Many Cambodians believe, almost as an article of faith, that the Khmer Rouge killed
more than three million people during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. When this
estimate of the Khmer Rouge death toll was first publicized in the early 1980s, commentators
in the West almost universally dismissed it as a product of "Vietnamese propaganda",
an invented figure designed strictly for political purposes.
In later years, more sober analysts examining this three-million figure also discounted
it, basing their much lower estimates of the death toll on interview data, demographic
analyses and other statistical methodologies.
Yet, the three million figure was not a complete invention. In the early 1980s, the
authorities of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) carried out what amounted
to a national household survey, aiming to interview every head of household in the
entire country about what had happened to their families during the Pol Pot regime.
On July 25, 1983, the "Research Committee on Pol Pot's Genocidal Regime"
issued its final report, including detailed province by province data. Among other
things, their data indicated that 3,314,768 people lost their lives in the "Pol
Pot time." But that report was quickly forgotten inside Cambodia, and it never
became known outside Cambodia.
More than a decade later, researchers working at the Documentation Center of Cambodia
discovered many of the records from this remarkable research project. Those records
allowed Documentation Center researchers to reconstruct the methodology employed
by the PRK Research Committee, and they detected some flaws in their research design
which they believed would tend to lead to an overestimation of the total casualty
The Research Committee interviewers of the early 1980s had gone from house to house,
and from village to village, collecting death tolls from each head of household.
It appeared, however, that they did not adequately account for the fact that extended
families are usually spread out across more than one household, and therefore double
counting of some victims could occur based on reports from different households belonging
to the same extended family.
The Documentation Center subsequently concluded that the 3.314 million figure reported
by the PRK Research Committee may have been overestimated by perhaps 50 percent,
putting the actual death toll somewhere nearer to two million.
Over the last five years, researchers at the Documentation Center of Cambodia have
continued to quietly and systematically study this elusive question of "The
Number". They have been using a new methodological approach: mass grave survey
research. The Documentation Center is in the process of attempting to locate and
map each and every mass grave in Cambodia.
Though this work is not yet complete, the results to date are quite startling. So
far, 20,438 mass graves dating from the Khmer Rouge regime, spread all across Cambodia,
have been precisely surveyed using modern mapping technologies. According to the
Documentation Center data, these mass graves contain the remains of 1,110,829 victims
Let's look a little more closely at that number. By the end of 1999, Documentation
Center mass grave mapping teams had made at least one visit to 144 of Cambodia's
170 districts, and in the process had surveyed approximately two-thirds of Cambodia's
subdistricts. Many subdistricts in the northern and northwestern regions of the country
have not yet been carefully surveyed, due to obvious security considerations.
Because it is suspected that populous northwestern provinces such as Battambang and
Banteay Meanchey had very high rates of execution during the Khmer Rouge regime,
it is likely that the estimate of the number of victims in mass graves will rise
significantly when the mapping surveys are finally completed. The total number could
reach as high as 1.5 million.
The twenty thousand mass graves mapped so far are virtually all located at, or near,
Khmer Rouge security centers. Eyewitnesses at most of these mass grave sites have
testified that the graves contain victims brought there by Khmer Rouge security forces,
and that the victims were murdered either in the adjacent prisons or at the mass
grave sites themselves. Thus one can conclude that virtually all of the mass graves
contain victims whose cause of death was execution by the Khmer Rouge.
What about other causes of death during the Khmer Rouge regime, such as starvation,
disease and overwork? Anecdotal evidence from survivors strongly suggests that the
death toll from these other causes of death was also very high. How high?
According to historian Ben Kiernan, data collected by Milton Osborne suggested that
executions amounted to only 31% of all deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime. The
demographer Marek Sliwinski estimates that about 40% of the death toll resulted from
execution, 36% from starvation, 13% from disease, and the remainder from either combat
or natural causes. Other work carried out by a political scientist, Steve Heder,
suggested that different proportions of the total death toll could be attributed
to execution for urban versus rural dwellers, about 33% among "new people"
and 50% among "base people".
Thus the various estimates of the proportion of deaths resulting from execution range
from a low of about 30% for the entire population to as high as 50% among base people.
The implications of these figures are enormous. If these calculations of the proportion
of deaths due to causes other than execution are accurate, then we begin to approach
an astonishing conclusion. It begins to look possible that the original Cambodian
estimate of 3.3 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime might be very nearly
If as little as 31% of the death toll was the result of executions, then a total
of 3.3 million deaths would imply slightly more than one million executions, and
the Documentation Center data suggests they have already found more victims of execution
than that. If we apply Heder's top estimate of 50% for base people to the entire
population, and find upon the completion of the mass grave surveys that the number
of suspected victims of execution is around 1.5 million, then we again end up with
a figure in the vicinity of three million total dead in the Pol Pot time.
In either case, we would be driven to the conclusion that not one million, not two
million, but rather three million or more Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge
It is important to note that these figures all represent preliminary findings. More
data needs to be collected. The existing data from the Documentation Center mass
grave mapping project is far from perfect, and contains some uncertainties. Resolving
those uncertainties will require further research. That research is continuing at
the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
But in the meantime, one thing is clear. It is no mystery why twenty-five years after
the Khmer Rouge came to power, the Cambodian people still suffer from the effects
of the Khmer Rouge genocide. And it is no wonder that the Cambodian people continue
to demand real justice, in the form of a criminal tribunal fully consistent with
international judicial standards, to judge the leaders who killed so many of their
mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and children.
Craig Etcheson is an independent genocide researcher.