and Lytle on triadic nationalist myth and mobilisation shows that a similar process was at work within Kampuchea (Levinger and Lytle, 2001: 175-194; Lavoix, 2005: 158, 161, 261-264).


At the first level of analysis, one finds references, for example in the psychological field, to the CPK leadership’s hubris that could contribute to explain the extremist character of DK’s policies (Chandler, 1992: 238; Heder, 1997: 152; Thion, 1993: 175; Quinn, 1989: 180).

Then, one finds descriptions of the Khmer Rouge leaders’ personal life as factor explaining events under the CPK-led regimes or characteristics of their rule. A famous example of this approach is the time spent in the early 1950s, in France, by a group of young Cambodian students, many of them becoming later eminent members of the CPK. There, they could meet the nationalist leader Son Ngoc Thanh then in exile at Poitiers, were exposed to French ideas, notably French communism, but also to the history of the French revolution, travel to socialist countries, etc. (Chandler, 1992: 52; 1999b: 22-46; Heder, 1997: 123-127; Kiernan, 1985: 119; Sher, 2004, Thion, 1993: 169; etc.). As stressed by Chandler (1992: 52), “it would be wrong to exaggerate the French ingredients of the thought-worlds of these Cambodians, but their shared experience in the early 1950s…were crucial in bonding them together and in giving them ideas about the transformation of Cambodian politics and society.” Furthermore, their experience of the Indochinese war, including Vietnamese Communist involvement, should not be downplayed (Chandler, 1992; 1999b; Kiernan, 1985; Goscha, 2000; Heder, 2004).

Finally, another focus that contributes to an explanation of the complicated relationship between the CPK leaders and the Vietnamese, alongside Heder’s work (2004), can be found in Engelbert and Goscha (1995) study of the policies of the Vietnamese Communists towards their Cambodian counterpart. There, they underline [Saloth Sar’s (Pol Pot)->87] trip to Hanoi in 1965 and meeting with Le Duan as a “major turning point in Vietnamese-Cambodian communist relations,” and infer Sar’s disappointment at Le Duan’s rejection of his “insistence on armed struggle and revolution”( Englebert and Goscha, 1995: 67-77) and thus confirm previous research (Heder, 1978; Kiernan 1985; Chandler, 1992).

Historical continuities and discontinuities

Other relevant factors that may be sorted, using Chandler’s categorisation, as showing historical continuities or discontinuities, seem to be accepted by most scholars (Chandler, 1992: 237-246; Thion, 1982). A major continuity is the importance of factionalism (Chandler, 1992: 226-230 & 270-271; 1999a : 64-76; Etcheson, 1984: 164-180; Gough, 1983: 212; Heder, 1997: 123-130; Kiernan, 1985; 1996: 32-54, 65-68; Quinn, 1989: 196-200; Vickery, 1984: 154-163). This factor could be particularly relevant to explain the purges.

Regarding discontinuities, one of them is particularly relevant to mass-murder: the disappearance of elements that could have acted as restraints (Kuper, 1981, 197-203).

For example, Chandler (1992: 241) stresses that “the war and the DK regime undermined or removed institutional and psychic restraints on violent behaviour by people entitled to bear arms.” He then underlines the importance of the discredit on Buddhism, as also pointed out by Vickery, and of “a process of moral inversion” by which “violence became a virtue” and “waging war became prestigious” (Chandler, 1992: 241-242; Vickery, 1984: 11). Similarly, as soon as 1970, the FUNK developed a belief in the just struggle, which later became heroic and sacred, of the Cambodian people and its leaders, against a regime it perceived as fascist and Nazi and its US support (Lavoix, 2005: 272-275, 279-285 ). Burgler emphasises the revolutionary destruction of norms in bringing about terror, while Chandler, Ponchaud, Sliwinski, or Thion stress the importance of the disintegration of society, including the disintegration of family, inversion of age hierarchy, etc (Burgler, 1990; Chandler, 1992: 239-241; Ponchaud, 1989: 152; Sliwinski, 1995: 101-119; Thion, 1993, 167-168).

Regarding the novel KR “deliberate policies against the family,” Mam (2006: 119-162) underlines, as other scholars (Becker, 1986; Chandler, 1992: 239-241; Ebihara, 1987, 1993; Ponchaud, 1989, Boua, 1982; Ledgerwood, 1990; Sliwinski, 1995: 101-119; Thion, 1993, 167-168), its importance, but, following Scott’s Weapons of the weak (1985), finds out, in contradiction to them, that adaptation and hidden resistance led to the failure of this policy and ultimately contributed to the demise of DK.

III. A Third Wave of Scholarship: Moving Towards Process and Linkages

1. A search for systemic explanations

The way forward towards understanding the CPK-led rule and the Cambodian tragedy started to move beyond the initial focus on single factors, on descriptive narration or on search for origins or models. Benefiting from accumulated knowledge, scholarly research began to look for systemic explanations, where interactions, relationships, and processes are sought (Heder, 1997: 103). The importance of this systemic focus had already been stressed previously, for example, by Thion (1982). To take only examples from political science, looking first at interactions, Heder establishes links between “a particular project of political modernisation,” be it “through rapid communization” or through “modernizing capitalist transformation” and “racism,” the latter being a part of the former (Heder, 1997: 105). In another article, he studies the links existing between Marxism, racism, and crimes against humanity by looking at the connections between class and race, then by linking them to the legitimisation of violence existing in Marxism (Heder, 2001: 129-185).

One may see outlined in Thion’s (1993), Heder’s and Tittemore’s (2001) works patterns of dysfunctional or self-destructive systems. Similarly, Mann (2005: 350) concludes his brief survey of the Cambodian drama, although aimed at emphasising other variables, by underlining the importance of an extreme simplification of the nature of the regime, in terms of goals and means, in explaining the scale of the killings. Hinton’s work, in the framework of Kuper’s approach to processes emphasising uniqueness, points out the importance of “genocidal priming” generated by a host of possible factors that are in the same time facilitators, the likeliness of genocide increasing with their number and the unfolding processes. It then stipulates the necessity to see the situation activated from above, in synergy with the micro level (Hinton, 2005: 280-286).

Heder (2005), revisiting the international legal approach to the understanding of humanitarian crimes and the focus on the responsibility of a totalitarian centralised regime, brings in a detailed picture of the intricacies of a bottom-up approach added to the more common top-down approach. Analysing the inner workings of the 1975-1979 state-apparatus, notably in terms of information flow and its content, he shows that the very “chain of command” operating within the CPK-ruled Kampuchea favoured the application of elastic criteria for the definition of the enemy at grassroots levels and thus contributed to a swell in the number of victims and to the spread of those committing murders at the lower hierarchical levels. As Heder puts it, “This structure was sufficient to function as a chain of command to ensure the obligatory killings of defined and identifiable categories of victims, but appears not to have been effective in preventing arbitrary expansion of those categories at the lower levels.”

2. Exploring linkages between nation-ness and ‘genocide’

The Cambodian case being categorised as a modern, ideological “genocide” by theoreticians of genocide (Fein, 1993: 28; Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990: 22, 407), nation-ness and some of its components such as racism being linked to the UN definition of genocide and most of the scholarship stressing the “nationalistic” characteristics of the DK regime, the links between nationalism and nation-ness, which belong to the realm of ideas, and “genocide” were singled out for analysis.

Indeed, such potential linkages may be inferred from Chandler’s body of work and Marston (2001) underlined “ethnic nationalism as one of the “three areas worth further exploration.” Meanwhile, in the theoretical literature on genocide, Jonassohn and Björnson called for more research analysing the link between genocide, nationalism as ideology, and the norm of the modern nation-state (Jonassohn and Björnson, 1998: 14-15). In the same perspective, Sémelin explored as precondition for massacres of victim groups the interactions, in case of a societal trauma, between identity processes helping to renew the “us” and an ideological discourse located at the conflation between real and imaginary allowing transmuting anxiety into the fear of an enemy, the victims to-be (Sémelin, 2005: 25-74).

Some scholars of Cambodia address, yet without focusing on it, the construction of a specific content of CPK-nation-ness as linked to political mobilisation. Then, Barnett (1990) and Nairn (1997) tackle the link between the construction of nation-ness and Khmer Rouge extremism. Finally, Kiernan (1996) and Heder (1997; 2001) focused on the problem of racism, bringing it back in the perspective of a Marxist definition of classes in Heder’s case, racism being furthermore intrinsically linked to the vision of the nation and dependent upon international normative constraints.

Evolving Nationhood and political mobilisation

Vickery (1984, 281-283) opened an interesting avenue of thought when he suggested that the Khmer Rouge leaders came to integrate the ideologies of poor peasant rebellion and anti-Vietnamese chauvinism through mobilisation on the one hand, power struggle within the party on the other. In a related fashion, Burgler (1990: 16) explained that the national struggle against imperialism, one of the major contradictions identified by the CPK, was not only linked to the peripheral position in the world economy, “but also the result of a nationalism that needed to be stronger even than [Sihanouk->88]’s,” that the CPK wanted to show to “the mass of the population” that “Sihanouk’s nationalist pose (was just a camouflage for) his real neo-colonial collaboration.”

Thus, the content of nationhood and the display of nationalism evolve according to the political movement need for mobilisation. This goes way beyond the classical utilitarian use of nationalism to mobilise masses, and looks at reciprocal interactions between both. Furthermore, nationhood changes according to struggle between political movements, among factions, and against the ruling regime. We are here in line with the theoretical queries and findings of some of the modernist theoreticians of nation and nationalism such as, for example, Breuilly (1996), Hobsbawm (1992), Nairn (1997) and Smith (1986; 1995).

Cambodian nationhood and Khmer Rouge fanaticism

Barnett’s article addresses the construction of the Kampuchean nationhood and points out a contradiction that could have plagued Cambodian identity. He argues that “the key myth of the country’s ideology that Cambodia is on the brink of extinction… contributed directly to Khmer Rouge fanaticism” (Barnett, 1990: 102). Barnett underlines, as Chandler (1992: 6), that Cambodians in general are caught in “an ‘impossible identity.’ In seeking to escape its grip, many Khmer became even more enmeshed in colonial historicism. Independence meant more than getting rid of the colonialists; Cambodia’s own past ‘national’ greatness had to be reasserted” (Barnett, 1990: 108). Thus, Khmer Rouge fanaticism came from a deeper Cambodian contradiction, which was inherited from French colonial science and from the transmission of a French “sense of acute loss” (Barnett 1990: 118-119).

However, as with the apparent contradiction regarding the backward or forward looking goal of the CPK-led regimes, what Barnett rightly identified was not a specificity of Cambodian nationhood aggravated by French colonial science and colonialism, but the happenstance of Levinger and Lytle’s “triadic nationalist myth” linked to nationalist mobilisation (Levinger and Lytle, 2001: 175-194). It was not imposed by French historical colonial efforts, even if, when this mobilisation myth was first devised in 1939-1940, French knowledge was then used and re-appropriated by the nationalist elite vanguard (Lavoix, 2005: 14-142; 161). Furthermore, as shown by Edwards (1999) focusing mainly on a more cultural perspective, “the cultivation of the nation,” which happened between 1863 and 1945, resulted from reciprocal interactions between Cambodians and French. The “triadic nationalist myth,” thus, operating in its most virulent form, but only as one among other contents of Cambodian nationhood, was indeed instrumental to the CPK-led regimes fanaticism, which confirmed and specified Barnett’s insight (Barnett 1990: 102; Lavoix, 2005: 158, 161, 261-264).

According to Nairn, “the Cambodian hell was more truly an aberration of nationalist development than of socialism…. It demonstrated fully how devastating the exercise of that [communist state-] power could be upon an explicitly ethnic or racial-nationalist attempt” (Nairn, 1997: 90-112). Using the subjective interpretation of national identity by the Khmer Rouge allowed him to explain dynamical changes in definition of victims’ groups. Nairn thus showed the importance of “the historical formation or malformation of the Khmer identity” not only to explain “what bound the revolutionary intelligentsia and the peasant majority,” but also the whole process through which nationhood and massacres may come to be linked (Nairn, 1997: 102). Although some scholarly work questions Nairn’s account of the content of Cambodian national identity, notably regarding a backward-looking DK, a focus on peasant violence, as seen, or an “explicitly ethnic or racial” project of the CPK-led regimes (Heder, 1997: 150-151), the method he outlined points towards a possible explanation of the process linking the construction of national identity and the “Cambodian Hell.”

Such a focus on the importance of dynamic political process could help us solving the riddle of the relation between the Khmer Rouge and the tribal groups called “the Phnongs.” Thion (1993: 170) suggests that when [Saloth Sar->87] took refuge in the province of Ratanakiri, “he discovered the tribal life of these ‘original’ Khmers and learned to deeply appreciate these people, later holding them up as examples of ‘purity’.” This account seems to be in line with Locard’s description (1995:6-7) of less stringent life condition in Ratanakiri than in the rest of Cambodia during the CPK rule, implying a lower death rate in the Northeast. However, how are we then to understand the process of collectivisation, the teaching of Khmer language to which the tribal groups were subjected (Locard, 1995: 6-7)? Kiernan (1996: 80-86) describes a similar process of destruction of the traditional way of life, while also emphasising purges of cadres. This points either towards a contradiction within the CPK–led regime that would like the Khmer to become pure again and yet change those held as model of purity, or towards the need to reconsider the construction of identities and the perception of an Other, notably in incorporating political change.

Nation: from politics to biology to politics?

Finally, for Cambodia, with the slow return to peace from 1991 onwards, came a hope for justice, that would not be hindered by Cold War international politics, but promoted by the new “Western” normative emphasis on human rights. This normative change in the making could be reflected in the publication of Kiernan The Pol Pot Regime and Heder’s answer (Kiernan, 1996, Heder, 1997), by the establishment of new centres of study on genocide and finally by the long road towards a “Khmer Rouge” trial in Cambodia.

The literature tackling the Cambodian tragedy faces a difficulty stemming from the development of scientific knowledge these last 300 hundred years, revealed by the new international context and accentuated by the People's Republic of Kampuchea’s (PRK) efforts at equating the DK regime with Hitlerian fascism, notably to undermine its Communist credentials. Following the Vietnamese invasion of Phnom-Penh, genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge was stressed, notably through the transformation of the [Tuol Sleng centre of torture and execution (S-21)->97] into a museum of the Cambodian genocide by Mai Lam, a Vietnamese colonel with “extensive experience in legal studies and museology” (Chandler, 1999a: 3-10), as also explored by Maguire (2005: 86-91). This is not to deny the reality of the Cambodian sufferings, nor the sincerity of those who equated the Cambodian tragedy with the Holocaust, but to emphasise the interpretation and use of these sufferings and their memories according to mixed motives (Chandler, 1999a: 5).

This Vietnamese-backed endeavour bears similarities with the Soviet Union’s position and influence during the negotiations that surrounded the definition of genocide for the 1948 UN Convention, as reported by Kuper (1981; 23-30). Indeed, owing to the Soviet efforts, political groups could not anymore be legally considered as potential targets for destruction in the framework of genocide. The legal definition of genocide would thus solely include racial, national, ethnic or religious group (UN, 1948).

The official position of the Soviet Union, beyond its self-serving motivation, is equally indicative of another difficulty that mars our understanding of the Cambodian tragedy in particular, of genocide and nation-ness in general. According to Kuper (1981: 25), “the Russian representatives argued that the inclusion of political groups was not in conformity ‘with the scientific definition of genocide’;” Scientific genocide, for the Soviet, was “bound up with fascist and Nazi ideologies and other similar racial theories spreading national and racial hatred” (Kuper, 1981, 25).

The Soviet position, although rightly denouncing the danger of racial theories that had spread with the development of anthropology since the 17th century according to Hannaford (1996), contributed only to reinforce a sole vision of nations as “Volk,” bound by blood and a biological understanding of race. Yet, as demonstrated by Hannaford (1996), or underlined, for example, by Hobsbawm (1992: 20-22), Nairn (1997: 103-104) or Smith (1998: 40, 170, 193-194), there are two competing understandings of the nation: one is civic, political, republican, or also “subjective,” the other is organic, cultural, and “objective” (Smith, 1998: 170).

The fortunes of these two visions of the nation have evolved differently over time, the organic vision increasingly becoming the accepted norm. Yet, current research in genetics has shown that the 19th century concept of race as biological essential scientific category was unsustainable: race is a constructed system of social categorisation (Kosakaï, 2000: 24). Notwithstanding these facts, the “biological” understanding is still applied in social science, even unwillingly, and informs the categories through which many human beings view and understand the world, and thus act.

The hegemony of the essentialist biological and racial understanding of the world, reinforced by the Soviet self-serving influence, while legally defining genocide, has rendered the task of social scientists extremely difficult when they try to understand tragedies of mass violence without undermining the possibility for justice. This problem of definition and labelling reaches most cases (e.g. Fein, 1993; Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990; Harff and Gurr, 1988; Kuper, 1981), as recently reminded by Sémelin who suggests abandoning “genocide” for “massacres,” then categorised according to their political function, i.e. submit, eradicate and rebel (s’insurger), the “genocidal process” aiming at “purify and destruct” belonging to the second type (Sémelin, 2005: 365-431, 367, 414).

Witness to this difficulty, compounded in the Kampuchean case by the PRK’s backed analogy with the Holocaust, some scholars of Cambodia have avoided the use of the legal term, while some theoreticians of genocide have coined many words to address what happened, from Kuper “related atrocities,” to Harff and Gurr “politicide,” Sémelin “massacres aimed at submitting” as major political function mixed with “massacres aimed at eradicating” as minor one and Mann who, in his study linking ethnic cleansing to democratisation in specific conditions, yet recognising that Nazi and Communist cases were exceptions to his thesis, labels it as a mix of “politicide,” “classicide,” and “fratricide” (Kuper, 1981: 138-160; Harff and Gurr, 1988; Sémelin, 2005: 397-398; 409-411; Mann, 2005: 4, 318-321, 339-352). They tried thence to capture the specificity of a situation that is genocidal if we follow Chalk and Jonassohn (1990: 23) definition according to which genocide is “a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intend to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator,” and yet does not fit the legal definition, thus opening the way to never-ending disputes and to use and misuse according to mixed motives by different powers and actors (Thion, 1993: 163-190).

Adopting the focus on process, on this specific chain of events termed “genocide” or “genocidal process,” reintroducing the possibility of a political understanding of the world and of nation-ness, would remove many unnecessary difficulties, which only defeat attempts at understanding the Cambodian genocide. This is the interpretation used and conclusion reached by Heder, although by other means and for other purposes, when he states that “being physically or ‘racially’ Khmer was no protection: treason to the class and national cause was political,” and “Thus the underlying dynamic driving the perpetuation of genocide in Democratic Kampuchea was the notion that what determines the socio-political nature of a human-being is neither the false consciousness constructs of biology (race) nor ethnicity (culture) but, how they are organized for production, how they are led politically and what they are taught ideologically…” (Heder, 1997: 150-151). Furthermore, Heder (2001; 2005) showed how the notions of class, race and nation could, notably considering the elasticity of the Marxist understanding of class, merge and melt in different labels then defining the killings during “the operationalisation of the Marxist notion of class.”

Building upon previous scholarly work, understanding thus demands to elucidate the process through which “the underlying dynamic” drove “the perpetuation of genocide,” (Heder, 1997: 150-151). This may be done, for example, , at the level of ideas, which evolve, inform and create understanding and prompt action, first by tracing the historically constructed Cambodian content of nationhood. The latter may then be located within a larger process (a specific deviation of an ideal-type of usual interactions in the evolution of a society that contributes to explain the fall into self-destruction) to understand why, under the CPK rule, Cambodian nationhood came to express itself through its darker side and with its most extremist stance (Lavoix, 2005) and may then be articulated with the specific processes operating within the CPK-led state apparatus (Heder, 2005).

Almost thirty years of scholarship have greatly enhanced our understanding of the darkest time in Cambodian history. Yet, the second and third waves of scholarly works are likely to continue. Indeed, our historical knowledge is still incomplete, some specific processes are still to be unravelled, while comprehensive studies trying to bring together various advances in our comprehension of the Cambodian tragedy could be endeavoured.


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Cite this item

Lavoix Hélène, Cambodia, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 4 November, 2007, accessed 26/03/2017,, ISSN 1961-9898