The Survival of Cambodia's Ethnic Minorities

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During the Pol period from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was subjected to probably the world's most radical political, social, and the outside world, its cities were emptied its economy was militarized, its Buddhist religion and folk culture were destroyed, and more than 1 million of its 8 million people were starved and massacred while foreign and minority languages were banned and all neighboring countries attacked.

The largest ethnic minority groups in Cambodia before 1970 were the Chinese and Vietnamese populations. The largest indigenous minority in Cambodia was the Muslims, members of the Cham ethnic group. Unlike most other communist regimes, the Pol Pot regime's view of these and the country's other national minorities, who had long made up more than 15 percent of the Cambodian population, was virtually to deny their existence. The Pol Pot regime officially proclaimed that the minorities totaled only 1 percent of the population; "99 percent" were allegedly Khmers. So the regime virtually wrote off the Chams, Chinese, Vietnamese, and 21 other minority groups.

Systematic Racial Extermination

The physical fate of these minorities was much worse, however. The Vietnamese community, for instance, was entirely eradicated. About half of the 400,000-strong community had been expelled by the US-backed Lon Nol regime in 1970 (and several thousand killed in pogroms). More than 100,000 additional Vietnamese were expelled by the Pol Pot regime in the year following its 1975 victory. The rest were simply murdered. In more than a year's worth of research in Cambodia since 1979, I was not able to find a single Vietnamese resident who had survived the Pol Pot years there. However, plenty of eyewitnesses from other ethnic groups, including Khmers who had married Vietnamese, testified to the terrible fates of their Vietnamese spouses and neighbors. This was a campaign of systematic racial extermination. (It even spilled over into witch hunts and massacres of possibly thousands of Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmers born in the Khmer-minority areas of Vietnam who had resettled in northwestern Cambodia.)

After the overthrow of Pol Pot's regime, many former Vietnamese residents who had been expelled from Cambodia returned to their native areas, especially the towns of Phnom Penh and Neak Luong. A number of new arrivals also came from Vietnam, but today the total ethnic Vietnamese population in Cambodia has yet to reach 200,000, half of the pre-1970 level.

The Chinese under Pol Pot's regime suffered the worst disaster ever to befall any ethnic Chinese community in Southeast Asia. Of the 1975 population of 425,000, only 200,000 Chinese survived the next four years. Ethnic Chinese were nearly all urban dwellers, and they were seen by the Khmer Rouge as archetypal city dwellers (who after the 1975 evacuation of the cities were labeled "new people") and therefore potential enemies or prisoners of war. In this case they were not targeted for execution because of their race, but like other evacuated city dwellers they were made to work harder and under much more deplorable conditions than rural dwellers (who were labeled "base people"). This was systematic discrimination based on geographic or social origin. As one author puts it, urban deportees "were last on distribution lists, first on execution lists, and had no political rights." The Chinese succumbed in particularly large numbers to hunger and to diseases such as malaria. An estimated 50 percent of Cambodia's ethnic Chinese perished, a higher proportion even than the estimated toll among city dwellers in general (about 33 percent).

The CPK Targets the Chams

The Muslim Chams numbered at least 250,000 in 1975. With their distinct language and culture, large villages, and independent national organizational networks, the Chams could have threatened the atomized, closely supervised society that the Pol Pot leadership planned to create. The Southwest Zone, heartland of Pol Pot's "Center" faction of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), saw the earliest attacks upon Cham culture. First, Cham women were forced to cut their customarily long hair short in the Khmer style; then the traditional Cham sarong was banned and peasants were increasingly forced to wear only black pajamas; restrictions were also placed upon religious activity. These prohibitions all began as early as mid-1972, well before the fall of Phnom Penh, and on the orders of Pol Pot's major warlord commander, Mok, who was Southwest Zone CPK secretary.

During this wartime period Pol Pot was based in Cambodia's Northern Zone. In April 1973 a CPK document entitled "Class Analysis and the Class Struggle" was distributed to cadres there. It claimed: "All nationalities have laborers like our Cambodian nationality, except for Islamic Khmers, whose lives are not so difficult." This "class" analysis seems racialist. Probably, there were proportionally more Cham laborers than Khmer. But an image of the archetypal Cham, the small, independent, "petty bourgeois" fisherperson, apparently dominated the Pol Pot group's thinking about this entire racial group.

Another CPK Northern Zone document, dated February 1974, provides the earliest record of a CPK decision to disperse the Cham people: "Concerning fraternal Islamic Khmers, delay having them join [cooperatives]; but in the meantime, go ahead and organize them into mutual aid teams... However, it is necessary to break up this group to some extent; do not allow too many of them to concentrate in one area." The earliest case of Chams rebelling against the CPK also occurred in the Northern Zone in February 1974. The violence was a direct result of tension over the CPK's new cooperatives. More than 100 Chams were killed or wounded. But that was only the start.

Soon after victory over Lon Nol the next year, the new CPK government turned its attention to the Chams with a vengeance. Fierce rebellions broke out in the region of greatest Cham concentration, Krauchhmar district along the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia. Mat Ly was a neighboring CPK district official who later rebelled against the CPK; now the most prominent leader of the Cham community, he has recalled what happened.

Mat Ly says that in June or July 1975 the CPK authorities attempted to collect all copies of the Koran in Koh Phol, a large Cham village on an island in the Mekong. Cham girls were forced to cut their hair short. The villagers staged a protest demonstration, and troops fired into the crowd. The Chams then took up swords and knives and slaughtered half a dozen troops. The retaliating CPK armed forces massacred many and pillaged their homes. They evacuated the island, razed the village, and changed its name from Koh Phol ("Productive Island") to Koh Phes ("Island of Ashes").

Seven days later there was another outbreak of violence in nearby Svay Khleang village. Villagers armed with machetes killed a CPK commander and two soldiers. The troop retaliated by massacring 70 percent of the villagers, May Ly claims.

The troops involved in this repression have not been identified. They could have been local Eastern Zone troops. But it is also possible that the massacres in Krauchhmar were the work of the newly established Center armed forces, which had been formally organized by Pol Pot at a ceremony in Phnom Penh on 22 July 1975. The CIA station in the US Embassy in Bangkok claimed to have intercepted radio transmissions from Phnom Penh that ordered the execution of Cham leaders in a village in "central Cambodia." This suggests that the Pol Pot leadership in the capital was directly involved in the repressions, even at the village level.

More evidence of this national campaign against the Cham community's existence comes from statistics of the toll of Cham leaders in the Pol Pot period as a whole. Of 113 hakkem, or community leaders, only 20 survived in 1979. Only 25 of their 226 deputies survived. All but 38 of about 300 religious teachers at Cambodia's Koranic schools perished. Of more than 1,000 who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, only about 30 survived.

Over the four years of the Pol Pot regime, further mass murder campaigns, individual atrocities against ordinary Muslim believers (including some who simply refused to eat pork), and deliberate destruction of entire Cham families took the lives of about 90,000 people (more than one-third of the Chams). This is a toll proportionately higher than the estimated death toll among all Cambodians (more than 1 million dead out of 8 million in 1975).

Further, the Chams who did survive were discriminated against or persecuted for being Chams. Of the 46 Cham survivors questioned on the subject, 30 said that Chams were discriminated against during the Democratic Kampuchea period in some way. When asked whether Chams had been forced to eat pork, 41 said yes and only 6 said no. Similarly, when asked whether use of the Cham language had been prohibited by the Democratic Kampuchea authorities, 36 interviewees said yes and only one said no. (The punishment was usually death.) When asked whether Cham populations had been dispersed or broken up, 51 interviewees said yes; none said no.

While Khmer urban communities were also dispersed, most Khmer village populations were not; but all Cham communities were. And Cham villages were not scattered willy-nilly, but were very deliberately broken up into small groups of families, and it was ensured that these groups could have no contact with one another.

Chams among the "new people" evacuated from the cities, like the Chinese, were not singled out for harsh treatment as Chams. Rather, they received harsh treatment as "new people" due to their urban origin, apparently irrespective of their race. However, rural Cham "base people," the vast majority of Chams in the country, were deliberately dispersed from their villages and even demoted to "deportee" status, because they were Chams. Therefore, most Chams were deliberately singled out because of their race and discriminated from ethnic Khmer "base people."

Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime's campaign of racial persecution and extermination against the Chams can indeed be called genocide, defined in the UN Genocide Convention as an attempt "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, as such."

The Fate of Others

Of the fate of the twenty-old other national minorities, few details are known. The largest were the Thai, Lao, and Kola (Shan) ethnic groups. The Thais had actually formed a majority in the coastal border province of Koh Kong, apparently numbering about 20,000 before 1975; only 8,000 of them are said to have survived the Pol Pot period. The best-known Thai leader in Cambodia is Sae Phuthang, a Hanoitrained veteran communist who led a Thai resistance movement against the Pol Pot regime from 1974 to 1979. He is now president of the inspectorate of the ruling People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea. In 1979, Sae Phuthang claimed that in one Koh Kong village of 10,000 ethnic Thais, only 20 families had survived; in one township of 700 families, only 30 families survived; and in one hamlet whose population had formerly numbered 500, only half a dozen families remained.

Sae Phuthang also claimed that only 800 families had survived of the 1,800 families of the Lao ethnic minority in Battambang Province, and that of the 2,000 members of the Kola minority, "no trace... has been found." The Sáoch ethnic minority in Kompong Speu Province also seems to have disappeared - assimilated, scattered, or perhaps even exterminated.

Of the upland tribal groups, sometimes known as montagnards, even less in known. Most are nomadic such as the Por and Chong, inhabit the Cardamom mountains along the western Thai border. The rest live in the northern and eastern mountains and along the frontiers with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam; they include the Kuoy, Krung, Brao, Kavet, Tapuon, Jarai, Rhade, Phnong, Kachos, Krachak, Lanam, Lun, Krol, and Stieng ethnic groups. These people, like the ethnic Thais, are well represented in the ranks of the State of Cambodia government, reflecting the fact that resistance to Pol Pot's regime was most successful in the forested borderlands.

Cambodia's Policy Today

In the State of Cambodia today, ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese are officially known as "residents," even if they are citizens. They are not eligible to join the ruling People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK). On the other hand, the Cham, Thai Lao, and other ethnic groups in Cambodia, known as "national minorities," are accepted into the party and government on the same basis as Khmers, irrespective of religious belief or ethnicity.

As of 1990, the PRPK Political Bureau of 14 members includes two Thais (Sae Phuthang and Tea Banh), one Cham (Mat Ly), and one Tapuon (Bou Thong). The Central Committee of 50 full members includes six people from different minority cludes as many as 26 members of ethnic minorities: 15 Thais, 2 Chams, 2 Lao, 3 Brao, 2 Tapuons, 1 Phnong, and 1 Krachak. (Equally unprecedentedly, the assembly also includes 18 women.) As of 1981, four of the country's eighteen province chiefs were members of ethnic minorities.

The Fifth Party Congress in October 1985 was attended by 250 delegates, of whom 40 were members of ethnic minorities (and 25 were women). The three Chams who participated were Mat Ly; Man, a district woman, chief of Russei Keo district in Phnom Penh. She represented Russei Keo's PRPK cell, which included three Cham as well as Khmer members and drew recruits from local nonparty cells of which more than thirty Chams were members.

Vickery points out that the State of Cambodia government over the past 11 years "has a better record than any previous Cambodian regime in giving responsible positions to non-Khmers." He adds that State of Cambodia policy explicitly opposes cultural or racial chauvinism, and stipulates that "The use of the minority languages is equal with the Khmer language," and that ethnic groups may "write, speak and teach in their own languages" and use them in court.

This is not always possible in practice, but it is clear that the minorities are making gains. One vivid memory I have is of the Fifth Congress of the National Council of the United Front for the Construction and Defense of the Motherland, held in Phnom Penh on 28 January 1986. Delegates from each province spoke of the situation and the needs of the people there. But the ridicule from the floor was only too obvious when the head of the front in Stung Treng Province rose to address the gathering. Kham Teuan, and elderly delegate of Brao nationality, was a veteran revolutionary. But he was small in stature, and his earlobes were elongated and slit in traditional tribal fashion.

He began by explaining, in thickly accented Khmer rather like that of the Cambodian minority in Thailand, that he was from only one of the twenty-two nationalities in Stung Treng's population of 50,000. People could hardly understand him, and the mirth slowly subsided as curiosity got the upper hand and one by one all started to strain for his meaning. He went on to talk of the immense communication problems in this forested, mountainous, upriver frontier region. He called on the government in Phnom Penh to provide riverboats and trucks for Stung Treng. Now murmurs of comprehension rustled across the room as individual delegates grasped each phrase, nodded, and turned to pass on the meaning to one another. Ears eventually became attuned, and then complete silence enveloped the National Assembly hall. Teuan outlined in some detail what he saw as the achievements of the people in Stung, Treng, in fields such as literacy, since liberation from Pol Pot. He ended on this theme, calling on the central government to rectify its neglect of such remote regions, and challenging it to send more representatives to Stung Treng not only to "educate our people," but also to encourage the local village officials and congratulate them for what they had already done. The audience by now was eating out of Teuan's hand and, in a final change of mood, it burst into sustained applause.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990
Country