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May 10, 2019 | Theatre,

A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge

ArtsEmerson is honored to welcome nineteen Cambodian artists to the Paramount Center who will perform their powerful piece See You Yesterday (MAY 16-19), a show brought to Boston in collaboration with the Global Arts Corps, an organization that brings together people from opposite sides of violent conflicts and helps facilitate healing discussions. The performers in this incredibly moving show are second-generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodian genocide–a four-year horror that still haunts millions of people around the world.

In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge, won the Cambodian Civil War when they successfully seized the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and overthrew the government. The new regime, which ruled from 1975-1979, was led by Marxist Dictator Pol Pot, who wanted to create a Cambodian “master race” and recreate the country so it would function as a communist-style, agricultural utopia. This campaign to reimagine Cambodia began during “Year Zero” (1975) when Pol Pot and his loyal followers isolated the country–renamed as Kampuchea–from the global community and began to resettle its citizens away from the cities and into rural farming communes, where they were overworked and underfed. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died from disease, starvation and abuse at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers. The Khmer Rouge also abolished currency, made the ownership of private property illegal and outlawed the practice of religion.

In order to further solidify their power, Pol Pot and his regime assassinated anyone they deemed to be an enemy of the state. This included those suspected of having connections with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, the Buddhist monkhood and ethnic minorities. The Khmer Rouge forcibly relocated minority groups, banned the use of minority languages and ultimately banned the existence of more than 20 minority groups–over 15% of the country’s population. In addition, thousands of educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed in detention centers within Cambodian cities. The most infamous of these centers was Tuol Sleng jail, where over 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and executed during the regime’s four years in power. The mass killings that took place between 1975 and 1979 became known as the Cambodian Genocide. An estimated 1.7 to 3 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s time in charge of the country, around 25% of the country’s population.

During his time in power, Pol Pot attempted to extend his influence into Vietnam, but was unable to defeat the Vietnamese Army during battles that took place on the border between the two countries. The Khmer Rouge regime eventually fell in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and removed Pol Pot from power. Vietnam retained control in the country for much of the 1980s, although Pol Pot and his most loyal followers remained somewhat active as insurgents in remote areas of the country. In 1997, Pol Pot was tried for his crimes, although the former dictator died while under house arrest before he could be convicted of any crimes against humanity.  

Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has been able to rebuild their ties with the global community, an opportunity that was taken from them by Pol Pot and his followers. However, the psychological scars from these dark years still affect many Cambodian families, including younger generations who have inherited the traumas of the past. In 2009, Cambodia’s Ministry of Education implemented a new policy to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools, allowing students to learn about Pol Pot’s rule and helping them heal from the horrors of the genocide. Recently, younger Cambodians, like those involved in See You Yesterday, have started new lines of dialogue through art between themselves and with older generations in order to further understand and recover from the Khmer Rouge regime. Art, like See You Yesterday, allows individuals who have experienced trauma to begin and continue their healing processes and help others recover as well.

Be sure not to miss the beautiful and cathartic story of See You Yesterday (MAY 16-19).

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