Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

by Alexander Laban Hinton

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Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country's 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of the population--who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520937949
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/06/2004
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #11
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 382
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alexander Laban Hinton is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. He is the editor of Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide (California, 2002), Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (2002), and Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions (1999).

Read an Excerpt

Why Did They Kill?

Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

By Alexander Laban Hinton


Copyright © 2005 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93794-9


A Head for an Eye

Disproportionate Revenge

To outsiders, and often to ourselves, Cambodia looked peaceful enough. The farmers bound to their planting cycles. Fisherman living on their boats.... The wide boulevards and the flowering trees of our national capital, Phnom Penh. All that beauty and serenity was visible to the eye. But inside, hidden from sight the entire time, was kum. Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge — to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum.... Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul. Haing Ngor, A Cambodian Odyssey

We cannot cut off their heads in revenge following our anger. I myself used to taste that taste.... [Let the matter] be processed in a court case. Chairman of the Cambodian Military Court on prosecuting Ta Mok and Duch

In April 2000, the Phnom Penh Post published an interview with a former Khmer Rouge cadre who had studied in Paris with Pol Pot and helped to found the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). When asked why Pol Pot killed millions of people, the former cadre, who chose to remain anonymous, replied, "As far as the killing is concerned, I don't think it was only Pol Pot. It was more about revenge — the revenge with Lon Nol [soldiers] for killing their husbands and wives before 1975." Later in the interview, the cadre (hereafter referred to as "anonymous cadre") expanded on this assertion, which seemed to be related to his view that Pol Pot was a "gentle man" with a "good heart" who ultimately shouldn't be blamed for the killing:

So, when Lon Nol soldiers knew that someone was a former Viet Minh [agent], they would shoot and kill them without trial. Then, you can understand that in the Pol Pot regime, they would kill people even though Pol Pot didn't tell them to kill. They just took revenge for their husbands or fathers and put the blame on Pol Pot....

[Local Khmer Rouge cadres] just had the anger with the fact that their wives or children had been killed. Then, they hated all those from the city....

[B]efore 1975, there was also a war crime: what happened with the B-52s? ... I am from Svay Rieng and Prey Veng, where a lot of my relatives were sad. I saw my relatives taking revenge with people from Phnom Penh. They just waited for people from Phnom Penh: if they had a chance to kill, they would kill.... I saw that there was more revenge [by people] than official order [from the top].

As the former cadre contends, revenge was an important motivation behind some DK violence. In fact, revenge was invoked repeatedly by perpetrators and victims I interviewed to explain why the Khmer Rouge killed so many people. However, the cadre's assertion that Pol Pot and other top officials were unaware of and lacked responsibility for the violence (an assertion that these leaders have also tried to make) is dubious.

This chapter argues that Khmer Rouge leaders directly and indirectly called for their followers to take vengeance upon the "class enemies" who had formerly "oppressed" them. I begin by examining the historical development of the Khmer Rouge party "line" (meakea), suggesting that Pol Pot and his colleagues came to believe that the "science" of Marxist- Leninism enabled them to discern the origins of and devise a solution for the impoverishment and oppression of the Cambodian people. While Marxist-Leninist and Maoist notions of exploitation made a certain sense to many of Cambodia's poor, the Khmer Rouge leadership attempted to couch such philosophical abstractions in terms that would inspire them to embrace the Khmer Rouge movement and to take arms against its enemies. To do so, the Khmer Rouge combined the new and the old into ideological palimpsests, in which Marxist-Leninism was sketched upon the lines of local understandings, at once transforming and transformed.

A key ideological palimpsest centered on the notion of class rage, which played upon ontologically resonant local understandings of disproportionate revenge that were salient for many Cambodians. In contrast to the oft-cited Biblical conception of "an eye for an eye," the Cambodian model of revenge involves disproportionate retaliation against one's enemy — what we might call "a head for an eye," since disproportionate revenge is usually linked to issues of face, and sometimes even decapitation. In an extreme situation like DK, disproportionate revenge could involve an attempt to kill a foe or even his or her entire family.

For example, Vann Nath, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, told me that in 1996 he had encountered Lor at the site of the former interrogation center, where Lor was being interviewed for a documentary film. After an initial reaction of stunned outrage, Vann Nath decided that he had to speak to Lor: "I went up and asked him (vea), 'Lor, do you know who I am?' Lor replied, 'I don't.' I told him, 'I know you with certainty. I know that you worked in a high position here. You were in charge of over a hundred guards.'" Lor began to get nervous and tried to deny this, but Vann Nath knew too much and began questioning Lor:

First of all, I wanted to know what happened to the little children who were taken from their mothers. I could hear both the mothers and children crying and screaming when this happened. I asked Lor, "Where did you take the children? Where were they taken care of?" He replied, "There wasn't any plan [to care] for them. They were taken away and killed." I didn't know that they had been killed! I imagined that the children had been cared for at some center. I couldn't believe it. Some of the children were newborns, others four or five months old, others five or six years old. They killed them all! I was astounded. I never guessed that even this place was that brutal.

Lor's explanation is supported by surviving documentation: the Khmer Rouge recorded not just the execution of prisoners, but also of their spouses and children. On July 2, 1977, for example, an execution schedule from Tuol Sleng lists the names of eighty-five children of detainees who were "smashed," most likely under Lor's supervision. The annihilation of entire families was not restricted to Tuol Sleng. Throughout Cambodia, entire families were taken to extermination centers like Phnom Bros and executed en masse. Sometimes the Khmer Rouge destroyed a family line more slowly on the local level, as happened to Neari's family. This chapter, then, suggests that the violence during DK — including, in the extreme, the Khmer Rouge attempt to annihilate the families of some enemies, ranging from former Lon Nol soldiers and government workers to suspected counterrevolutionaries and traitors — was partly motivated by preexisting understandings of disproportionate revenge (karsângsoek) that were revamped and incorporated into Khmer Rouge ideology.

Class Hatred and the Khmer Rouge Party Line

The American imperialists and their lackeys
Their lackeys owe us blood as hot as fire.
The hot and angry war ensured that Kampuchea
will never forget the enmity
Will not forget the severe oppression.
Seize hold of guns to kill the enemy quickly.
Khmer Rouge song,
"The Motherland of Kampuchea"

To understand the origins of this ideological palimpsest, it is necessary to examine some of the historical processes through which the DK party line was forged. On September 27, 1977, for example, Pol Pot gave a speech, broadcast throughout the nation, to celebrate the seventeenth anniversary of the founding of the CPK. The speech constituted the first clear public acknowledgement of the CPK's existence, Pol Pot's leadership, and the history of the struggle that had brought the regime to power. Like all party histories, which reconstruct the past to confirm a desired image of the present (for example, Pol Pot's speech excises an alternative history of revolutionary struggle and association with Vietnam dating back to the fight for independence), Pol Pot's is suggestive about the emergence of the party line and the high-modernist orientation of the DK regime.

By "high-modernist orientation," I refer to James Scott's concept of an overweening confidence in the possibilities of progress, mastery of nature, and human emancipation through the use of science, reason, and social engineering — a faith that has sometimes inspired authoritarian regimes to attempt to use their highly abstract and oversimplified schemes as a blueprint for radical sociopolitical transformation. Because they tend to oversimplify complex on-the-ground realities, these projects of social engineering have often ended in catastrophe. As was the case with the Khmer Rouge, high-modernist faith and vision may also provide the building blocks for a revitalization movement, which, in a context of stress and upheaval, may attract followers through promises of a new and better life. I should also note that in Cambodia transformative knowledge is viewed as a form of power and may confer on the bearer an aura of potency. If, in the past, revitalization movements in Cambodia and its Southeast Asian neighbors had often been led by charismatic leaders claiming a special endowment of merit and power, Pol Pot and the CPK similarly claimed a sort of high-modernist potency that legitimated their claims to power and their subsequent attempt to radically transform and revitalize Cambodian society.

These threads are evident in Pol Pot's 1977 speech, as well as numerous other Khmer Rouge documents, such as the 1976 Four-Year Plan. After a brief preamble, the speech begins with a discussion of how Cambodia had passed through eras of slavery, feudalism, and, most recently, capitalism. Each epoch was characterized by exploitation and class struggle that ultimately failed because the masses had not found a "clear and correct" political line. Without such a line, which provides "judicious guidance, one becomes blind. Even with great strength and determination, one cannot win. One loses one's orientation, one doesn't know what to hold onto, one proceeds toward certain defeat and, in the end, ruin."

To remedy this problem, Pol Pot stated, the Cambodian communists established a committee in 1957 to prepare the party's political line based on Marxist-Leninism and the "study and research" both of other revolutionary movements and of Cambodia's history and socioeconomic situation. This assertion was contentious, denying a history of association with Vietnam dating back to the struggle for independence from French colonial rule, in which a number of longtime revolutionaries (many of whom had been purged by the time of Pol Pot's speech) had fought. While these revolutionaries had initially been exposed to Marxist- Leninism by Vietnamese communists and were linked to an alternative party genealogy involving participation in the Vietnamese-backed Indochinese Revolutionary Party and the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (established in 1951), another set of revolutionaries, including Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan, had received their initial training in Marxist-Leninism while studying in Paris in the 1950s. Many of them became members of the French Communist Party, which had strong Stalinist, anti-American, and anti-colonial streaks. This anti-colonialism appealed to the students, who had come of age in a time of protest and indignation about French colonial rule. The "anonymous cadre" explained that the French communists "helped French colonial countries to be freed from the yoke of colonial rule.... As we wanted independence for the country and when we saw them helping us, we joined with their ideas.... And when we learned, we saw that this ideology was good and just.... it helped protect the poor from oppression. Therefore, we loved it, because we had been oppressed for 100 years."

It is important not to overstate the differences between the two origin points for Cambodian communism, since the students later returned to Cambodia to foment revolutionary struggle and worked closely with the Cambodian communists who had fought the French and with communists from China and Vietnam. Still, these historical trajectories were salient because they could mark, real or perceived, different networks of association and views of the DK party line.

For Pol Pot, the key to revolutionary success seems to have been total commitment to the DK party line, a high-modernist, abstract set of principles that had been determined through "scientific analysis." This perspective not only fit well with Maoist doctrine, but may also have appealed to his student background and the conviction that proper "study and research" would yield a correct party line that should be inexorably followed. When others dissented, arguing for the more gradualist approach that had been used in other socialist countries, Pol Pot and his inner circle perceived the weakening of their "stand" as treachery and a sign of a "regressive" consciousness.

Their conviction that they had discovered the key to ending oppression and revitalizing Cambodian society seems to have given Pol Pot and his associates a sense of omnipotence and grandeur, which can be read in the lines of speeches and documents that assert the unique and unprecedented nature of their revolutionary movement. Like Buddhists who had achieved enlightenment, they had attained secret knowledge that would transform Cambodia and enable its inhabitants to reach a higher state of being. In fact, the Khmer Rouge ideology often played upon the theme of enlightenment when it depicted Ângkar using metaphors of clairvoyance and omniscience. Yet another strand in this sense of grandeur was the French reconstruction of Cambodian history, which provided a narrative of decline from the magnificence of the Angkorean era, when Khmer kings built impressive stone monuments and were a dominant military presence in the region, to the contemporary period, when Cambodia had become a weak country dominated by others. Driven by feelings of inferiority and inflation about what was possible, the Khmer Rouge proclaimed that their revolutionary society would surpass even Angkor in greatness, moving more rapidly and successfully toward a communist utopia than had any other communist regime.

These views and experiences were to shape the development and application of the party line. Pol Pot's 1977 speech asserts that a proposal for the party line was approved at the September 1960 Party Congress, which his speech marks as the birth of the CPK, "a genuine Marxist-Leninist party." Since "a correct analysis ... allows for the correct definition of the tasks of the revolution," the attendees "analyzed and defined the real nature of Kampuchean society at that time." The "conclusion of our analysis," ascertained through the "science" of Marxist-Leninism, was that Cambodia was plagued by two major contradictions. On the one hand, there existed a contradiction with imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism. Cambodia remained a "semi-colony, in a situation of dependency" on exploitative imperial powers that impoverished the poor and corrupted Cambodian society. On the other hand, Cambodia was plagued by internal class contradictions. While contradictions existed between various classes (workers versus capitalists, petty bourgeoisie versus capitalists, capitalists versus peasants), the dominant one, Pol Pot asserted, was between the landowners and the peasantry, who comprised 85 percent of the population.

The solution to these contradictions was to drive out the imperialists and their lackeys, the "feudal-capitalist" government that supported the exploitation of the poor. The DK party line held that, upon attaining power, the Khmer Rouge would impose new relations of production that would end exploitation. Through this structural reorganization and indoctrination — what the Khmer Rouge called "seepage" (karchreap) — the masses would gradually absorb party ideology and be transformed into passionate revolutionaries guided by a proper political consciousness.


Excerpted from Why Did They Kill? by Alexander Laban Hinton. Copyright © 2005 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures
List of Personages
Foreword by Robert Jay Lifton
Introduction: In the Shadow of Genocide

Part One • The Prison without Walls
1. A Head for an Eye: Disproportionate Revenge
2. Power, Patronage, and Suspicion
3. In the Shade of Pol Pot’s Umbrella

Part Two • The Fire without Smoke
4. The DK Social Order
5. Manufacturing Difference
6. The Dark Side of Face and Honor
Conclusion: Why People Kill

Note on Transliteration

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