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Why Did They Kill?

Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

Alexander Laban Hinton

Publication Year: 2004

Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country's 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of the population--who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: California Series in Public Anthropology

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures

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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xv

This project would never have been possible without the help of a number of people and institutions. Enormous thanks go to Bradd Shore, my doctoral advisor in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University, for his support, encouragement, and critical insights about this project. He was extremely generous with his time, even when he was the ...


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pp. xvii-xviii

List of Personages

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pp. xix-xx

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pp. xxi-xxii

The more closely one studies a particular genocide, the more one uncovers its special characteristics. But the careful scholar also becomes aware of certain general themes found in all genocides. Alex Hinton goes far toward connecting the particular with the universal in this most ...

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Introduction: In the Shadow of Genocide

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pp. 1-35

Why did you kill? From the day I arrived in Cambodia to conduct anthropological research, I wanted to pose this question to Khmer Rouge who had executed people during the genocidal Democratic Kampuchea regime, which lasted from April 1975 to January 1979. When the Khmer Rouge, a radical group of Maoist-inspired rebels headed by Pol Pot, ...

Part One: The Prison Without Walls

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pp. 39-44

In 1973, when Khel was fifteen, the Khmer Rouge set up a loudspeaker in his village, located in Speu district in Kompong Cham province, and began urging people to fight against General Lon Nol, saying that Lon Nol had betrayed the country when he seized power from Prince Sihanouk. Khel said he volunteered to enlist with the Khmer Rouge ...

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1. A Head for an Eye: Disproportionate Revenge

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pp. 45-95

In April 2000, the Phnom Penh Post published an interview with a former Khmer Rouge cadre who had studied in Paris with Pol Pot and helped to found the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). When asked why Pol Pot killed millions of people, the former cadre, who chose to remain anonymous, replied, “As far as the killing is concerned, I don’t ...

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2. Power, Patronage, and Suspicion

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pp. 96-125

In December 1976, Pol Pot is thought to have made the above remarks at a meeting of the Party Center. While the Khmer Rouge had periodically purged its ranks in the past, Pol Pot’s obsession with finding the “sickness” that was “rotting society” marked a rapid escalation of this process. The Party Center’s paranoia quickly reached places like Region ...

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3. In the Shade of Pol Pot’s Umbrella

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pp. 126-169

When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they took control of a society that had been devastated by war, social upheaval, and economic collapse. Such circumstances are conducive to the emergence of high-modernist authoritarianism, since high-modernist regimes are often willing to use coercive force to implement a radical program of social engineering, ...

Part Two: The Fire Without Smoke

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pp. 173-181

What happened to Reap after he entered Tuol Sleng? Only traces of his life remain—in the corpses and mass graves left at Phnom Bros, in the memories of those who knew or heard about him, in the multiple drafts of his confession, which concluded with a thumbprint and signature, and in references to him in other Khmer Rouge documents, such as the confessions ...

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4. The DK Social Order

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pp. 182-210

Like other Tuol Sleng documents, the disturbing passage cited above— an August 1978 interrogator’s description of how he tortured Oum Chhan, the former head of a mobile work team in the Eastern Zone— reveals much about the dynamics of violence at Tuol Sleng and other DK “spaces of death.” It is impossible to know exactly what happened in ...

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5. Manufacturing Difference

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pp. 211-251

As this Khmer Rouge broadcast suggests, constructions of belonging and exclusion lie at the center of genocide. Genocidal regimes manufacture difference in a number of important and interrelated ways, including the crystallization, marking, organization, bodily inscription, and mimetics of difference. First, genocidal regimes construct, essentialize, and ...

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6. The Dark Side of Face and Honor

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pp. 252-275

To more fully comprehend the violence perpetrated at Tuol Sleng and elsewhere in DK, we need to consider yet another level of analysis, the dynamics of group-level interactions. Vaen Kheuan did not interrogate Oum Chhan in isolation; he was a member of a larger unit of interrogators. Similarly, when Lor went to Choeung Ek and killed “one or two ...

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Conclusion: Why People Kill

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pp. 276-298

At the 1979 People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in Phnom Penh, which convicted Pol Pot and his cronies in absentia for genocide, Denise Affonço provided gruesome but detailed testimony about an episode of liver-eating that she observed in an area of Battambang province that was suffering from ...

Note on Transliteration

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p. 299-299


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pp. 301-326


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pp. 327-349


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pp. 351-360

E-ISBN-13: 9780520937949
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520241794

Page Count: 382
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: California Series in Public Anthropology