“When it is my turn, there will be no one to bury me. ” Ideology, Social Mobility, and Individual Agency in the Cambodian Genocide

Will Plowright
University of British Columbia

Full paper: http://www.kon.org/urc/v8/plowright.html

Abstract Children and youths were the primary vehicle to enact the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide. Explanations for the involvement of people on an individual level often assert the primary role of ideology. However, by analyzing primary accounts and contrasting them with known contextual factors from the time, it can be shown that a lack of social mobility and fear of the regime obliterated the role of ideology, restricted individual agency, and forced youths and children to enact the regime’s policies.


In the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, children were used as a primary vehicle for enacting the ideologies of the ruling regime. It was children and young adults that carried out some of the most brutal acts of the Cambodian Genocide. Were children ideologically committed to the revolution or were they willing participants for other reasons?

In the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, children and uneducated youths were the primary vehicle for enacting the ideologies of the ruling regime, carrying out some of the most brutal acts of the Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979. In conducting an etiological study on causations of the mass killings in the transitory Democratic Kampuchea, there is difficulty in ascertaining the motivations of the individual perpetrators. There is great danger of using counterfactual historical methods of analysis that overemphasize ideological motivations as the primary cause of individual involvement. This, however, is a method of historical hindsight—imposing the official policy of the regime onto the child combatants and political officers in the same manner it was forced on them by the Khmer Rouge. Instead, a methodology must be adopted that separates the ideological motivations of individuals into two rubrics. Namely, there was ideology at the time of recruitment to the party and during the period of genocide. An over-emphasis on the role of ideology ignores the aspect of individual agency, especially in regard to the lack of social mobility within Khmer Rouge society. The stressing of ideology as a primary motive suggests that individuals had a choice—or at least perceived that this choice existed, which was not the case in a society dominated by surveillance and coercion. Social mobility, though limited, was possible within the party and also as a means of basic survival of non-cadre individuals. The perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocides were not primarily involved as willing ideologues, instead they were compelled to partake due to a rational self-interest that came through fear of punishment as well as limited means of social mobility and subsistence.

Full paper: http://www.kon.org/urc/v8/plowright.html