What did Elon Musk do in Cambodia in 1975? Answer: nothing

Bruno Cooke November 23, 2022
What did Elon Musk do in Cambodia in 1975? Answer: nothing
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

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A bizarre TikTok joke video advising people not to ask Elon Musk “what he did in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979” deserves unpacking.

The video went live on November 14, but has continued to entertain, bemuse and potentially offend social media users.

Not only is Elon Musk’s age a giveaway, with regard to what he did or did not do in Cambodia in the 1970s, but the dearth of any information about any supposed visit should also make it clear that the video is making a joke.

But, given its apparent popularity and potential to confuse, here’s an explainer.

map of cambodia

What did Elon Musk do in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979?

The answer is nothing. Or, at least, almost certainly nothing.

Musk was born in 1971, on June 28. That makes him 51 now, and four years old by the middle of 1975. 

Therefore, if by any chance his family did take him on holiday from South Africa to Cambodia in the 1970s, the only things Elon Musk is likely to have done there were the sorts of things all children do: eat, sleep, play, etc.

Except, it’s exceedingly unlikely Musk went to Cambodia on holiday with his family in the mid or late 1970s. That’s because this is when the Cambodian genocide took place.

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Elon Musk Cambodia ‘joke’ explained

I put “joke” in quotation marks because it’s not really a word that should exist in association with what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

For those four years, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, oversaw the genocide of between 1.5 and 3 million people. The regime had taken power in the country following the Cambodian civil war. 

According to the University of Minnesota’s centre for Holocaust and genocide studies, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of all Cambodians living at the time.

The genocide was part of a social engineering project. Its aim was to create a classless agrarian society. However, the regime collapsed shortly after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978.

The “joke” the TikTok user in question is making is grounded in the perceived resemblance between Elon Musk and Pol Pot, who was the leader of Cambodia for those fateful four years.

Original Caption

What happened in 1979 to put an end to the Khmer Rouge?

According to Britannica’s writeup of the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in the 1970s, the two countries were effectively at war by the end of 1977.

In December 1978, a large Vietnamese army moved into Cambodia. Within two weeks, the Khmer Rouge government had fled Phnom Penh. They went to Thailand. 

The Vietnamese installed a regime called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. It mostly comprised Cambodian communists who had deserted Pol Pot in 1977 and 1978, Britannica writes.

Much has changed since then. Vietnam withdrew in 1989, after which the Phnom Penh government legalised property ownership and encouraged the practice of Buddhism. Now, Cambodia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. It’s part of the UN, ASEAN, the RCEP, the WTO and the Non-Aligned Movement.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 02: Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Elon Musk and the Internet’s field day

Thanks to his Twitter buyout and the ensuing events, Musk has been in headlines consistently for weeks.

He has reinstated various Twitter accounts, sparked debate about the present and potential future role of Twitter, and been parodied more than just about anyone else, on a social media platform he himself owns.

So it’s in this context that joke videos such as the one advising people not to ask Elon Musk “what he did in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979” have emerged.

Musk memes are many, and the tide is unlikely to stop any time soon. Not if he’s got anything to do with it, anyway. He’s as much a meme poster as any.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.