As we approach the top of the list, the Cambodian Genocide, the infamous Killing Fields of the 1790s, ranks very highly. This is simply because it was about ideological killing on a major scale, and because it was accompanied by such cruelty and such wanton human suffering.
The name associated with this phase of South East Asian history is Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, a name that still resonates as the personification of evil. But Pol Pot was not alone in perpetuating the horrors of his rule. If he was, it might make it easier to explain. A lot less easy to explain is the national derangement that gripped one half of Cambodia, causing it to react with such violence towards the other.
The Khmer Rouge, or the Red Khmer, was a movement born out of the struggle against French colonization. This began its extreme animus towards the west, a sentiment reinforced by the overspill of the Vietnam War. In March 1970, the military in Cambodia ended the traditional rule of Prince Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge, a communist group headed by revolutionary, Pol Pot, allied itself with Sihanouk against the coup plotters, thus creating the conditions for the bloody civil war that followed.
The military government solicited the aid of the United States, and a heavy-handed US response included a massive bombing during 1973, killing some 300,000 people. This further reinforced a popular anti-West, anti-US movement in Cambodia, on the back of which, in April 1975, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge to victory.
What followed was an extreme Maoist, Marxist-Leninist movement in Cambodia, and an extreme, and inexplicable antipathy towards intellectuals and professionals. This ideological aversion soon extended to ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, Thais, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, and indeed anyone at all perceived in any way to be an enemy of the revolution. Cities were emptied out, and anyone conforming to this broad definition of the enemy was consigned to labor camps in the countryside. Here, conditions of physical abuse, disease, exhaustion, and starvation began to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
The ideological underpinning of all of this was simply the Maoist principle of transforming Cambodia into rural and classless society, with a population consigned to labor on collectivized farms. The name of the country was changed in 1976 to ‘Democratic Kampuchea‘, and Pol Pot, or ‘Brother Number One’, declared the day of victory ‘Year Zero’ as he set about building his Utopian republic.
The Khmer Rouge regime was characterized by extreme and indiscriminate brutality. Doctors, teachers, monks, journalists, the wealthy, artists, anyone with an education and ethnic or religious minorities were all singled out for arbitrary execution. No one was safe, not even children, for as the philosophy went, ‘to stop the weeds you must also pull up their roots’.
As the genocide progressed, survival was determined simply by an individual’s ability to do work on the collective farms. In ‘Killing Fields’ set up all over the country, confessions were solicited by torture, and execution immediately. Between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians died, or were killed by the regime. The regime was toppled in January 1979, and Pol Pot died in April 1998, on the eve of his being handed over to international justice.