Language in the Genocide of Cambodia

Our reading from today pointed out how language can be used to “dehumanize” the victims of genocide. As a part of the many causes of genocide, this social alienation of the target groups within a country enables it to detach emotionally from the group, leading to eventual physical killing. Many people recognize the Holocaust and recent mass murder in Africa as the worst examples of these auspicious crimes, but similar atrocities also occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Cambodia’s leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown by a US-backed right-wing military coup in 1970. A radical Communist group called the Khmer Rouge took control of the capital in 1975 and evacuated the entire 2.5 million population to camps in the countryside. The group was led by Pol Pot, who believed in an agrarian society free of Buddhism, money, education or any social institutions. Inspired in part by the cultural ideals of Mao Zedong in Communist China, Pol Pot began implementing his own plans for a “purified” society, which he deemed “This Is Year Zero.”

The Khmer Rouge proceeded to abolish all political and civil rights, murdering all lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and scientists. All leading Buddhist monks were killed and temples were destroyed, as leaders explained “What is rotten must be removed.” Children were taken from their parents and placed into separate labor camps, “killing fields” where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease. The Khmer rouge soldiers that oversaw the process told the victims “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”

The language they used allowed the Khmer Rouge to justify their immoral actions. Many Khmer phrases were metaphors about health and the body, and applied them to both individuals and society at large. Enemies were ‘worms’ (dangkow) who ‘gnawed the bowels from within.” The victims of enforced migration were ‘parasites’ (bunhyaou k’aek) who ‘brought nothing but bladders full of urine.” The practice of this language legitimizes the violence of genocide by glorifying it and insinuating that it reflects the “pure” ideals of the country.

It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed between one to two million people during their regime from 1975 to 1979. Thousands more died of malnutrition or disease at labor camps, while the entire upper class of society was wiped out completely. Ethnic groups including Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham Muslims were also victims of violence from the Khmer Rouge. It didn’t stop until 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded after growing tired of skirmishes with the Khmer Rouge on its borders.

Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge in Thailand until 1997, when he was arrested and sentenced to house arrest by his own followers after killing one of his closest advisers. He died in April of 1998 in a tiny jungle village, before he could have been brought to trial for his crimes. The United Nations recently brought other members affiliated to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to trial as Cambodia struggles to recover and heal to this day.

The genocide in Cambodia demonstrates how the language associated with marginalized groups quickly evolve into a society that lacks moral guidelines, which enable that country to proceed to mass extermination. Often times a genocide is brought on by the idea of a utopian society, in an attempt to justify getting rid of what is not “pure.” It allows the country to destroy members of their society that don’t belong because it is necessary in order to reach the dream or goal. As a result, we should be cautious of nations that are using similar exclusionary language to alienate groups within their society, because it can lead to something incredibly worse.



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