Cover Image
close this bookCountry Report Cambodia - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 72 p.)
close this folderBreakdown of limits
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDeliberate attacks on civilians
View the documentChaos and the nature of war
View the documentCharacter of the combatants

Deliberate attacks on civilians

The years of Pol Pot’s rule are best defined as a “war on civilians”. From 1975 to 1979, civilians in Cambodia were not collateral casualties of conflict but, rather, the express targets of a genocidal regime. The “success” of the Khmer Rouge’s policies can be measured not only in the towers of skulls and legions of broken families, but in the patterns it established. After 1979, the idea of civilians coming under attack - and indeed being subjected to torture and other kinds of treatment once reserved for combatants - were part of the Cambodian battlescape.

Civilian involvement in Cambodian wars, of course, did not begin or end with Pol Pot. During the 1970-1975 civil war, commanders in the army of Lon Nol and guerrilla fighters conscripted village youths throughout the nation and fought scores of battles in villages. During a decade of Vietnamese rule, foreign troops did not halt their attacks on villages simply because they were having trouble deciding who was a guerrilla fighter and who was a village resident. In fact, these kinds of attacks served only to strengthen anti-Vietnamese sentiments among Cambodians. In 1989, after the Vietnamese withdrew and peace talks between factions began, there was a brief hiatus in the civil war. When the talks broke down, Khmer Rouge commanders replaced their “treat the civilians well” policy with a scorched earth approach; combatants were ordered to “burn the people’s property”. As a group of former Khmer Rouge fighters recalled:

Destroying all, burning into ash was the objective of fighting the enemy... We could survive from 1979 until 1989 because of having support from Khmer citizens; after the Vietnamese withdrawal, we had to destroy [the] enemy’s economy, and fight against the State of Cambodia. We didn’t have any idea to [we did not set out to] destroy and burn our mother’s home, our wife’s home... We had to destroy anybody’s [property] regardless of mother, father and relatives, in order to destroy the enemy’s economy... We turned to burning houses, warehouses, cut off roads in order that the existing government lacked supplies so that they [the government] would compromise. (FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)

The lasting influence of the Khmer Rouge era - during which a wrong word from a neighbour could mean a death sentence - can also be discerned in the deeply suspicious nature of Cambodian combatants and civilians. This suspicion, coupled with the guerrilla fighter’s dependence on the local populace for support, has helped legitimize the notion of civilians as fair targets. In focus groups and in-depth interviews, a number of participants said civilians acted as “spies” and “disguised agents”.

During fighting we can see many civilians, but if we do not destroy the civilians we cannot also destroy our enemy. Sometimes we think of law and sin and merits, but we have to destroy for our life. The civilians on the other side can be agents; although they do not carry weapons they can give information to the enemy. (FG, RCAF members, Kompong Som)

... we cannot know exactly whether they are real civilians or not, some of them could be spies who are trying to attack the soldiers from behind... In some cases, some civilians are the spies, messengers, food suppliers, etc., therefore there is inevitably some retribution. (FG, female urban youth, Phnom Penh)

Some civilians take rice, chickens and wine to the enemy soldiers. They are spies. So they were attacked because they were considered as the enemy as well. (FG, female single heads of household, Phnom Penh)

Sometimes they [soldiers] hate the civilians because they found out that the civilians provided food to the other side [enemy], therefore they must attack. (FG, former Khmer Rouge fighters, Malai)