Most of this article is drawn from Michael Vickery1 and Meng-Try Ea’s2 work on behalf of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. Both authors interviewed survivors from this time, either victims or servants of the KR regime, who told their story as they experienced it.
Vickery’s motivation for his work seems to have been to more clearly tease out what had happened in various parts of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), and contrast this with what he called the Standard Total View (STV), a narrative which holds that the policies that have come to define the KR years “were invariant as to time and place; the scenario was true everywhere, all the time, between April 1975 and January 1979”3
Meng-Try on the other hand used his interviews and research to paint a very specific picture about the KR security system in the Southwest Zone through which tens of thousands of people were executed. We examine here the broader picture of the zone, of which Kampot was a part.
This map shows the regions that made up the Southwest Zone. They form an important part of the narrative. (source: https://terrorofcambodia.weebly.com/maps-of-cambodia.html retrieved 7 November , 2017)
The Southwest Zone was considered “the zone of Pol Pot-ism par excellence, the power base of the Pol Pot central government”4 Many parts of this region were run by the KR from early in the 1970’s until 1979.
Some months after April 1975, increasing numbers of new people who had made their way to the productive and well-watered farm lands of Kandal province were forcibly evacuated from this zone to the Northwest Zone. There they experienced a complete transformation such that large number of them died of starvation or disease.
This did not happen in the Southwest Zone, according to Vickery. “With respect to general living conditions, including quantity of food, starvation does not seem to have been a serious problem in the Southwest, although it did occur at certain places and times.”5 Kiernan disputes this, and, using interviews from 'new' and 'base' people survivors, builds a different picture.6
Vickery noted that the best conditions for new people were when they were a minority amidst a majority of old people (as in the Southwest) and worst where it was the other way around. In the Northwest Zone, with the large numbers subject to forced migration, the latter prevailed, and the new people were subject to starvation and illness by both design and wilful negligence.7
The food supply was also better in the Southwest, partly reflecting the more settled communities, while the Northwest evacuees were forced to build their homes in an alien environment, with little food or water, and an unforgiving work regime.
Vickery also challenges the STV when he concludes “there was no policy to exterminate intellectuals, or professionals, or even Lon Nol officers, in general.”8 Most of the executions in this zone were “intra-party” purges, especially in 1977, he claimed. The interviews conducted by Kiernan would question that conclusion.
Meng-Try, 20 years after Vickery, does not give chronological details of deaths, or a breakdown by old and new, only total numbers, often based on estimations from mass graves discovered in the early 1980’s. To give an idea of the scale of the systematic violence, in Takeo Province alone the number of executions that took place in security centres was estimated at 190,000 people.9 In Kampot Province (Region 35), the figure is 100,89910
The leader of the Southwest Zone was Ta Mok, a man who had fought the French as an Issarak, Sihanouk as a member of the maqui, and Lon Nol as a communist. Unlike most of the other eventual leaders of the Khmer Rouge, he had not spent any time in Vietnam, or as a student in Paris. He was a cleanskin and a warrior, which meant everything in the factional battles within the Khmer Rouge.
His rule in the heartland of the Southwest Zone was notoriously brutal. He was quick to purge previous allies and could be relied on to do this on behalf of Pol Pot and the Centre. His story and other KR leaders who resisted his relentless push to implement the Pol Pot vision are in other parts of this theme
- Michael Vickery, Cambodia 1975-1982. (Silkworm, Bangkok, 1984)
- Meng-Try Ea, The Chain of Terror: The Khmer Rouge Southwest Zone Security System, Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2005
- Vickery, “Cambodia 1975-1982” p 39
- Ibid, p 93
- Ibid p 106
- Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, 2nd Ed, Silkworm, Bangkok, 2002
- Seng BouAddheka, If on this Earth there are Angels, Vivid Publishing, Fremantle, 2016 and Haing Ngor, Survival in the Killing Fields. (Carroll & Graf, New York, 2003) both tell of life in the Northwest Zone after leaving the Southwest Zone.
- Ibid p 106
- Meng-Try Ea, ibid, p 80. He includes 30,000 victims from Angkor Chey district which is now part of Kampot province.
- ibid, p 88. This figure was an estimate produced by the 'Report of the Research Team of the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea in 1981"