The Pol Pot Legacy in Village Life

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The legacy of Pol Pot - the most hated man in Cambodia - and his policies are immediately apparent in the physical and emotional landscape of village life. In January 1990 I collected impressions during a three-week journey through Cambodia. Here, I discuss how Khmer villagers have been affected by and interpret Pol Pot's legacy, and then provide an overview of how villagers have returned to traditional practices of village life that predate the war years.

Two common physical features of Cambodia remain from the Pol Pot period, during which time the country was known as Democratic Kampuchea (DK). The first is the hundreds of small irrigation canals that cut under long stretches of national highway no. 1, linking the southern provinces of Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, and Kandal to Phnom Penh. Today they only function as large and unnecessary speed bumps that must be carefully negotiated by heavily laden oxcarts and buses.

The second physical feature of the DK period is the remains of large buildings that were sacked and destroyed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. The old city of Kompong Speu, for instance (approximately 30 km southwest of Phnom Penh), exists only as a memory today. The vacant shells of French colonial-style villas and offices remain as remainders of the war, the bombings of the early 1970s, and Pol Pot's relentless hatred toward symbols of prerevolutionary society. The old schools, hospitals, Buddhist temples, hotels, and villas represented vestiges of the past that were incompatible with Pol Pot's strongly nationalist vision of an agrarian communist society.

Establishing Total Control

Villagers described how they had to tear down their own homes and rebuild small, one-room thatch huts to suit the sensibilities of Angka, the name used by the Khmer Rouge to refer to the Communist Party of Kampuchea before it was publicly known. "We had to burn the wood from our own houses; what a waste it all was," remarked one woman in her seventies from a small village in Takeo Province.

The years of deprivation, starvation, disease, and severe emotional distress have taken their toll on Cambodians: middle-aged men and women look 20 years older; children still suffer from malnourishment and hunger; elderly survivors have only questions - but no answers - as to why the Khmer Rouge was so cruel and "crazy."

Villagers interviewed in Kandal, Takeo, and Kompong Speu provinces expressed outrage over the DK regime's policies of communal eating, paltry food provisions despite the abundance of rice harvested, and excessively long working hours. None of these policies were ever explained to them in terms they could understand or appreciate. And indeed, the rationale for such policies had more to do with establishing total control over the population than with meeting the collective ideals of socialist society. The infringement on village autonomy and freedom was deeply resented by Khmer peasants.

As for the revolutionary ideology that poured out during nightly village meetings, "it was all a bunch of crazy nonsense," said one woman now in her eighties. "We didn't understand those words capitalism, feudalism, and communism, and they never explained what they meant."

People were especially alienated from any sympathies they might have had for the Khmer Rouge, the communist cadres led by Pol Pot, over the issue of food. A peasant from Takeo Province in his sixties explained that in his village after 1975 "we grew rainy season and dry season rice and harvested a lot, but we weren't given any of it to eat. We were only given rice porridge, a big pot of water with just a few grains of rice in it. That was all." When asked whether the Khmer Rouge cadres lacked food, too, the same man replied. "They ate with us but then went home and ate some more. How did we know that? We were all thin while they were fat!"

Almost all of the areas close to Phnom Penh remained under the control of the Lon Nol regime while the Khmer Rouge was fighting for power. When villagers were "liberated" in 1975, they were classified as "new" people, thereby demonstrating that they had not been part of the struggle for liberation prior to 1975 - or in some cases, in Kompong Speu, even as early as 1974. This classification contrasted to that of the "old" people: those who had lived in villages controlled by the Khmer Rouge prior to 1975 and who thus had automatic revolutionary credentials.

"New" People and "Old" People

These "new" peasants suffered greater hardships than the "Old" peasants only because they had happened to live in geographical locations under the control of the "traitorous" Lon No1 regime before 1975.

In the village of Kuntuot, Kandal Province, situated 30 km southwest of the capital, peasants explained that many people had fled to Phnom Penh in 1973 to avoid the US bombs and Khmer Rouge rockets that fell directly onto their village. After 1975 people returned to their native villages, were classified as "new" people, were told to build new homes of two by three meters, and were instructed to obey all the rules of Angka (the Khmer Rouge party). In the meantime, the Khmer Rouge had moved in "old" people from areas under its control further south in Takeo and Kompong Speu provinces, elevated them to positions of authority, and had them overseas the people who had returned from Phnom Penh. The relations between the two groups were tense and at times marked by deep hatred. Accusations of "new" people spying on the "old" sometimes led to executions for "anti-revolutionary activities." Such accusations could derive from someone complaining about the 12-hour work days, insufficient food, or family disbursements.

When asked whether the villagers recalled the names of any of the local Khmer Rouge cadres, one woman replied, "We don't remember the names of the Khmer Rouge leaders. We didn't dare look at the faces of the top leaders. We only worked hard. We were afraid not to work even when we were sick because they might have taken us away to be killed." Elderly people estimate that only 10 percent of the original inhabitants of Kantuot are alive today; most were killed during the worst spate of killings in 1977 and 1978.

A Pyramid of Skulls

The murders of ordinary Cambodians, some one million in all, are of course the most shocking, bizarre, and horrific legacy of Pol Pot's tenure. Mass grave memorials have been established throughout the country, the two most famous being Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. At Tuol Sleng, a former school in Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison after 1975, some 20,000 victims were interrogated, tortured, and executed. The skulls and bones of the victims are now housed in Choeung Ek, a suburb of Phnom Penh where prisoners were taken from Tuol Sleng to be executed.

In the village of Po Pai Phnom, located a few kilometers outside the remains of the old city of Kompong Speu, the skulls and bones of 30,000 people who were killed by being struck with hoes to the back of their necks have been piled high in the shape of a pyramid and stored in a simple, unadorned wood building adjacent to the Buddhist temple. The temple itself was used as a place of torture and killing. Today the rope still hangs from the ceiling from which victims were hung and slammed against a temple mural depicting a disciple of Buddha with his hands over his eyes. This scene must have depicted a tragically ironic gesture to those whose blood stained the same temple wall. The temple is now once again used by villagers for worship, and they are proud to say that they have 11 monks who actively practice the state religion of Buddhism. The yearly ceremony for the ancestors must take on a special significance in this temple.

Village Life Resumes

As of January 1990, many of the traditional sings of village life were reappearing. Nuclear families live, work, and eat together, a practice that was abolished by Pol Pot. In 1989 every family was given rice land by the Heng Samrin government, an extremely popular Policy that has contributed to people's acceptance of that government. The amount of land depends on family size for the most part, and differs provincially or regionally according to local conditions. Once again, families own their own houses, land, cows, water buffalo, farm tools, and equipment. The cooperative work teams that collectively farmed land and shared resources have been abandoned now because they are no longer required. The number of cows used for plowing rice paddies is sufficient to meet demand. Rice production is just 5 percent short of self-sufficiency, according to international aid workers based in Phnom Penh. And farmers say they have more incentive to produce rice now that they have their own land. The economy is almost completely privatized. Rice is sold to the state at prices farmers say are reasonable.

While life returns to normal in village Cambodia, the threat of the Khmer Rouge is ever present. The Kompong Speu provincial hospital's amputee ward, where civilians come after stepping on mines laid by the Khmer Rouge in recent months, is the largest ward in the hospital. And villagers are aware that it is the United Nations' recognition of the Coalition Government of Cambodia, of which the Khmer Rouge is the strongest faction, that prevents much-needed foreign aid from ameliorating their poverty.

As for villagers' views about the possible return of their god-king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the response I encountered was overwhelmingly negative. It is impossible to know the extent to which government media on the subject have informed village views. The Pracheachon biweekly newspaper recently ended an editorial on Sihanouk with the following comments: "The total population, from young to old, understands well the true face of Sihanouk. And we know well that anyone who stands by Pol Pot is Pol Pot."

Standing around the local noodle shop in one Kandal village, a group of 10 people in their fifties and sixties discussed their views of Sihanouk. "Why is he still with Pol Pot?" they asked rhetorically. "We don't want Sihanouk to come back because we are afraid of the Khmer Rouge. If he comes back alone the would to okay but we don't want the Khmer Rouge to return." The only thing villagers said they wanted now was for the war to end and for peace to come. That much Cambodians deserve.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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