The title of Alexander Hinton's new book, Why did they kill?, commended by some of
the best scholars on Democratic Kampuchea (DK), promised much. But although the book
does deserve the praise lavished on it, I found the reading somewhat of an uphill
Perhaps the same interesting points could have been made more succinctly. When we
read: "a genocidal regime must localize its ideological pronouncements so that
they make sense", in one paragraph [p. 287], and in the next, "genocidal
leaders must localize their ideologies in order to make them appeal to their followers,"
we wonder what the difference is.
Hinton set out to write an ambitious book that would "focus on the cultural
dimensions" of the mass killings under DK, and he has given a number of convincing
explanations, while others, it seems to me, could be shared by other civilizations
or similar political regimes.
In the introductory chapter, Hinton reminds the reader of the main characteristics
of the regime, and this sometimes leads him to assert as established fact some aspects
about which analysts do not agree. Among the causes of death of a quarter of the
population under DK, Hinton lists "outright execution" , but not the
S-21-type of prolonged agonies that victims went through: arrests, imprisonment,
interrogation, torture and finally execution. There were plenty of outright executions,
but many too were delayed after days, weeks or months of intense suffering in the
chains of Pol Pot-Nuon Chea-Son Sen's prison system.
When describing the purge of the northern and central regions in February 1977, Hinton
looks at significant excerpts from the S-21 archives and adds, "These arrests
were accompanied by the outright execution of tens of thousands of lower-level cadres,
soldiers, and civilians from the Northern Zone [Region] whose allegiance to the Party
centre was suspect" .
While I quite agree that the arrests and executions in those regions at the time
did reach the "tens of thousands," what on earth enables Hinton to declare
that they were executed "outright"?
Why should the regional leadership have been less paranoid than the party center?
They were just as persuaded they had to deal with networks of "enemies"
and plots to launch local rebellions and they acted according to national directives;
that is arrest, interrogate, torture and then execute in the numerous district prisons,
being put in khnoh (iron shackles), just as in S-21, but, unlike in S-21, a few accused
were sometimes released.
Those victims included some of the truckloads of citizens about to be bashed to death
at Phnom Pros near Kampong Cham, the area of Hinton's anthropological investigation.
However, I would have liked to know more about where these people came from and who
were their executioners. From testimonies in the province, it appears that some came
from the Central Prison of the provincial capital itself, thus showing that too often
under DK, there were no "outright" executions. Hinton also mentions [41,
157] that some of those victims had been "previously interrogated and tortured
[in...] Kampong Cham city." As to who the dozen or so executioners were, Hinton
does not say. I was told they were youthful soldiers in their twenties, exactly as
I was recently told by N.S. (born in 1954), who used to be a KR male nurse at the
KR hospital in Kampong Cham under DK, that many of those trucks came from the city's
old Central Prison.
As in Siem Reap and Kampong Thom (but unlike in Phnom Penh), the old colonial prison
was in use under DK and Phnom Pros might have served, for a time at least, as its
Choeung Ek. It was the regional prison for party cadres and soldiers and there were
hundreds of prisoners in 1976-77.
In fact, the prison was partly destroyed by explosions in September 1977, as Hinton
interestingly explains , in the course of an abortive rebellion on the part
of a soldier identified as Reap and others to free some of their friends who were
inside. He was in turn arrested by Ke Pauk and sent to S-21.
N.S. himself had been arrested by the soldiers of Vey Reap (the same man, I assume,
as Hinton's), because he was accused of being part of the network of his elder brother,
who was a KR medic at the time, and put in Kampong Cham prison. This was in 1977,
at the time of the Central region purge under the leadership of Ke Pauk after Koy
Thuon's arrest. He was accused of being a CIA-KGB agent and executed.
As to the younger brother, he was put in a truck with some 30 prisoners and taken
to a permanent structure near Ampoel commune, very close to Phnom Pros. He remained
there for one month during which all were taken out to work in the fields during
the day and went through reeducation meetings at night.
There were two spies among them who came out at night to receive supplementary food.
One night, the prisoners were told they were to be taken to another place. In actual
fact, 28 were massacred at Phnom Pros and two freed as their reeducation was said
to have been a success.
Overwhelmed, like every researcher, by the horror of S-21 and its voluminous documentation,
Hinton does not mention the zone (dambon) 41 prison that was situated in nearby Prey
Chhor district at Takeo village, Kor commune, some 20 kilometers away from the village
he investigated. It was known among the local population as "Comrade Sop Security
Prisoners could also have been brought for execution to Phnom Pros from there.
The prison consisted of several wooden, oblong buildings containing some 30 to 50
prisoners each along two rows of iron bars and sliding khnoh. It was opened during
the Republic, as the area was under revolutionary control. For, when in charge, the
KR started arrests, imprisonment and killings.
We are told that "already, by 1976, interrogators seem to have been readily
using torture" . Obviously Hinton has not read (it is absent from his bibliography)
Francois Bizot's The Gate (2000, 2003) that will tell him that the KR prisons (with
their accompanying fetters and torture) existed as soon as the revolutionaries controlled
a significant portion of national territory.
Bizot was arrested in October 1971 and taken to Omleang prison. There were prisons
in every KR controlled sector in the early 1970s, including the Sector 41 prison
in Prey Chhor district at Takeo village, Kor commune.
To illustrate his points, Hinton used once again the testimonies of torturer-executioners
from S-21 rather than investigating the prison-execution centers in the area of his
anthropological inquiry. It would have been more innovative to trace the local Duch
and Lor (his Tuol Sleng executioner).
I'm sure some were still alive, and in their prime, in 1994, when the author did
his field research. But Hinton claims that in 1994 it was unsafe to live in a Kampong
Cham provincial village . Was it, I wonder? If Hinton does mention  a local
"detention centre", he apparently made no attempt to identify it.
The summarized description of the 1970-75 civil war  is somewhat lopsided. The
KR would never have spread chaos in the early 70s nor seized power without the context
of the 2nd Indochinese War. But the mass of recruits could not have joined the revolutionary
camp because of a desire for revenge after the American bombings. First, these certainly
did not cause 150,000 deaths. The "perhaps" of page 8 becomes an "up
to" on page 58. We are slowly creeping towards a proven fact. Printing again
and again mistaken figures does not make them more valid.
First of all we must never forget that the aggressors in the civil war were on the
one hand the 60,000 Vietminh troops that occupied the so-called "sanctuaries"
inside Cambodia near its eastern border. The Cambodian army was about only half that
number in the late 1960s and absolutely unable to face up to the threat. On the other
hand, Nuon Chea from Phnom Penh in January 1968 and Saloth Sar from Ratanakkiri in
March 1968 had launched their revolutionary struggle to seize power. The Cambodian
government was defenseless in front of these two coordinated attackers. Those were
the guerilla movements that spread chaos to Cambodia and not the American bombings,
however massive and continuous they had been from 1969 to August 1973.
Like most historians, Hinton repeats the figure of 600,000 victims of the civil war
that everyone quotes, but this amount has never been the result of a serious demographic
investigation that I know of. The number was first launched by Pol Pot himself in
the early days of DK and, by the end of his regime, it had grown in his rhetoric
to 1.2 million. In other words, Pol Pot, like Stalin, passed on his own victims onto
Hinton also repeats that the bombing resulted in roughly two million refugees by
the end of the war. But I have never been able to understand why, if people fled
the horrors of American bombing, they did not return home after August 1973 when
No, the Cambodians were above all fleeing the Khmer Rouge radical collectivization,
forced relocations of citizens from, among multitudinous market towns and villages,
Kratie, Angtassom or Kampong Cham (when they briefly occupied it in July 1973) and
the executions and imprisonment on the part of ruthless revolutionaries.
Hinton prudently puts a "perhaps" in front of the two figures he quotes
of the casualties of the civil war - 150,000 deaths for the bombings and 600,000
perished between 1970 and 1975. Well, he can, for, as far as we can know, according
to the only published demographic study I know [Marek Sliwinski, Le Génocide
khmer rouge, Paris, L'Harmattan; 1995, p. 43-48], not mentioned in Hinton's bibliography,
some 240,000 died a violent death during the civil war, and the number of the victims
of American bombings were less than 50,000 - 50,000 monstrous war crimes, of course,
when the victims were innocent civilians.
A similarly controversial view is developed when Hinton bemoans "the international
isolation" of the PRK regime . It was an isolation of its own making or
one imposed by the Vietnamese Communist Party that was too busy establishing a Soviet-style
regime and recycling civilian and military cadres from Democratic Kampuchea.
A host of NGOs and UN agencies would have been willing to help more if the Phnom
Penh regime, in actual fact under the final authority of Le Duc Tho (the head of
Vietnam's Politburo office of Cambodian affairs) from behind the scenes, had been
allowed to have its say. Why again did so many citizens flee the new regime, further
bleeding the country's small surviving elite?
Did they not run away from another - if much more humane - communist regime that
curtailed most civil liberties? I am sorry, but I am not impressed like Hinton ("an
impressive feat" , he claims) by a regime that, after one generation, has
not been able to restore, for instance, the education and health systems to their
pre-1970 level, not to speak of a diversified, budding industrial sector. Where are
the Sihanoukville oil refinery, the Takhmau rubber factory, the Stung Mean Chey glass
factory, the Chhlong paper mill, the Kampot cement factory etc.... of Sangkum days?
Apart from some of these details, Hinton gives the general reader a very vivid and
compact picture of the DK regime.
As to the whys of so many killings, apart from the first chapter about "disproportionate
revenge," Hinton's anthropological-psychological analysis goes a long way towards
lifting the dark veil of the mystery of man's cruelty to man. But the specialist
in so doing should not dismiss as superficial the explanations of historians and
Those are valid explanations too. I am thinking of the fact that most of the killers
were very young men who had been torn from their families when they were children.
Hinton has nothing to say about the age of the executioners and their youths when
drilled. Nor does he sufficiently show, as Philip Short rightly pointed out, that
they came from a background steeped in ignorance and above all superstitions.
One would have expected an anthropologist to explore the dark realm of Khmer folklore,
as Philip Short had started to do. We would have had a picture of the world vision
among young adolescent boys in 1970 in the rural areas of Cambodia.
Similarly, although Hinton does mention the question of totalitarianism, the relish
of the pursuit of absolute power is not given the emphasis it deserves. I understand
this is not the subject of the book. But one cannot quote Mao only once , the
arch-model, the guide for the DK leadership. When Pol Pot eulogizes Mao at the time
of his death in September 1976, he becomes an apologist for the greatest killer in
the 20th century - 70 million deaths, according to his latest biographer, Jung Chang
(Mao, the Unknown Story, 2005).
Hinton brushes aside the theory so often put forward that the perpetrators were "ideological
automatons"  as too easy an explanation, and he wishes to go beyond what
he regards as a superficial approach.
"Perpetrators are not automatons who, for identical reasons, blindly carry out
the dictates of the State." In other words, Hinton wishes to reintroduce free
will and personal responsibility into the criminal behaviors of the perpetrators.
I wonder if this is not unconsciously projecting a Western conception of education
into the Cambodian hinterland.
Before they fell prey to the KR trainers, these youths had never been educated in
expressing their own views or opposing their elders, as in the West. The best proof
that they had been turned into killing machines is that, for those who survived the
regime, once de-conditioned, they settled down and lead normal family lives. They
are among the ones who want a trial for they want to know why and by whom they were
made to commit the monstrous acts they were forced to commit.
I would not be quite so certain this is a superficial explanation at all, as we can
observe this in all totalitarian regimes. Those, from the Nazi variety to all shades
of communist, have created youth movements where they radicalized impressionable
adolescents and turned them into enthusiastic automatons ready to blindly obey the
most criminal commands of their elders/superiors.
Hinton is right to claim that ideological brainwashing must operate within a favorable
cultural background, otherwise the transplant will fail. "By linking their lethal
ideologies to preexisting cultural knowledge, genocidal states provide perpetrators
with an array of compelling discourses that may be used, consciously or unconsciously,
in their genocidal bricolage" . Among the "preexisting cultural knowledge",
I would certainly put the superstitions, irrationality and ignorance of most of the
younger perpetrators manipulated by semi-intellectuals trained by the Communist Parties
of France, Vietnam and China.
In a summary of his main points [32-35], Hinton names disproportionate revenge and
a society marked by patronage networks. I would add a slavish mentality or blindly
obeying orders of people you regard as your superior. In the end, Hinton does mention
the factor of "obedience" [277-280], but does he ascribe it the place it
The author wants to probe the motivations "beyond"  those usually
put forward. This is interesting and ambitious, but that should not mean that the
obvious explanations are not valid too. Such as the fact that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary,
Son Sen, Nuon Chea were self-important, narcissistic academic failures, while others,
like Ke Pauk or Ta Mok, were nothing but career serial killers. They were all ardent
believers in Marxist-Leninism (for it rationalized their totalitarian power) and
in a class war that would fuel the great leap forward of Kampuchea into the front
line of history.
Some of the most interesting and perceptive pages in this book are those that analyze
the perversion of Buddhist beliefs, on the part of revolutionary doctrinaires, lumping
revolutionary consciousness and renunciation. Interesting considerations too are
those about misguided conception of honor that make the perpetrator kill the enemy
"burrowing from within" as a mark of loyalty to the Party and of honor.
There were indeed a certain amount of revenge killings. Some KR cadres took advantage
of the sheer violence to settle personal scores, but I am not entirely convinced
that this played a very significant role. I am not at all certain that, in pre-revolutionary
Cambodia , the poorer Khmers were more exploited. They owned their land much
more than today. Do we see "disproportionate revenge" today when farmers
are deprived of their tiny land or exploited by monopolistic tradesmen or rapacious
I believe the notion that KR leaders, like all fundamentalist ideologues, "had
achieved enlightenment" is quite well-perceived, but no more than Mr Vladimir
Ilyich who was not a Buddhist . His "omniscience and clairvoyance",
like Pol Pot's, enabled him to organize mass murder for the good of humanity, in
advance of Hitler.
Similarly, the notion of "independence-mastery"  rings of Buddhist
philosophy. But it also happened to be Mao's and Kim-Il-sung's refrain as well.
Hinton counts as specifically Khmer revenge killings in the early days of the regime,
of all leaders, civilian and military, associated with previous regimes . But
Messrs. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung did this too. Is this not a characteristic
of all radical revolutionary movements?
In Chapter 3, Hinton looks at the vast amount of power concentrated in Angkar, the
arch provider of all patronage. He draws a most interesting parallel between Buddhism
and the KR brand of Marxism:
"In both systems of thought, human beings are said to live in a state of ignorance,
false consciousness, and suffering. To free oneself from this dismal existence, one
must understand certain universal laws (the Four Noble Truths and the Law of Dependent
Origination, or class oppression and the Laws of Dialectical Materialism) and use
certain methods (the Middle Path, meditation, Buddhist logic, moral discipline or
[...] revolutionary ethics. The enlightened one who clearly understands this situation
(the Buddha and monks or Angkar and the Party Center) can help lead the populace
to salvation (nirvana or communism). By portraying Angkar as an almost divine, "clear-sighted,"
"enlightened" entity, therefore, the KR were revamping communist ideology
in terms of local idioms [...]. Like the Buddha, Angkar was an enlightened and all-knowing
center from which power radiated. Like the Bayon, Angkar was an axis mundi that encompassed
all lands, seeing everything with its many eyes [...], enlightened with secret knowledge
(Marxism-Leninism), to revitalize a degenerate order." 
Similarly worth quoting is the reality that "the indoctrination of cadres and
soldiers was similarly geared to creating a relationship of personal dependency with
the DK regime. Angkar was the parent-patron who did good deeds for cadres and soldiers
by giving them rank, prestige, food and guns. In return, KR were expected to loyally
support the Party organization and to 'cut off their hearts' from the Angkar's enemies."
Hinton, in Chapter 4, follows up the same argument and adds: "the KR attempted
to assume the monk's traditional role as moral instructor (teaching the new brand
of 'mindfulness') and the DK regime's glorification of asceticism, detachment, the
elimination of [...] desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors,
sentiments and attitudes), and purity parallel prominent Buddhist themes that were
geared toward helping a person attain greater mindfulness. [...] The KR blended "
high-modernist, Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and local Buddhist thought" .
Hinton has interesting pages on the eating of human liver and in particular his assertion
that "the process of disembowelment mimes the search for 'hidden enemies' and
the DK regime's high-modernist attempt to render everything visible and thus subject
to State control" .
Similarly, Hinton summarizes most of his findings about the motivations of a top
leader like Pol Pot. "[His] actions were motivated by local understandings of
patronage, the ideological doctrine he helped to formulate, the atmosphere of suspicion
and anxiety he helped to create, his group interactions with others, and the narcissistic
inflation he achieved through the destruction of impure enemies 'burrowing from within'
". Hinton does note indeed the self-aggrandizement that his position gave
him, but all it boils to is the supreme relish (probably shared by Stalin, Hitler
and Mao) of being in a position atop the pinnacle of the totalitarian state. He killed
(or ordered other people to kill), and like his fellow dictators, he enjoyed the
trappings of power.
This meant not only the relish in receiving state delegations from all over the world
(not to forget his ex-King), but the absolute power of life and death over all his
He stripped them of absolutely all their belongings first, but also 25 percent of
their lives; no one had done better in modern life. He was the most powerful of the
Finally, when Hinton again aptly describes how perpetrators had "become increasingly
desensitized," he fails to remind the reader of the obvious: that the KR leadership
used children massively.
For instance, pp. 199-202 give a lengthy account of Lor, an interrogator at S-21
whose interview and life story is used throughout the book. But he fails to note
here the main point: his age at the time of "joining the revolution" on
2nd October 1972.
Like most torturers at S-21, and like the executioners at Phnom Pros, he cannot fail
to have been very young, and probably a child. Besides, he probably did not enter
the revolution of his own accord, but his parents had been forced at gunpoint by
the incoming KR guerrillas to give their son to the revolution.
This is what Norodom Sihanouk saw among the soldiers who were his guardians in the
Palace. In War and Hope (1980), he describes the use of children: "once enrolled
into the revolutionary army, those children are separated from their families and
taken away from their native village. They are molded into the Pol-Potian indoctrination.
The recruits start a military career at the age of twelve. As they are taken charge
of by their leaders at a very early age, those yothea [soldiers] are soon convinced
that they are granted the greatest honour by being appointed 'oppakâr phdach
kar robâs pak' that is literally 'the dictatorial instruments of the Party'.
[...] Being 'the dictatorial instruments of the Party' means to have the right of
life and death over all the herds of slaves of all categories."
This is the kind of testimony from S.N. (born in 1951, interviewed in Kampong Cham
on August 20, 1993) one can hear throughout Cambodia: "This is the story of
a young orphan boy who has been adopted by the head of the collective. He is being
given clothes, food and even a bicycle. In order to become a barbarian, he is asked:
'Do you love your class? Do you love your race? Do you love Angkar? Would you dare
to smash the enemy?'
One day he is taken before a prisoner, with his hands tied behind his back. "Here
is the enemy in front of you! He is the one who killed your mother and your father."
As it is the first time, the boy does not dare to move and looks down to the ground.
The KR cadre adds: "If you dare not kill this enemy, it is because you are the
enemy; you are opposing Angkar."
Then the boy looks up to the prisoner and starts to slap him in the face. Then he
takes his sandal and bashes the scrawny, chained prisoner on the face until he bleeds.
The next day, the boy is taken to the prisoner again. "If you dare not kill
him, it is because you oppose Angkar." And he bashes the prisoner to death.
This is how he started and is later able to kill prisoners every day. If there is
none, he is bored and looks for some like a bandit.
In Cambodia, people tend to do what they are told by those in positions of authority.
Today the Ministry of Culture is selling the northern campus of RUFA to a town speculator.
This is probably not because people there think it is a good idea to break up a university
created in Sangkum days, but because they recognize who is the boss. Ministry of
Culture officials are in the government to obey orders, and this is just what they
are doing. Similarly, Duch was told by Nuon Chea that every single individual who
passed through the gates of S-21 must be put to death - and that is exactly what