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Why could the Khmer Rouge seize power on 17th April 1975? Dr Henri Locard
How is it the Khmer Rouge could seize
power on the fatal 17th April 1975
The Khmer Rouge Trap
• Much more humane, practical vision of Ministry of
Foreign affairs; daily life under DK: children, food,
re-education, KR newspeak.
• Another view SS who is a “political beast &
therefore not a man”. In SS’s memoirs his wife (on
the side-lines), but great heroine.
• Estranged couple and personal tragedy, rejection of
any responsibility for what happened to her: a
believer. 1882 photos. Rejection of 1991 letter
through Japanese journalist. “I wished to be civil
party to the Tribunal: my wish was rejected” (414)
I - The weight of the past
• 1 – What was the rôle of the myth of Angkor – if
• So Hong (Saloth Ban) & Angkor-Mont Meru
the centre of the Universe.
• Angkor being in Siam till 1907. 1431. Lovèk
near Oudong. King Ang Chan (1516–66) chose
Lovèk as his official capital and erected his
palace there in 1553. Captured by Siamese in
1594. Capital relocated to Oudong in 1618.
All manner of political regimes in the past century
• 1904-1947, colonial protectorate, with the King as de facto
constitutional monarch and the Résident supérieur as de facto PM.
• 1947-1955: a budding democracy with the first constitution and
the Democratic Party.
• 1955-1970: and autocratic one-party system with the Sangkum Party
and Sihanouk as the autocrat.
• 1970-75: Second attempt at establishing democracy, but the
ineptitude of Lon Nol and the violence of the Vietminh invasion,
plus the rise of the KR turned the regime in one more autocracy.
• 1975-1979: a ultra-Maoist totalitarian communist regime.
• 1979-1991: a Vietnamo-Soviet type of communist protectorate.
• 1991-1997: third attempt to bringing democracy to Cambodia with
• 1997-2014: one more autocratic regime along with a de facto one
Party-State under Hun Sen who will have been soon PM for 30
years. Today 4th Attempt ? : One-party system or 2-party system ?
2 - Was it because of French colonisation and
French culture ?
• The Indochinese Federation – Colonisation :
exploitation Young Cambodians are taught at
• The Vietnamese in the French administration in
• The Vichy regime: youth movement, personality
cult, cult of the nation, idealization of peasants
• 25% of the French voted for the PCF during
the post-WW2 years
I – 1 -External causes: France
• France: At the time of the creation of the revolutionary
movement, many were ex Khmer-Vietminh, like Nuon
Chea, Ta Mok, Mat Ly, Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, Yun
Yat, Ney Sarann, Koy Thuon, Kaè Pauk, Sao Phoem,
etc. Others had been students in France, but not in
universities or came back with no higher education
diplomas: Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, with two
exceptions Khieu Samphân, and Ieng Thirith. All the
others were only marginal to the regime: Thiounn
Mumm & his brothers (Thioeun, Thumm Prasith)
Suong Sikoeun, and none among the decision makers.
For the latter, everything came from France was a
model, like the US today – including the fast food.
Communism was an ideal. Robespierre a hero.
5 – Was it because of Sihanouk’s political choices ?
• His Vichy education
• His refusal to join SEATO & ASEAN,
• His abdication to seize all political powers,
• His establishment of one-party State,
• His nationalisation programme,
• His use of Jeunesse Socialiste Royale Khmère (JSRK)
• His own personality cult,
• His choosing Beijing in 1970. & 1979 again.
2 - External causes: Vietnam
• The Cold War, along with Lenin could make his
October 1917 coup because of WWI, similarly the
KR entered PPenh because of the Second
Indochinese War: war is the matrix, origin of all
upheavals & revolutions.
• From the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP)
1930: Christopher Goscha, Stephen Morris & Steve
Heder tell the whole story.
• The Vietminh routed the inexperienced Lon Nol
army in 1971-2, making it possible to handle to The
KR marge swathes of rural Cambodia. Only from
1973 did the civil war really become a civil one.
3 - Mao’s China
• Some historians and mainly Sihanouk claimed that the Chinese
advised the Khmer Rouge not to repeat their mistakes and tread
carefully the road to communism.
• Andrew Mertha in forthcoming Brothers in Arms: the present day
Chinese embassy claims that Chinese aid was purely
humanitarian: medicines, rice and hoes to cultivate rice. He sides
with those who minimize Maoist influence.
• Sihanouk boasts having been a very intimate friend with Zhou
Enlai. Very urbane, diplomatic and clever. What he fails to
mention is that Zhou never opposed any of the most radical
policies of Mao. Quite the opposite; e. g. during the Great Leap
Forward, or Great Famine (Hungry Ghosts of Jasper Becker or
Mao’s Great Famine of Frank Dikötter), Zhou insisted that quotas
established with Soviet Union should be met, and therefore was
pushing for greater requisitions: starvation of the people
mattered less that the demands of the State.
IV - The Global Impact of the Communist New Man
• The development of the Cambodian communist movement
was from the very beginning overshadowed by Chinese
communism, especially by the Cultural Revolution’s influence.
Pol Pot visited China several times during the Cultural
Revolution, and his longest visit, in 1965 on the eve of the
CR, lasted for three months. Zhang Chunqiao, Chen Boda,
and Yao Wenyuan 1931-2005, the most aggressive Maoist CR
ideologues, explained to him the essence of Maoist
revolutionary ideology, especially the necessity of the CR.
• Seeking advice for Cambodian socialism, Pol Pot met with
Mao in person in June 1975. Mao told him that China was
“unqualified” to guide or criticize the Khmer Rouge,
• because “we are now a capitalist country without capitalists, as
• Mao told him that this was so because China had
preserved many institutions that protected social
inequality. Pol Pot may well have taken this to mean
that Mao was acknowledging that China had not
solved the problem of preventing revisionism or
capitalist restoration and that the CR was
encountering significant resistance.
• Some new materials reveal that it was Zhang
Chunqiao, the theoretical mastermind of the Gang
of Four (the most radical Maoist ideologues), who
drafted the constitution for Cambodia’s new regime
during Pol Pot’s 1975 visit.
• The constitution was promulgated in 1977, at the peak
of the Khmer Rouge’s social experiment.
• Pol Pot once again visited China in 1977. During that
visit, although Mao had died and the Gang of Four
had been purged, Pol Pot made a high profile
pilgrimage to Dazhai, the collective model of the
Chinese new man, accompanied by Chen Yonggui, the
Maoist model for peasants.
• Pol Pot’s visit apparently signified his support of the
Maoist Cultural Revolution line, which was being
abandoned by the post-Mao CCP leadership. In those
circumstances, Dazhai became the link between the
remaining Maoists in China and the extremist Maoists
• Chen Yonggui, sensing the prospect that Maoist theory and
practice would be denounced altogether, developed a close
ideological affinity with the Khmer Rouge. He visited
Cambodia in 1978. Many Khmer Rouge members actually did
not know his name, but they were all very impressed by the
legend of the Chinese new men in Dazhai, so they simply told
each other, “Dazhai is coming.”
• Accompanied by Pol Pot wherever he went, Chen was very
excited to see the Khmer Rouge’s extremist policies in pushing
the country into communism. Later, when he returned to
China, he told his close friends with a sigh: “Marx, Lenin, and
Mao, they all failed to accomplish communism, but in
Cambodia they made it.” He added that “how they jumped to
communism is worth our study.”
• This historical context may help better understand the new
man question in the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge
coined the terms “new people” and “base people.” The new
people were also called “the April 17 people”, referring to
those who had lived in the major cities until the Khmer Rouge
entered in April 1975. By comparison, people who had lived in
the Khmer Rouge’s “liberated areas” were called base people,
because they had been re-educated to some extent and thus
were treated less harshly.
Therefore in this case the term “New pPeople” indicated the
status of people who were still to be reshaped. These
Cambodian “New People” were shortly afterward forced to
evacuate the cities and walk to the countryside, where they were
subject to “thought reform” combined with heavy labour. The
result was that millions perished from exposure, exhaustion,
malnutrition, disease, and mass murders.
• The Chinese influence in the Cambodian process of
remaking people is apparent in many Khmer Rouge
policies. Thought reform was one of them.
• The “New People,” who were separated from their
families, sent to the countryside, and forced to engage
in intensive ideological studies combined with
backbreaking work, were frequently asked questions
such as these: “Are you still thinking of your family?
Are you really with the revolution? Do you really feel
happy when you work, or is work just something you
have to do?”
• But the Khmer Rouge went much further, driven by
the “lesson” taken from China’s development.
• Altered by Mao’s apocalyptic words and having witnessed the
loss of momentum of China’s revolutionary fanaticism in the
mid-1970s and the halt of its Cultural Revolution, the Khmer
Rouge concluded that the Chinese failure in perpetuating
revolution was caused by their preservation of all old social
institutions, even though they had made tremendous efforts to
• The old social institutions consisted of family, money, market,
education, and most of all, the space containing all of them—
the cities. As the Khmer Rouge deduced, they were major
elements of the old social environment, and the Chinese
experience had proven that they were essentially
unchangeable. The Khmer Rouge thus abolished those
institutions—instead of reforming them—from the moment
the KR entered the cities, in order to create a totally new social
• One result of dismantling these institutions was that it helped
recruit young followers, some even teenagers, for the Khmer
Rouge, because now they had no school to attend or family to
be part of. Many Khmer Rouge soldiers were alarmingly
young, often under fifteen years old, and the AK-47s they
carried seemed larger than the soldiers themselves. But these
young recruits often proved to be the most ferocious and
ruthless combatants and executioners.
• Yet even this aspect of the Khmer Rouge case has a Chinese
precedent: in the history of Chinese communism, there were
numerous hong xiao gui (Little Red Devils) who were much
younger than the age of maturity but proved to be the most
loyal members of the movement. Recruited by the Party in the
late 1920s and early 1930s, and without family or formal
education, many of them survived the wars and went on to
• By destroying these institutions, the Khmer Rouge believed
they would avoid the pitfall of Maoist revolution, just as Mao
had believed that by launching the Cultural Revolution and
other political campaigns, the revisionism that had overtaken
the Soviet Union ten years earlier would have no chance in
China. Just as the Chinese and Cubans despised the Russians
for their corruption by material incentives, some of the
Khmer Rouge became critical of the Chinese.
• One example was their disapproving attitude toward the
Chinese experts working in Cambodia, who used the foreign
currency they were paid during their service to buy household
electronics at customs when they returned to China.
Additionally, when a Chinese engineer asked how much the
construction of a reservoir had cost, the Khmer Rouge
answered proudly: “That was made by our people. In
4 - The two lines
• In the 1970s, Mao’s last years, was the years of 2
strategies: the headlong pursuit of demented
policies with the “Gang of Four” or the more
pragmatic approach to the economy of a Deng
Xiaoping. Who had the upper hand and who
escorted the KR leaders in their journey or long re-
education in China ?
• Duch gave the answer at the Tribunal, 30 April
2009: the slogan of “the super Great Leap Forward”.
And that was when the country started to make 10 steps
when china had only made on. Pol Pot’s theory was more
radical that the Cultural revolution and more cruel than the
Gang of Four”.
6 - The chain of power: the decision makers
& the technicians
• Which China are we talking about? That of the
radicals? That of the pragmatist? That of the
thousands of experts who staffed all technical
services under DK? Or that of the decision
makers at the time, and Mao himself?
• Mao died just half way through the DK regime,
but radical ideas prevailed with his successor
Hua Guofeng till late 1978 and the return of
Deng. Is not this a curious coincidence that the
KR regime collapsed with the collapse of the
diehard Maoists in China ?
7 - Mao « the Supreme guide »
• Pol Pot: « Chairman Mao had personally led the famous Cultural
Revolution and succeeded in smashing counter-revolutionaries and
anti-socialist headquarters of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Piao and Deng
• His works “summed up the experiences of Marx, Engels, Lenin
and Stalin, they illuminate Marxist-Leninist literature and are
immortal”. (FBIS, 20 Sept 1976)
• Chinese experts in their thousands: military, irrigation
and agriculture, communication and railways, health.
Well-paid, well-fed, well-housed. Lived apart. Aware
people were suffering and helped when Angkar did not
see. Kompong Som oil refinery problems. Gone through
the Cultural Revolution and some the Great Leap
Forward. Submission and loyalism.
8 - Travellers & decision makers
• Pol Pot made number of travels and stays in china where
he soon felt quite at home: late 1965, 1970, 1975, 1976,
1977.. Some stays secret, some public. Whom did he
meet? What revolutionary places did he visit? What
tactical, strategic, ideological training did he undergo ?
• 21 June 1975: fully approved PP’s radical plans?
• Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, Keo Meas, Sit
Chhê, Ney Sarann, Sao Phoem and their children or
trainees of every description
• In 1965 PP met Chen Boda (Mao’s secretary) & Zhang
Chunqiao, a rising Shanghai leader . Kang Sheng ? Head
of CPC International Liaison Department & Mao’s
• Approval of launching the People’s war in 1968. Unlike
9 - A few Chinese radicals who came to DK
or/and had contacts with KR leadership
• Kang Sheng (1898-1975)
• Mao Zedong (1893-1976)
• Zhang Chun-qiao, (1917-2005)
• Chen Yonggui, (1915-1986), connu aussi sous les
noms de Chen Yung-kuei, M. Dazai ou, en
khmer, Ta Chay,
• Hua Guofeng (1921-2008)
• Wang Dong Xing ( 1916-1996)
Sihanouk triumphant in Beijing on 11 April 1973, after « the success of
his inspection tour of liberated zones in March: Zou En-lai, PM, Li Sien
Nien Finance Minister, Zhang Chunqiao & Norodom Yuvaneath (1943).
The leader of the “Gang of four,” Zhang Chunqiao, escorts
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Princess Monique & Ieng Sary
to a banquet in Beijing
y Thuon, Wang Shangrong, Chinese deputy, Ieng Sary, Zhang Chunqiao, Pol Pot, Geng Biao, Director o
rnational links at the CPC Central Committee, Son Sen, Sun Hao, Chinese Eùbassador, Siet Chêt,
14 - Zhang Chunqiao
• Zhang Chunqiao found enthusiastic disciples
among the leaders of Angkar, and Pol Pot could
declare after that visit : «There is a continuous, non-
stop struggle between revolution and counter-revolution.
We must keep to the standpoint that there will be
enemies 10 years, 20 years, 30 years in the near future
… Are these enemies strong or not? That does not
depend on them. It depends on us. If we constantly take
absolute measures, they will be scattered and smashed to
bits » (Short, p. 357)
16 - Chen Yonggui - Dazhai – Ta Chay (1915-
17 - Ta Chai
• Slogan : «Learn from Dazhai» was drummed into
the Chinese people from to time of the Great
Leap Forward to that of the Cultural Revolution.
« Implement Mao’s thoughts! » «Move mountains
to create fields! », « Work diligently and ardently to
turn your village into a Dazhai within 3 years ! ».
• Not just manicured rice fields and plentiful crops,
but entire irrigation networks in hilly and dry
terrain. Magnificent dams, aqueducts spanning
deep valleys, workshops;
• The whole based on the principle of self-
sufficiency and self-help, with no financial or
• A gigantic fraud: massive aid from Revolutionary
• Political: impossible democracy with the 4 attempts to
establish it : 1946-55, 1970 & 1991-97 & 2013.
• The rôle of Sihanouk
• The criminal incompetence of Lon Nol.
• Massive use by the KR of child soldiers and the
indigenous peoples of the periphery.
• Khmer leaders have always « eaten the kingdom » rather
than administer it. Gulf that separates the governors and
• Weak modern State, hence the temptation for total
control on the part of the State.
• “That thirst for the most pompous titles, honours and
powers has already caused many troubles in the kingdom”
30 June 1916 François Baudoin.
Tension between submission to authorities and a violence
that can burst out any time. But submission and the
gentleness of the vast majority of the Khmer people leave
those prepared to take advantage of power free to exploit
An implicit caste system : big people/little people.
Extreme individualism. Collectivism could only be
imposed through terror.
• Low level of education; prevailing superstitious beliefs:
lynching of so-called sorcerers. No Age of Reason or
Enlightenment. No Voltaire.
• Confusion of chauvinism/jingoism and fierce nationalism
with patriotism and sense of public good and public
Cutural - 2
• Inferiority versus superiority complex of many.
• Tradition of the patronage system (khsaè) and
nepotism leading to endemic corruption. Under
DK not corruption of money but of absolute
power. Could have contributed to the abolition of
• Tradition of slavery: endemic in industry and home
workshops . A Slave State, Philip Short. $100/month
• The myth of regaining a lost paradise: return to the
grandeur of Angkor or the original communism of
the ethnic indigenous groups of the Northeast. The
future is in an imaginary past, not in constructing
the years to come.
• Ideology becomes a religion and an instrument of political control: Pol
Pot-Nuon Chea-ism is similar to the rules of a fundamentalist sect based
on Buddhism: generalisation of monastic rules to the entire population
who must all become ascetics and …
• - renounce all worldly possessions
• - renounce all family bonds
• - renounce all individual conscience and in the end one’s own self: the
dissolution of the individual, of the self in my collection of slogans.
• In order to merge into the Supreme being the Angkar-God, to empty
one’s mind and slavishly submit to all the diktats of the Party.
• According to Short, everywhere communism seized power, it has cast
itself into the mould of the dominant religion – Confucianism in China,
Buddhism in Cambodia..
• Declarations de Nuon Chea at the Tribunal & Theth Sambath. Kill
mankind in the name of humanity
In the end …
• .. The ingredients of the Khmer Rouge bomb were
essentially an uncompromising Maoist ideology
implemented to the extreme degree of its logic,
• a strong belief in the matchless greatness of
Khmer civilisation able to achieve wonders,
• the necessity for the entire society to renounce all
pleasures and attachments and become ascetics who
withdraw from worldly enjoyments,
• and in the end a coterie of leaders prepared to see
their dreams come true – whatever the human cost.
(p. 242) together with thugs manipulated since
childhood to murder indiscriminately and ruthlessly
Was it because the KR leadership was composed
of paranoid schizophrenics ?
• Were they crazy ? For power ?
• Paranoid schizophrenia is one of several types of
schizophrenia, a chronic mental illness in which a
person loses touch with reality (psychosis).
• delusion is a delusion of grandeur, or the “fixed,
false belief that one possesses superior qualities
such as genius, fame, omnipotence.
• believing that everyone is conspiring to poison or
kill you: you see enemies everywhere. Poor
Why the Khmer Rouge came to power ?
The revolutionary regime could come into existence
only through the combination of three factors : the
geopolitical context in Southeast and East Asia in
the last phase of the Cold War: in particular the
capital rôles played first by Communist Vietnam and
next by Maoist China.
The existence of a coterie of ruthless politicians
determined to exercise absolute power over their
fellow citizens, together with the rôle of Sihanouk
from 1970 to 1975.
Thirdly, the historical, political, religious and cultural
environment in Cambodia itself.