By Miao Miao 苗渺

Historians disagree as to whether or not ethnic minorities were specifically targeted in the Cambodian genocide. A scholarly minority argue that racism motivated a significant portion of the killings, while the dominant academic view claims that the murders were non-racial and merely political. This essay will argue in favor of the minority racialist perspective, support the argument that ethnicity formed a contributing factor to the Khmer Rouge’s targeted slaughter, and challenge the notion that the genocide was purely political.

Village of Year Zero

In front of a crowd of newly arrived city folk, a Khmer Rouge cadre of Tuk Chjo village bellowed into his loudspeaker, “Che yo! Che yo! Glory to Angkar! Those with Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham ancestry, sign up here, and you will be free to return to your homes!”

Seated in the audience were 7-year-old Seng Ty and his family, who like millions of other urban Cambodians were evacuated at gunpoint from their homes in the city to an uncertain fate in the unwelcoming countryside in April 1975.

Eager to return home, many ethnic minority families responded to the cadre’s call with relief and gratitude. Others sensed danger and deception. Although fair-skinned enough to pass as Chinese, Seng Ty’s educated middle-class parents firmly insisted that the family remain seated and silent, vowing to stick to their fictitious identities as homeless Khmer junk collectors.

As Seng Ty recalled: “Some people with Chinese, Cham or Vietnamese ancestry were excited at the prospect of returning home. But my father knew something was not right. He could smell blood, and knew that these people were signing away their lives. They weren’t going home. They were on their way to a mass grave.”[1]

The next morning, Khmer Rouge trucks came and took away Tuk Chjo’s Chinese, Vietnamese and Muslim Cham families away to their deaths. Seven members of Seng Ty’s family would suffer the same fate.

Seng Ty’s story represents the larger racial picture of the Cambodian genocide, which repeated a million times over across Democratic Kampuchea. For the heirs of Angkorean splendor, 1975 to 1979 were years shrouded in confusion and emptiness, laced with pain and paranoia. Pol Pot’s agrarian utopia exited the pages of history after four short years, leaving behind fields of bones.

In 1975, the radical Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot took power of a country long shackled by colonialism. Caught in the crossfires of major powers, the battle-weary Cambodians’ short-lived jubilance of so-called liberation turned into their worst nightmare. Immediately, Cambodia’s cities were emptied of their populace. Cities were decadent, corrupt and symbolic of the old society, and the entire nation was to be remolded into a peasant collective. Money was abolished, as were markets, private property, courts, and any vestige of contemporary life and technology. Pol Pot’s paranoid totalitarian government proceeded to starve and kill masses of imaginary enemies, and in four short years of this madness, a fifth of the population perished.

Contesting Schools of Thought

The dominant scholarly view of the atrocities occurring in this period belongs to the non-racialist camp, supported by scholars such as Philip Short and David Chandler. These scholars claim that Khmer Rouge rule does not merit a genocide, as most of the victims and perpetrators were Khmer, and the intent of the killings were not ethnic or religious. A minority of scholars oppose this view, as represented by Kiernan, who claim that Democratic Kampuchea systemically persecuted and killed the country’s ethnic minorities.

Short’s book Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare is part-Pol Pot biography, part-saga of the Cambodian nation from ancient times to modernity. Short argues that while “history, culture, geography, politics and millions of individuals have all played their part in the Cambodian nightmare,”[2] atrocities are not unique to Cambodia, nor are Khmers more predisposed to savagery than others. He carefully balances Khmer crimes with examples from other cultures, as if fearing the reader would altogether dismiss the Khmer people as harbingers of primitive barbarism. His perspective takes on color-blind, non-racialist undertones.

While recognizing the Khmer people’s historically rooted anti-Vietnamese sentiment, Short leans to the notion that precarious economic conditions were the cause of the high death toll, and targets of execution were from political and class status, not ethnicity. That is, those considered to belong to the urban bourgeoise were targeted, not specific ethnic groups. He argues that Chinese Cambodians suffered disproportionally not because they were Chinese, but because “they found it harder than others to adjust to peasant life.”[3] He also characterizes the dispersal of Muslim Cham communities, for example, as “not racism in the normal sense of the word,”[4] but rather political requirement of conformity that applied throughout Democratic Kampuchea. He compares the dispersal to “school bussing in the United States to achieve desegregation.”

Southeast Asia reporter Nayan Chanda in a Washington Post review criticizes the book for neglecting to include victim voices, describing it as “an anatomy of the Khmer Rouge nightmare without the cries of its survivors.”[5] As the book was originally designed to focus on the biography of Pol Pot, it should be no surprise to Chanda that Short does not take into account primary sources from commonfolk victims such as Seng Ty. As a France-based English writer, Short cites heavily from French-educated Khmer Rouge leaders, such as Thiounn Mumm and Khieu Samphan. He describes them as “educated, thoughtful people” despite their description of Pol Pot as “a great patriot.” This influences his writing, as his sources come from and reflect information provided by the Khmer Rouge elite. Short’s book also relies on forced confessions extracted by the Santebal, or Pol Pot’s security branch. These confessions were produced under torture to legitimate mostly imaginary crimes. The selective use of Cambodian documents threatens the credibility and accuracy of Short’s work.

Supporting Short’s view is the historian and biographer David Chandler. In his book The Tragedy of Cambodian History: War, Politics and Revolution since 1945, he states that the Khmer Rouge “discriminated against the Chams” because they were “unsympathetic to the revolution,” treated Sino-Cambodians poorly despite support from China and “ordered the execution of ethnic Vietnamese.” However, he concludes that “by and large, the regime discriminated against enemies of the revolution rather than against specific ethnic or religious groups.”[6]

Kiernan takes a visibly different approach to understanding the years of Democratic Kampuchea. His book The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge 1975-79 explores Democratic Kampuchea history through a racialist lens. As the Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, Kiernan specializes in genocides and ethnic cleansing, a chief factor behind his racialist perspective. Kiernan condemns Khmer chauvinism, and does not shun the use of the word “genocide” like Short and Chandler, who claim that the term would draw “egregious” parallels with Nazi Germany.[7] Kiernan, on the other hand, presents a direct correlation between persecution and status as non-Khmer minorities, devoting an entire chapter to ethnic cleansing. He criticizes other scholars for neglecting the racial equation, and simply presenting the death toll a result of political crimes. “How inadequate these descriptions are,” he laments.[8]

Kiernan specifically challenges Short’s and Chandler’s arguments. Short and Chandler consider the Khmer Rouge guilty of crimes against humanity, but not genocide because they “did not set out to exterminate a ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious group’.” Kiernan points out that Short’s book cited “Article II of the UN Genocide Convention,” but misquoted the definition of genocide: acts committed “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”[9] The selective quotation replaced “exterminate” for “in whole or in part.”

He also claims that Short did this to dismiss the Khmer Rouge’s genocide against major “parts” of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities such as the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims. Not included in Short’s book was the UN Group of Experts’ 1999 recommendation that Khmer Rouge leaders face trial for genocide, having “subjected the people of Cambodia to almost all of the acts enumerated in the Convention.”[10]

Kiernan goes on to characterize the Khmer Rouge as “a racialist project for ethnic purification.”[11] He contrasts Democratic Kampuchea with other communist countries such as the USSR, China and Vietnam, which recognized national minorities and ethnic autonomous regions. Democratic Kampuchea, on the other hand, “even refused public recognition of Cambodia’s specific minorities and asserted that they totaled a nominal 1% of the population rather than the actual 15 to 20%.”[12] He argues that Democratic Kampuchea was “the only communist regime to systematically disperse its minorities by force and to make punishable by death the use of minority or foreign languages.”[13]

The overall ethnic makeup of those who died in the genocide is a point of contention in the debate. Both sides use statistics to bolster their argument. Short and Chandler accurately claim that the majority of victims under the Khmer Rouge were Khmer themselves; however, Kiernan points out that ethnic minorities suffered in severe disproportion. Kiernan goes as far to claim that even when liquidating Khmers, there accompanied “a slogan with strong racialist overtones, in the name of wiping out those with Khmer bodies and Vietnamese minds.”[14] While Short and Chandler argue that some ethnic groups in Cambodia suffered more because they disproportionately represented urban and bourgeois classes, Kiernan describes this phenomenon as “clear-cut racial stereotype disguised as class discrimination.”[15] He cites the example of the Khmer stereotype of the entire Muslim Cham community as bourgeois, regardless of actual profession and wealth, and the Chams’ subsequent dispersal as a consequence. Similarly, the Chinese were stereotyped as wealthy and leisurely classes needing to be exterminated, and fair-skinned Khmers were often mistakenly lumped together into this racial category. This was consistent with the experience of Seng Ty’s family, who came from a family of fair-skinned Khmers. The Khmer Rouge eventually insisted that they were Chinese, and Seng Ty’s father was executed as a result.

Another reason scholars who base much of their research on interviews from former Khmer Rouge leaders will instinctively dismiss the racialist perspective was the fact that many Khmer Rouge leaders were ethnic minorities themselves. Indeed, many Sino-Khmers occupied high-ranking positions in the Angkar leadership, and were the main leading culprits behind the infamous Security Prison 21. Short is influenced by this perspective, as much of his work came from interviewing former leaders. However, racism is fundamentally illogical, unbalanced and never absolute. It is inconsistent, hypocritical and selective, particularly when applied in political situations and power struggles. As in all social systems with unequal power balance, what applies to the masses may not necessarily apply to the leadership, and vice versa.

As Chandler points out, “The revolutionary potential and intrinsic worth of Cambodians after 1975, it was thought, reflected their class origins. The class origins of the “upper brothers” were prudently concealed. Most of them … sprang from Cambodia’s minute bourgeoisie. They had prepared self-critical biographies about themselves, but by leading the country to victory in 1975, they had clearly already overcome the stigma of their past.”[16]

Thus, it can be seen that the class system in Democratic Kampuchea was hypocritical and arbitrary, whereby the upper leadership can bypass the stigma of bourgeoise class origin yet the same origin can be an excuse to persecute someone from the general public. Chandler does not explore the possibility of this hypocrisy being equally applicable to race. Whereas token senior leaders’ minority roots pose no problem, the minority masses were singled out for persecution. The privileged few in power successfully blurring their racial stigma does not in any lessen the racial persecution experienced by commoners like Seng Ty’s family.


The nature of historiography entails juggling competing frameworks and diverging memories. As Short aptly describes, the history of modern Cambodia was a “mosaic of fragments of truths, half-truths and lies, related by the perpetrators of the Cambodian nightmare as well as by its victims.”[17] Perhaps it is unfair for Short to dismiss minority deaths as simply political casualties, just as it is unfair of Kiernan to imply there to be a conscious government agenda of eliminating minorities. Ultimately, it is abundantly clear that ethnicity played a role in Cambodia’s genocide.

Word-play on definitions of “genocide” and “mass killings” may not matter for those who perished in the tragedy. Skulls bear no race. For future generations however, it is important to recognize the motivations behind the killings, so as to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. Human history, as our shared collective story, serves the civilizing mission of teaching mankind to learn from past mistakes. Only when we identify the causes of our failures, can we strive to build a better future.


  • Chanda, Nayan. “The Man Who Made Cambodia Hell” in the Washington Post, 27 Feb 2005.
  • Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992
  • Chandler, David P. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: War, Politics and Revolution since 1945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Chandler, David P. Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Haing Ngor. A Cambodian Odyssey. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1987.
  • Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge 1975-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Kiernan, Ben. “The Cambodian Genocide and Imperial Culture” in 90 Years of Denial. Beirut: Aztag Daily, April 2005.
  • Seng Ty. The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge. Lowell, MA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.
  • Short, Philip. Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare. London: John Murray, 2005.

[1] Seng Ty, The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge (Lowell, MA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013), 51.

[2] Philip Short, Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare (London: John Murray, 2005), 14.

[3] Ibid, 327.

[4] Ibid 326.

[5] Nayan Chanda, “The Man Who Made Cambodia Hell” (Washington Post, 27 Feb 2005), BW10.

[6] David P. Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: War, Politics and Revolution since 1945 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 263-65, 285.

[7] David P. Chandler, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992), 4.

[8] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge 1975-79 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 252.

[9] Ben Kiernan, “The Cambodian Genocide and Imperial Culture” in 90 Years of Denial (Beirut: Aztag Daily, April 2005), 20-21.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, xiv.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, xv.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David P. Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 92.

[17] Short, Pol Pot, ix.