Dr. Steve Heder
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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.