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Utopia as a Form of Madness
Apr 1, 2001

For a state to function successfully, its rulers must have a realistic vision. This is acquired by building trust with the people, formulating rational economic and development policies, controlling the nation's territory, and producing educated people. Ignoring one of these interrelated aspects seriously affects the process of nation building.

But what happens when an ideological regime dedicated to negating existing realities to build utopia takes over? A small clique of Cambodian French-educated intellectuals provides the answer by a term coined specifically to describe it: auto-genocide. How else can a regime whose vision caused an estimated 800,000 to 2.3 million "unnatural" deaths among an estimated 5.7 million people within 3.5 years be described?(1)

Before and after April 17, 1975

Building Trust: Independent Cambodia was led by Prince Sihanouk (1941-70), whom the vast majority of Cambodians regarded as semi-divine: "In general the majority of the Khmer people, particulary the peasants, loved the Prince ... From the law of Kamma [karma] and reincarnation, Khner commoners believed that those who were born as kings, princes and princesses were beings descended from heaven [because of the good deeds they had] performed in previous existences ... Prince Sihanouk was thus looked upon as a 'super being' who controlled the fate of all."(2)

Rejecting the traditional "splendid isolation" of the Cambodian monarchy, Sihanouk travelled the country, met and talked with all types of people, donated farm equipment and other helpful things, and sought to solve their problems. In short, the people trusted him because he took the trouble to show he cared about them.

When General Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk on March 18, 1970 (with presumed American help) and abolished the monarchy, many peasants sensed disaster ahead.(3) They were right. Lon Nol was corrupt, had little grasp of Cambodia's military situation, and was mentally weakened by a stroke in 1971.(4) His military campaigns were disastrous, his dictatorial tendencies encouraged many to join the Khmer Rouge, and he gradually seemed to lose touch with reality. As a result, he rapidly lost whatever popular trust he had and was "asked" to leave Cambodia on April 1, 1975.

Upon assuming control on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge presented Angka Leou (the Organization) as their public face. Their names were announced on April 14, 1976, but their use of false names and lack of biographical information made exact identification impossible.(5) For 2 years, they did not mention that they were communists who envisaged a socialist future. Nor did they explain their new policies to the nation.(6) Their isolation from the people was complete.

Instead of building trust, the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy ever pillar of traditional society. The family structure was shattered by forced evacuations from cities and continual arbitrary population shifts, gender- and aged-based work brigades, and communal eating. Roles were reversed: children were encouraged to report on their parents, indoctrinated instead of educated, and literally given the power of life and death over adults. Religion was outlawed; temples, mosques, and churches were destroyed or converted into other uses; and monks, imams, and priests were murdered. No public manifestation of religion was allowed. In its Utopian zeal, the Khmer Rouge outlawed everything that made Cambodia what it was.

In return they gave illusion, terror, pain, and lies. An internal Khmer Rouge document states that: "There is a little friction with the people, but we can abandon the people, there is no problem."(7) The Khmer Rouge was concerned only mobilizing its people through ideology and discipline to retake southern Vietnam and protect itself against Vietnam. Along with many other Utopians, the ends justified the means.

Rational Economic and Development Policies: The French colonialists kept the peasantry largely rural and subjected to high taxes and usurious interest rates of as much as 200%. Rubber, corn, and rice were the main products, and industry was minimal. Vietnamese were important in fishing, rubber workers, and clerical workers, fishermen, and small business. The Chinese continued to dominate commerce and banking.(8)

With independence, foreign aid projects were regarded as means of personal enrichment.(9) Sihanouk's paternalistic doctrine of Royalist-Buddhist Socialism stated that the ruler would provide for the people. With the elite and others becoming richer and able to travel abroad, conspicuous consumption increased even though the nation's economy could no longer expand, for there had not been enough time to construct the needed infrastructures.(10) The countryside remained largely the same, while the urban areas consumed and did not produce.

Under Lon Nol, agriculture was wiped out by relentless US bombing, peasant flight, forced induction into various armies, and the destruction of land and draft animals. Industry was ignored, and aid money was siphoned off into people's pockets. When Phnom Penh finally fell in 1975, Cambodia had no economy, agricultural or industrial, to speak of.

The Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the cities.(11) This controversial policy forced everyone into the countryside where, divided into "old people" and "new people," they were expected to revitalize agriculture. Ideology, instead of analysis or rational thought, determined who would do what. Production quotas were wildly unrealistic in many areas. Most of what was produced was confiscated or bartered for Chinese products and expertise. Payment was a subsistence diet, and not even that for anyone who failed to reach the quota.

After printing a new currency, the Khmer Rouge decided to scrap it and abolish money altogether, for whereas money created markets, wealth, and private property, abolishing it would solve these "problems."(12) Trade with China, the Khmer Rouge's only significant ally, was based on barter. But money never totally disappeared. Along with jewelry and gold, money was used in black market transactions, and Khmer Rouge cadres were not immune.(13)

In a land with no agricultural, industrial, or educational infrastructure to speak of, the Khmer Rouge dared to dream of achieving a "Super Great Leap Forward": "We have leaped Over the semi-colonial, semi-feudal society of the American imperialists, the feudalists and capitalists of every nation, and have achieved a socialist state straight away."(14) Chou En-lai, Chairman Mao's right-hand man, urged them not to repeat China's own Great Leap Forward, but they thought they knew better.

The Khmer Rouge stated that Cambodia as a whole would modernize its agriculture within 10 to 15 years, while other areas would do so in only 4 or 5 years.(15) Agriculture would make everything possible: "The basic key is agriculture. Self-reliance means capital from agriculture."(16) Recognizing their limitations in industry, Party documents of 1976-77 stressed light industry that would move toward heavy industry. But how was this to be carried out? Cambodia had no money and China was changing: the chaos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had weakened China and Mao was dead (Sept. 9,1976). In addition the Gang of Four, a group of staunch Khmer Rouge patrons consisting of Mao's wife and three of her allies, was under arrest (Oct. 6, 1976).

Control over the Nation's Territory: On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge controlled all of Cambodia's territory. But this was not good enough-Pol Pot dreamed of restoring the old Khmer Empire, which had ruled much of southern Vietnam and still had a large ethnically Khmer population (Khmer Rrom). By mixing this irredentist desire with Cambodians' traditional fear of Vietnam, Pol Pot unleashed a conflict that only a Utopian divorced from reality could understand. During April 1977, the Khmer Rouge began attacking villages in Vietnam. On January 1, 1978, the Khmer Rouge publicly announced Vietnam's "aggression," and full-scale war erupted.

This war was launched for several reasons:

•They had defeated American alone and so were invincible. On July 22, 1975, Pol Pot stated:"We have won total, definitive, and clean victory, meaning that we have won it without any foreign connection or involvement."(17) Such a deliberate ignoring of history led him to change the date of the Communist Party of Kampuchea's founding 1951 (an outgrowth of Ho Chi Minh's Indochina Communist Party) to 1960, when he became the party's deputy secretary, and to begin purging Cambodian communists trained in Vietnam.

•Cambodia needed "only 2 million troops to crush the 50 million Vietnamese."(18) This ignored the facts that Vietnam had militarily defeated both the French and Americans and had a battle-hardened army with decades of actual military experience and plenty of weaponry. Compared to them, the Khmer Rouge army was a murderous joke.

•The general population would support them, despite official policies of destroying everything held dear by them, execution as practically the only punishment, starvation, overwork, and a lack of military training and supplies.

This bellicosity led to Vietnam invading Cambodia on December 25, 1978, occupying it on January 7, 1979, and staying until September 1989.

An Educated Population: After decades of French colonial rule that had seen fit to keep Cambodians ignorant, Sihanouk embarked on a massive campaign to educate young Cambodians. However, apparently neither he nor the people understood that education should serve the nation. The students and their parents saw it as a means to acquire social status, an escape from village life, and a chance to make money. The liberal arts and a bureaucratic career were preferred over careers in agriculture, any technical field, or industry. Finally, the government and the educational sectors could no longer absorb the graduates. Neither could the economy, which was controlled by the Cambodian aristocracy and elite, and Chinese and Vietnamese merchants. Thus, the intellectuals were largely irrelevant to Cambodia's development needs, unemployed, and frustrated.(19)

The Khmer Rouge did not trust intellectuals, regardless of how useful their expertise might be. There are many cases of Cambodian intellectuals returning from abroad only to be executed. Former teachers, professionals, and students soon learned to deny their past and merge into the broad uneducated masses.

In most areas, formal education was abolished in favor of learning by doing and ideological indoctrination. Khieu Samphan, Cambodia's nominal head of state, displayed this attitude in 1977: "... whether the dams and reservoirs thai we have built last only 5 or 10 years does not matter," for the people would learn by doing...; a year later he admitted that the state of pharmaceutical products was 'still of handicraft quality' in order that the country remain independent, sovereignty, self-reliant, and self-sufficient, and in order to learn technology through practice."(20) Clearly, modern technical and other education was irrelevant-only ideological purity mattered.


The Khmer Rouge failed because they refused to understand Cambodia's reality: a small nation devastated by war; a society consisting of a mainly poor, uneducated, and illiterate peasantry; a class of intellectuals whose education was largely irrelevant; and two neighbors with far better armies and historical territorial ambitions on Cambodia (Thailand and Vietnam).

They also failed to understand their own people. With their oft-repeated maxim of "If you die it is no loss; if you live it is no gain," how could it be otherwise? The Khmer Rouge were notorious for their purges, which became ever more bloody as their Utopian dreams could not overcome reality. After replacing the old sociely with a new one based on terror, incompetence, an almost total lack of medical care, starvation, murder, and basically forcing its people to live in Hell before they died, the Khmer Rouge nevertheless expected popular support-because their ideology mandated it. But as the purges gathered steam, many Khmer Rouge began defecting to Vietnam to join nascent armed opposition groups being trained by Vietnam, and many ordinary Cambodians lost whatever revolutionary enthusiasm they might have had.(21)

And what was the end of Pol Pot, the mastermind behind this negative Utopia? Forced to rely for his very survival on America, France, and Thailand, he and his forces were confined to gradually smaller and smaller border areas. When he died in 1998, whether naturally or a suicide is not certain, be was "cremated under a pile of rubbish and rubber tires."(22) His replacement was Ta Mok, a man whose name has become a synonym for brutality and violence. After arresting and trying his former leader, Ta Mok eulogized him as follows: "He (Pol Pot) is nothing more than cow dung. Actually, cow dung is more useful."(23)


1 The post-war population figure is based on the 1962 census, the last one before Cambodia was forced into the Vietnam war. Cambodia: A Country Study (United States Government: 1990), 51. In America, this would be the equivalent of approximately 38.7 million to 111.2 million deaths out of a total population of 275.6 million (July 2000 estimate).

2 Yang Sam, Khmer Buddhism and Politics from 1954 to 1984 (Khmer Studies Institutes 1987), 11.

3 Ibid., 49.

4 William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia (Pocket Books, 1979), 186-87.

5 Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (Yale University Press: 1996), 327.

6 David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945 (Yale University Press, 1991), 271-72.

7 Kiernan, Regime, 98.

8 Cambodia: A Country Study, 19-20.

9 Michael Vickery, Cambodia: 1975-1982 (South End Press 1984), 22.

10 Ibid., 23.

11 Many reasons for this have been given, such as fears of imminent American bombing, an inability to feed these people, the need for farmers to get back to growing crops, breaking up potential opposition, unearthing spies, or the rural people's revenge upon the urbanites.

12 Kiernan, Regime, 55-57.

13 Vickery, Cambodia, 158.

14 David Chandler, Ben Kiernan, and Chanthou Boua (eds. and trans.), Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1996-1997 (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies. 1988), 14, 36.

15 Ibid., 27. "Modern" was defined as high production, one hectare producing anywhere from 3 to 10 tons. Initially, there would be little modern fertilizer and no equipment. Before the war, Cambodia produced about 1 metric ton of rice per hectare (Hildebrand and Porter Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, 62). Cambodia: A Country Study claims an average hectare yield of 1.2 tons from 1952-69. Regardless, Cambodia's rice production figures were among the lowest in Asia.

16 Ibid., 30.

17 Kiernan, Regime, 94.

18 Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War after the War (Collier Books: 1988), 298.

19 Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power (Verso: 1985), 1982.

20 Vickery, Cambodia: 1975-1982, 160.

21 Chandler, Tragedy, 236-37, 270-71.

22 Time 100 (23-30 Aug. 23-30, 1999). Online at

23 Don Pathan, The News-Times: International News (18 April 1998). Online at: