Capsule Review

Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

In This Review

Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide
By Alexander Laban Hinton
University of California Press, 2004 382 pp. $55.00 Purchase

In this study of a once-peaceful Buddhist society that got so caught up with Marxism that it came to see virtue in violence and honor in auto-genocide, Hinton goes further than most accounts of the horrors of Pol Pot's regime in exploring the cultural factors that made Cambodians in the Khmer Rouge willing to kill so many other Cambodians. His sophisticated argument, based on subtle analysis of the Khmer language and extensive anthropological study, shows how Cambodian culture attached great importance to power, patronage, status, and honor; perceived humiliation legitimates anger and retribution, creating the potential for disproportionate revenge. Suddenly finding themselves part of a new elite, young Khmer Rouge recruits were encouraged to dwell on past affronts to their dignity and that of their families and to show no mercy in seeking retribution against "class enemies" and others perceived as threats. The extraordinary power in Hinton's analysis stems from his readiness to confront hard questions and his skill in elucidating the elements in Cambodian culture that made genocide possible. Although he is careful to keep his analysis focused on the Cambodian case, his insights also help explain genocides in general.

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