Democratic Kampuchea: Hierarchy/Egalitarianism and Pol Pot


Hinton, Alexander

2002 Purity and Contamination in the Cambodian Genocide IN Cambodia Emerges From the Past: Eight Essays. Judy Ledgerwood, ed. DeKalb, IL: Northern

Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, p. 60-90.

Jackson, Karl

1989 The Ideology of Total Revolution IN Cambodia: 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death. Karl Jackson, ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 37-78.

Smith, Frank

1989 Interpretive Accounts of the Khmer Rouge Years: Personal Experience in Cambodian Peasant World View.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-

Madison, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Occasional Paper No. 18.

How can we make sense of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period, if we consider traditional Khmer ideas of social hierarchy and power discussed in lesson one? There are three basic ways to characterize the period:

  1. Egalitarianism replaced traditional social hierarchy
  2. One group of leaders replaced a prior group of leaders within the social hierarchy
  3. The traditional social hierarchy was reversed.

1. If you are analyzing the DK period in terms of ideology, then the first of these of three arguments has some merit. Karl Jackson writes,

When the Khmer Rouges seized power in April 1975, they did so with the intention of obliterating its hierarchical political culture in order to reconstruct Cambodian society from ground zero as the world’s most egalitarian, and therefore revolutionary social order (1989:7).

Jackson characterizes the Khmer Rouge as "sectarians," radical egalitarians who saw the differences between people as the root of all evil. Sectarian movements are exclusive, rather than inclusive; people join to withdraw from a society seen as morally bankrupt. Such movements are dichotomous, there are believers, who are good, and nonbelievers, who are evil (1989:8). Theoretically there is perfect equality within the revolution, but the revolution must act to purge the movement of non-believers -- enemies within.

Alex Hinton points out that the DK did enact policies to try to achieve at least the outward signs of egalitarianism. First, they tried to eliminate the use of linguistic registers that connoted kinship, age and other social differences (see Marston 1985, Carney 1977, Ponchaud 1978). The word comrade, mitt, was suppose to replace titles, honorifics and even kin terms. Second, many non-verbal cues that connoted status, such as polite greeting forms and bending down before superiors, were also discouraged (Hinton 1998:110). Hinton, Jackson, Marston and others point out that the Khmer Rouge must have realized that Buddhism was at the core of Khmer ideas of social hierarchy. Thus by abolishing religion and destroying all vestiges of Buddhism; monks, texts, images, rituals, and so on, they might destroy the moral underpinnings of the beliefs in "unequal souls" (Hinton 1998, Jackson 1989, Marston 1985,1997).

The DK leadership tried to achieve this perfect revolution immediately. Several authors have emphasized the "hubris" of the Khmer Rouge, to think that they could avoid any intermediate steps and accomplish instant revolution (see Becker 1989, Chandler 1991, Martin 1994). They saw themselves as unique, and linked this vision of themselves as a model for the rest of the world with the historical grandeur of the Angkorian period. If the greatness of Angkor had been built on multiple cropping made possible by irrigation, then construction of grand irrigation projects by a mass mobilized population, would lead to dramatically increased yields. The Khmer Rouge believed that "leaping forward with three tons per hectare" would lead to the fulfillment of their revolutionary dreams.

2. One group of leaders replaces another.

Obviously DK did not practice egalitarian rule. Like the regimes of Sihanouk, and Lon Nol before it, the DK continued to concentrate power largely in the hands of a single individual, Pol Pot. David Chandler writes:

In an attempt to destroy the personalism that, in their view, had corrupted previous regimes, the CPK stressed the collective nature of its leadership and kept most of its leaders hidden. Nonetheless, its style of operation, with its lack of accountability, its self-deification, its monopoly on information, and its single voice uttering unchallengeable commands, amounted to one-man rule, and by 1977 Brother Number One (Pol Pot) and Brother Number Two (Nuon Chea) had become synonymous with the Organization (1991:238).

There is evidence from late in the DK regime that a public "cult of personality" of Pol Pot was being developed for public consumption, including the production of busts and paintings of him being undertaken at Tuol Sleng (Chandler 1999:3, Martin 1994:205).

Relations within the DK communist system were also structured hierarchically. There were higher and lower levels of cadre and military officials. Martin points out that "the abolition of privileges among the revolutionaries was not real." As you went up the hierarchy the more food there was available, with veritable feasts for those at the top. Military officers and top officials also had cars, and midlevel officials had motorbikes and bicycles, while the rest of the population walked (1994:205).

Among the DK cadre, the notion of personal networks (khsae in Khmer) is also clear from the records of internal purges that survive from the S-21 prison and interrogation center (see Chandler 1999). When individuals were arrested and brought for interrogation, suspected of betraying the revolution, all of their associates within their workplace and personal lives also came under suspicion. Under torture prisoners were forced to name those who had been involved with them in their counter-revolutionary activities. These persons were then also subject to arrest, torture and execution.

Among the general population, the most important distinction was "old people" or "base people," those who had lived in liberated zones prior to April 1975, and "new people," or those evacuated from the cities (see Becker 1989, Chandler 1991, Kiernan 1996?, Hinton 1998). The latter included both urbanites and rural people who had fled fighting in the countryside during the war. Old people were more trusted, more likely to be given positions of authority, and more likely to be better fed. New people were given more difficult work, less food, and were more likely to be punished harshly, even executed, for minor infractions. Hinton writes, "With luck, an ‘old person’ might get off with a warning if caught for a crime like stealing potatoes; a "new person" would almost always be killed for doing so" (1998:111). In the new system of hierarchy, the previous signs of status: wealth, religious piety, connections to the monarchy, education, and political connections to the old regime were to be hidden. A person’s status was not discussed in terms of merit or karma, but determined by class background, revolutionary fervor and complete and silent obedience.

In a new analysis of Khmer Rouge notions of purity and contamination, Hinton (2002) discusses the association of purity with coherence and order. In Khmer Buddhist cosmology, periods of grandeur and order are followed by periods of impurity and fragmentation. When disorder and moral decay reach their extreme, new leadership must emerge to reverse the process of degeneration (as Chandler [1978?] discusses for the 19th century). Hinton argues that "the ideology and actions of the Khmer Rouge were similarly patterned by this logic of coherence and fragmentation" (2002:77). Coming to power in the wake of a period of destruction, DK sought to assert, not a Kingdom organized on Buddhist principles, but a utopian communist ideal society. Revolutionary consciousness replaced Buddhist ideas of "right mind." "Right action" became working long hours for the revolution without complaint (Hinton 2002:77-78). For following these new ideals, members of the new society would be rewarded with protection and bounty provided by the glorious and all knowing Angka (the revolutionary organization) (on the concept of Angka see Marston 2002, Hinton 2002).

But of course, for the Khmer living through this hell, the government provided neither protection nor sustenance. While people worked extremely hard during this period – growing rice, digging irrigation canals, clearing forest for planting new fields – over time there was less and less to eat. In some areas where new agricultural practices did result in good harvests, survivors remembered the harvest being loaded on to trucks and driven away. Rural Khmer often ask of the DK period, "where did they take all the rice?"

Rural people, who as "base people" fared better under DK than urban evacuees, still hated life under the Khmer Rouge largely for two reasons, lack of food and constant violence (Chandler 1991, Ebihara 1993). They also disliked the disruption of traditional social patterns, the break up of families, communal dining, and the destruction of Buddhism. The traditional term for ruler in Khmer translates as "one who consumes," but in the case of DK, the Angka took everything and left the people to starve.

Thion also emphasizes the psychological manipulation of individuals. They were required to attend collective meetings where they "had to tell their life stories again and again in order to criticize their own bad ‘trends’ and relinquish any control over their own behavior"(1993:92). They lived in constant fear of hard labor, physical punishment and execution. They were often isolated from those they loved, their immediate family and extended kinsmen. Everyone lived under suspicion, fearful that they might be the next targets for "purification" (Thion 1993:92-93).

The traditional underpinnings of social hierarchy, Buddhist ideas about the obligations of social reciprocity, were undone. To use Scott’s (1977) phrase there was no "legitimacy of dependence" since the people received chaos, fear and starvation in return for their labor. The "norms of reciprocity" were violated as the disconnection between the rhetoric of the regime for glorious days of democracy and prosperity clashed with the daily realities of life under DK. The "smooth tautness" of Southeast Asian ideals of leadership emphasized by Anderson (1990 [1972]), the idea that people come to a leader because of his attractiveness, his generosity and his knowledge was replaced by brute force.

3. The notion of social hierarchy was reversed.

Many Khmer writing or speaking about the DK period are more like to describe their experiences in terms of reversals. Themes of social reversal provide religious and cultural explanations for the inexplicable devastation of the period. This is true of all the first person narratives written by urban Khmer who survived the DK regime (see Ngor 1987, May 1986, Criddle and Mam 1987, Pin 1987, Him 2000, Ung 2000). Those wealthy, urban elite who had possessed every advantage found themselves treated as the lowest members of society, despised as war captives and traitors. Peasants with little or no education held power over those with degrees. Previously revered monks were disrobed and treated as common laborers. The king himself was locked helplessly in his palace and many of his relatives died laboring in the countryside. Haing Ngor writes, when he finds himself -- a medical doctor -- bowing before a poor peasant, that such a gesture would have been incomprehensible in pre-revolutionary times (1987: 190).

Another crucial reversal was with regard to age. The Khmer Rouge saw adults as already poisoned by the previous regime, but children were still pure and could be properly indoctrinated. Young people were given positions of authority and weapons. They were praised and rewarded for their work on mobile work brigades. Children were taught to spy on their elders and report suspicious conversations to DK cadre.

Gender roles were also modified. Young women fought as combatants for Khmer Rouge and served as cadre. Women were given a degree of political and military authority, though it seems to have lessened as one rose within the DK hierarchy (there were two women in the top leadership of the CPK, the wives of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary). There are many stories of women who betrayed their husbands to the DK authorities. The degree to which this actually happened is unclear, but the stories reflect the theme of reversal and chaos – women would even turn on their husbands!

Frank Smith’s (1989) analysis of peasant interpretive accounts of the DK years focuses on this theme of reversals in the proper hierarchical order of social relations. Some link these events to a set of Buddhist religious prophecies of a coming time of death and destruction, the put tumniay. According to these predictions a time of war and destruction will include the rise to power to tmil (enemies of the religion). The kingdom will come to be ruled by uneducated, hooligans and drunkards. People will confuse right from wrong. Children will disobey their parents and students their teachers. These reversals extend as metaphors to the animal kingdom, shrimp go up to the mountain top to lay their eggs (1989:19-20).

According to the prophecies, these changes are linked to Buddhist cycles of time. At the midpoint through a kalpa, or the cycle of time between the coming of one Buddha and the next, human society will reach a low point, when few people survive and life expectancy is short. But the redeeming feature of such a view on the DK period is that the period of destruction of the put tumniey is of limited duration. In fact, knowing that the predictions referred to a time of limited duration and that the tmils would eventually be destroyed were all kept some people going (May 1987: 106). Smith points out that such explanations of the DK period provide a method of explanation for otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. He writes,

Contemporary events such as the Khmer Rouge evacuation of the cities, the destruction of Buddhist temples, and brutal executions seem horrendous, senseless and unexplainable when taken by themselves. However, once conceptually related to ageless prophecies, these events seem inevitable in the cyclical flow of Buddhist history. Order is thus given to otherwise disordered phenomena (1989:23).

If not specifically linked to the put tumniey prophecies, peasant explanations explored by Smith would often focus on the important cultural theme of a separation between the field and the forest, or the wild and the civilized (explored by David Chandler’s essay we read in lesson one). As wild creatures from the forest, without religion or morality, the Khmer Rouge were seen in retrospect more like animals than humans; they represented the antithesis of what it meant to be Khmer. Because of their stance against religion, because of all the violence, the Khmer Rouge took on the personification of evil in the explanations of DK survivors (Smith 1989: 25-29). Again there is some comfort in this interpretation, since in the eternal struggle between good and evil, evil will not be allowed to triumph.

So which of the three interpretations of changes in social hierarchy in the DK period is correct? The answer for our purpose here is all three. In terms of ideology, the Khmer Rouge focused on complete egalitarianism, and the sectarian nature of this focus helps to explain part of the extreme violence as "non-believers" constituted a threat that had to be eliminated. But in the workings of the angka apparatus, there were new leaders in a very hierarchical system, but with a new revolutionary dogma. And for those trapped within it, explanations of the DK period often focus not only on destruction, but also on a time when the logic of the social world was reversed.

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