Khmer Rouge Regime and Genocide in Cambodia

Funding for a UN-backed international tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is almost secured, but as the clock ticks likely defendants are ageing while many question the court’s form and utility.

Some top Cambodian officials are privately reluctant about the trial of those responsible for the Khmer Rouge’s totalitarian rule that oversaw the deaths of up to two million, fearing revelations about their own pasts.

The Khmer Rouge Regime

Cambodia is a country in South East Asia, less than half the size of California and twice the size of Scotland. Once it was the center of the ancient kingdom of the Khmer, and its capital was Angkor, famous for its 12th century temples. The present day capital is Phnom Penh. In 1953 Cambodia gained independence after nearly 100 years of French rule. In the 1960s the population was over 7 million, almost all Buddhists, under the rule of a monarch, Prince Sihanouk.

Khmer Rouge regime and genocide in Cambodia.
An undated picture provided by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM) shows Khmer Rouge forces entering Phnom Penh city. DC-CAM is also appealing to foreign governments for evidence to assist in a pending trial of former leaders in Pol Pot’s regime.

In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a military coup. The leader of the new right-wing government was lieutenant-general Lon Nol, who was made president of the ‘Khmer Republic’. Prince Sihanouk and his followers joined forces with a communist guerrilla organisation founded in 1960 and known as the Khmer Rouge. They attacked Lon Nol’s army and civil war began.

Cambodia was also caught up in another country’s war. Cambodia’s neighbour to the east is Vietnam, which had also fought against the French to gain independence. When the French were defeated in 1954, Vietnam was divided in two: communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam (backed by the USA). Civil war immediately broke out. The Viet Cong, a group of Vietnamese communist guerrillas (backed by North Vietnam and China), based themselves in the jungles of South Vietnam and fought against the South Vietnamese army from there. In 1964, the USA entered the Vietnam war, with airpower, firebombs and poisonous defoliants, but found they could not budge the determined Vietnamese communists. The inconclusive war in Vietnam cost many American and Vietnamese lives, devastated the country, and achieved nothing but misery for anyone caught up in it, including the Cambodians.

Under Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia had preserved neutrality during the Vietnamese civil war by giving a little to both sides:

Vietnamese communists were allowed to use a Cambodian port to ship in supplies, the USA were allowed to bomb – secretly and illegitimately – Viet Cong hideouts in Cambodia. When US-backed Lon Nol took over, US troops felt free to move into Cambodia to continue their struggle with the Viet Cong. Cambodia had become part of the Vietnam battlefield. During the next four years, American B-52 bombers, using napalm and dart cluster-bombs, killed up to 750,000 Cambodians in their effort to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines.

The Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement in 1970 was small. Their leader, Pol Pot, had been educated in France and was an admirer of Maoist (Chinese) communism; he was also suspicious of Vietnam’s relations with Cambodia. The heavy American bombardment, and Lon Nol’s collaboration with America, drove new recruits to the Khmer Rouge. So did Chinese backing and North Vietnamese training for them. By 1975 Pol Pot’s force had grown to over 700,000 men. Lon Nol’s army was kept busy trying to suppress not only Vietnamese communists on Cambodian territory but also Cambodia’s own brand of communists, the Khmer Rouge.

Amputees beg from a tourist at the entrance to the Tuolsleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.
Amputees beg from a tourist at the entrance to the Tuolsleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

In 1975 North Vietnamese forces seized South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon. In the same year Lon Nol was defeated by the Khmer Rouge. It’s estimated that 156,000 died in the civil war – half of them civilians.

Under Pol Pot’s leadership, and within days of overthrowing the government, the Khmer Rouge embarked on an organised mission: they ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia (now under its Khmer name Kampuchea) on the communist model of Mao’s China. The population must, they believed, be made to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition – and all intellectuals and educated people were assumed to be – must be eliminated, together with all un-communist aspects of traditional Cambodian society.

So, at short notice and under threat of death, the inhabitants of towns and cities were forced to leave them. The ill, disabled, old and very young were driven out as well, regardless of their physical condition: no-one was spared the exodus.

People who refused to leave were killed; so were those who didn’t leave fast enough, and those who wouldn’t obey orders.

All political and civil rights were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down; so were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field (including the army) were murdered, together with their extended families.

Cambodians have begun commemorations marking the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge rise to power. In this file picture a Cambodian child displays the skull of a Khmer Rouge victim at the Choeung Ek genocide memorial, 10 kilometers from Phnom Penh.
Cambodians have begun commemorations marking the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge rise to power. In this file picture a Cambodian child displays the skull of a Khmer Rouge victim at the Choeung Ek genocide memorial, 10 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

Religion was banned, all leading Buddhist monks were killed and almost all temples destroyed. Music and radio sets were also banned. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying.

One Khmer slogan ran ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’

People who escaped murder became unpaid labourers, working on minimum rations and for impossibly long hours. They slept and ate in uncomfortable communes deliberately chosen to be as far as possible from their old homes. Personal relationships were discouraged; so were expressions of affection. People soon became weak from overwork and starvation, and after that fell ill, for which there was no treatment except death.

Also targeted were minority groups, victims of the Khmer Rouge’s racism. These included ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and also Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry. Half the Cham Muslim population was murdered, and 8,000 Christians.

The imposition of a murderous regime always leaves its leaders afraid: afraid of losing power, failing to prevent vengeance, and facing betrayal by ambitious rivals. The Khmer Rouge repeatedly interrogated their own members, imprisoning and executing them on the slightest suspicion of treachery or sabotage.

Civilian deaths in this period, from executions, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated at well over 2m.

The Khmer Rouge’s links with China meant hostility between the Pol Pot government and Vietnam (soon to be briefly invaded by China for ill-treating Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese). In 1978 Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas were driven into the western jungles and beyond to Thailand. Vietnam (now a communist republic forging links with the Soviet Union) set up a puppet government composed mainly of recent defectors from the Khmer Rouge. This new socialist government was comparatively benign, but found it hard to organise the necessary reconstruction programme: Pol Pot’s policies had ruined the economy, there wasn’t much foreign aid; all the competent professionals, engineers, technicians and planners had been killed.

The Khmer Rouge in retreat had some help from American relief agencies – 20,000 to 40,000 guerrillas who reached Thailand received food aid -and the West also ensured that the Khmer Rouge (rather than the Vietnam-backed communist government) held on to Cambodia’s seat in the United Nations: the Cold War continued to dictate what allegiances and priorities were made.

The Khmer Rouge went on fighting the Vietnam-backed government. Throughout the 1980s the Khmer Rouge forces were covertly backed by America and the UK (who trained them in the use of landmines) because of their united hostility to communist Vietnam. The West’s fuelling of the Khmer Rouge held up Cambodia’s recovery for a decade.

Under international pressure, Vietnam finally withdrew its occupying army from Cambodia. This decision had also been forced by economic sanctions on Cambodia (the US’s doing), and by a cut-off in aid from Vietnam’s own backer, the Soviet Union. The last troops left Cambodia in 1989, and its name was officially restored. In the 1978-1989 conflict between the two countries (and their behind-the-scenes international string-pullers) up to 65,000 had been killed, 14,000 of whom were civilians.

In Cambodia, under a temporary coalition government, it was once again legal to own land. The state religion, Buddhism, was revived. In 1991 a peace agreement between opposing groups was signed. Democratic elections, and a peacekeeping force to monitor them, were arranged for 1993, and the former monarch, Prince Sihanouk, was elected to lead the new government.

An undated picture provided by the Documentation Center of Cambodia shows forced laborers digging canals during Khmer Rouge rule nearly 30 years ago in Cambodia's Kampong Cham province.
An undated picture provided by the Documentation Center of Cambodia shows forced laborers digging canals during Khmer Rouge rule nearly 30 years ago in Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province.

The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, of course, opposed Cambodia’s political reforms, but their organisation had begun to crumble.

Many defected to the new government; many entered into deals to get immunity from prosecution. When Pol Pot accused one of his close aides of treachery, leading Khmers arrested him, and in 1997 staged a show trial. The government, meanwhile, made plans for a tribunal to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. Not surprisingly, those who have spoken publicly all lay the blame for genocide on Pol Pot, and claim no knowledge of the killing. They have also blamed people who are dead and can’t argue, or accused ‘enemy agents’ from the American CIA, the Russian KGB, and Vietnam, all said to have organised the atrocity for obvious political reasons.

From 1995 mass graves began to be uncovered, revealing the genocide’s horrifying extent. The resurrected bones and skulls have been preserved to create simple and potent memorials of the dead in ‘the killing fields’ where they died. At the torture center in Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge terrorised and murdered their own members, not only skulls but also identity photographs of the victims are displayed on the walls: this bleak, unhappy place has also become a memorial.

In 1998 Pol Pot died of natural causes. His last home in the jungle, a complex of huts and bunkers, which is also the site of his cremation, has become an attraction for visitors. The government has plans to create a fully equipped tourist resort there, in the hope of reviving a trade which had collapsed after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001.

Source: Peace Pledge Union

Pol Pot

Pol Pot, who become responsible for the deaths of over two million of his own people, was born Saloth Sar in a small Cambodian village about 140 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. His date of birth is uncertain although French records give it as May 25, 1928.

Pol Pot - Early Years
Pol Pot – Early Years

At age six he went to live with his brother at the Royal household in Phnom Penh. Here he learned Buddhist precepts and discipline. At age eight he went to a Catholic primary school, where he remained for six years. It was here that he picked up the basics of Western culture, as well as the French language.

In 1949, Pol Pot went to study in Paris on a government scholarship. It was here that he got his introduction to Communism, joining the French Communist Party. After four years of exposure to Stalinist Communism he returned to Cambodia in 1953.

Within a month he had joined the Communist resistance, becoming a member of the Indochina Communist Party (IHC) which was dominated by the Viet Minh.

Pol Pot
Pol Pot

The 1954 Cambodian elections saw the Communists throw in support with the Democrats. The Democrats were soundly defeated, however, by the incumbent Government of Prince Sihanouk who now held absolute power. Pol Pot now took up a post as a teacher in a private college. He also spent his time recruiting the educated classes to the Communist cause. The Government, however, began a Communist crackdown and Pol Pot was forced to flee to the Jungles near the Vietnam border to avoid arrest. For the next seven years he would spend his time in the Cambodian jungle hiding from the police.

Over the ensuing years the communists bided their time as they built up their strength for a take-over attempt. They were bolstered by the North Vietnamese who were waging warfare against the Cambodian Government. A major Vietnamese victory in 1971 allowed the Communists to take control of certain areas of the country. In 1973 the communists launched a major attack on the Government but this was halted by American bombing. A final Communist assault began on January 1, 1975. This time they were victorious. On April 17, Communist forces entered Phnom Penh. Within 24 hours they had ordered the entire city evacuated. This process was repeated in other cities resulting in more than 2 million Cambodians being forced out of their homes. Many of them starved to death.

Pol Pot
Pol Pot

Pol Pot was now Prime Minister of Cambodia, which he promptly renamed Kampuchea. In August, 1976 he unveiled his Four Year Plan, which detailed the collectivisation of agriculture, the nationalization of industry and the financing of the economy through increased agricultural exports. This plan caused untold misery to the nation with many thousands dying in the paddy fields. Crops needed to feed the population were marked for export. Malnutrition was rampant, made worse by the Communist insistence on traditional Cambodian medicine. Pol Pot also started the infamous S-21 interrogation center where more than 20,000 men, women and children were tortured to death.

Throughout 1976 and ’77 skirmishes with Vietnam continued. In December 1977 The Vietnamese made real inroads in Kampuchea.

Pol Pot, however, held on for another year. By January, 1979 the Vietnamese forces had actually reached Phnom Penh. The Kampuchean Government fled by train while Pol Pot was taken by helicopter to Thailand. His last public appearance was an interview in December 1979. For the next 19 years he remained in exile in the Thai jungle. Pol Pot died in 1998.



Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia, although archeological evidence has established that prior to 1000 BC Cambodians subsisted on a diet of fish and rice and lived in houses on stilts, as they still do today. From the 1st to the 6th centuries, much of Cambodia belonged to the southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, which played a vital role in developing the political institutions, culture and art of later Khmer states. However, it was the Angkorian era, beginning in the 8th century, that really transformed the kingdom into an artistic and religious power.

Cambodia Map

Forces of the Thai kingdom of Ayudhya sacked Angkor in 1431, leaving the Khmers plagued by dynastic rivalries and continual warfare with the Thais for a century and a half. The Spanish and Portuguese, who had recently become active in the region, also played a part in these wars until resentment of their power led to the massacre of the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh in 1599. A series of weak kings ruled from 1600 until the French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

Following the arrival of the French, a relatively peaceful period followed (even the peasant uprising of 1916 was considered peaceful). In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and south Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Khmer Rouge Regime and Genocide in Cambodia (AFP/Philippe Lopez)
A man shows the skulls of Khmer Rouge victims to a boy in Tuolsleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 80s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful.

Khmer Rouge regime and genocide in Cambodia.
Tourists look at pictures of Khmer Rouge victims at the Toalsleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, a former prison where an estimated 16,000 people were tortured and executed during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime. The United States supplied arms to the Khmer Rouge after its defeat by Vietnamese troops and, amid Cold War politics, supported its keeping a seat at the United Nations despite knowing about the atrocities.

Future stability is tied to improving the country’s long-suffering economy, eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of royal succession.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won elections in 2003, but political stalemate lasted until June 2004, when Hun Sen found a coalition partner and could resume his prime ministership. In October 2004, King Sihanouk announced his intention to abdicate on account of ill health and annoyance at the country’s political infighting.