Analysiscambodia cultureCommentaryKhmer Rougekhmer superstitionpolitics

The Executioners


Here is the big question: how and why did a Buddhist nation produce one of the 20th century’s worst genocides, and one which is marked by so many horrific instances of cruelty and savage violence? A whole chapter in my book Spirit Worlds is devoted to this and for my answer I relied heavily on Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill?. This article therefore stands as a sort of review of Hinton’s book, which is essential reading for all those who want to understand Cambodia.

At one point in my book I remark that underneath the Cambodian smile there lurks a capacity for “unimaginable violence”. It’s not original thought to me. I heard it used by Father Francois Ponchaud during the Q&A session of a documentary movie at Metahouse in Phnom Penh one evening. Ponchaud was one of the persons who first alerted the world to the massacres taking place in Cambodia in the 1970s, he’s spent a lifetime among the Khmers, and he should know. Other commentators have made similar statements. Michael Vickery has written that patterns of sudden and extreme violence have deep roots in Cambodia, and Sebastian Strangio records that even Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once described Cambodia’s leaders as ‘utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings.”

Khmer culture, like every other, has strong taboos against taking life, and Hinton asks how and why these taboos could have broken down.

The first part of his answer is what he calls the Principle of Disproportionate Revenge, or ‘a head for an eye’, and he references Tum Teav (the classic Khmer romance of love and death) to explain it.

In Romeo and Juliet the two young lovers die and their grieving families are reconciled over their corpses. This would seem quite inadequate to a Cambodian audience. At the end of Tum Teav the King gathers up all those responsible, plus many who are not, buries them up to their necks, and runs a plough over their heads. Wrongdoing, in short, brings punishment, not reconciliation, and the punishment is gruesomely disproportionate to the crime.

The Khmer Rouge drew their fighters and cadres from the rural poor. Often these were teenagers (Angkar deliberately recruited children), and mostly they came from families and communities ripped apart by bombing and civil war. In other words, the Khmer Rouge rank and file were immature, uneducated, deracinated and traumatized.


They actively encouraged the new recruits to take revenge against the ‘capitalists’ and ‘reactionary classes’ who, they taught them, were responsible for their suffering. A young Khmer Rouge soldier, ordered to execute ‘class enemies’, might therefore feel his action, and the order from his superiors, were justified in terms of Cambodian concepts of wrong-doing and revenge.

Another important element identified by Hinton is the way the Cambodian psyche manages anger. Anger is one of the ‘fires’ that Buddhism warns against; together with desire and delusion, it feeds the attachment to the world that is the root cause of suffering. Anger is also socially disruptive and psychically uncomfortable, and Cambodian village society has elaborate mechanisms for its management. Folktales teach children that he who is quick to anger, who has a ‘hot heart’, will suffer misfortune. Faced with an anger-inducing situation, the ideal is to ‘calm the feeling’ and ‘cool the heart’, restoring the same state of balance that a woman who has just given birth restores by heating her body. Anger is repressed. The result is the smile of Asia that visitors remark on, but underneath the smile lurks a capacity for quite unimaginable violence.

Buddhism discourages anger, but the Khmer Rouge encouraged it. The young cadres and fighters were educated to feel the most extreme form of ‘painful anger’ against American bombing and the arrogance, real or perceived, of the Phnom Penh rich. The American bombers and the rich were out of reach, so the rage was directed at Lon Nol soldiers, the police and officials, and later, when the Khmer Rouge took power, against ‘class enemies’ and ‘traitors’. Victims arrested by Angkar and delivered up to the killing fields became the legitimate targets of ‘painful anger’.


A further factor is the role of obedience and authority, which derive ultimately from the biological fact that humans are social animals and live in hierarchical bands. The famous experiments of Stanley Milgram in the 1960s are highly instructive in this regard. A teacher, T, gave instructions to a learner, L, under the direction of an experimenter, E. T believed that L was the subject of the experiment, but in fact he himself was the subject. L was set a task, and T was instructed to punish him with a harmless electric shock if he made a mistake. This, supposedly, would help L to learn. The shock increased with each successive mistake, with L first expressing pain, then pleading with T to stop. This continued until it ended in an ominous silence.

Milgram had expected that the teachers would refuse to continue at some point short of the perceived death of the learner, but most, prompted by the experimenter, continued to the end. He drew the conclusion that individuals can and will avoid personal responsibility for acts that they would normally consider morally wrong when they view themselves as no more than an agent for a higher authority. The experiment has been repeated in many different cultures with the same result.

If there is any specifically Cambodian aspect to obedience, it lies in the extremely hierarchical nature of Cambodian society. In Western societies children are all more or less equally powerless, set apart from a world of adults who are all more of less equally powerful and authoritative. The world of the Cambodian child, in contrast, is ranked.

These rankings are codified (significantly) in the language. For example, English has a single word for the second person pronoun – everyone is ‘you’, from a cat to a king. Not so in Cambodia. In Khmer, the pronoun varies according to the status of the person addressed, and to use the wrong word is a terrible faux pas – a farmer would not address his neighbour with the same ‘you’ he uses for his oxen, nor would the ‘you’ he uses for the neighbour be used when addressing parents. Likewise with verbs: commoners and kings (and monks) have quite different words for actions like eating and sleeping. The closest analogy in English is to consider how animals have snouts and paws while humans have mouths and hands.

One further facet of the psychology of the Khmer Rouge killers needs mention: ritual cannibalism. Such cannibalism was not common, but it was not unknown either, and this needs to be explained.


Hinton describes an incident witnessed by a girl in a Khmer Rouge labour camp in Battambang province. A young man was condemned to be executed for digging up and eating some cassava roots – a crime because it showed ‘selfism’ and a refusal to accept the standards of communal eating. The girl, the daughter of a French father and Vietnamese mother, followed at a distance and watched from hiding as the condemned man was tied to a tree and blindfolded. One of the three executioners then took a knife, cut open the victim’s abdomen, and removed the liver while the man was still alive. The three then cooked and ate the liver.

In this case the three executioners may well have been psychopaths – the woman describes them as arrogant and bloodthirsty. Even so, the act seems ritualistic as well as sadistic.

Cannibalism is universal. In 19th century Fiji it was normal practice to eat a dead enemy; in France in 1580, in the course of a religious pogrom, Catholic townspeople cooked and ate the internal organs of a Protestant; more recently, a US soldier has described his buddies laughing at the story of a soldier in another company who ate the charred flesh of an Iraqi civilian. In each case the act was a symbolic marking of the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’: for the Fijians, eating a dead warrior prevented his spirit from aiding his comrades from the other world, the French Catholics may have symbolically eaten the enemy’s ‘courage’, and the American soldier was certainly not motivated by hunger.

What did the Khmer Rouge cannibals think they were doing? Only they could answer that question, and finding an ex-Khmer Rouge willing to admit to cannibalism, much less explain himself, would be even more difficult than finding one willing to admit to mass murder. But the symbolic dimension gives a clue as to why the Cambodian cannibals chose to eat their victim’s liver, since the liver, for Khmers, is the seat of daring: “I have a big liver and am not scared of anyone.”

Cambodian society is hierarchical, ranked, and repressive; war overturns everything, and those who never dared are scared of no one.

This article first appeared on Philip Coggan’s blog Many thanks to Philip for permission to reprint it here.

Philip Coggan’s new book, Spirit World, is available for purchase at Monument Books.

14 thoughts on “The Executioners

  • Soi Dog

    Find me any culture in human history that hasn’t had repeated periods of unimaginable violence and killing. Sometimes that horrific violence is directed internally and sometimes externally. Sometimes both sequentially. Cambodia, Serbia, El Salvador, Rwanda (to mention but a few)just happen to have gone through these periods within our lifetimes. It was Japan, Germany and Russia for the previous generation. Before that the US had a nasty civil war and has barely seen a handful of years without one war or another since. People from the Scandinavian countries wreaked havoc against their neighbors for ages. The list goes on and will continue to do so. Such is human nature. Buddhism, or religion in general, can’t stop all human tendencies toward violence. As often as not, fundamentalist religious dogma make things much, much worse…along with misguided nationalism.

    • Atarantola

      Every country and culture has produced unimaginable violence and killing, and each one of us is capable of murder; Not every culture has produced frenzied killing, “chronic” atrocities and mass crimes against humanity, which seems to occur in very particular sets of circumstances, no matter what Hannah Arendt might say.
      It is not an attack on Cambodia, a country we love, to attempt to understand the factors that drove the Khmer Rouge – a component of humanity, but far from representative – to this sort of frenzy. Cambodia is one of the very few documented such events.

  • Greg Hill

    Well written and extremely interesting article.

  • Greg Hill

    Interesting and extremely well written….I look forward to picking up your book.

  • Those who participated in the “dirty war” in Argentina are said to have believed that their savagery was saving their country from godless communism.

    The Cheka is claimed to have used the slogan “We are driving humankind to happiness with the iron fist of the Cheka.

    Anyway, the brute lives in all of us; some people need more encouragement – and official sanction – than others to behave horrifically :

  • I’m guessing Father Francois Ponchaud was not familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous (lethal) electric shock experiment. Gentle verbal encouragement by an authoritative figure is all it takes for a majority of us to kill another being, it appears.

  • Marco

    I’m not even reading this article, because I’m so tired of Westerners being so preoccupied with stuff that happened in the 1970’s. Cambodia is such a wonderful country, why do we have to talk about this over and over again. How would you feel all the world cared about your country was historical events that happened 40+ years ago? Jesus, move on. Watch a horror movie or something.

    • Soi Dog

      So you didn’t bother to read the article but you felt the need to sign in and comment on what you guess to be the article’s content?

      The answer to your question is: Because this is a forum dedicated to discussions on all things Cambodia, and often deals with history. Nobody is forcing you to read anything or take part in any discussions.

      • bob pugh

        Excellent reply from Soi Dog.

    • Atarantola

      “How would you feel all the world cared about your country was historical events that happened 40+ years ago? Jesus, move on.”

      Yeah, let’s not be preoccupied by “stuff” that happened 70 years ago and let’s do that with Germany as well. And the slave trade is just soooooo boring. Let’s just enjoy our smartphone and Facebook page.

      That said, Cambodia is indeed a wonderful, if complex, country.

  • Billy

    Marco (maybe) believes that in a country like Cambodia one can simply turn a page and a whole new era begins. Like 1688 in Great Britain or the end of the American Civil War.

    It isn’t quite like that at all.

    When the Vietnamese liberators crossed the border in force at the end of 1978/beginning of 1979, the larger units of the armed forces of DK scampered to the Thai border and were received with open arms by the venal Thai military, while other armed units were cut off within Cambodia. Phnom Kulen was one such place.

    Cross-border raids, intended to destabilize the People’s Republic and to murder and maim civilians, continued for years during the years when DK personnel occupied the Cambodian seat at the UN and such countries as Thailand, China, Singapore and even the UK.

    There’s a woman living in Siem Reap, born late in 1979, who bears a scar inflicted by a grenade hurled during a KR raid on a border village close to Poipet. This happened when she was ten years old.

    Terrorism continued even after Sihanouk’s return.

    The past may be another country but the shadows of the past are cast over us all.

  • Billy


    … and such countries as Thailand, China, Singapore and even the UK and the USA were actively or passively complicit in aiding the DK remnants against the People’s Republic on the grotesque and simplistic grounds that the Cold War was still a reality and that the People’s Republic was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DRV, an ally of the USSR.

    Margaret Thatcher mused aloud that the DK remnants probably contained some “moderate” elements which could be subtly encouraged – rather like assuming that there were Bow Groupers as well as Monday Clubbers in the ranks of the KR.

  • Chefsamba

    I find it bungling trying to explain what happened to Cambodia in such a short article nor can I find any remarkable findings or thoughts.
    Comparing it with canibalism in Fiji – omg!
    Onvious the subject is far too complex for the author.


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