Justice and Starvation in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge Famine

The topic of severe famine has received scant attention at international and hybrid tribunals despite the fact that an interdisciplinary discourse has emerged concerning the suitability of international criminal law as a legal response. This is the first of two articles[2] scrutinizing this prosecutorial gap by considering whether former Khmer Rouge leaders could be successfully prosecuted for international crimes predicated on the catastrophic famine that occurred while the Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia from 1975-1979. Part 1 develops a detailed history of the Khmer Rouge period famine. Part 2 will analyze this history according to current formulations of international crimes.




Cambodia suffered severe famine from 1975-1979 during the period of Democratic Kampuchea (DK). During this time, famine claimed somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million lives through a combination of starvation and disease, representing an “excess death”[3] toll somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the country’s total population,[4] making it one of the deadliest famines in modern history.[5]

Sung Phareth is a survivor of this famine. Shortly after the Khmer Rouge revolution in 1975, when she was eleven years old, Phareth was assigned to a children’s work unit. The main assignments were to carry soil, dig dikes and help with the construction of a local dam. Phareth and the rest of her unit lived at the worksite, sleeping under a makeshift shelter made out of palm leaves. During this time Phareth received two daily food rations, which typically consisted of rice with rock salt and sometimes also included prahok[6] or fish soup. Phareth and her coworkers received these rations, which were relatively plentiful, because the dam her unit was working on was considered a highly important revolutionary project. Nonetheless, Phareth recalls being perpetually hungry and exhausted, as the rations were insufficient to sustain such hard labour.

After spending approximately three months living at the dam worksite, Phareth’s unit finished its assignment and local government officials hosted a celebration to commemorate their efforts. Phareth recalls that the celebration included a play, revolutionary songs and a mass marriage ceremony consisting of approximately one hundred couples. She recalls feeling proud, as she was praised for her hard work.

Only later did Phareth learn what happened to her two younger sisters during this time. Her grandmother, who was old and unable to work, had been placed in charge of them, but was too sickly from lack of food to effectively supervise them. The unattended little girls were so hungry that they ate dirt, became sick and swollen from lack of food and ingesting soil, and eventually died of illness and starvation.

For a short time after their deaths Phareth’s grandmother survived because she had a hidden stockpile of pre-revolution medicine to treat her various ailments. However this cache of medicine, along with the family’s only cooking pot, was confiscated by local Khmer Rouge cadres, who searched village houses every three days for “contraband” such as cooking equipment, rice or anything else deemed useful to the revolution or improperly symbolic of private property ownership. This final indignity was too much for Phareth’s grandmother and she told Phareth that she could not bear to live any longer. Soon she became even weaker with hunger, leading Phareth’s aunt to secretly trade the last of the family’s hidden gold for three cans of rice. Phareth’s grandmother, however, refused to eat the rice because she was determined to die and end her misery. Within a week, the grandmother got her wish and succumbed to a combination of illness and starvation.

For civilians like Phareth and her family, even foraging for food was forbidden. As Phareth’s family members starved to death, local Khmer Rouge cadres ate plenty of food and even had their own special chef. Today, Phareth remains angry with the Khmer Rouge regime, which she blames for the deaths of her two sisters and grandmother. According to her, everyone knew that communal rations were insufficient because it was “obvious.” Nevertheless, at mandatory community meetings, villagers were expected to proclaim their love for the revolution and never complain about the lack of food and horrific working conditions.

For thirty years famine survivors such as Phareth have received no official explanation as to why they were forced to watch family members weaken, sicken and die from lack of food and who, if anyone, is responsible.



Despite survivors’ lack of definitive answers about what caused the famine, the term many use for what they endured places responsibility at the doorstep of the Khmer Rouge. When discussing their experience, these survivors do not say “turaphik,”[7] the Khmer language word for “famine” that connotes a widespread lack of food attributable to natural causes, such as flooding or drought. Turaphik reflects the traditional reliance on predictable weather patterns to grow rice and other staples in Cambodia. Periods of turaphik are not unknown in Cambodia; however, the country’s abundant natural food sources, especially its freshwater fisheries have traditionally provided a crucial bulwark against severe famine and mass starvation events. Instead of turaphik, Khmer Rouge survivors typically use the verb “bong-ot,” meaning “to starve” or “to withhold food”[8] when discussing their experiences of hunger and deprivation. Bong-ot implies human causality and therefore, concomitant individualized responsibility, making the term mesh well with foundational international criminal law principles.

Several prominent former Khmer Rouge leaders have publicly denied responsibility or shifted the blame to others when confronted with allegations of having knowingly caused mass starvation.[9] They have claimed that any starvation during the Khmer Rouge period was the product of a combination of bad harvests, drought, foreign interference and/or honest mistakes by Khmer Rouge leaders in providing local officials too much power.[10] Essentially, these former leaders argue that any lack of food was an instance either of turaphik or bad acts by local Khmer Rouge cadres outside of their control, and not the result of Khmer Rouge leadership policies that may have prevented civilians from feeding themselves (i.e. bong-ot). Concomitantly, former local Khmer Rouge officials often claim that the edicts of the Khmer Rouge leadership — especially unrealistic rice production quotas and bans on private eating — rendered it impossible to provide for the civilian population, and point out that even the slightest deviations from the leadership’s policies could result in death.[11]

This first of two articles provides an overview of the famine that occurred in Cambodia under Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) government. The evidence strongly suggests that the Khmer Rouge period famine was a direct, foreseeable and avoidable consequence of Khmer Rouge policies, and that over time the regime’s leaders became aware of their policies’ disastrous effects but nevertheless continued to enforce them strictly. Consequently, it is concluded that while the mere existence of famine in Cambodia may have been the product of numerous contributing causes, the main contributing factors can be traced back to the Khmer Rouge leadership. While no document or piece of evidence singularly demonstrates that members of the Khmer Rouge leadership became aware that their policies were enforcing famine throughout the country, the totality of the evidence strongly suggests such knowledge. Thus, it is concluded that from a factual standpoint, available evidence appears sufficient to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that high-level Khmer Rouge leaders knowingly enforced severe famine conditions on the civilian population under their control while in power.



To discuss food availability in Cambodia is essentially to discuss rice production and distribution. Rice is the primary staple of the Cambodian diet, accounting for up to eighty percent of the total caloric intake and up to seventy percent of the protein intake of the average Cambodian.[13] The early 1960s was a period of increased productivity in Cambodia’s rice fields, and prior to 1970, the average Cambodian ate 600 grams of rice per day, an amount approximately 100 grams greater than the average intake of citizens of most other rice-producing nations.[14] When Cambodia descended into civil war in 1970, the rice crop predictably suffered. Planting, harvesting and processing rice were all negatively affected by the fighting between the incumbent Lon Nol government and the insurgent Khmer Rouge.[15] The massive US bombing campaign in support of the government further reduced Cambodia’s agricultural production, as the bombs killed farmers and draught animals and damaged large swaths of croplands.[16] According to official records, by 1975 Cambodia’s rice production had dropped by eighty-four percent compared to the 1970 crop.[17]

The importance of rice production and food security in Cambodia was not lost on the Khmer Rouge leadership and the movement gained support and new members by portraying its brand of radical socialism as a path towards better living conditions, more food, and a more equitable division of wealth.[18] Khmer Rouge propaganda lionized Cambodia’s farming peasantry and portrayed its leaders as the heralds of a new era of agricultural prosperity in Cambodia. For example, in a 1973 propaganda film shot in “liberated”[19] Kampong Cham province, Khmer Rouge representative Khieu Samphan leads a visiting delegation from North Vietnam on a tour of a model collective farm teeming with agricultural bounty.[20] The workers in the cooperative grin for the camera as they thresh rice and perform other chores. Food is everywhere and storehouses burst forth with crops and fattened livestock.[21]

The Khmer Rouge began implementing cooperative farming in liberated areas early in the 1970-1975 civil war against the US-backed Lon Nol regime. In these cooperatives everyone was put to work in the fields, providing the community and the Khmer Rouge military with precious rice.[22] As the Khmer Rouge took over more and more of Cambodia’s countryside, the movement scored a major strategic advantage by choking off the domestic rice supply into Phnom Penh, thereby forcing the Lon Nol government to rely almost exclusively on US airdrops for food.[23] Meanwhile, the price of rice in Phnom Penh and other cities began skyrocketing due to shortages and rampant corruption.

The Khmer Rouge swept into power after seizing control of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. Shortly thereafter, the Khmer Rouge-dominated CPK became the official government of Cambodia, which was renamed “Democratic Kampuchea.” The stage was thus set for the Khmer Rouge to deliver their promised agricultural bounty.

Due to the civil war, Cambodia was already on the brink of famine when the Khmer Rouge took power.[24] Nonetheless, the first acts of the new regime were to order the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and to expel all foreigners, including humanitarian food aid organizations, from the country. While the exact motivations behind the evacuation orders remain unclear,[25] CPK officials have publicly claimed that food shortages in the capital were a prime factor for the evacuation.[26] In August 1975, CPK Prime Minister Khieu Samphan announced that the CPK had “been able to solve the essential problem” of feeding the people by moving them to the countryside.[27]


3.1.      Socio-Economic Policies

Once firmly in control, the CPK government set about implementing its planned radical overhaul of Cambodia’s agricultural sector and its extreme version of socialism throughout Cambodia. At a large meeting in Phnom Penh on or around 20 May 1975, fundamental CPK policies were outlined, including plans for creating cooperatives, abolishing money, and establishing communal eating and living.[28] These policies became part of what the CPK leadership or Party Center[29] referred to as the national plan to achieve a “Super Great Leap Forward” towards a utopian agrarian-socialist state. This “leap” was to be achieved independent of any foreign aid[30] according to the strict policy of extreme self-reliance, referred to as “independence self-mastery.”[31] In order to maintain this independence, the Center decreed that the revolution would rely on agriculture, especially rice production. To produce sufficient rice to both feed the population and finance the CPK’s planned development projects, the Party Center announced a plan to nearly triple the country’s rice crop to an average of three tons of rice per hectare. Despite the manifest impossibility of rapidly tripling rice production, the Party Center apparently believed that attaining its production targets was a matter of revolutionary willpower and ordered military-style agricultural “offensives” throughout the country. These offensives involved a nationwide system of forced labour.

The Party Center’s practice of relying on human labour and applying socialist theory to agricultural production resulted in deeply flawed agricultural policies. Nonetheless, it appears that an appreciable rice crop was harvested each year during the Khmer Rouge period —although yields never even approached the fantastical three tons per hectare goal. Meanwhile, other CPK socio-economic policies contributed to famine conditions. As part of the pursuit of pure socialism, any perceived vestiges of “individualism” or “privatism” were banned, including cultivation of private subsistence gardens, private ownership of foodstuffs, and even the act of cooking privately. Absolute socialism also meant that all natural resources became the property of the revolution; consequently, Cambodians were forbidden to forage for alternative food sources.

Despite the extreme demands the Super Great Leap Forward plan placed on agricultural production, there is no indication that the Party Center ever second-guessed the soundness of its policies. Instead, the Center blamed inevitable shortfalls in rice production on local CPK officials or the acts of “enemies” and saboteurs. This practice of blame shifting and denial, combined with the Party Center’s well-documented penchant for extreme violence, maintained the fiction of the infallibility of Party Center’s leadership, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Anyone, including veteran Khmer Rouge cadres, who criticized the policies of the Party Center or complained about the terrible living conditions or lack of food, was branded an enemy of the revolution and subject to arrest, torture and summary execution. This hubristic mixture of impossible rice production quotas, forced labour, violence and denial created severe famine conditions for virtually the entire civilian population, resulting in extreme suffering and mass mortality.

In 1976, Pol Pot instructed CPK party members that “the basic line” of the CPK was to “build” Cambodia “rapidly” into a powerful, self-sufficient socialist nation.[32] He explained that the Party Center had compared the Cambodian revolution with those of China, Korea and Vietnam and concluded that “[w]e are faster than they are. If we examine our collective character, in terms of a socialist system, we are four to ten years ahead of them.”[33] This obsession with speed appears to also have stemmed from the Party Center’s pervasive fear of perceived enemies, as the leaders sought to achieve revolutionary goals quickly to entrench themselves in power.[34]

The planned Super Great Leap Forward also had to be achieved without substantial foreign aid in order to adhere to the policy of independence self-mastery. The complete self-reliance dictated by this policy meant that neither food nor goods and equipment to assist with rice production would be imported in any significant quantities, even as crops were supposed to vastly increase and large quantities of rice were aside for export. Implementation of the independence self-mastery policy locally down to the local cooperative level also resulted in complete reliance on local food production for subsistence.[35]


3.2.      “Standing” on Agriculture

In order to maintain self-sufficiency while simultaneously pursuing the rapid development integral to the Super Great Leap Forward plan, the CPK Party Center dictated that the revolution would “stand” (i.e. rely) on agriculture.[36] In practice, this reliance on rice to fund the revolution placed an enormous burden on Cambodia’s already weakened agricultural sector, as the regime sought to achieve a massive rice surplus on a remarkably aggressive schedule. The CPK’s basic economic policies are laid out most comprehensively in the Party’s draft “Four-Year Plan to Build Socialism in All Fields” completed in August of 1976.[37] The Plan dictated that the “capital base” of the revolution was to be rice.[38] To produce enough rice to remain self-sufficient while simultaneously funding national development, the Four-Year Plan called for increasing yields nearly threefold, to a national average of three tons per hectare of cultivated land. This goal was effectively impossible to achieve, as Cambodia had never approached this level of production, even during the relatively bountiful harvests of the 1960s.[39] Nonetheless, the quixotic optimism of the CPK leadership knew few bounds and in 1976 Pol Pot projected that the CPK “can gain three tons per hectare on single harvests, and from six to seven tons per hectare on land that is harvested twice; and that’s not all, for we can [occasionally] exceed these targets.”[40]

The Four-Year Plan included a meticulously detailed forecast of expected rice crops for the period of 1977-1980. The Plan forecasted that during this period Cambodia would export 6,955,400 tons of rice and receive $1,390,640,000 USD in return.[41] This figure was based on the fantastical projection that total rice production over the same four-year period would be 26,660,000 tons.[42] Despite the sheer fantasy of rice production projections in the Four-Year Plan, Pol Pot stated at a Party meeting that the rice production and export figures in the Plan had been “estimated fairly precisely.”[43] To make matters worse, assigned rice quotas were all based on the assumed production of three tons per hectare and were expressed as numerical requirements based on this fallacious assumption, rather than percentages of actual production, meaning that the Party Center had a specific amount of rice it expected to receive from each of the country’s administrative zones.[44]

In order to achieve the massive rice harvests necessary to pursue its Super Great Leap Forward plan, the Party Center sought to transpose onto agricultural policy the guerrilla warfare tactics that had worked so well during the 1970-1975 civil war. In 1976, Pol Pot stated that the country faced three main difficulties: it had “just emerged from a war”; “lack[ed] technology”; and “lack[ed] capital equipment” that had to be imported.[45] He then said, “[t]hese difficulties are minor. We can solve them all in a short period of time.”[46] At a previous 1976 meeting with Northwest Zone CPK officials, Pol Pot had discussed how these massive problems could be overcome through sheer revolutionary effort and discipline, stating: “When we were united, we were strong and courageous; the enemy could not successfully withstand us; we could attack the American imperialists. The economic fight is not as difficult as the fight against the American imperialists.”[47] He then explained how revolutionary warfare tactics could be applied directly to agriculture, stating: “We raised the principle of attacking wherever we (could) win, wherever the enemy was weak. And the same goes for the economy. We attack wherever the opportunities are greatest. … We must prepare offensives for the whole country.”[48] Indeed, Pol Pot reasoned that achieving the planned massive increase in rice production was a relatively easy task in comparison to winning the civil war, stating:

[T]he preparations for offensives to build up the country are like our past military offensives and not even as difficult. In building up the country the obstacles are direct: whether there is water or not, what kind of fertilizer, what kind of seed. As for the military battlefields, they involve sacrifices. Comparing thus, we see that there is nothing to worry about.[49]

Pol Pot’s 1976 Northwest Zone speech roughly coincided with the publication of an issue of the CPK’s propaganda magazine Tung Padevat (Revolutionary Flag), which announced this new phase in the revolutionary struggle: “[O]ur peasants, in the cooperatives throughout the country, our cadres and youths, every ministry, every office, our workers in every factory, and every unit of our Revolutionary Army have the mission of going on the offensive to achieve the party’s strategic plan for this year: achieving three tons per hectare.”[50]

Various CPK slogans repeated throughout the countryside reinforced the conception of agricultural warfare. Workers were reminded: “In the battlefield of agriculture, industry and handicrafts, let us be determined to battle to fulfill one hundred percent of the plan and even go beyond.”[51] As another slogan proclaimed, the enemy in this struggle was nature itself: “Let us not be defeated by nature!”[52]

The “army” in the CPK’s agricultural battlefield was the entire civilian population. Manual labour was portrayed as the key to achieving a high revolutionary consciousness.[53] Work teams were ordered to “work together, as if [they] were on a battlefield”[54] and to “strike, crush and win absolutely the production goal of three tons per hectare.”[55] The purpose of every Cambodian’s existence was to work and struggle to advance the revolution. A CPK slogan stated that good revolutionaries were “born straight from the plough’s furrow in a rice paddy.”[56]

The labour conditions that resulted from this militaristic agricultural push were horrendous. The entire civilian population was forced to work from sunrise to sunset every day in the rice fields or on massive irrigation projects without the benefit of modern machinery.[57] These workdays would range from around ten to fourteen hours, based on seasonal hours of daylight, and many survivors report working until midnight or later during busy times such as harvesting when moonlight permitted.[58] The physical demands of this labour were tremendous and workers burned calories at a greatly accelerated rate. Revolutionary slogans instructed workers to “pledge to sacrifice your life to accomplish Angkar’s work”[59] and to remain “on the worksite until death!”[60]

The CPK central leadership appears to have soon become aware that labour conditions had severely weakened the population. For example, already in August 1976, Pol Pot observed at a meeting that “some regions managed to harvest three tons” of rice but “they became tired, because we were attacking everywhere at once [and] [t]o attack in this way over a long period of time is impossible.”[61] However, this concern for the health of the civilian workforce was quickly brushed aside and Pol Pot stated that a “rearranged” and “improved” party “line, classifying some places as ones which could be harvested once a year and other places as ones which could be harvested twice a year” would fully solve this issue.[62]


3.3.      Flawed Agricultural Practices

CPK agricultural policy also suffered from flaws in implementation, further widening the gap between expectations and reality. The largest of these flaws was the Party Center’s assumption that massive irrigation projects could rapidly solve the “water problem”[63] and thereby achieve a second rice crop in fertile areas.[64] To solve the water problem, the Center ordered the creation of a national system of dikes, canals and dams to capture, store and redistribute seasonal monsoon rainwater year-round.[65]

The regime’s leaders again assumed that a mix of revolutionary zeal and ingenuity could overcome any problems. In an April 1977 radio address marking the second anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory, CPK Prime Minister Khieu Samphan boasted that when building dams, workers “learn technical skills and implement them while working.”[66] In the same address, he admitted that the irrigation systems hastily thrown together by the CPK might not last, but argued that “[w]hether the dams and reservoirs that we have built last only five or 10 years does not matter [because] [i]n the five or 10 years to come we shall be much more developed, richer and more experienced than we are now, and we will grasp many more technical skills than we do now.”[67] The result of this reckless rush forward was a series of fundamentally flawed irrigation projects that cost thousands of lives to build, yet were prone to collapse or failure during annual floods.[68]

Other aspects of the CPK’s plan to achieve three tons per hectare illustrate the Khmer Rouge leadership’s lack of understanding of large-scale agricultural production. For example, in many areas, Cambodia’s individual plots of land that spread across the countryside in a variety of shapes and sizes were reorganized into uniform one-hectare squares. This required a series of new rice paddy walls that often interfered with existing irrigation channels.[69]

Another major problem was the severe lack of drought animals. The civil war and the US bombing campaign had reduced the number of oxen and water buffalo in Cambodia to critical levels by 1975.[70] These animals were crucial to rice production, as they were used to till rice fields and perform all types of heavy labour. High-level CPK officials acknowledged that drought animals were in low supply and “skinny” in some areas, but simply concluded that the revolution would grow feed, breed more animals and thereby quickly solve this problem.[71]

Fertilizer was also in extremely short supply. Again this problem was brushed aside by the leadership, which viewed this major problem as one “not difficult” to solve.[72] The proposed fix, in line with the general policy of independence self-mastery, was to assign workers — usually children and the elderly — to collect human and animal excrement to use as fertilizer.[73] In some areas, survivors have even reported being forced to strip the flesh off of fresh corpses and burn the bones to ash for fertilizer.[74] The results were substandard fertilizer and the further spread of famine-related diseases through lack of sanitation.

Finally, a lack of pesticides plagued the agricultural sector, and pests such as rats, crabs and insects reportedly further damaged rice crops.[75]


3.4.      State Expropriation of Rice

To achieve a Super Great Leap Forward, the Party Center decreed that the CPK government had to “sell the maximum possible of [its] agricultural production” to raise capital.[76] Party rhetoric claimed: “The state is not taking exports from the people. Instead, we exchange goods for agricultural products on a collective basis.”[77] There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the CPK “exchanged” resources to assist civilians living in Cambodia’s countryside. Instead, beginning in 1976, the government exacted large quotas of rice for party use and export[78] and provided virtually nothing in return.[79]

There are no surviving CPK documents that provide any specific aggregate amounts of rice exported during the Khmer Rouge period.[80] Nonetheless, evidence does exist suggesting that the CPK exported large quantities of rice throughout the Khmer Rouge period. First, numerous survivors of the period, including former Khmer Rouge cadres, have stated in interviews that they witnessed large quantities of rice being expropriated by the CPK government and apparently prepared for export. For example, in 2013 former CPK state warehouse official Ros Suoy testified before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia that he worked at two warehouses in and around Phnom Penh between 1975 and 1979, and that he was aware that at least several other similar state warehouses existed in the area at the time.[81] Ros Suoy further testified that only unmilled rice was eaten within the country and that his warehouse often had to keep “four to five” rice mills operating constantly in order to process sufficient rice to meet the CPK’s demands for exports.[82] Meanwhile, Ros Suoy stated that unmilled rice was kept in reserve for export orders and that, although other goods such as salt and cement were distributed from the warehouse to locations within Cambodia, rice was never redistributed within the country.[83]

Certain primary CPK documents, such as surviving reports of the CPK’s “State Commerce Committee,” based in Kampong Som (now Sihanoukville), Cambodia’s sole deep-water port, generally support this assertion. These reports, transmitted to the central CPK leadership in Phnom Penh, accounted for “income” and “expenditure” of rice.[84] Many were signed by a person named Roeung, whom Ros Suoy testified was his superior, and suggest that the CPK operated a system whereby unmilled rice would be shipped from all locations in the countryside to state warehouses near Phnom Penh where it was processed, packaged and sent to Kampong Som seaport for export under the supervision of Roeung and the State Commerce Committee.[85] A more limited number of surviving CPK documents discuss specific instances of actual or planned rice exportation,[86] and a 1977 article in the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the CPK government had purchased large quantities of jute sacks, commonly used to transport rice, in an apparent attempt to prepare for massive rice exporting activities.[87]

Although precisely how much rice was exported from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period is likely unknowable, there appears to be ample available evidence in the form of primary CPK documentation, potential witness testimony, and circumstantially, proving the basic fact that the CPK government exported large quantities of rice over extended periods of time while in power even as Cambodian civilians died by the thousands of famine.



While the CPK Party Center set Cambodia down the path to famine through the implementation of flawed agricultural practices, overwork, and state expropriation of rice, additional policies emanating from the Center served to worsen famine conditions. Khmer Rouge leaders sought to achieve absolute socialism rapidly by banning all perceived vestiges of private ownership. This desire for purity ended individual cultivation of subsistence gardens as well as the traditional famine prevention and coping activities of foraging, hunting and fishing. The regime also distrusted anyone who had lived in the urban power centers of the Lon Nol government during the civil war and subjected these groups to especially harsh labour and living conditions, making famine especially acute within this group. Finally, the healthcare sector was dismantled by the Party Center, contributing to the further spread of disease amongst a population already compromised by famine.


4.1.      The Pursuit of Pure Socialism

A surviving unsigned CPK document dated 20 December 1976 states: “The socialist revolution encompasses everything. This is what is basic about our revolution.”[88] In order to implement this party line of all-encompassing socialism, money was immediately banned and Cambodian villages were reorganized into cooperatives shortly after the final victory of 17 April 1975. Communal eating was established nationwide by early 1977.[89] All private ownership was abolished and personal belongings, including cookware, were confiscated. Literally everything became the property of the revolution, including all agricultural production and even wild food sources.[90] CPK party slogans warned the starving civilian population: “Hands off the people’s property! Not a single grain of rice, a single chilli, a single needle!”[91] Other slogans drove the point home, reminding the people that “enemies” of the revolution included “[t]hose who boil rice in secret or in private.”[92] The CPK government also severely restricted civilian freedom of movement and constantly searched for perceived enemies of the revolution, rendering it difficult and dangerous for Cambodians to secretly forage for food.[93]

4.2. Mistreatment of “New” People

CPK propaganda promoted an ideology modeled on Chinese-Marxist theory, which blamed “feudalists” and capitalists for the economic woes of Cambodia’s peasantry.[94] The stated goal of the revolution was to eliminate Cambodia’s social class structure altogether and turn everyone into a worker-peasant, under the party’s “proletarian dictatorship.”[95] The minutes from a CPK Standing Committee meeting held on 11 March 1976 state:

[I]t is necessary to put an end to feudalism. We have reached this stage. The whole feudal regime has been destroyed and definitively dismantled by the Revolution. The Monarchy existing for over 2000 years has finally been dismantled. We do not have any other alternatives. Reactions will certainly take place, but we must follow the path of the Revolution in order to win.[96]

After the CPK swept into power, Cambodia’s pre-existing social structures were quickly dismantled and, despite Khmer Rouge rhetoric extolling the virtues of a classless society, a new three-tiered caste system quickly developed. At the top of this rigid class structure were full-rights CPK party members,[97] followed by “base” people who were rural-based civilians who had lived in areas under Khmer Rouge control prior to 17 April 1975.[98] The bottom rung of this new system was occupied by so-called “new” or “17 April” people who had lived in the areas controlled by the Lon Nol regime when the CPK took power.[99] Despite the fact that many of these “new people” actually hailed from the countryside but had fled to urban areas to escape the civil war, they were scorned by the CPK and Party slogans labeled them “prisoners of war.”[100] New people were viewed as a source of hidden enemies working to undermine the revolution and denied even the most basic rights and freedoms.[101]

One result of the Party Center’s scorn towards new people was especially severe famine conditions within this group, as new people were subjected to repeated forced relocation and received the worst of everything, including rations, work assignments, housing, medical care and sanitation. Those new people who survived relocation trips typically arrived in areas lacking the infrastructure, including extra shelter and food, necessary to accommodate a population influx.

One major example of how the general mistreatment of new people led to more severe famine conditions was the mass forced transfer of new people to the Northwest Zone in 1976. Northwest Cambodia was long known as the country’s rice bowl, and the Zone was subjected to especially high rice production quotas by the CPK. In 1976, the leadership announced that the Zone needed “additional forces” to achieve the rice production targets assigned to it and ordered the evacuation of 500,000 to 800,000 new people to the Zone.[102] Those who survived the trip were sent to areas that lacked the capacity to house and feed them, creating especially high famine mortality amongst new people in the Northwest Zone.[103]

Upon arriving in their designated cooperative, new people were scorned and essentially enslaved in service of the revolution. One CPK slogan stated: “Where there are 17 April people, no development is possible.”[104] Another slogan viewed new people as useless hungry mouths to feed: “The new people bring nothing but stomachs full of shit, and bladders bursting with urine.”[105] Still another slogan derided new people as “parasitic plants” sapping strength from the revolution.[106]

One survivor’s experience illustrates the scorn with which starving new people were treated:

In 1977 I became emaciated and was sent to a hospital. However, Angkar’s medical staff were heinous. They accused me of having a consciousness illness. In fact I was sick. I was starved. I became smaller and smaller to the point that my knees appeared to be bigger than my head. Even with such conditions, they still could not see what was really wrong with me. They hated April 17 People so much.[107]

4.3.      Revolutionary Medicine: Denial of Basic Medical Care

Another consequence of the policy of independence self-mastery and the CPK’s distrust of new people, including health professionals, was a complete denial of basic medical care. The CPK systematically dismantled Cambodian civil society, including the nation’s already weak medical infrastructure. Many of the nation’s experienced doctors were executed or hid their background from the suspicious Angkar because indicators of a privileged or urban background such as education or professional training were viewed with extreme skepticism by the Khmer Rouge and created a high risk of summary execution if discovered.[108] As a result, “revolutionary hospitals” were often no more than depots where the injured and sick were deposited and subsequently ignored, and were staffed largely by illiterate teenage girls with “clean” revolutionary biographies with no regard given to their actual ability to provide healthcare services.[109]

Additionally, the party line of independence self-mastery resulted in medicines being imported only from China or other preferred nations, leading to massive deficits of basic items. What little medicine the CPK did have was apparently reserved primarily for party members and the military.[110]

The CPK Center addressed the pervasive lack of medicine in ineffectual ways. Abundant food for civilian consumption — which never materialized — was the first of two equally non-existent lines of defense against the spread of disease. A 1976 CPK document described food as “the important medicine to prevent sickness,” stating: “If there were enough to eat, there would also be little sickness.”[111] When sickness did strike, often as a result of endemic famine, the second line of defense was the employment of “traditional” or revolutionary medicines.[112] These pseudo-medicines were usually a mixture of various plant products rolled into balls and administered orally — or worse, dissolved in unsanitary liquids such as coconut juice and injected by untrained nurses with dirty, reused needles. When administered, such medicines were usually ineffectual and often worsened a victim’s health. This “revolutionary medicine” likely increased the number of famine-related deaths across the country.[113] Nonetheless, at times the CPK boasted of the regime’s “mastery” of medical care.[114]

It was also dangerous admit to being sick in the first place. The suspicious CPK Center accused overworked and underfed workers of feigning illness to avoid work and obtain more food. Various CPK slogans mocked sick and starving Cambodians, telling them: “The sick are victims of their own imagination”[115]; “[t]he ill are sly as rabbits, and can swallow a whole pot of rice”[116]; and “[w]e must wipe out all those who imagine they are ill, and expel them from our society.”[117] A further slogan mocked Cambodians wracked by hunger, telling them that they had caught an “imaginary disease.”[118] There was usually no respite for the exhausted, underfed and disease-plagued civilian population and many victims simply collapsed and died from exhaustion, undernutrition and disease.


4.4.      Using Violence: Enforcing Policy and Blame-Shifting

The CPK Center not only enacted policies that created mass famine, but also enforced these policies through acts of extreme violence. The revolution, embodied by the members of the Party Center, was infallible according to CPK rhetoric and ideology.[119] Despite the obvious flaws in CPK policy, this myth of infallibility was jealously guarded throughout the Khmer Rouge period by a mix of denial and blaming any admitted shortcomings on supposed anti-revolutionary groups working to sabotage the revolution. These perceived “internal enemies” were to be sought out and “smashed” (i.e. killed) according to official CPK policy.[120] This mix of hubris and paranoia resulted in a nationwide system of violence and terror. The smallest miscue or perceived slight against the revolution could result in death. Even veteran revolutionaries were not immune from the wrath of Angkar, especially as internal purges began to spread throughout all levels of the CPK.[121] Anyone, including CPK party members, who complained about working conditions or insufficient food rations risked being arrested, tortured and executed.[122] In some instances local officials were directly scapegoated for causing starvation in rather transparent attempts to shift blame away from CPK policies.[123] Through this process of denial, blame-shifting and systematic murder, the CPK central leadership effectively avoided acknowledging its responsibility for famine and responded to reports of hunger and starvation with violent purges that only made conditions worse.

Early in the Khmer Rouge period the core CPK leadership began to purge party members who showed any resistance to its quixotic social or agricultural policies. For example, prominent left-wing intellectual Hou Yuon, who had served as a public CPK figure for years leading up to the Democratic Kampuchea period,[124] was apparently secretly purged soon after the Khmer Rouge took power for opposing the CPK party line on issues such as the abolishment of money and foreign relations.[125] As the Khmer Rouge period progressed and famine worsened, it was considered a crime against the revolution punishable by execution to criticize CPK policy or even to acknowledge the existence of famine or starvation. For example, Cambodian expatriate returnee[126] Chin Suon was arrested, tortured and executed, ostensibly for having attended meetings “to discuss starvation, overwork, the loss of freedom, the stealing of collective goods, and the conditions of families living in foreign countries.”[127]

The Party Center’s penchant for responding violently to reports of agricultural failure is exemplified by events in the Northwest Zone, where the combination of especially high rice quotas and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of new people in early 1976 caused severe famine conditions. In mid-1976, newly appointed CPK Minister for Social Affairs Ieng Thirith was sent to the Northwest Zone to “investigate charges of shortcomings in the health, diet, and housing of the worker-peasants.”[128] In a subsequent interview with journalist Elizabeth Becker, Ieng Thirith said that she found evidence of “problems” and that “conditions were very queer.” Specifically, Ieng Thirith said:

In Battambang I saw [local party members] made all the people go to the rice fields. The fields were very far away from the villages. The people had no homes and they were all very ill … I know the directive of the Prime Minister [Pol Pot] were that no old people, pregnant women, women nursing babies, or small children were to work in the fields. But I saw everybody in the open rice fields, in the open air and very hot sun, and many were ill with diarrhea and malaria.[129]

Despite witnessing this suffering, Ieng Thirith did not consider the possibility that the Party’s socio-economic policies needed to be revised. Instead, she concluded that “agents had got into our ranks” all the way to the “highest ranks” and that these enemies “had to behave with double faces in order to make as if they were following our line [i.e. policies].”[130] Thus, in her view, it was not the attempted implementation of the Party line, but deviance from the line by “internal enemies,” that was responsible for causing famine and disease.[131] The Northwest Zone was subsequently violently purged and CPK officials from the Zone were forced to confess to sabotaging rice crops under torture before being executed.[132]

Similarly, in the North Zone, perceived opposition to famine-inducing policies and complaints about living conditions were used as a pretext for an internal purge. Koy Thuon aka “Thuch” was a veteran revolutionary who was North Zone Secretary from 1970 until April 1976, when he was reassigned by the Party Center to the CPK’s Commerce Ministry in Phnom Penh.[133] Ke Pauk, a CPK Central Committee member and Thuch’s political rival who was known for his willingness to enforce more extreme policies replaced Thuch as North Zone Secretary.[134] Shortly after assuming control of the Zone, Ke Pauk sent a telegram to the Party Center that reported on “the enemy, the masses, and cultivation in the northern zone” and stated: “The enemy says that the revolution is too strict. They oppose the idea of cooperatives and the construction of new dikes. They also complain about starvation.”[135] As he informed the Center, Ke Pauk “advised regions to investigate the above-mentioned enemy activities closely. We have already arrested the former cooperative chiefs. In addition to these actions, the enemy has a hidden network, which we are investigating. We will take appropriate measures to deal with this.”[136]

In 1977 Thuch was arrested and sent to S-21 prison where he was forced to claim that he had been party to a subversive plan to “‘produce confusion’ by reinstating private property.”[137] After Thuch was executed, the prison staff at S-21 who had tortured and executed him were told that eliminating the “strings” or “networks” of traitors associated with Thuch had solved “problems of defense and construction and problems affecting people’s livelihood.”[138]

Hu Nim, another prominent Cambodian leftist who became the CPK Minister of Propaganda during the Democratic Kampuchea period, was secretly arrested in April 1977 and later executed. According to one report, Hu Nim suggested that the Party reintroduce money to incentivize peasant workers to produce more crops after a particularly bad harvest.[139] A former CPK regimental commander who defected to Thailand in 1978 has “claimed that ‘several members of the Party such as Hu Nim and [Ros] Nhim asked the Party to have mercy on the people’” and this led to them being purged.[140] After being arrested, Hu Nim was transferred to S-21 where he was systematically tortured and forced to author a series of “confessions” until his execution in August of 1977.[141]

In some of these confessions, Hu Nim managed to point out some of the basic problems with CPK policy. For example, Hu Nim described of the actions of four supposedly fellow anti-revolutionary “intellectuals” he worked with in an office code-named K-33 as follows:

When the Office was short of food and we ate only gruel, the four of them attacked collectivization. … One day during a general meeting of the Office, Nak took a stand against collectivization and criticized the collective system, giving reasons such as the shortage of medicine, the shortage of food, and the inability to grow vegetables, catch fish, or raise animals.[142]

Elsewhere in his confession, Hu Nim claimed that then-Northwest Zone Secretary Nhim Ros had “[disagreed] with the party on the path of agricultural construction”[143] and implicated him in “crimes” including resistance to the central leadership’s agricultural and social policies.[144] Hu Nim explained that, contrary to CPK policy, “brother Nhim’s concept was of a system of plenty. The concept of a system of plenty and of not relying on labour power are concepts opposed to the basic political line of the party, which is independence — self reliance — mastery.”[145] He described this line of “plenty” as “brother Nhim’s fundamental anti-party position.”[146] Hu Nim said that Nhim cultivated fellow internal enemies in Northwest Zone areas that are the “granary of Kampuchea,” by explaining that this area could only produce the “hundreds of thousands of tons of rice exported overseas” by utilizing modern farming techniques, including machinery.[147] Hu Nim also said that Nhim Ros had blamed the Party Center for demanding impossible production targets.[148]

Later in his confession, Hu Nim said Eastern Zone Secretary Sao Phim shared Nhim’s desire to open Cambodia’s borders and to accept foreign aid.[149] The confessions of Hu Nim and fellow former prominent CPK members Koy Thuon and Doeun all implicated Sao Phim in an elaborate scheme to overthrow the CPK leadership. Sao Phim was a long-time revolutionary and, by most accounts, a popular leader. During his leadership the Eastern Zone was a relatively better place to live than others, with less executions and better rations.[150] The Eastern Zone was viewed with suspicion by the CPK leadership group, which feared Sao Phim’s autonomy, popularity, and ties with the hated Vietnamese communists.[151] The Eastern Zone was thoroughly purged throughout 1977 and it was only a matter of time before Sao Phim was arrested and sent to S-21. In June of 1977, Sao Phim shot himself as CPK internal security officers were on their way to arrest him.[152] Shortly after Sao Phim’s suicide, Sok Thuok, alias Vorn Vet, CPK Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy[153] was arrested and also implicated Sao Phim in a plot against the CPK Center:

[Sao Phim] informed me on the good situation in the East Zone. [The alleged enemy group, the ‘Workers Party of Kampuchea’] had been able to build itself up in the ranks of the military and among the people. Cooperatives had already been established, but the harvest was distributed and there was a private standard of living in accordance with the demands of the people [who] did not want to eat in common because they perceived that this meant shortages of everything. If they … lived privately, eating in families as in China, the people would be very happy.[154]

Purged Northwest Zone Secretary Nhim Ros, implicated in Hu Nim’s extensive confessions discussed above, was in a similar position as Sao Phim in that both were long-time revolutionaries before their affiliations with the Khmer Rouge movement and were thus presumably perceived as a threat to the absolute authority of the Pol Pot-led faction that dominated the central CPK leadership. Additionally, available evidence suggests that both men critiqued and/or strayed from the strictures of the CPK line regarding the requirements of the Super Great Leap Forward plan. As the Secretary of the Northwest Zone, Nhim Ros was put in an especially untenable position, as he was asked to produce thirty percent of the country’s rice for export, without the benefit of the modern machinery that previously allowed Northwestern Cambodia to become the nation’s rice-producing capital.[155] Thus, both men were apparently purged because they were not trusted by the highest echelons of the CPK leadership, in part due to a willingness to oppose some of the more extreme policies that were also the primary causes of famine.

While underperforming or mistrusted areas were violently purged, districts that reported achieving assigned rice production goals were labeled “model” cooperatives and earned the right to fly the Great Leap Forward flag, denoting their special achievement.[156] This practice created the incentive for local CPK officials to issue false reports to the Center in order to avoid its deadly scrutiny. Nevertheless, the CPK leaders assumed that problems with living conditions were the work of internal enemies. In 1978 Nuon Chea explained:

[T]he party had to give directives to a branch concerning the living conditions of the people. When nothing changed, we realized something was wrong. Where there were deviations to the left or to the right, we looked carefully into the backgrounds of the cadres. We also sought the opinion of the masses. We have thus been able to uncover enemy agents step-by-step.”[157]



By late 1975, the evacuation of Cambodia’s cities was complete, the borders closed and the CPK was firmly in control of national policy. The stage was thus set for the Khmer Rouge leadership to deliver on its promise of a new, more bountiful Cambodia. Instead, through what Cambodian history scholar David Chandler has aptly referred to as a “volatile mixture of hubris, paranoia, and wishful thinking[,]”[158] Pol Pot and the rest of the central CPK leadership almost immediately set the nation down a path to catastrophic violence and famine.

Conditions in 1975 did not provide the CPK with a true opportunity to overhaul national agricultural policies, as the final throes of the civil war had left much of the country unprepared to begin the rice-planting season.[159] As such, for the remainder of 1975, the Party Center established its power base and prepared to implement its planned radical overhaul of Cambodian society in 1976 in earnest. Indeed, it appears that during this period of consolidation and preparation, the meagre 1975 rice crop was left largely free from state expropriation. Moreover, the CPK’s full range of famine-inducing social policies, including bans on private cooking and eating and absolute collectivized living were not yet nationally implemented. Despite the trauma of the five-year civil war, the rapid end of international food aid, and the chaos caused by the evacuation of Phnom Penh, famine does not appear to have been widespread in 1975, although hunger was not unknown and many evacuees were left to fend for themselves, resulting in food shortages and the spread of disease.

Throughout 1975, the government also imported rice from China, which was received at Kampong Som seaport and subsequently distributed throughout the country.[160] The imported rice, however, appears to have been destined for use as seed rather than consumption, as part of the CPK’s preparations to overhaul Cambodia’s agricultural sector.[161] By the end of 1975, the Khmer Rouge-dominated faction of the CPK had assumed full power, with the entire nation under its direct control.[162] The absence of mass famine in 1975 likely stoked belief amongst the central leadership in the superiority of the Cambodian revolution, contributing to the air of unrealistic optimism that reigned at the time within the upper CPK echelons. For example, in the handwritten minutes of a 10 July 1976 CPK meeting attended by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ieng Sary, under the heading “The Current Political Tasks of Democratic Kampuchea” it states:

Emerging from the war, we focus on agricultural tools. This year, we have made these agricultural necessities available to a great extent both in the rural and urban areas, but we have never met with starvation. This year alone, we have rice, cassava and corn. Since 17 April 1975, we have opened a new historical page in which we have brought back the entire production mechanism…. If we are compared to Vietnam and Laos, we see that Vietnam still remains a mixture of classes like Cambodia in 1965, whereas we have a complete class purification. In terms of rice production, Vietnam lacked 1,200,000 tons and Laos invited French companies to help, but we met basic needs which is unique in our history. In China, it is not good and in Russia, pretty good.[163]

Lower-level CPK officials were instructed to follow, unquestioningly, the regime’s broad policies in pursuit of the Super Great Leap Forward plan. These local leaders were instructed by the central leadership to “grasp hold of [the workers’] consciousness [and] make things clear to them”[164] in order to achieve rice production targets. They were told not to complain about the CPK’s overly rapid Super Great Leap Forward expectations, but to “do the plan” regardless of the difficulties they encountered.[165] In order to “grasp hold of the cooperatives” and thereby ensure that its agricultural policies were strictly followed, the CPK leadership “suggest[ed] that the majority of the armed forces … stay with the people[,]” which resulted in armed militia being dispersed amongst the people to oversee the implementation of CPK policies.[166]

In support of the CPK’s military-style all-out push to increase rice production in 1976, Cambodian civilians spent almost every waking moment working to produce rice or on irrigation projects. The caloric output of Cambodia’s workforce during the Khmer Rouge period was tremendous, and it is likely the typical 2,000-calorie per-day diet of the average Cambodian[167] needed to be increased in order to avoid famine. Instead, the rations given to the labour force fell far short of even the modest diet of most Cambodians. While CPK rhetoric commonly referenced the need for adequate food in order to support the civilian workforce[168] and, nominally, every Cambodian was entitled to a ration equivalent to approximately 0.85 kilograms of rice per day,[169] there was never any systematic oversight of food rations. In sharp contrast, the Party Center took careful note of the amount of rice collected from each administrative Zone and any shortfalls risked a violent purge. The CPK’s voracious demand for rice, combined with the potential for violent repercussions if it was not met, potently incentivized local CPK officials to report fictitiously large production amounts in order to evade the volatile scrutiny of the Party Center, with the brunt of the inevitable shortfall borne by the civilian population.[170] The resulting rations were woefully insufficient[171] in most if not all areas, and starting in 1976 Cambodians numbering at least into the thousands began to perish from a mixture of undernutrition and disease as famine spread across the countryside.[172] Reports of famine, however, only led the central leadership to respond with more violent purges, such as the purge of the Northwest Zone following Ieng Thirith’s 1976 investigatory visit. Meanwhile, the policies responsible for causing famine to begin in the first place were treated as infallible and left unchanged, even as the death toll continued to rise into the hundreds of thousands.

Despite the fact that famine conditions were already becoming severe in various parts of the country as a result of their policies, CPK leaders viewed the 1976 rice crop as a modest success.[173] At a December 1976 CPK Party meeting, a top leader — very possibly Pol Pot himself[174] — discussed the successes and failures of the preceding year, declaring that the regime had “scrutin[ized]” the results of implementing the socialist revolution for the year and the “outcome of our scrutiny is that we can see increased results for 1976.”[175] These successes existed despite the fact that “some shortcomings can be noted,” including “the matter of assembling food reserves for our people,” which the speaker admits “is our [the CPK’s] fault.”[176] In an uncharacteristic moment of candour, he acknowledged that “three-quarters of the country has failed [to adequately feed] the civilian population and that this affects the health of the people.”[177] The purported reason for this shortfall in food reserves, however, was that “the party line has not yet filtered down,” to all areas.[178] These shortfalls would be avoided in the future by adhering more strictly to the CPK’s political edicts, rather than altering the party “line” in any way, as the central leadership still believed in itself “completely.”[179] Meanwhile, despite the spread of famine, in December of 1976, the CPK estimated that a national “surplus” of 247,000 tons of milled rice had been achieved[180] and in January of 1977, Phnom Penh radio announced that 150,000 tons of rice was being prepared for export “to earn capital for national defence and construction efforts.”[181]

After these perceived “increased results” of 1976, the Party Center continued to pursue the Super Great Leap Forward plan despite evidence of its harmful impact on the civilian population.[182] In a late 1976 “Report on Political Tasks” the Party Center announced a production target of 5,400,000 tons of milled rice for 1977 in order to harvest a “surplus” of 841,000 tons.[183]

The renewed push to multiply Cambodia’s rice production soon escalated the severity of the national famine. To make matters worse, at the beginning of 1977 a flood occurred in Cambodia, followed by a drought throughout Southeast Asia, reducing crop yields throughout the region.[184] Cambodia, along with Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar all suffered reduced rice output, however, the effects were not catastrophic outside of Cambodia and none of the bordering nations experienced famine.[185] Adding to these difficulties, internal party purges began in 1976 and continued unabated throughout the rest of the Khmer Rouge period, disorganizing the economy and decreasing agricultural production.[186] Around the end of 1976, Cambodians began starving to death on a massive scale, and in particularly hard-hit areas entire villages virtually disappeared due to mass starvation events.[187]

Despite this continual worsening of famine conditions, there is no evidence that the CPK leadership ever considered changing or slowing down the pace of its famine-inducing policies.[188] Faced with overwhelming evidence that the goal of three tons per hectare was unachievable and its rice exports were coming at the expense of a starving civilian populace, the CPK Center continued to shift blame for famine to fabricated networks of enemies. For example, in October 1977 CPK propaganda magazine Tung Padevat blamed “bad class elements” for administering cooperatives “without rice to eat.”[189] Meanwhile, the Party Center continued to expropriate and export rice from the countryside throughout the remainder of the Khmer Rouge period while simultaneously publicly denying the existence of mass famine, especially in international media.[190]

In late 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia and swept the Khmer Rouge from power, taking control of Phnom Penh on 6 January 1979. The horrendous results of the Khmer Rouge’s socio-economic policies were evident in the Thai refugee camps to which many Cambodians fled in 1979. Undernutrition and associated diseases, along with malaria, were the main causes of death amongst newly arrived refugees.[191] According to an account written by John Collins Harvey, a doctor who worked in a Thai refugee camp in 1979: “Among the refugees, the most serious problems were starvation … in the children, vitamin deficiencies, particularly beri-beri, unattended war wounds compounded with starvation, untreated malaria . . . and anaemia.”[192] Harvey observed that “[m]ost of the children suffered from diarrhea,”[193] a common symptom of undernutrition. In fact, the “chronic undernutrition so altered growth patterns that boys who looked to [Harvey] to be eight to 11 years of age reported ages anywhere from 16 to 20 years.”[194]

Only the ouster of the Khmer Rouge from power brought famine relief to Cambodia. Indeed, the speed with which famine conditions improved in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia is both a testament to the agricultural prowess of Cambodian farmers and a powerful indictment of CPK policies. The fighting between the invading Vietnamese military and retreating Khmer Rouge forces and the exodus of newly freed Cambodians back to their homes resulted in scattershot planting of the 1979 rice crop. It is impossible to know exactly how much rice was planted;[195] however, one estimate placed the national rice crop for 1979 at 265,220 tons — an shortfall of approximate eighty percent of typical yields in prewar times.[196] The world press predicted mass famine and starvation in Cambodia under the new Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government.[197]

The popular perception at the time was that only a herculean international aid effort could head off the looming famine catastrophe. These prognostications of catastrophic famine turned out to be overblown. The PRK allowed international food aid into the country, but various logistical and political problems limited the amount of this aid and where it could be distributed.[198] When food aid arrived, the PRK government appropriated much of it to feed government workers and returning urban populations and made little effort to dispense food to the countryside.[199] Ousted Khmer Rouge leaders responded with propaganda accusing the PRK government of committing crimes of “genocide” and “extermination” by using “famine as a weapon” against the Cambodian people.[200] Nonetheless, although food was scarce and famine did occur in some areas, when left to their own devices and free from government interference, most Cambodians acquired enough food to survive through a mixture of food crops, hunting, fishing and foraging.[201] As observed by humanitarian aid historian Maggie Black:

The main reason that the famine was not as severe as forecast was that the tropical climate and natural productivity of [Cambodian] soil produced food, willy nilly. People had cultivated maize, cassava, bananas and other crops in garden plots; and they harvested fish from the many rivers and from the large lake of Tonle Sap. They did manage, in addition, to grow some kind of a rice crop. In November, they brought in a harvest thought to approximate 300,000 tons, or one-third of the 900,000 tons needed.[202]

Black’s observations make clear that, when mass famine could be avoided in Cambodia essentially by leaving the civilian population to its own devices, Khmer Rouge policies had the impact of starving the population. This fact on its own serves as a strong moral indictment of the Khmer Rouge for the famine and starvation that took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.


6.         CONCLUSIONS

Several important conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing overview of the Khmer Rouge period famine. First, as a general matter, responsibility for basic famine causation can be laid squarely at the doorstep of the Khmer Rouge regime. The country avoided mass famine during both the pre and post Khmer Rouge periods, despite the devastation of the civil war during the former and the initial absence of a state infrastructure during the latter. Meanwhile, when there was a minor Southeast Asian drought in 1977, Cambodia was the only nation in the region to experience famine, demonstrating that natural variations in food production conditions played at most an exceedingly minor role in the famine. Finally, it is noteworthy that Cambodia has never experienced severe famine in its modern history other than during the Khmer Rouge period.

Second, specific CPK policies enacted by an small group of prominent leaders in Phnom Penh triggered, maintained and deepened famine conditions throughout the country for the duration of the Khmer Rouge period. CPK socio-economic policies eschewed virtually all sources of national revenue save for that gained through the export of rice, placing an enormous strain on production of the country’s main food staple. This strain was made more severe by the leadership’s desire to achieve production increases at a manifestly impossible pace and independent of foreign aid and modern equipment. Poor agricultural planning made rice production targets even more fantastical. As evidence of abject failure mounted and starvation spread, the central leaders refused to reconsider their deeply flawed policies.

Third, the CPK’s pursuit of “pure” socialism and use of extreme violence to enforce its policies prevented local officials or civilians from ameliorating the severity of famine conditions. Civilians were forbidden from growing or foraging for food and private cooking or eating was outlawed. There was no room for local leaders to deviate from or even critique CPK policy, as those who did — including high-level CPK officials, such as Sao Phim, Nhim Ros, Hu Yuon and Hu Nim — were systematically arrested and executed, often along with all of their subordinates and extended families.

Fourth, the central leadership in Phnom Penh received regular reports on conditions throughout the country, some of which mentioned civilian starvation, such as Ieng Thirith’s report on living conditions in the Northwest Zone in 1976.[203] As famine conditions worsened over time and mass starvation events began to occur in numerous locations, the sheer scale of the famine renders the ignorance of Party Center members remained implausible. Moreover, it appears that the Party Center was aware of international concern that mass starvation was occurring, as CPK propaganda demonstrates a concerted effort to publicly deny the existence of mass famine and simultaneously shift responsibility for famine conditions to imagined “enemies” of the revolution, who were allegedly sabotaging food crops and spreading dissent.

These basic facts suggest an evolution in the degree of knowledge amongst key high-level Khmer Rouge leaders that their policies were enforcing famine conditions on the civilian population. If one focuses solely on the point in time when the regime enacted its various famine-inducing policies, it appears plausible that some or all former CPK leaders may have been initially ignorant of the deadly implications their policies portended for the civilian population. To focus solely on this moment in time, however, fails to account for the fact that famines generally are dynamic phenomena that weaken and kill victims over extended periods of time, and that the Khmer Rouge period famine itself lasted more than three years. When viewed in this dynamic way, continuing ignorance of the existence of mass famine among high-level CPK officials begins to strain credulity, as these leaders were openly obsessed with controlling national policy and monitoring conditions in the countryside, where civilians were dying of starvation by the thousands. Even if senior Khmer Rouge leaders were genuinely ignorant of the extent of famine in certain areas of the country, such ignorance would have been itself wilful: the product of the leaders’ policy of responding with automatic violence against anyone who even pointed out the existence of famine, let alone complained about it or called for a change in policy.

At some point during the Khmer Rouge period, ever-mounting evidence and reports of mass famine and starvation rendered it impossible for the regime’s leaders to maintain a state of actual ignorance, and possible initial negligence or recklessness on the part of individual CPK officials evolved into actual knowledge that government policies were causing civilians to starve by the thousands. Nevertheless, the CPK continued to enforce policies of forced labour, communal eating, bans on the private production and/or consumption of food and state expropriation of rice for export throughout the Khmer Rouge period. As such, it appears that Khmer Rouge leaders, at some point after becoming aware that the civilians under their authority were starving by the thousands, chose to prioritize the revolutionary goals over of the survival of the civilian population.

From a moral perspective, it is not difficult to blame the Khmer Rouge leadership for enforcing famine conditions on the civilian population while in power. However, group moral responsibility does not necessarily entail individual penal sanctions. How these facts interact and fit within the required elements of established international crimes and associated modes of liability must be assessed to determine potential criminal responsibility of former Khmer Rouge leaders. The second part of this article, to be published in the next issue of the CLPJ, will seek to perform this assessment by considering how the international criminal law concepts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity interact with the foregoing factual overview of the Khmer Rouge period.





About the Author

Randle DeFalco holds a JD from Rutgers School of Law at Newark, an LLM from the University of Toronto and is a member of the bar in both the United States (New Jersey) and Canada (Ontario). He was a 2009-2010 Fulbright Fellow in Cambodia and has served as a legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia since 2010. Currently, Mr. DeFalco is pursuing a doctorate in law (SJD) at the University of Toronto, where he is a Vanier Scholar.

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