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Forced Labor and Collectivization

Cambodians toil at an irrigation project in Kompong Thom province in 1976. —Documentation Center of Cambodia

At the time of Phnom Penh’s fall, the Cambodian economy was at a virtual standstill due to the devastation of the civil war and the bombing. The Khmer Rouge intensified the paralysis with a series of ideologically based edicts: They shut down banks, sometimes physically destroying them. They abolished the national currency and free markets. They confiscated private property.

“If we can have rice, we can have everything.”
— Pol Pot, speaking in 1978

In 1976, they issued their first “Four-Year Plan,” which stressed collectivization of property and expansion in the cultivation of rice.

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The goal was to achieve an average yield of three tons of rice per hectare (about 2.5 acres) throughout the country—far more than had ever been produced before—and to effectively create another entire rice harvest each year.

To accomplish this, all labor was harnessed in service of the state. Achieving the goal was likened to a military campaign. Cambodians must “strike, crush, and win absolutely the production goal of three tons per hectare,” the Khmer Rouge declared.

Much of the task fell to “new people,” who were transported around the country like cattle, then sent to the fields to cultivate from dawn to dusk. Others were given primitive tools and told to dig canals and erect dams. Lacking the skills and strength for this punishing work, they often fell victim to exhaustion and disease. Meager food rations compounded their suffering. Their work was often for nothing, because the design of the water systems was hopelessly flawed.

“Every day, people died in the village. Every morning, they were hauling away a corpse.”
— Denise Affonço, survivor, testifying before the Khmer Rouge tribunal. ECCC

As Khmer Rouge rule lengthened, mismanagement created increasing shortages of food, drugs, and basic medical care. In a country that had killed off many of its doctors and took pride in extreme self-reliance, countless people succumbed to diseases that could have been easily cured. Hunger likely caused a bigger toll: By some estimates, between 500,000 and 1.5 million of the lives lost between 1975 and 1979 were due to Khmer Rouge–induced famine.

The diary that former school official Poch Younly kept during the Khmer Rouge period describes horrendous conditions. “My body resembles a corpse, thin with only skin and bones. I have no energy, and my hands and legs tremble. No power, no strength. . . . Everyone works like animals, like machines, without any value, without hope for the future. . . . Why is it that I have to die here like a cat or dog, without any kin knowing of my death; to die without any reason, without any meaning?” — Documentation Center of Cambodia