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Genocide Factors in Rwanda and Cambodia Essay

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Updated: Sep 6th, 2020


In most cases, a mass murder occurs within a single locality while the majority of the perpetrators end up committing suicide. Mass murder is multifaceted, and it takes different forms. The common categories include massacres, bombings, shootings, mass stabbings, and genocide among others. Mass murder is not a historically new phenomenon albeit its nature keeps on changing with time. Social, political, and economic factors influence the preferences and trends of mass murder. This paper compares and evaluates the contrasting explanations of mass murder while using the case studies of Rwanda and Cambodia.

The background of ethnic tensions in Rwanda

Rwanda was in the League of Nations under the mandate of the Belgium after the First World War together with the neighbouring Burundi. During the colonial period, the Belgians demonstrated favour for the Tutsis who were the minority against the Hutus (Mamdani 2014). The colonial masters used the divide and rule principle and thus in effect the divided the country into two tribal sides consisting the Tutsis and the Hutus.

Additionally, complicate the situation and widen the rift between the two sides, the Belgians sided with the minority Tutsis, who then ruled the majority Hutus, which fuelled more animosity. The aggression between the Hutus and the Tutsis led to the emergence of a revolution in 1959 forcing an approximate of 300000 Tutsis to flee the country (Agüero & Deolalikar 2012). By July 1962, the Belgium officially pronounced Rwanda independent after the United Nations’ referendum occurred in the same year (Straus 2013).

The genocide in Rwanda

By the time of the genocide, country’s population stood at around seven million. The Hutus composed around eighty-five percent, the Tutsis were fourteen percent, and the rest were the Twa ethnic group (Mamdani 2014). By the start of the last decade of the 20th Century, animosity between the Hutus and the Tutsis had escalated with the former accusing the latter of propagating socioeconomic and political inequalities within the country. Tensions escalated as the Tutsis were alleged to support the rebel group of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Lupel & Verdeja 2013).

Habyarimana was the president at the time of the genocide, and he used propaganda and frequent political manoeuvring to create divisions between the Hutus and the Tutsis (Straus 2013). Consequently, resentments and fear for the minority increased, thus creating more room for war. The violence emerged after the alleged assassination of President Habyarimana after his plane was blown mid air. Given that the president was a Hutu, his tribesmen, who had lived with the notion that they had been repressed by the minority Tutsis, decided to execute an overdue plan to gain control by eliminating their perceived enemies. A series of brutal attacks occurred resulting in the death of entire families.

After approximately three months, eight hundred thousand people who comprised men, women, and children had died (Agüero & Deolalikar 2012). More than half of the Tutsis population was killed together with thousands of Hutus who opposed the destruction campaign. However, by early July 1994, the Rwandese Patriotic Front gained the control of the country including the capital city, Kigali (Mayersen 2015). Following the triumph, the party formed a coalition government with the president coming from the majority Hutus and the vice president from the minority Tutsis.

The Cambodian case

The genocide in Cambodia was carried out between 1975 and 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge regime (Hinton 2013). The Khmer Rouge comprised fanatical communists who sought to initiate the most advanced form of egalitarianism around the globe. During the Vietnam War, the United States conducted massive bombings in the countryside of Cambodia, thus manipulating the political power to endorse Lon Non as the leader of the country (Chandler 2014). The military victory of the Lon Nol government marked the transfer of power and authority to the Khmer Rouge to execute brutal policies against the Cambodians.

The vast bombardment of the United States and the collaboration with Lon Nol enhanced the addition of new recruits into the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement led by Pol Pot (Tyner 2014). The objective of the Khmer Rouge was to enforce radical policies based on communism. The policies advanced by Pol Pot were founded on ideologies of Maoism and Stalinism (Chandler 2014).

The genocide began through the attempts of Khmer Rouge to both centralise and rationalise the farming society of Cambodia (Tyner et al. 2014). The success to achieve the communist model followed the forceful relocation of people living in towns to their respective villages. Any attempt to oppose migration to the countryside amounted to death (Lupel & Verdeja 2013). The able-bodied individuals were forced to work in the farms, while those who could not travel for any reason were annihilated. All the residents occupying the cities were evacuated to the countryside including the capital, Phnom Penh (Meierhenrich 2014). Both the civil and political rights were abolished as children and their parents were separated and assigned to different work camps.

During the genocide, all the victims would reside in public communes that resembled military barracks (Tyner 2014). The potential opposition from journalists, lawyers, doctors, and other intellectuals from the upper class would not stop the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge (Kiernan 2014). The Khmer Rouge introduced the “re-education” system to orient the Cambodians to communism while those who opposed were killed in the death fields that surrounded the prison camp (Meierhenrich 2014). Speaking English and wearing glasses would also amount to death because it was assumed to have a bearing to the West (Chandler 2014).

All the religious enthusiasts including Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, ethnic Chinese, Thai, and the Vietnamese were all murdered during the genocide (Tyner et al. 2014). Most religious leaders were killed before the destruction of the majority of the places of worship. The survival of the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime was linked to the ability to work (Hinton 2013).

Similarities between the mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia

International organisation negligence

In the case of Rwanda, policymakers from Belgium, France, and the United Nations were aware of the preparation plans of the massive killings between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but they failed to take any precautionary measures to prevent the killings (Agüero & Deolalikar 2012). The international community was aware of the agenda to eliminate the Tutsis, but the relevant foreign actors ignored their obligation. The global leaders declined to implement both the moral and political authority to refute the legitimacy of the genocide (Mayersen 2015). Furthermore, the foreign actors failed to silence the television and radio stations that fuelled the conflict.

Similarly, the international community intentionally refused to declare the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia guilty of exterminating its citizens (Chandler 2014). The United States showed little concern for the emerging events southern Asia despite knowing the consequences that Khmer Rouge would bring to the citizens after gaining power. The American embassy located in the Phnom Penh was solely focused on the relationship of Cambodia to the effects of the Vietnam War, but not the massive killings perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge administration (Kiernan 2012).

Seizure of state power and authority to undertake mass murder

In both cases, the perpetrators occupied the senior-most positions in the government. Consequently, they were capable of using the state machinery and weapons to undertake mass killings (Olesen 2012). In Rwanda, President Habyarimana was used his political power to spread propaganda throughout the country. The president also ordered the media to spread hate messages, thus creating divisions that later degenerated into war. Additionally, Habyarimana used the authority bestowed upon him by the state to terminate the political elites who opposed the genocide agenda (Straus 2013).

Similarly, the communist group of the Khmer Rouge seized the control of Cambodia. Being at the apex of the state power, the regime implemented extremist policies by using military guerrilla groups to eliminate those who faulted its orders (Tyner 2014). The Khmer Rouge also exercised draconian rules by terminating all the independent movements and privately owned institutions including schools, churches, and hospitals.

Both occurred in less developed countries

Despite the differences in location of Rwanda and Cambodia, the two countries were underdeveloped at the time. Rwanda is located in Central Africa while Cambodia is situated in southern Asia. The causes that instigated the genocide in Rwanda are skewed towards the claim that the Tutsis had more economic and social dominion as compared to the Hutus, who were the majority (Agüero & Deolalikar 2012). The Cambodian mass killings aimed at curtailing capitalism through a random shift to an egalitarian society that embraced communism. The Khmer Rouge was also seeking to remove the western culture (Meierhenrich 2014).

Differences between the mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia

The Cambodian genocide was based on ideologies and class differences

The causes of genocide in Rwanda stemmed from the ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and the Tutsis while that of Cambodia rested on the ideas of Stalinism and Maoism (Tyner 2014). The Khmer Rouge regime was forcing the Cambodians to become a centralised state with collectivisation of agriculture. The genocide was also based on class differences (Rangelov 2013). All the private developers were killed to reduce the gap between the bourgeoisie and the lower class. The objective of the Khmer Rouge was to create a nation based on the Maoist-communist model thus enacting policies that gave rise to genocide during the implementation (Kiernan 2014). However, the genocide in Rwanda resulted primarily from the allegations that the Tutsis were dominating over the Hutus, but it was void of ideological differences.

The Cambodian mass murder was “auto-genocide”

Despite the view that most injustices and casualties were inflicted on the Muslim population, multiple genocide scholars postulate that the Cambodian occurrences fail to meet the threshold of genocide as stipulated in the United Nations Assembly (Rangelov 2013). The intention of the Khmer Rouge regime of destroying a particular ethnic or religious group bears no proof in the Cambodian massacre. The genocide in Cambodia can only qualify to be “auto-genocide” due to its occurrence across the confines of the entire society and not targeting a particular group. On the other hand, the target ethnic group in the Rwandan genocide is explicit. The Hutus majority aimed to destroy the Tutsis who seemed to dominate the country (Olesen 2012).

Murder techniques incorporated in the genocides

The perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide deployed various forms to oppress the victims and conduct the mass killings. Several marches and purges were undertaken while the survivors were subjected to starvation, physical torture by inflicting injuries, and denial of treatment as means to terminate their lives (Kiernan 2012). Besides, killing of those incapable of working formed a basis for most deaths. In this regard, all the children, elderly, and the physically challenged were terminated at the expense of maintaining the Khmer Rouge regime.

Additionally, the elites and the owners of the private businesses were persecuted because they promoted communism by encouraging class disparities (Chandler 2014). On the other hand, the Rwandan genocide was dominated by the use of traditional physical weapons with machetes being the standard tool used in the manslaughter (Olesen 2012). The genocide in Rwanda did not involve work and starvation because it lasted for around one hundred days while the Cambodian genocide ran from 1975 to 1979.

Evaluation the Rwanda and Cambodia mass murder

The role of the media

In the Rwandan genocide, President Habyarimana used the media as a tool to spread messages of ethnic divisions, hatred, and an avenue to guide the perpetrators towards their victims (Olesen 2012). In this view, radio and television stations among other media platforms can be used to promote nationalism or create destructive tensions amongst citizens. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has found some journalists guilty of incitement, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy (Straus 2013). In this view, the media plays a crucial role in determining national democracy while appropriate ways to respond to abuses of power must be formulated without violating the pillars of freedom. The media ought to play its fundamental role of informing and avoid activities that destruct national peace.

The role of international response

From the case studies of both Rwanda and Cambodia, foreign actors play an essential role in termination or motivating genocide activities (Valentino 2013). The negligence of the UN Security Council to send troops in time led to the escalation the genocide resulting in many deaths. After the Rwandan genocide, the international community rued the complicity of the United Nations’ peacekeeping soldiers after they failed to intervene in the conflict. The United States was particularly silent on the genocide (Beachler 2011). Since nobody appeared to be interested, the genocide persisted due to the absence of authorities to prevent the atrocities (Olesen 2012).

Correspondingly, the negligence of the foreign actors, and precisely the United States, to intervene in the Cambodian genocide triggered the forceful implementation of extremist policies that were against human rights provisions (Hinton 2013). The Rwandan and Cambodian cases highlight how the slackness of the international community to intervene in peace creation can precipitate into the massive loss of life of innocent people.

The role of economy in war

The Cambodian genocide started to initiate ideologies that would end class differences. The Khmer Rouge aimed at relocating all the residents to the countryside to undertake centralised agricultural activities (Chandler 2014). The bourgeoisie privately owned the production means and they were persecuted for occupying high ranks in the society and promoting policies that promoted communism (Kiernan 2012). Besides, the elites who comprised lawyers, doctors, and scholars among other professionals were killed because they were economically dominant, thus creating class stratifications. Likewise, the genocide in Rwanda had an economic bearing.

The minority Tutsis were alleged to control most resources while denying the Hutus their rights of ownership (Straus 2013). The claim that the Tutsis created economic pressures drove the country into massive killings.

The role of elites in maintaining power

The political elites initiate fear and hatred among the citizens to retain power and authority. The genocide in Rwanda is an example of how political leaders can enact divisions in a country leading to war (Valentino 2013). The selfish ruling class deploys the “divide and rule” approach to sustain their reign as depicted by President Habyarimana. Consequently, acts of genocide and associated crimes against humanity have a relationship with egocentric political class.


The causes of genocide are instigated by various factors including political, social, and economic. The Rwandan genocide arose from ethnic rivalry while that of Cambodia was based on political ideologies. Factors such as seizure of the state power and its deployment in undertaking genocide and the failure of the international community to intervene in conflicts are common causes of mass murders. However, the methods of murder and causes of conflicts differ from one situation to the other. The media, foreign actors, and the political elites play a pivotal role in promoting or curtailing genocide activities.

Reference List

Agüero, J & Deolalikar, A 2012, . Web.

Beachler, D 2011, The genocide debate: politicians, academics, and victims, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Chandler, D 2014, ‘War, genocide, and justice: Cambodian American memory work,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 37, no. 5, pp. 868-870.

Hinton, A 2013, ‘The Paradox of Perpetration: A View from the Cambodian Genocide’, in M Goodale (ed), Human Rights at the Crossroads, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.153-158.

Kiernan, B 2012, ‘The Cambodian Genocide, 1975-1979’, in S Totten & W. Parsons (eds), Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, Routledge, London, pp. 317-348.

Kiernan, B 2014, The Pol Pot regime: race, power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, Yale University Press, New Heaven.

Lupel, A & Verdeja, E 2013, Responding to genocide: the politics of international action, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado Springs.

Mamdani, M 2014, When victims become killers: Colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Mayersen, D 2015, ‘One hundred days of horror: portraying genocide in Rwanda,’ Rethinking History, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 357-369.

Meierhenrich, J 2014, Genocide: a reader, Oxford University Press, New York.

Olesen, T 2012, ‘Global injustice memories: The 1994 Rwanda genocide,’ International Political Sociology, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 373-389.

Rangelov, I 2013, ‘The role of transnational civil society’, in A Lupel & E Verdeja (eds), Responding to Genocide: the Politics of International Action, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, pp. 203-233.

Straus, S 2013, The Order of Genocide: race, power, and war in Rwanda, Cornell University Press, New York.

Tyner, J 2014, ‘Violence, surplus production, and the transformation of nature during the Cambodian genocide,’ Rethinking Marxism, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 490-506.

Tyner, J, Henkin, S, Sirik, S & Kimsroy, S 2014, ‘Phnom Penh during the Cambodian genocide: a case of selective urbicide,’ Environment and Planning, vol. 46, no. 8, pp. 1873-1891.

Valentino, B 2013, Final solutions: Mass killing and genocide in the 20th century, Cornell University Press, New York.

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