Bloody Aftermath of Revolution: Did it Have to Happen?
Revolutions have a tendency to gain a terrible momentum. The level of both organization an anger that is required to overturn an established government (especially one that is either of long standing or autocratic nature or both) can continue to build in intensity and force even after the previous government has fallen, thus making the revolution a success. The result of such revolutionary force tends to run in at least two directions and often both at once. The revolution may turn inward, destroying (and usually executing) its original leaders. And it may turn outward, destroying the nation that it sought to rescue. The most revolutionary governments are likely to do both.
This paper analyzes the purges of the Khmer Rouge that followed its revolutionary takeover of the government of Cambodia, assessing whether such purges were necessary to maintain the revolutionary nature of the vision that the Khmer Rouge brought to power. The writer also examines such claims to necessity: Can a revolution and its leaders ever truly justify the level and nature of violence that occurred under the rule of the Khmer Rouge? The answer from an external perspective must be no.
Before beginning this analysis, a brief history of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and stayed in power -- albeit briefly -- is necessary. The Khmer Rouge -- the name translates to "Red Cambodians" -- was applied to the members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan, Democratic Kampuchea as a regime lasted from 1975 to 1979. The fact that this regime was able to maintain power for such a brief period of time suggests that its strategies -- both of genocide and internal purges -- were not successful. The leaders of the revolution would argue (even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge) that the revolution would never have succeeded at all without an insistence on internal standards that resulted in the purges.
The regime is known today primarily for its external politics, that is, for the actions that it took against the people of Cambodia as a whole. The government attempted a widespread program that was comparable to the Cultural Revolution in China and that resulted in the deaths of many of the nation's most educated citizens.
There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge leaders, who were educated in France and visited the Soviet Union and China, were substantially influenced by authoritarian communism.
And we can attribute some of the policies of the Demcratic Kampuchea regime, such as mass collectivization and purges, to ideological forerunners, particularly the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In fact, these are such well-known and obvious points that I feel no need to detail them in this paper. (Rinaldo, 1997).
In addition to the thousands of executions, the government's policy that the nation be absolutely self-sufficient led to widespread famine and preventable deaths due to the lack of medications that the revolutionary government refused to important and that the nation -- which had slaughtered its intellectual classes -- could no longer make for itself.
The initial executions of the nation's educated classes seem, in retrospect, to have been a case of short-term (ideological) gain over the long-term potential to sustain the revolution. One can compare the result of the slaughter of educated Cambodians to other, more successful revolutions, such as the French Revolution. While that revolution also in the end turned on its own with the execution of individuals who had at one time been beloved heroes of the revolution, the French spared many of their intellectuals, provided a class that could (and did) reconstruct the nation after the violence had abated and the peace had to be maintained (Kiernan, 2004, p. 87).
Estimates of the result of the Khmer Rouge's attempt to create the purest possible form of Communist government and social structure resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Amnesty International estimates that 1.4 million Cambodians died, about half by torture and execution and the other half through famine and disease. In effect, the government killed anyone that it could find an excuse to kill.
Very quickly this tendency to kill anyone who was not considered to be absolutely pure in both intention and behavior became turned inward as members of the Khmer Rouge began to prey on each other. While the party's leaders insisted on the importance of the purges for maintaining perfect ideological purity, this proved to be an impossible goal since no human endeavor can ever be perfect.
The political and philosophical influences that prompted members of the Khmer Rouge leadership to slaughter its own citizens also resulted in a number of purges of the leadership itself as individuals turned on each other in an effort to create an ever-purer form of Communism. The criteria used by leaders to execute each other seem, in retrospect, seem to be highly arbitrary and often deliberately contrived (Kiernan, 2004, p. 43).
To the extent that these two qualities were apparent to the Khmer Rouge leadership at the time, it must be concluded that such purges were not necessarily to maintain revolutionary momentum or fervor. Indeed, if these qualities of the purges were recognized at the time then they can be argued to have been destructive to the revolution's aims.
Internal executions, or purges, began in 1976 (the year after the Khmer Rouge took power) and continued through 1978, the year before the Khmer Rouge government was officially overthrown by the Vietnamese but at a point when it had lost a significant degree of internal cohesion. This destruction of internal consistency was at least in large measure the result of the loss of trust that the leaders felt for each other.
Again, this aspect of the revolution suggests that the purges were more destructive of the aims of the government than they were necessary or even effective. A key question that must be asked in terms of the necessity or even advisability of the purges is what was their intent? If the intent of Pol Pot was to refine the ideological stance of cadres and party leaders, then it can be argued that the purges were possibly necessary. However, if the intent of Pol Pot and other revolutionary leaders was to ensure the continuation of their pure revolutionary government, then the purges must be considered to be failures, hastening the end of the Khmer Rouge's time in power (Kiernan, 2004, p. 119).
The Failed Policy of Internal Purges
The impetus for a number of the internal Communist Party purges arose from Pol Pot, the revolution's most powerful leader. Many of these purges were based on Pol Pot's relationship with the Vietnamese. The relationship, for both personal reasons as well as for reasons arising from long-standing historical tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam, inclined Pol Pot to distrust anyone who had a relationship with the Vietnamese. This included many individuals who were in all likelihood entirely loyal both to Pol Pot himself and to the Khmer Rouge. However, Pol Pot's bias against the Vietnamese (a bias that was widely shared by other Cambodians, although not at the level experienced by Pol Pot) blinded him to individual loyalty (Kiernan, 2004, p. 91).
The extent of Pol Pot's enmity to the Vietnamese and the ways in which this enmity was at the root of many of the Khmer Rouge's purges can be measured by the fact that Pol Pot killed thousands of Khmer Rouge cadres because they acknowledged that the Cambodian Communist Party was established in 1951. At this point in history, the Cambodian Communist Party was receiving various forms of aid and support from the Vietnamese.
Pol Pot was so outraged that they should date the beginning of the party to a time when it was not independent of Vietnam that he ordered the executions of those who had simply acknowledged an historical fact.
Pol Pot spared (for the moment) those who dated the beginning of the Cambodian Communist Party to 1960, the year that he himself joined the Cambodian Communist Party's Central Committee. To those observing the regime from the outside at the time as well as those of us who are viewing it from three decades later, this mania that Pol Pot had for attempting to override the historical facts about the relationship between Vietnam and earlier Cambodian insurgences seems barely sensible. However, the results at the time were horrific, with the result that even some of Pol Pot's closest and oldest friends were executed.
Indeed, his oldest friends were in many ways the most vulnerable since by definition they were most likely to have memories of Cambodian Communism that dated back to the period when Vietnam was an ally.
One assessment of these purges by Pol Pot is that he was less interested in ideological purity or the survival of the regime than he was interested in establishing and defending an absolute independence on…