journey for peace begins today
and every day.
Each step is a prayer,
each step is a meditation,
each step will build a bridge."
suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
this suffering comes great Compassion.
Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
Person makes a Peaceful Community.
Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
all beings live in Happiness and Peace.
BY STEP - Maha Ghosananda
Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion
by Dith Pran
Preface by Jack Kornfield
Rarely in human history has a nation been so embroiled
in war, autogenocide, forced labor, social engineering,
and self-destruction as Cambodia in the late twentieth
century. A small tropical country, wedged precariouly
on the Southeast Asian peninsula between Thailand,
Laos, Vietnam, and the South China Sea, Cambodia's
history dates back 2,000 years. From the ninth
to the thirteenth centuries, known as the Angkor
Period or "Golden Age," Cambodian (or
Khmer) kings controlled vast portions of the Indochinese
peninsula, and led an empire marked by scientific,
culture, and religious achievements. Druing other
periods, Cambodia fluctuated between independence
and being dominated by neighboring states and
other foreign governments.
In the mid-nineteenth century
the country was colonized by France, becoming
part of French Indochina. To insure domestic peace,
the French allowed the Khmer kings to remain as
symbolic leaders. In 1953, after a century of
colonial rule, King Norodom Sihanouk peacefully
negotiated Cambodia's independence. In accordance
with the sovereignty agreement, the king abdicated
his throne and declared himself a candidate for
popular election. With overwhelming popular regard
for the Khmer royal lineage, the people elected
Sihanouk to be head of state and he assumed the
title of Prince. For the next decade Cambodia
enjoyed independence, peace and prosperity.
By the mid-1960s, North Vietnamese
troops had begun establishing hidden sanctuaries
in the Cambodian countryside. Prince Sihanouk,
citing increased American activity in Vietnam
and accusing the U.S of making border incursions
into Cambodia, a neutral country, severed economic
and military relations with the United States.
In 1969, the U.S. began bombing
the Cambodian countryside to destroy North Vietnamese
military installations and supply lines. The bombing
wreaked havoc on the country's rural population
and agrarian economy. Business, military, and
intellectual groups began harshly criticizing
Prince Sihanouk's policies, and in 1970, while
Sihanouk traveled abroad, there was a bloodless
coup, ending the centuries-old lineage of monarchs.
Lon Nol, a general who had the backing of the
Americans, was named by the coup leaders to be
head of state.
The new government quickly drafted
a formal alliance with the U.S., and the bombings
increase in frequency invaded Cambodia, killing
and wounding civilians and destroying marketplaces,
ricefields, and village in their search for Vietnamese
The continued bombing, along with
the ending of the traditional monarchy, widen
the political rift between Cambodia's rural and
urban classes. The peasants, who had held the
royalty in the highest esteem, found Lon Nol's
policies to be ill-conceived and exploitative.
In their desenfranchisement lay the seeds of a
revolution that would change Cambodia forever.
An indigenous Communist movement
had been brewing in Cambodia since the early 1930s.
Led by young urban intellectuals, many of whom
had studied in Paris along with the Vietnamese
Communists, the party saw the growing discontent
of the rural population as an opportunity to put
their ultra-Marxist theories into practice. As
the party's ranks swelled with disaffected peasants
and farmers as well as rural adolescents, Prince
Sihanouk joined them, and he became their titular
head. With this sudden credibility, the Khmer
Rouge—as the party came to be known—attracted
vital arms support from China. Solath Sar, a young
scholar, assumed the leadership, although his
identity was hidden from the public. Years later,
he was introduced only under his nom de querre,
Aerial attacks forced the North
Vietnamese troops deeper and deeper into cambodia,
and they allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge
to combat the pro-American forces of Lon Nol.
The countryside became decimated, and once-prosperous
farmers hasd to forage for food in order to survive.
Thousands fled the villages for the security of
Phnom Penh, Battambang, and other urban areas.
The U.S military action in Cambodia ended in August
1973, but the civil war continued. The Khmer Rouge
took control of an increasing number of towns
and villages, often ingratiating themselves to
the villagers by launching elaborate civic projects,
praising Buddhism, and vilifying Lon Nol.
By the Spring of 1975, Cambodian's
cities were in a state of crisis, overwhelmed
by the influx of villagers that had tripled their
populations. Inflation raged, and displaced families
and orphaned children wandered the streets, hopelessly
searching for food, medicine, and shelter. Between
1967 and 1975, and estimated on million Cambodians
were killed or wounded and two million left homeless.
The country that had been known as the "the
ricebowl of Indochina" was now on the verge
On the morning of April 17, 1975
just two weeks before the North Vietnamese marched
into Saigon to end the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge
forces had succumbed. Cheers rang through the
streets, as many citizens believed that peace
had come at last.
But the next day at dawn, the
Khmer Rouge declared "Year Zero," the
beginning of a new era, and began an extreme program
of social reconstsruction. All city dwellers young
and old, rich and poor, were to march to the countryside
to live and work as peasants.
"Take nothing with you, "the
soldiers insisted. "Angka [the Khmer Rouge
organization] will provide." Frightened and
dewildered, most people obeyed. Many who tried
to gather cooking pots, heirlooms, personal items,
or foodstuffs were shot. Hospital patients who
were too sick to walk were hurled from window.
As tensions grew, the Khmer Rouge soldiers offered
false encouragement. "You will return in
three days. These are only temporary measures."
More than three million citizens of all ages were
marched to rural communes, and thousands died
of heat, exhaustion, thirst, dysentery, and stress.
"Year Zero" and Pol
Pot's ultra-Marxism were to be the basis of another
glorious "golden age." Angka (not to
be confused with Angkor, the ancient empire) soughst
to create a self-reliant, pure, classless, agrarian
culture. Cities were to be abolished; jungles
and fallow fields were to be reclaimed, using
elaborate irrigation systems to multiply agricultural
yields. The new egalitarian utopia would erase
all vestiges of modernization and Western influence.
To realize these goals, the Khmer Rouge isolated
their country under a thick veil of secercy. Roads
on the border were secured and communication was
The Khmer Rouge removed Prince
Sihanouk from titular power and placed him under
house arrest. The country was divided into eight
section leaders. Interpretation of ideology and
harshness of discipline varied from sector to
sector. Each citizen was assigned to a work unit.
traditional peasant dress of loosely-fitting black
pajamas and shortly-cropped hair became the norm
for all ages and both sexes.
Housing was assigned by Angka.
Since th Khmer Rouge had razed many villages while
seizing power, these shelters were built without
walls to give Khmer Rouge cadres a clear view
of household activities.
Manual labor replaced mechanization.
All Cambodians became peasant laborers, regardless
of age, heatlh, skills, or former profession.
Under guard, they silenty cultivated fields with
hoes and sickles, ox-carts, and water buffalo,
or by hitching themselves to plows. Labor details
extended up to eighteeen hours per day, seven
days a week. Children as young as three and the
very elderly worked alongside able-bodied adults.
"Those who work eat," was the inflexible
motto. But the outdated farming methods soon produced
insufficient rice yeilds, and food had to be rationed
strictly—those who were ill and could not
work received even less. As food suppllies dwindled,
desperate villagers secretly began to forage for
roots, leaves, bark, insects, or rats, even though
in some sectors the personal gathering of food
was a punishable offense.
The Khmer Rouge designed irrigation
systems that they hoped would rival the legendary
waterworks of the Angkor kingdom. But without
the aid of engineers or modern technology, the
systems failed. Drinking water became infested,
water for crops became scarce, and the already
small harvests withered. Malnutrition and overwork
took their toll. Starvation, dysentery, cholera,
malaria, and stress-related illlnesses abounded.
Many villagers became blind from vitamin deficiency.
Medical treatment was strictly rationed and limited
to traditional folk methods.
To forge the Year Zero and their
own control, the Khmer Rouge outlawed almost everything
that evoked Cambodia's cultural foundations. Cambodia
had been a land steeped in tradition, and among
the strongest ties were those of the family. In
many sectors, family life was abolished—children
lived separately from parents, either in individual
quarters or on work sites miles away. In many
cases families lost all contact with one another.
Even in sectors where families
remained intact, community concerns took precedence,
and the traditional order of respect was inverted.
Children, "unspoiled vessels of Angka,"
were granted authority over adults. Children could
issue work assignments to adults and were encouraged
to report on adults' violations of Angka's policies.
Parents lost the right to choose mates for their
children. Khmer Rouge cadres arranged and performed
all marriages, and revolutionary ceremonies replaced
Buddhist rituals. Weddings were often held in
the fields so that work flow would not be interrupted.
Young couples who met secretly without Angka's
sanction were punished. In some instances, the
naked corpses of young lovers were displayed in
public places, offering a grim reminder not to
Private lives and feelings remained
under close scrutiny. One could be severely punished
simply for complaining. In many instances people
were forced to watch in silence as their loved
ones were murdered, since to cry out would be
to question Angka's judgment. Memories, too, were
forbidden. Since Year Zero marked the dawn of
new time, sentimental yearnings were considered
to be a hindrance to progress. One could be punished
for speaking of the Buddha, the king, or days
gone by. Singing old songs or telling old tales
was considered a crime against the state. "Angka
is like a pineapple," people were told.
"Its eyes can see in all directions."
"What is infected must be
cut out," became the philosophy for social
"purification." Those who challenged
Angka's political position or those found to be
from less than "pure" peasant stock
were to be systematically eliminated. Singled
out for extinction were members of former government
and military operations, monks and nuns, ethnic
minorities, and anyone who had received formal
education. Executions often took place without
trials. In extreme cases, fair skin, the wearing
of eyeglasses, or speaking in a non-peasant dialect
was sufficient cause for execution.
"To keep you is no profit,
to destroy you is no loss," the Khmer Rouge
declared. To survive, families shed their former
identities and fabricated elaborate details of
past residence, lifestyle, and profession. Doctors,
lawyers, teachers, and business leaders feigned
knowledge of farming, hoping to avoid the horror
of mass execution. In severe cases, whole families,
including infants, were killed and buried together
in mass graves.
To enforce its power, Angka sponsored
regular and involuntary indoctrinational sessions,
called "educational meetings," to proclaim
the glories of the state. At times villagers who
had violated rules were paraded before meetings
for public humiliation or corporal punishment.
Thousands of "incorrigibles" were shipped
to re-education centers and subjected to meager
rations, hard labor, and torture. At Tuol Sleng,
a former high school in Phnom Penh, thousands
of photographs and detailed records provide evidence
of over 12,000 deaths—men, women, and children
hanged, drowned, disemboweled, mutilated, or electrocuted
by Khmer Rouge cadres.