ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Introducing State Crime In Cambodia

One of the most notorious criminal regimes of the twentieth century, the Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Having defeated the incompetent Lon Nol regime after it was abandoned by the USA, the Khmer Rouge came to power with a very narrow base of support and no realistic strategy for governing the country. By evacuating urban areas and imposing a system of forced agricultural labour, the regime was probably able to exert “more power over its citizens than any other state in world history” (Ben Kernan, The Pol Pot Regime, Yale 1996, p. 464).

The ensuing deaths of around 1.5 million Cambodians were attributable partly to deliberate genocide of ethnic minorities and others not deemed to be “true Khmer”, but predominantly to malnutrition, disease and overwork stemming from the regime’s wildly unrealistic policies for the economic transformation of the country.

The Khmer Rouge regime brought about its own downfall by attacking its much more powerful neighbour, Vietnam, which invaded and installed a new regime. In its war against the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other insurgents the new regime relied on conscript labour to construct fortifications, of whom some 25,000 died from malaria. While the Vietnamese-backed army and police committed many human rights abuses, some elements of the regime made genuine efforts to promote respect for rights and the rule of law.

In 1991 the warring factions in Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Agreements and a UN mission arrived to supervise elections, which took place in 1993. The Khmer Rouge reneged on the agreement but collapsed by 1998. A hybrid Cambodian/International tribunal has been established to try a small number of the aging former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. One trial is nearing completion, that of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, director of Tuol Sleng prison where over 12,000 people were detained, tortured and (almost without exception) murdered. Transcripts of the trial are available at the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.

One of the main areas of criminal activity by the current Cambodian state is the complicity of officials in forced evictions. All pre-1975 titles to land were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. On paper, Cambodian land law appears reasonably progressive in giving people rights of possession over the land they have settled and farmed. In practice, however, state officials often ally themselves with rich landowners and corporations to enforce legally dubious claims, using police violence and the courts to back them up. In 2009 there were at least 27 forced evictions involving some 23,000 people. (See reports by Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (2009) and Amnesty International.)

BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Contients documentary on the land grabs is available as a podcast.

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