Blue Scarves and Yellow Stars: Classification and Symbolization in the Cambodian Genocide


The Faulds Lecture, Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina, March, 1987

Revised for the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 1987

Occasional Paper of the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies, April 1989 © 1987 Gregory H. Stanton

This lecture in 1987 was the first public presentation of Dr. Gregory H. Stanton's path-breaking Stages of Genocide model of the genocidal process.

It was the basis of his paradigmatic Eight Stages of Genocide memo for the US State Department in 1996.

It is the basis of the Ten Stages of Genocide model currently used for genocide prediction and prevention by Genocide Watch.

April 17, 1975 was a day of hope and horror for the people of Cambodia. It was the day the Khmer Rouge Communists rolled into Phnom Penh and took control of the government. Cheering people lined the streets hoping for peace. What they got instead was horror--one of the worst genocides in human history.

Premeditated murder. Genocide as state policy. Intentional killing of all "class enemies," elimination of cities and city dwellers, destruction of every ethnic and religious minority, mass murder of the Eastern Zone of Democratic Kampuchea, execution of all teachers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers and government officials. If you wore glasses, or could speak a foreign language, or were educated, you were classified as an enemy; were arrested, tortured, then killed. From 1975 through 1978, according to censuses taken by the Cambodian Genocide Project in Cambodian villages, 1.7 million to 2.2 million people died out of a population of eight million. Half a million to a million were intentionally murdered. Another million were starved or worked to death in the forced labor communes the Khmer Rouge imposed at gunpoint in every region of the country.

The horror began even before April 17, 1975, in regions controlled by the Khmer Rouge. People who lived in Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Takeo, and other provinces that fell in 1972 tell of the mass murders that began in those provinces even then.

The blue-print for the Khmer Rouge revolution, the Mein Kampf of Kampuchea, was written in 1956 by Khieu Samphan, in his Ph.D. dissertation in economics at a French university. Khieu Samphan and his close friends, Pol Pot (a.k.a. Saloth Sar) and Ieng Sary were all members of the French Communist party while they were students in France. It was and is a Marxist-Leninist party. It was also Stalinist. The Khmer Rouge leaders read the Marxist theorists of the day, people like Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Gunder Frank, and Mao-Tse-tung. And they planned a Communist revolution to put their ideas into practice. Later, when the Maoist cultural revolution wreaked terror in China, they wholeheartedly added its radical equalitarianism to their own.

Marxism-Leninism (and its Maoist variant) teaches that revolutions must be violent, that class struggles are inevitable, and that class enemies must be crushed. In every Communist revolution so far, crushed means killed.

Apologists for Communist revolutions like to use euphemisms like purged, eliminated, or liquidated. Euphemisms allow people to avoid thinking; they are shields against consciousness; earplugs to shut out the screams of the murdered and the cries of the conscience. I will not use euphemisms here. In Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge murdered about two million people.

In this paper I will begin to explain why and how the Pol Pot regime committed this genocide. I have spent much of the past eight years working to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for their crimes. I will describe what interviews with survivors inside Cambodia have revealed about the first two operations in the genocidal process: classification and symbolization.

Classification and Symbolization

At the beginning of their planning for the Holocaust, the National Socialists in Germany passed detailed laws defining membership in the Jewish race, and then conducted inquiries to identify who were members of the race. Later, they decreed that each Jew had to wear a yellow star. It was a symbolic marker. It signified that this person was not to be seen as an individual person but as a member of a class, a classification determined by religion and "race." The yellow star marked a classification of people the Nazis had decided to kill. The ultimate depersonalization--murder, killing persons--was preceded by the depersonalization of classification and symbolization, the Nuremberg laws and the yellow star.

The Khmer Rouge classified, too. First, they classified people as "base people"--people under Khmer Rouge control before April 17, 1975 -- and new people -- mostly city people. They had read André Gunder Frank's Marxist theory that cities are parasitic on the countryside, that only labor value is true value, that cities extract surplus value from the rural areas. Therefore, immediately after they took power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated all the cities at gunpoint. Patients in hospitals in the middle of operations were forced to leave, and to die. Women in labor were made to get up and walk and their new babies died in the scorching sun. A whole infant ward at the Calmette Hospital was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge forced the staff to leave. The ward became a mass grave.

The new people were marked for heavier labor, less food, and much harsher treatment than the base people. Children were taken away from their parents and forced to work in children's brigades. If a new person complained of the food shortages and slave labor, he or she was taken away to the killing fields.

In 1976, people were reclassified as full rights (base) people, candidates, and depositees --so called because they included most of the new people who had been deposited from the cities into the communes. Depositees were marked for destruction. Their rations were reduced to two bowls of rice soup per day. Hundreds of thousands starved.

The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over their radio station that only one or two million people out of the population were needed to build the new agrarian communist utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, "if they survive no gain, if they die, no loss."