Towards a Marxist Critique of the Cambodian Genocide

Between 1975 and 1979, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge, fundamentally transformed the social, economic, political, and natural landscape of Cambodia. During this time as many as two million Cambodians died from exposure to disease, starvation, or were executed at the hands of the state.

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The dominant interpretation of Cambodian history during this period, known as the Standard Total View (STV), presents the CPK as a totalitarian, communist, and autarkic regime seeking to reorganize Cambodian society around a primitive, agrarian political economy. Under the STV, the victims of the regime died as a result of misguided economic policies, a draconian security apparatus, and the central leadership’s fanatical belief in the creation of a utopian, communist society. In short, according to the STV, Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was renamed, constituted an isolated, completely self-reliant prison state. My publication From Rice Fields to Killing Fields: Nature, Life, and Labor under the Khmer Rouge (Syracuse University Press, 2017) challenges the standard narrative and provides a documentary-based Marxist interpretation of the political economy of Democratic Kampuchea.

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Book of the Month: Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia

Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia

By Michelle Caswell

0d665413-1421-4d46-9ec7-d90519ca6d88Roughly 1.7 million people died in Cambodia from untreated disease, starvation, and execution during the Khmer Rouge reign of less than four years in the late 1970s. The regime’s brutality has come to be symbolized by the multitude of black-and-white mug shots of prisoners taken at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of “enemies of the state” were tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields. In Archiving the Unspeakable, Michelle Caswell traces the social life of these photographic records through the lens of archival studies and elucidates how, paradoxically, they have become agents of silence and witnessing, human rights and injustice as they are deployed at various moments in time and space. From their creation as Khmer Rouge administrative records to their transformation beginning in 1979 into museum displays, archival collections, and databases, the mug shots are key components in an ongoing drama of unimaginable human suffering.