Democratic Kampuchea

Language and National Identity in Asia: Cambodia (by Steve Heder) – Democratic Kampuchea

Language and National Identity in Asia
Edited by Andrew Simpson
Oxford University Press, 2007

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.6 Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1978

Although Pol Pot and several of his senior ministers were French-educated Sino-Khmer, an important linguistic aspect of the DK regime was that it was more ethno-linguistically Khmer than any previous twentieth-century polity. The overwhelming majority of CPK local cadres and much of the top leadership spoke only Khmer, and insistently so, demanding that everyone talk in the political dialect originally devised by Tou Samut. For the first time in Cambodian history the speaking of foreign languages was also considered a dangerous political flaw and could result in the speakers’ execution. However, while pursuing violent linguistic Khmerization, DK was also the also the first regime since colonialism not to formally extol Khmer-ism, proclaiming instead that all its people were Kampucheans, the aim being transformation of the entire population into proletarianized, atheistic worker-peas­ants with no ethnic differences (Heder 2005).

Notoriously, DK’s spectacular acceleration of previous trends toward linguistic Khmerization was connected to a nationalist political project involving massive murder, including genocide and other crimes against humanity. This project was driven by Pol Pot’s ambition to restore Cambodian glory and its ‘national soul’ (Pol 1976: 13-14) by building a cosmically perfect example of universal communism, combining the most radical aspects of the Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolu­tions in order to surpass all of them by a ‘Phenomenally Great Leap Forward’ in economic development. Everyone became an Other of this imagined perfect Marxist Kampuchea: US imperialism, French colonialism, Soviet revisionism, Vietnamese expansionism, and Chinese Communist interference internationally, national minor­ities and the recalcitrant Khmer majority itself domestically. Estimates suggest that during the less than four years of Communist rule, between one and three million Cambodians out of a population of 7-7.5 million died by execution and from famines and illnesses resulting from conditions created by the regime. One estimate suggests the dead included one in seven of the country’s rural Khmer, a quarter of urban Khmer, half of ethnic Chinese, more than a third of Islamic Cham, and 15 per cent of upland minorities, while Vietnamese who had evaded the CPK’s not-to-be-refused offer of deportation after April 1975 were almost totally wiped out in an overtly genocidal campaign of targeted killings that began in 1977.

During the self-destructive years of DK, Communist Party-speak created a new high political Khmer, with translated Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist terminology comprehensible only to cadre initiates, if in fact them. At the same time, a middle- level of Khmer Rouge organizational and mobilizational vocabulary and of favoured Khmer colloquialisms also came into use and was much easier to master and widely internalized in ordinary conversation among cadre and people. This language was mainly spread to the people orally (by cadres who had been speaking it since before 1975) through slogans and songs, to a lesser extent by DK radio, and also by the written word (Locard 2004). The CPK did print internal Party magazines but access to these was restricted to Party members, whose ranks were increasingly devastated by murderous purges. Similarly, although the CPK additionally published a monthly magazine and a fortnightly newspaper for the non-communist masses, the print runs were extremely small, and hardly anyone outside the Party ever saw them.

The same fate befell a tiny handful of textbooks published by the Ministry of Propaganda. Having abolished the previous education system, the CPK planned to reintroduce a primary education programme from 1977 and to gradually re-establish secondary education starting that same year, to be followed by the reinstitution of a three-year tertiary education system later. However, neither the secondary schools nor the university ever appeared, and CPK intentions to set up primary schools were carried out only in a very few model co-operatives and special schools for leading cadres’ children. Combined with widespread arbitrary executions of Party and non- Party ‘intellectuals’ suspected of opposing the CPK’s catastrophically radical policies, the result was a devastating drop in the number of literate people.

More generally, CPK rule during the DK period caused a total fracturing of the already weak and divided Cambodian nation. It not only turned Khmer against Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, and other minorities and turned lower class (peasant) Khmer against upper class (urban) Khmer, it also provoked an extraordinary process of regional ethno-genesis rooted in the seven zones into which the CPK arbitrarily divided the country. For the most part, these were not congruent with any recogniz­ably historical, geographic, socio-economic, linguistic, cultural, or ethnic regions. However, they were pitted against each other politically, competing to make a ‘success’ of the revolution and curry favour with Pol Pot, such that the cadre and people of zones began to take on proto-ethnic identities, characterized by tiny differences in their Khmer accents and in the way they wore their ‘revolutionary’ clothing. By 1978, the cadres of two zones, the Southwest and the West, were being used to purge and kill cadres and people of the others, before they were themselves subjected to systematic arrest and execution late in the year. The victims in other zones often identified their tormenters as ‘Southwesterners’ and ‘Westerners’, recog­nizing them by the guttural way rural folk from these areas spoke Khmer.