Shortly after their rise to power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge sought to change the social identity of the Khmer people.
Through forced relocation, expropriation of possessions and separation of family members, the regime sought to eliminate old identities as much as possible.
But one curious and often overlooked aspect of their re-education programmes is the use of music, as propaganda songs were employed to promote the Khmer Rouge’s new, socialist identity.
The strategy of using music to build identity has a strong basis in social science. Social groups form their identity largely through shared experience, and music provides a particularly powerful tool for creating such an experience.
Accordingly, music plays an important role in politics around the world, and has been used by governments and citizens alike for both noble and sinister motives. The collection of Khmer Rouge songs still held in the archives of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) provides a particularly valuable resource for understanding this phenomenon.
Studying the Khmer Rouge’s songs exposes the contradictory nature of socialist music.
In order to eliminate its citizen’s old identities, the Khmer Rouge was obliged to suppress contemporary music, which included popular music from the West.
This left them with primarily old, traditional Khmer music with which to promote the new, modern identity. Like the traditional music they imitate, Khmer Rouge songs were transmitted orally and survive today in the DC-Cam archives primarily in the form of recorded live performances.
Most traditional musicians were put to death by the Khmer Rouge, and those remaining were forced to learn and perform the new regime songs. The accompanying instrumental ensembles frequently resemble those associated with basak and mohori, Cambodia’s traditional folk theatre styles.
The general performance style suggests that the traditionally trained musicians simply applied their knowledge to the new repertoire.
Even a brief perusal of the songs reveals clearly contrasting styles. Many songs feature gracefully balanced melodies, but others contain shorter phrases with more melodic variation and a marching-like character.
Still others feature simpler melodies with more extravagant ornamentation. As with the instrumental ensembles, these styles likely borrow from traditional or outside sources in order to complement the lyrics.
The Khmer Rouge’s songs, in particular, are remarkable in that they were largely effective. Even Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who despised the songs, admitted in his book Surviving the Killing Fields that for brief moments, listening to the songs, he believed the new regime had succeeded.
Their persistence is another indicator of their success. For better or worse, several survivors speak of the songs positively in spite of the misery of the life they accompanied.
If studied further, a more complete understanding of the songs could yield valuable insights into the type of “revolutionary culture” the Khmer Rouge sought to instil, as well as further illuminate the role music plays in the formation of social identity.
Still today, the use of music for creating social identity in political campaigns is a common tool. Visceral, engaging and compelling, music has the capacity to connect with people like no other medium, for both good and evil.
The Khmer Rouge’s exploitation of music is among history’s most poignant examples of the latter.