The vast and terrible experience of [Pol Pot’s Cambodia] still defies complete understanding. Analysts can provide a range of answers as to why a group of Cambodians who were fervent followers of what they understood to be Maoist thought presided over the death through execution, forced labour and starvation of up to two million of their compatriots. Disgust at the corruption of Sihanouk’s regime and its successor under Lon Nol certainly was important, as was fear their control over Cambodia might suddenly be wrested from the Khmer Rouge by ‘counter-revolutionary forces’. For the followers drawn from the lowest and most impoverished levels of Cambodian society, the opportunity to lord it over those who had once considered themselves their betters also played a part. But ultimately the enormity of the leaders’ policies defeats rational analysis. To talk to former Khmer Rouge soldiers, as I did in 1980 in the Sa Keo refugee camp not far from the Thai border with Cambodia, did little to resolve one’s bafflement. Young men barely out of their teens would speak with blank faces about their part in executions, without remorse for what they clearly saw as a routine duty.
There should no mistake about who were the victims of the Pol Pot regime. Contrary to the views offered by Western sympathisers while the regime was still in power between 1975 and early 1979–and even more shockingly after Pol Pot’s regime had been overturned–the Cambodians who suffered were not ‘only’ members of the Phnom Penh bourgeoisie. Those linked to the former Lon Nol regime or classified as ‘educated’ may have been among the more prominent early victims, but before the Vietnamese finally drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh in January 1979 the reign of terror that had lasted nearly four years had become quite classless in its choice of who should die, as Pol Pot held up the ancient glory of the Angkorian empire as a model for what the Cambodian people could achieve.