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The Khmer Rouge Years

The Faces of Angka

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The Work Camps:
Life and Death in the Farming Cooperatives

One of the main goals behind resettling urban residents into the countryside was to build a new Cambodia focused on agricultural success: "to build socialism in the fields," as it was once suggested (Chandler, History of Cambodia, 214). Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership developed a "four-year plan" in which Cambodians were expected to produce an average national yield of 3 metric tons of rice per hectare (1.4 tons per acre). But even during pre-Khmer Rouge, peacetime Cambodia, the average national yield was only one metric ton of rice per hectare. To meet these new demands on rice production the Khmer Rouge enforced strict policies where workers labored in the fields for 12 hours a day without adequate rest or food. Many new people lacked any experience in manual labor and became ill and died, since the Khmer Rouge favored the traditional medicine of the peasants and hilltribes over modern western medicine. Those new people who survived but were not well enough to work often vanished: after being taken away to a distant field or forest, they would be forced to dig their own graves before Khmer Rouge soldiers would bludgeon them on the back of the head with a shovel or hoe. It didn't matter whether the blow killed them or not; either way the victims were buried on the spot and left to die a suffocating death.

Many Cambodians soon discovered that hard work wasn't necessarily enough to keep them alive. "Keeping new people is no benefit," so the Khmer Rouge slogan went; "Losing them is no loss." The lives of new people were seen as having little to no value, so even the most minor infraction was enough reason to get sent to a killing field. For example, foraging for extra food was a capital offense, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge's daily food allowance was so low it would cause hundreds of thousands of people to starve to death. And because family relationships were now banned (for parents exploited their children, so the argument went), associating with a relative without the permission of Angka could get you killed. Khmer Rouge cadres would look for any excuse to kill new people. If you spoke French, you would die. If you were educated, you would die. If you wore glasses, you would die. If you practiced Buddhism, you would die. Families with connections to previous Cambodian governments were especially susceptible to ill treatment; while former soldiers and civil servants were usually summarily executed, their families were often forced to work themselves to death. Those who managed to survive for a time would eventually be charged as associate enemies of the state and sent to the killing fields.

These incredibly harsh conditions limited one's options for survival. Most Cambodians submitted to each and every Khmer Rouge demand and hoped for the best. Those Cambodians who knew they could be labeled as an enemy (the educated, monks, government officials, business owners, etc.) had no choice but to cut off all ties to their past and pretend to be an illiterate peasant. If you could convince the Khmer Rouge you were one of the old people, you might survive, but if you were caught it would mean certain death.

Because Angka banned family relationships, the Khmer Rouge often took advantage of children and molded them into fanatical communists. Young children were seen as being pure and untainted by capitalism and family influence. From an early age children were propagandized and brainwashed to believe in nothing but Angka - even their parents might become their worst enemies. Khmer Rouge brainwashing techniques were often so successful that children would spy on their parents or report on their families' activities during the Lon Nol regime. If parents were disguising themselves as uneducated peasants, their children would be rewarded for identifying them as enemies of the state. Children received expanded privileges under Angka as their parents were taken away to die. In some farming collectives there were so many adolescent Khmer Rouge cadres it seemed their were no adults running the camps.

When Cambodians weren't working in the fields they were being lectured by Khmer Rouge cadres in daily "livelihood meetings" (prachum chivapheap). These meetings had a duel purpose. First, they served as propaganda sessions where people could be indoctrinated into Angka's communist ideals. Second, the meetings were opportunities for people to confess their past political and ideological sins, as well as to rat out fellow Cambodians. As Ong Thong Hoeung tells David Chandler in The Tragedy of Cambodian History, "Politics were everything. Political formation dominated every other activity." Ong goes on to say

They [Khmer Rouge political cadres] attacked the individualist idea successively, in material terms, in terms of thought, and in terms of feelings. Materially, we had to denounce those who had more than the people. In terms of thought, each of us had to keep an eye on everyone else, to disclose any attitude that didn't conform to the line of the party. Everything was interpreted: words, gestures, attitudes. Sadness was a sign of spiritual confusion, joy a sign of individualism, [while] an indecisive point of view indicated a petty bourgeois intellectualism." (Chandler, 284)

Unfortunately, many Cambodians saw these livelihood meetings as opportunities to confess their pasts and be redeemed in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, not unlike people confessing to a priest at a Christian church. If they confessed, they were rewarded by applause and praise, perhaps an embrace from the Khmer Rouge cadres in attendance. Later that evening (or soon afterward - it was only a matter of time), they would then be escorted quietly from the camp and executed.

The quality of life in these farm cooperative varied greatly from district to district; overall, though, very few Cambodians were spared from suffering, misery, starvation or the threat of death. Conditions worsened in 1977 and 1978 as Angka increased demands on rice production. With the passage of time it became more and more difficult for malnourished Cambodians to farm efficiently. To make matters worse, the Khmer Rouge's distain of technology made it next to impossible for workers to reach their increased rice quotas when forced to farm by hand only. Even if a particular collective farm met its rice quota, this didn't mean they would be rewarded with a proper diet. The bulk of the rice was earkmarked for Khmer Rouge soldiers and political cadre. New people could only eat the scraps that were given to them; if they were caught supplementing their diets with grass or even insects, they too would be sent to the killing fields.

Next: S-21 - The Horrors of Tuol Sleng

From Sideshow to Genocide: Copyright 1999 by Andy Carvin. All Rights Reserved.