Alexander Hinton’s Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide is a fascinating study of the ideas that the Khmer Rouge employed to recruit supporters, and to then to justify their actions after they came to power.
In his book, Hinton argues that in the 1960s and 1970s Cambodia was not a society that fit the model for a communist revolution. It was an agrarian society with virtually no proletariat.
Many of the intellectuals who formed the core of the Khmer Rouge had learned about communism in France, and as they sought to gain supporters in Cambodia, they had to change the message to fit the Cambodian reality.
So rather than talk about the exploitation of the urban working class, the Khmer Rouge played on existing suspicions that people in the countryside had about cities to portray the cities (and Phnom Penh in particular) as evil places that were responsible for the suffering of people in the countryside.
Adding to this, the Khmer Rouge talked about the corrupt government officials in the cities, and how those people were serving as puppets of the U.S. imperialists who were dropping bombs on their land.
Looking through the digitized materials in the Australian National Archive, I came across a translation of a speech that Khmer Rouge intellectual Hu Nim made in 1973 on clandestine radio (which I talked about earlier here). Hu Nim was at the intellectual core of the Khmer Rouge in 1973. However, a few years later, in 1977, he was arrested, tortured at the interrogation center of Tuol Sleng (or S-21), and then executed (a translation of his “confession” can be found here).
Hu Nim had learned about communism while studying in France in the 1950s. From what he said in this speech, it is clear that the way he was attempting to gain support for the Khmer Rouge was precisely the way that Hinton noted in his book.
Below are three excerpts from his speech on clandestine radio in 1973. They show 1) the wealth and corruption of the ruling elite in the city, 2) the suffering of the people in the countryside, and 3) the collaboration of the ruling elite with the American imperialists. The combination of these three elements formed the core message of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s as they tried to gain supporters.
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The brothers living in Phnom Penh and a small number of provincial towns still under temporary enemy control can see how traitors Lon Nol, Sirik Matak, Son Ngoc Thanh, Im Tam, Lon Non, Hang Thun Hak, Sosthene Fernandez, Mau Say, Thappana Nginn and their clique live, eat and indulge in luxury and debauchery.
Do you know how many apartments, villas, cars and gambling dens each of them owns and runs? Do you know how much money they have deposited in banks at home and abroad? How much they extort from the people and how much they steal from the national budget? And do you know how they accept bribes, commit extortion and engage in other corrupt practices?
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Now the compatriots are asked to take a look at their own living standards. In comparison with the living standards of the traitors Lon Nol, Sirik Matak, Son Ngoc Thanh, In Tam and their clique, you have nothing. It is like comparing earth and heaven.
You are aware of this yourselves since you are suffering under the arch-corrupt regime of the traitors. Sour misfortunes stem not only from the persecutions, oppression, extortion, plunder, power abuses, heavy takes, threats and XDVN [?], but also from forced starvation since you cannot protest against the traitors of rice shortage without being accused of being accomplices of what they call “enemies.”
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[speaking about “the clique” that was running the country] Their ominous dark design is to deceive national and international opinion, to attempt to end the brothers’ resistance against them, induce all our people, CPNLAF and patriots to lay down their weapons and allow themselves to be killed and beheaded without defending themselves so that the clique of traitors can continue to betray the nation, to be the lackeys of the U.S. imperialist aggressors, continue to be corrupt and pile up more money and wealth, continue to live off the blood and tears of our people, and continue the fascist, dictatorial yoke of their gang and family forever.
As the brothers can see themselves, how can there be peace and independence while the U.S. imperialists continue to carry out their military activities and bombing raids against our Cambodian nation and people and impose their neocolonialist yoke on our fatherland?