What did people eat in Democratic Kampuchea? The famine and mass killings during the regime of the Khmer Rouge are well documented, but it should be remembered that as messed up as it was, Democratic Kampuchea was to a degree a functioning state.
As part of the “Super Great Leap Forward” the population were forced to go and work in the countryside farming, mostly rice. The plan was that Democratic Kampuchea would have such a bumper harvest that the profits would be used to develop the country into a socialist utopia.
To read about the Super Great Leap Forward click here (link).
Said farming was to be done in a collectivized fashion with the state providing everything, including food. So, what did people eat in Democratic Kampuchea?
How did people eat in Democratic Kampuchea
Ideologically the Khmer Rouge were Maoist and believed fully in collectivization. This began during the earl 1970’s in the “liberated” areas of the country. Initially it was formed of “mutual help groups” of as little as 30 families. This system meant everyone communally shared what they had, such as cooking and left some room for autonomy.
By 1977 people were being organized into high-level cooperatives of up to 1000 people. By this time there was no autonomy at all and the food that was served communally consisted of what Angkar was prepared to provide.
Angkar was what the Communist Party of Kampuchea referred to themselves, its base translation means “the organization”.
To read about Angkar click here.
Meals were this cooked communally and served to workers and cadres alike. There are numerous anecdotal stories that CPK cadres ate with their underlings, although it was also barely hidden that they had extra rations in their private dwellings
What was s standard meal in Democratic Kampuchea?
In many respects there was no standard meal in Khmer Rouge Cambodia. In reality it depended where you were and what job you were doing. Those involved in certain industries would be given more food. Soldiers and KR cadres received more food. In this respects we will look at the majority of the people, those working in the collective rice farms.
Almost everyone was served gruel, or rice porridge. In Khmer this is known as Borbor or more commonly as Congee.
Borbor is essentially rice mixed with hot-water. Nowadays the rice to water ratio tends to be high, but in Democratc Kampuchea it could often be mostly water (often dirty) and just a few grains of rice. Non-cadres tended to be served uncooked rice. Being found with extra rice, or cooked privately could be enough to warrant death.
Of course this whole element is another story in itself.
Deepening on the location other things such as corn, or banana leafs might be added for extra sustenance, but the majority diet of people was gruel and whatever they could land their hands on (without getting caught). A subject we will move on to.
Overall though it was all about rice, both for work and indeed for survival.
What was the Khmer Rouge obsession with rice?
The average Cambodian gets, or at least used to get 70% of the caloric intake from rice. The Khmer Rouge recognized early on that if you control the rice you control Cambodia. Early propaganda showed liberated areas with bountiful stores of rice.
Even the eventual victory and march into Phnom Penh only occurred after the KR had strangled the supply of rice into the capital.
Seeing this power lead the leadership of the CPK into believing that rice was the key to power and prosperity for the country. You can literally pinpoint almost everything bad that was to happen in the country down this fixation with rice.
Foraging for food in Democratic Kampuchea
The rations provided by Democratic Kampuchea for the workers was simply not enough for survival. This is why so many people died of starvation. But, as well as starvation people also died from eating poisonous, or bad things. People would forage for food, eating almost anything they could get their hands on, from grass to poisonous plants. For obvious reasons this would often end in death.
This was not always the case though and by foraging was how many were able to survive this terrible time. Again people would eat what was plentiful and again this would depend where they were.
Frogs, and bugs were favorites of people due to how many calories that had, ease of capture and the lesser risk it presented when compared to “stealing state property”. Throughout the regime of the Khmer rouge there was regular propaganda reminding people that stealing even one grain of rice was “stealing from the people”. The people in this case meaning the KR and its “state”.
What did the Khmer Rouge eat during this time?
The difference between the have and have-nots of Democratic Kampuchea were extremely profound. The KR leadership for example never went without during this period. Some of this has been blamed on the leadership claiming they didn’t know. In this respects the Super Great Leap Forward had a lot in common with the original Great Leap Forward. Rice harvest targets were often “met” by over-zealous, or fearful cadres, even if the numbers had no relation to reality.
The leadership could the argue later, much as they did in China that they did not know. Of course this should be taken with a great pinch of salt. Angkar are also quoted on numerous occasions of accusing those who complained abut starvation of being “bourgeois” or “class traitors”.
The Khmer Rouge leadership certainly did not go without though, as can be seen by the always rather portly figure that was Pol Pot and many of his entourage. Interestingly King Sihanouk the perennial “hero of the people” sat out the worst of the famine under house arrest in the Royal Palace.
To read about why the Khmer Rouge didn’t kill Sihanouk click here.
Undemanding the overall food situation in Democratic Kampuchea
The whole emptying of the cities into the countryside was done as part of the Super Great Leap Forward. The idea wa that the country would grow enough rice to make exceptional profits and thus enough money would be made to industrialize the country.
Part of this policy was extremely ill thought out and unrealistic targets of rice production per hectare (among other crops). The crux of this was that even when things went wrong, which they did tremendously the Khmer Rouge could not believe in any way it could be in any way their fault. People who complained were deemed counter-revolutionary and even senior cadres who spoke up against the famine often found themselves dead.
This meant that the country continued to export rice even when things were at their worst. This meant the for situation ended up in a trickle down affect. Those at the top had enough, which went down to soldiers, cadres and finally workers. At the very end people simply did not have enough food to survive. They either perished, or foraged enough to survive.
Most people were not directly killed by the Khmer Rouge
It is often quoted that the Khmer Rouge killed 1/3 to 1/4 of the population of Cambodia. In fairness this is only partly true. Whilst the Khmer Rouge did kill many people often in cold blood as enemies of the state, the majority of people died of starvation.
Idiocy and bad policy obviously does not absolve them of their crimes, but the fact that most people died due to lack of food in the famine should be factored in when we study how people ate under the Khmer Rouge.
The affect of food in Democratic Kampuchea on contemporary Khmer Cuisine
This is an extremely interesting topic and one which has played out in many countries before Cambodia. Most regions that have been through famine have more than their fair share of slightly bizarre foods. This is very simple. During the time want people will eat literally anything and by doing so “delicacies” get discovered. It is only the fact that the Cambodian famine was so recent that the affects on how people eat today are so obvious and profound.
Nowadays people still eat a lot of congee/borbor. Some of this is pure cultural, but there is certainly some impact from Khmer Rouge times. The main area though is with bugs. Cambodians eat more bugs than anyone else, and some weird ones at that. Tarantula for example was famously a dish spawned by the famine inflicted by the Khmer Rouge.
To read about street food inspired by the Khmer Rouge click here.
What did people eat under the Khmer Rouge and what did people eat in Democratic Kampuchea? The simple answer is not enough, hence the famine. But the food situation is also an interesting scholarly study on the ingenuity of people and how they cope in times of intense poverty and starvation.
One only has to look at the modern cuisine of the country to see this.