The Executioners

511EjS1NWJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Here is the big question: why did a Buddhist nation produce one of the 20th century’s worst genocides? A whole chapter in Spirit Worlds is devoted to this. For my answer I relied very heavily on Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill? This post 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 I remark that underneath the Cambodian smile there lurks a capacity for “unimaginable violence”. It’s not original 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 the persons who first alerted the world to the massacres taking place in Cambodia in the later 70s, he’s spent a lifetime among the Khmers, and he should know.


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  [a classic Khmer romance of love and death] to explain it.

In Romeo and Juliet the 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.

Khmer Rouge child-solderis enter Phnom Penh, April 1975 (from - image opens to source)

Khmer Rouge child-solderis enter Phnom Penh, April 1975 (from – image opens to source)

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 U.S. 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.


Vietnamese soldiers assist two Cambodian children at Tuol Sleng torture centre after the liberation of Phnom Penh –