Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide


Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country's 8 million inhabitants--almost a quarter of the population--who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.


As long as I can still see my shadow while walking to the rice
fields, I will never be able to forget the slaughter committed by
the Khmer Rouge against my wife, children and the people of
Cambodia between 1975–1979.

                                    Lay Ny, a farmer from Prey Veng

Why did you kill? From the day I arrived in Cambodia to conduct anthropological research, I wanted to pose this question to Khmer Rouge who had executed people during the genocidal Democratic Kampuchea regime, which lasted from April 1975 to January 1979. When the Khmer Rouge, a radical group of Maoist-inspired rebels headed by Pol Pot, came to power after a bloody civil war in which six hundred thousand people died, they immediately set out to transform Cambodia into an agrarian, communist state. In the process, they enacted policies that resulted in the deaths of over one and a half million of Cambodia’s eight million inhabitants — more than 20 percent of the population — from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and outright execution.

For most Cambodians, life during Democratic Kampuchea (hereafter called DK) was like a giant prison camp in which basic rights and freedoms were severely curtailed in the name of revolution. The cities were evacuated; economic production and consumption were collectivized; books were confiscated and sometimes burned; Buddhism and other forms of religious worship were banned; freedom of speech, travel, residence, and occupational choice were dramatically curtailed; formal education largely disappeared; money, markets, and courts were abolished; and the family was subordinated to the Party Organization, Ângkar. Cambodians I interviewed sometimes grimly described DK as “hell on earth” (norok lokiy), “the fire without smoke” (phloeng et phsaeng), or “the prison without walls” (kuk et chonhcheang). One survivor explained . . .

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