Ben Kiernan on the Khmer Rouge death toll

5 Mar 98

Copyright © 1997 by Hugo S. Cunningham
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For updated scholarship on the Khmer Rouge, check out

Ben Kiernan, "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79," Yale University Press, New Haven CT and London, 1996; cloth, 479 pp.

(Ben Kiernan is associate professor of history and director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University)

Prof. Kiernan condemned the 1969-73 US bombing campaigns in rural Cambodia (pp 20-24), estimating they resulted in "up to 150,000 civilian deaths" (p.24).

Out of a 1975 Cambodian population of 7.89 million, Prof. Kiernan attributes 1,671,000 deaths to the Khmer Rouge, a death rate of 21% (Table, p.458: I am not going to reproduce the table in detail, for fear of infringing Prof. Kiernan's copyright.) (Note: to save space, I will be using terms like "death rate" and "mortality" to mean excess death rates [above the natural rate], caused by Khmer Rouge misrule.) The toll varied by ethnicity and social background. For example, 4.5 million rural Khmer from established Khmer Rouge areas had the lowest death rate (15%), while 2 million urban Khmer had a 25% death rate, and the Cham minority had a 36% death rate.

How did they die? Kiernan cites a 1980-81 survey of refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border by Stephen Heder (p. 456). He attributed the 25% mortality of urban Khmer "in almost even numbers [to] starvation, disease, and execution." Among more hardy rural Khmer, only half their 15% death rate came from starvation and disease; the rest was from executions.