At Edukid, we often talk about the devastating impact of the “Khmer Rouge”, or the “genocide” in Cambodia, but many people are unaware of what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. Cambodia continues to live in the shadow of its past; its people living with the grief, trauma and emotional distress of that time while struggling to build a better life. While the story of Cambodia’s struggle can be distressing to read, it is important to understand the legacy of that bygone era and why access to an education is so necessary for Cambodians today.
The Khmer Rouge
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge, was a communist movement in Cambodia that grew in influence in the early ‘70s before taking control of the country in 1975. Put simply, the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a rural, classless society where there were no rich people, no poor people and no exploitation. In order to do this, the regime banned money, free markets, schools, owning private property, foreign clothes, religion and traditional Khmer culture.
Schools, temples, universities, churches, shops and government buildings were closed down or turned into prisons, stables, re-education camps and granaries. Two million people who lived in cities were forced to move to the countryside and undertake agricultural work. People were instructed to wear black, the colour of the revolution, and they had no freedom to reject the ideology of the regime. Failure to comply with the regime was dealt with brutally.
Under the premise that only “pure” people could build the revolution, the Khmer Rouge arrested and killed soldiers, military officers and civil servants of the former government, all of whom were considered to be “impure”. Over the next three years, conditions worsened, with the regime executing businessmen, intellectuals, Buddhists and foreigners, as well as countless of their own soldiers accused of being traitors.
Thousands of Khmer people were thrown into prison, accused of being traitors or disobeying the laws of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s most prominent prison, S-21 in Phnom Penh, held 14,000 prisoners. Only 7 survived. Hundreds of thousands of people, both young and old, were forced by the Khmer Rouge government into work camps, where they worked in excess of 12 hours a day, every day of the year, to produce rice for the regime.
In 1977, Vietnam intervened. Tens of thousands were sent to fight and killed, but by December 1978, Vietnamese troops had fought their way into Cambodia. Phnom Penh was captured on January 7th 1979.
Estimates suggest that up to 3 million Khmer people were killed in the genocide. Men, women and children died from disease or starvation in work camps, were tortured to death or executed.
Today, Cambodia still bears the scars of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many people lost parents, grandparents and children in those four years. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result of the horrific nature of the genocide.
Things are, however, improving. The genocide is one reason for the lack of teachers in Cambodia, but with Edukid’s help nearly 2,000 Khmer children are going to school and receiving additional lessons every day. Children and their parents are starting to look beyond surviving and starting to dream about a brighter future. Ten, even five years ago, if you asked a child what they wanted to be when they grew up they would have looked at you, bewildered; of course they will pick rubbish, work in a factory or grow rice alongside their parents and siblings. Today, people are seeing and seeking change. If you ask a child in Edukid’s projects what they want for their future, answers are becoming more varied: to be a teacher; to study agriculture and improve the efficiency of farming; doctor; nurse; to study tourism to show other people the country of which they are so very proud.
Whilst the terrible events of the late ‘70s will never be forgotten by the strong, humble and courageous people of Cambodia, they are slowly regaining their strength and moving forward with pride and with dignity. Your support helps them to do that and, slowly, we are helping a new, strong generation of compassionate leaders, thinkers and community-builders in their efforts to recover from all that was lost to the Khmer Rouge.