When Ideology becomes Identity: Khmer Rouge Soldiers as Perpetrators And Victims

Rangineh Azimzadeh
Posted April 11, 2009 from United States

When I first went to Cambodia I had no idea what to expect. What I knew about Cambodian history was relatively grim and as a first semester conflict resolution graduate student, I knew I was about to embark on a lesson that could never be found in a textbook. Our goal in going to Cambodia was to learn about the challenges to peacebuilding in a post-genocide society – to examine as much information as we could through interviews, observations, meeting with NGOs and government organizations and, perhaps most importantly, through connections with the locals.

It did not take long before we were able to call our Khmer colleagues “friends” and even less time for us to ask them about their views regarding the peacebuilding process in Cambodia as well as their definition of peace. As we continued on our journey of meetings, we concluded that it was a very real possibility that, by the end of the trip, we might not be able to actually define peace in one complete, comfortable sentence. What we were able to conclude, however, was that certain elements were mentioned enough that we could confidently attribute aspects such justice, reconciliation and truth as a few of the many pieces that made up the collage known as peace.

These three elements: truth, justice and reconciliation were brought up numerous times (most likely as often by us as those we were asking). We were often told that the reconciliation process could not take place until justice was served and justice could not be served until the truth was told. So where does one begin? The majority of my colleagues and I became quite curious about what initiatives were set in place to work toward this concept of justice. One quick and often default answer that we received was the tribunals.

We were fortunate enough to visit the tribunals during our stay in Cambodia and while I was able to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of the actual tribunal process, I still walked away wondering if this would in any way be sufficient “justice” for the Khmer people. Later that evening, our group sat down to reflect on the day’s events and the issue of justice and the tribunals quickly arose. Opinions began to soar about whether prosecuting 5 Khmer Rouge commanders and, inherently, allowing the rest of the soldiers to go free would serve justice for the estimated 1.7 million people that were killed during the genocide. It was a hard question that demanded thought.

The discussion began to get heated when all of a sudden a voice silenced the room by bringing to light a point that I personally had failed to seriously consider, which was that the majority of the soldiers were, in all actuality, thirteen and fourteen year old kids. From that moment onward, my curiosity was peaked as to how to understand this unique element – this crucial piece of the puzzle that took young, innocent children and systematically made them into killing machines? Where in the world was the justice in that? Much of the mystery was uncovered when we visited the Teoul Sleng Genocide Museum.

Upon walking into the Teoul Sleng Genocide Museum the first images you see are pictures of young children dressed in all black – hundreds and hundreds of children. My first thought was an immediate sense of sadness because I, like many, assumed that these were the faces of the innocent victims that were tortured at the prison. You can imagine my shock when Emma, a colleague from the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, quickly identified them as the actual soldiers, or in other words, as the perpetrators of the tortures that took place at the prison.

Through the rest of the tour I struggled to understand how the Khmer Rouge not only recruited these children, but were able to convince them to take part in some of the most horrendous acts against their own people. However, as Emma continued to describe to us how the young soldiers, some even as young as five or six years old, were indoctrinated, manipulated and more often than not forced to obey the great Angkar, I began getting a small glimpse into a very different aspect of this already complex conflict.

We studied quite a bit about the importance of identity during the first semester of conflict resolution and it was easy to see where the role of identity played out within the Khmer Rouge. Many of the soldiers that the Khmer Rouge recruited were poor farmers often times with little to no prospects of a better, less poverty-stricken life. I tried to place myself in their shoes, if even for a second, to see if I could easily turn away offers of power, three meals a day (when I am already starving) and, most importantly, a one-way ticket out of the bottom. Basic needs theory tells us that one of the basic human needs is having a sense of identity. But what happens when this identity is not the identity you want or chose?

Not all of the soldiers necessarily chose to join the Khmer Rouge. Countless soldier testimonials claim that when given the choice between killing and being killed, the answer was simple: survive at all cost. It seems almost a sick and morbid way of understanding a psychology, a mind set, which functioned from the very basic level of survival but it’s from this very place that the face that was once a perpetrator begins to slowly blend with the face of a victim.

We researched enough to know that the psychological traumas the Cambodians endured were not simply reserved for the victims under the Khmer Rouge – many of the victims, in fact, were those whom actually perpetuated the crimes. I cannot help but think back to one of the documentaries we watched prior to our departure in which a group of former Khmer Rouge commanders stationed at S-21 torture center were interviewed by a former prisoner. The prisoner asked one of the commanders if he considered himself to be a victim and the commander responded by saying “yes, we are the primary victims and you are the secondary victims.” It was a simple, yet powerful, statement that clearly illustrated the degree to which these former commanders considered themselves to be victims.

This article is not in any way intended to justify the horrific crimes that were committed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. What this article is intended to do, however, is provide an alternative look at a seemingly straightforward assumption about a group of young children that were forced, at thirteen and fourteen years old, to make a decision that would subsequently affect the rest of their lives and, consequently, end a million others’.

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  • Maria de Chirikof
    Apr 11, 2009
    Apr 11, 2009

    I was very interested in your article and thank you for posting it. I wanted to comment on what I think would help the group you are with in understanding things and give perspective though.

    I think a major part of each year teachings should be in understanding the starting point of where you come from in your thinking to help gain a truer understanding of both yourself and the problems faced in other countries. (I am assuming this is a US based program you are with). And each year do it over again to get rid of the 'desensitized' thinking that is ingrained in Americans.

    What I think would really give perspective to the students in understanding situations people in other countries face is understanding the situations in America. The indigenous people of America and Alaska should be studied first and foremost to help the students understand that their viewpoint in starting off is from a sort of "desensitized" one where they have become immune to the voices of the indigenous people here. And given that truth how can they truly expect to understand the sufferings and ideas of Justice of other cultures?

    I know most Americans like to say that all this happened hundreds of years ago and they were not personally involved so they can easily dismiss any ideas of themselves as an "oppressor" since they would not do that themselves. But history repeated itself with Alaska. America enjoys our resources and does not care that the peoples here are oppressed and had their land stolen by America. Unless you are actively seeking true Justice for the Alaskan Natives then you are among the 'oppressors' who have become desensitized to another's plight due to your own wants and desires. Understanding that basic truth will really help your group look with a clearer vision about what is happening in other countries.

    As with all dealings with indigenous Americans, the US government set it up so they can control them totally and with the idea in mind of someday saying 'they are not Indigenous people anymore'. Proof of this is how they keep track of "degrees of indian blood" when they have no right to say who is or is not an indigenous person for a tribe. Always there was this idea of eventually taking away the identity and values of the indigenous peoples of America, a dishonesty that runs deep in Americans as a country.

    I used the word desensitized a few times on purpose because I believe it is what happens often and you can see where many Americans are tired of these discussions about the rights of the indigenous peoples of America and Alaska. Just imagine how the indigenous peoples feel though that after several hundred years (and even less for Alaskan Natives) it is still an issue about Justice. It was reading your remarks about the debate your group had about what would constitute Justice for them that made me want to post this.

    A good exercise for a lesson in what constitutes Justice would be to describe a scenario much like what happened to Alaska's indigenous peoples and let the debate get heated and then say how the perpetrators of this injustice is actually 'US" and this is happening as we speak to Alaskans. If they read how one group sold the country to another group and how neither group had the right to buy or sell this country then it will give a very good insight when they discover that these evil and injustice people are actually themselves and their own country. How there is a veil thrown over the Truth of what is happening that eagerly wear to help hide things they do not want to deal with themselves since it might involve a bit of sacrifice on their part, you know, like having to carpool to conserve gas instead of each driving their own since "we are Americans, dammit, and can abuse the world and it's people because we have our Rights! Who cares about them Natives since their lives are so much better now that they too can not care about anything else but themselves and do it without feeling guilty about it since it is our Right as an American". Sorry if that sounds a bit vulgar and rude but...

    Here is something I wrote about things that can and should be done for Justice: http://www.worldpulse.com/node/8631

    Please read down to the comments posted too since it helps explain the part about Canada... I would love to hear your comments on it! I would love to see each tribe given a "Senator" to help balance things out and at least 4 Supreme court Justices that "we" elect that are only Indigenous Alaskan/American and turning over of the areas that deal with natural resources and food production to us to run since it is obvious it is hard for Americans to overlook selfish desires over the greater good and an economic council with real power to make real decisions instead of just sitting around talking to each other about what should happen or be and for the monies meant for the indigenous peoples to go directly to them and so on...


  • amelia
    Apr 14, 2009
    Apr 14, 2009


    What a truly powerful post! Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I can only imagine how exciting and difficult your field of graduate study must be, but ultimately all the more rewarding. I wanted to introduce you to a group on PulseWire called The Cambodia Cafe if you have not already seen it. This group is meant to foster discussion surrounding Cambodia, Cambodian life and visions for the future of the country and her people, particularly at this monumental juncture in Cambodian history. I think that the group would greatly benefit from gaining your membership and hearing your article. You can go to the following link to join the group and access the group journal: http://worldpulsemagazine.com/pulsewire/groups/8410

    Feel free to repost your article there, or something new! We are hoping to get a vibrant dialogue started to coincide with our Emagazine release, this week, which is spotlighting a country focus piece on Cambodia and will have a link to the group on PulseWire.

    I look forward to reading more of your stories as you continue to share, and I hope to see you in the Cambodia Cafe!

    All my best, Amelia