Causes of the Cambodian Genocide

Stian Rice, MA '12, PhD '18; James Tyner, PhD

A publication by Kent State geographers sheds more light on the causes of the Cambodian genocide that wiped out roughly a quarter of the country’s population in the late 1970s.

Stian Rice, MA ’12, PhD ’18, was a research assistant for James Tyner, PhD, professor of geography in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, when they coauthored the article, “The rice cities of the Khmer Rouge: an urban political ecology of rural mass violence.”

It was published in the December 2017 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, one of the foremost international journals of geographical research. 

The article counters a common belief among scholars that the Khmer Rouge were anti-urban and anti-technology. “One of the points we wanted to make in this study is that re-ruralization and re-urbanization were inextricably linked to each other,” says Rice, who is now a visiting assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education. 

Although the Khmer Rouge evacuated most Cambodian cities immediately after they seized power, they also sought to increase revenues to industrialize the country, which they accomplished by increasing rice production.

Instead of relying on the rain-fed rice production in a tropical climate, they realized that the amount of arable land could be increased by building irrigation systems with forced labor—another of the major contributing factors in the genocide. 

“What we’re presenting here is a radical reinterpretation of how to understand the Cambodian genocide.”

They soon selectively re-populated cities to ensure a chain of distribution for rice exports. Stian Rice says the urban centers not only served as export distribution junctions, but also provided the imported resources necessary to maintain the infrastructure.

This economic system also highlights another aspect of the Khmer Rouge’s cruel and murderous reign. “A lot of the death came through starvation,” Tyner says. “Not because the country was not producing enough rice, but because it was being mass exported to China. What we’re presenting here is a radical reinterpretation of how to understand the Cambodian genocide.” 

The study adds to a growing body of work by Tyner, Rice and other Kent State geographers that suggests capitalist-based economics were responsible for a significant portion of the deaths that occurred under Khmer Rouge rule.

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UPDATED: Wednesday, June 12, 2024 06:13 PM
Dan Pompili