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Essay: Uncovering What Pol Pot Did in the Cambodian Genocide

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Genocide essays

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Like a mousetrap tricks a mouse into willingly running into its death, a genocide leader fools its targets. Unfortunately, mass murders and genocides have been occurring all over the world for nearly thousands of years. Even in today’s civilized society, the word genocide is not an uncommon term. News channels broadcast headlines with gruesome stories of mass murders happening all over the world. However, only certain mass murders can be labeled as a genocide. Genocides occur when a certain ethnicity or group is being targeted and murdered. Although these murders have been occurring globally for thousands of years, there was not always a term to describe these crimes against specific groups or ethnicities. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish journalist, is credited for creating and coining the term genocide. Before Raphael Lemkin, the term genocide was unheard of (“Coining a Word”). A specific genocide that occurred rather recently is the Cambodian genocide. The Cambodian genocide lasted from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge and their notorious leader, Pol Pot, murdered educated citizens, monks, Buddhists, and any civilians that were perceived by the Khmer Rouge as disloyal in hopes of creating a communist utopian society (“The Cambodian Genocide”).

Raphael Lemkin, a former journalist who studied mass murders and the protection of ethnicities, is known today for instituting the word genocide. Raphael Lemkin lived in a Polish town for the majority of his life until he was forced to emigrate to the United States of America during the Nazi invasion. Although Raphael Lemkin escaped, almost fifty of his family members were murdered in the Nazi invasion. Once in the United States of America, Lemkin fought to label the Nazi invasion as a serious crime. Using the Greek root, genos, translating to race and the latin stem, cide, which means killing, Lemkin created the term genocide. He described genocide as being the intentional murders of a specific group or ethnicity. Lemkin was also determined to find justice by charging the Holocaust perpetrators with a serious war crime. This lead him to help launch the Nuremberg trials. However, at this time, genocide was not yet acknowledged as a true crime, so the perpetrators were not charged with genocide. He traveled to the United Nations and fought for genocide to become an acknowledged term. Lemkin finally succeeded in 1948 when the United Nations recognized genocide as an official crime. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Lemkin succeeded in creating a law prohibiting genocide, there were still many other genocides to follow the Holocaust (“Coining a Word”).

Cambodia is a victim of yet another infamous genocide. Events leading up to the Cambodian genocide began in 1970 when strenuous tensions grew between the Prince of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk, and a group with the desire to overthrow Prince Sihanouk and a Civil War began. The rebels were successful, but the battle left the Cambodian government unbalanced and provided The Communist Party of Kampuchea, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, the opportunity to rise to power. With assistance from the Vietnamese, The Khmer Rouge led by Saloth Sar, commonly known as Pol Pot, was able to overthrow the newly unstable government and gain complete control of Cambodia’s capital city by April 17th, 1975 (“The Cambodian Genocide”). Pol Pot’s plan was to create a classless, communist based society that was restarted at “Year Zero”. Educated civilians, wealthy citizens, monks, minorities, buddhists, opposers, and  the weak were all targets of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge felt threatened by these groups because they felt that these people could overrun the Regime or influence other Cambodians with their intelligence. Pol Pot believed that he needed to start a new way of life based on agriculture. Under Pol Pot’s rule, citizens were given no power, control, or freedom. He reversed the traditional Khmer culture into a lifestyle from the Middle Age Time (“Cambodia’s Brutal Khmer”). In Pol Pot’s eyes, everyone from infants to elders were possible targets and no one was safe from Pol Pot’s plan to reinvent Cambodia (“The Cambodian Genocide”).

 Every perpetrator creates a plan of manipulation and lies in order to extinguish the target-and that is exactly what Pol Pot did. The Khmer Rouge first gained the civilians trust; however, once in complete power, the Khmer Rouge showed their true colors. They began their plan to reinvent the country by isolating Cambodian citizens from the rest of the world. Money, religion, and cities were destroyed and the people were forced to work in fields growing crops. He renamed Cambodia “The Democratic Kampuchea,”after the Khmer Rouge’s formal name.  In the beginning, citizens were sent to labour camps with poor conditions. He created concentration camps where citizens worked in the fields until the exhaustion, malnutrition, or disease killed them. However, soon after, the agricultural fields became known as the Killing Fields of Cambodia because Pol Pot began executing civilians. For example, of the 20,000 Cambodians sent and imprisoned in S-21, a well-known death camp, there are only 7 known survivors. Mass graves were scattered all over the country to hold the 1.5-2.5 million bodies of murdered Cambodians (“Pol Pot”). The article “Pol Pot,” explains, “Former civil servants, doctors, teachers, and other professionals were stripped of their possessions and forced to toil in the fields as part of a reeducation process. Those that complained about the work, concealed their rations, or broke rules were usually tortured in a detention center, such as the infamous S-21, and then killed.” Life prior to the Khmer Rouge’s rise was irrelevant to Pol Pot. He believed that he needed reeducate the Cambodian citizens with his new standards of living that followed his strict rules in order to create his twisted vision of a utopia. Luckily, Pol Pot was never able to complete his entire plan of action.

After four years in power, The Khmer Rouge’s government began to deteriorate in 1977. Skirmishes began between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians in 1977 and the Khmer Rouge began to believe that there were spies on the inside. They accused everyone of giving outside countries information on the camp circumstances or giving the Vietnamese information. The article “The Cambodian Genocide” emphasizes that, “Unlike in other genocides or conflicts,  no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state…No evidence was needed in order to send one to prison and people often fabricated their confessions of various crimes , with the belief that this would end their torment.” Everyone was at risk for becoming a victim. Once one confessed to his/her “crimes”, they were sent to one of the many Killing Fields to be executed.  It was not uncommon for Cambodian citizens to turn in others in order to remain on Pol Pot’s good side. Although other countries disapproved, in 1979, the Vietnamese, with the help of the Soviet Union, overthrew Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime. As the Vietnamese invaded, some Khmer Rouge members and Cambodian camp refugees fled to safety in Thailand, causing the entire genocide to come crashing down. Cambodia and Vietnam continued to fight for another 10 years after the invasion, but Vietnam finally retreated in 1989 when the United States provided aid to Cambodia and the Soviet Union cut off its line of support to Vietnam. By 1991, both the Vietnamese and Cambodians signed a peace treaty. Cambodia began to rebuild and, in 1993, Prince Sihanouk was re-elected. Although the Khmer Rouge was out of government power, Pol Pot continued to lead the regime until he was placed under house arrest in 1997. Pol Pot died in 1998 in his home without any justice or time served. Soon after their regime leader died, the Khmer Rouge finally died off in 1999. Cambodia is still recovering today from both the scars and damage that the Khmer Rouge Regime left behind. Unfortunately, there are many other genocides to compare the Cambodian Genocide to (“The Cambodian Genocide”).

The Holocaust is one of the most well-known atrocities, and the actions involved in both the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide are very similar and different in many ways. In both cases, a seemingly trustworthy leader ends up betraying his own people to create their twisted version of a utopia. Once in power, both genocide leaders manipulated the citizens and even used to educational system as an easy way to brainwash and manipulate the youth. Both created chains of labor and death camps to kill their victims of either starvation, disease, or exhaustion. The Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide tore relationships apart until brothers were forced to turn on brothers  (“Why Should We Remember?”). Although the Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide have very similar aspects, there are also differences. For example, Pol Pot’s goal was to restart at “Year Zero”, while Adolf Hitler planned to advance Germany. As the article “Past Still Haunts Khmer Genocide Survivor” by Antonio Graceffo states, a pronounced difference between the Holocaust and The Cambodian genocide is that in the Cambodian genocide “not a single Khmer was excluded from participation in the genocide. Every single Khmer, living in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 was a victim, a perpetrator, or both” (Graceffo).  In the Cambodian Genocide, there were no bystanders. There were only sufferers and those that caused the suffering. In Cambodia everyone was out to get everyone else and there was no telling who could be trusted. On the other hand, in the Holocaust, the Nazis specifically targeted distinct groups of people while onlookers turned a blind eye. While mainly Jewish and other groups of citizens were murdered by the Germans, Khmer citizens were killed by other Khmers. Due to the fact that Germany was a world power before the Holocaust and World War II, the involvement of the rest of the world was greater than the world’s involvement in Cambodia. While the Cambodian genocide was occurring, outside countries were hesitant to get involved because Cambodia was not powerful enough to be a threat, so it may not have been a priority to other countries. Needless to say, both the Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide, like all genocides, have one major aspect in common: the only result is death and utter destruction (“Why Should We Remember?”).

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime slaughtered religious representatives, educated people, and rebelling citizens in what is now known as the Cambodian Genocide in order to create a corrupt vision of a perfect society (“The Cambodian Genocide”). The Cambodian Genocide is an example of dishonorable power taking a major turn for the worse. Pol Pot had all of the executive power to murder whomever he wished. Millions of innocent lives were lost and damaged because of this unstable government system. Time and time again, leaders turn on their own followers and the rest of the world watches. Learning from past mistakes is a key for survival, but the world cannot seem to get a grip on the understanding that letting mass murders happen while everyone else watches could be the end. Although genocide is a horrendous crime, an even worse crime is allowing it to happen more than once.

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