Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge (Khmer: ខ្មែរក្រហម – “Khmer Krahom” in Khmer) literally translated as Red Cambodians was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who were the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

Khmer Rouge means Communist Cambodians. 'Rouge' comes from the French word for red, which is a symbol of communism. Khmer means people from the Cambodian region. This was another name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea that was given by the former King Sihanouk. The organization began in January 1968 as the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea and was changed thirteen years later to Party of Democratic Kampuchea. [1]

This organization is remembered primarily for its policy of social engineering, which resulted in genocide.[2] Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases (such as malaria). Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted a genocide.[3]

The Democratic Kampuchea was established in 1975 and created their top level of command and named it Angkar, which literally translates to “high organization”.[4] By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, while the People’s Republic of the Kampuchea was being established. This meant that life started going back to the way it was post Khmer Rouge. The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer) still had a seat in the UN at this point but it was later taken away, in 1993, as the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later many of the remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves. Then in 1996, a new political party was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for all of his roles as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge. The main leader, Pol Pot, had a trial the following year that ended with a sentence of life imprisonment. Pol Pot never paid the full price for his actions as he died in the jungle in 1998. [5]


Historical legacy

After taking power, the Khmer Rouge leadership renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society.[6] The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people from the cities to the country to take up work in the agricultural field. They were not only forcing people out of their homes, but then also depriving humans of their basic rights as they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, who they could talk to, and many other aspects of their lives. Over the next years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers as they had been suspected of being traitors. [7]

The population in Cambodia was around 7,100,000 at the beginning of what ended up being the most lethal regime of the 20th century. Throughout the next ten years, 3,300,000 people (including men, women, children, and foreigners) were killed and by the end of the genocide, there was a total of slightly less than four million that were lost to the ways of the Khmer Rouge. [8]

The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of "involvement in free-market activities". Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.

The Khmer Rouge believed parents were tainted with capitalism. Consequently, children were separated from parents and brainwashed to communism as well as taught torture methods with animals. Children were a "dictatorial instrument of the party"[9] and were given leadership in torture and executions.[2]

One of their mottos, in reference to the New People, was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss".[10] This philosophy that the Khmer Rouge had developed over time. It started as communist party [11] that was working together and searching for direction from the Vietnamese guerrillas that were at the time fighting their own civil war. [12]

Pol Pot was a key leader in the movement after he returned to Cambodia from France. He had become a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) which gave guidance to the ideas of the Khmer Rouge. [13]

The movement gained strength and support in the northeastern jungles and established firm footing when Cambodia’s leader Prince Sihanouk was removed from office during a military coup in 1970. The former prince then looked to the Khmer Rouge for backing. With the threat of Civil war looming, the Khmer Rouge gained support by posing as a “party for peace”.

As the Khmer Rouge gained power they focused on an ideology of establishing a purely agrarian society. Pol Pot is viewed as highly influential in this policy is thought to have been influenced by the way that tribes of the north-eastern jungles lived. He respected that they lived “free of Buddhism, money or education” and decided that this was a good way for the people of Cambodia to start living. He wanted social institutions to be removed and make the society all agrarian. This was his way of “[creating] a complete Communist society without wasting time on the intermediate steps” as the Khmer Rouge said to China in 1975. [14]

By the 1970s, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge combined its own ideas with the anti-colonialist ideas of the PCF, which its leaders had acquired during their education in French universities in the 1950s. The Khmer Rouge leaders were also privately very resentful of the Vietnamese, and were determined to establish a form of communism very different from the Vietnamese model[15].

After four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979 as a result of a invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and was replaced by moderate, pro-Vietnamese Communists. The Khmer Rouge survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement operating in western Cambodia from bases in Thailand. In 1996, following a peace agreement, their leader Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial.[16] The Khmer Rouge is remembered mainly for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people or 1/5 of the country's total population[17] (estimates range from 850,000 to 2.5 million) under its regime, through execution, torture, starvation and forced labour. Because of the large number of deaths, and because ethnic groups and religious minorities were targeted, the deaths during the rule of the Khmer Rouge are often considered a genocide as defined under the UN Convention of 1948.[18]

Name history

The term "Khmer Rouge", French for "Red Khmer", was coined by Cambodian head of state Norodom Sihanouk and was later adopted by English speakers. It was used to refer to a succession of Communist parties in Cambodia which evolved into the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and later the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. The organization was also known as the Khmer Communist Party and the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.


Early history

The history of the communist movement in Cambodia can be divided into six phases: the emergence of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), whose members were almost exclusively Vietnamese, before World War II; the 10-year struggle for independence from the French, when a separate Cambodian communist party, the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), was established under Vietnamese auspices; the period following the Second Party Congress of the KPRP in 1960, when Saloth Sar (Pol Pot after 1976) and other future Khmer Rouge leaders gained control of its apparatus; the revolutionary struggle from the initiation of the Khmer Rouge insurgency in 1967–68 to the fall of the Lon Nol government in April 1975; the Democratic Kampuchea regime, from April 1975 to January 1979; and the period following the Third Party Congress of the KPRP in January 1979, when Hanoi effectively assumed control over Cambodia's government and communist party.

In 1930 Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Communist Party by unifying three smaller communist movements that had emerged in northern, central and southern Vietnam during the late 1920s. The name was changed almost immediately to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), ostensibly to include revolutionaries from Cambodia and Laos.

Almost without exception, all the earliest party members were Vietnamese. By the end of World War II, a handful of Cambodians had joined its ranks, but their influence on the Indochinese communist movement and on developments within Cambodia was negligible.

Viet Minh units occasionally made forays into Cambodian bases during their war against the French, and, in conjunction with the leftist government that ruled Thailand until 1947, the Viet Minh encouraged the formation of armed, left-wing Khmer Issarak bands. On April 17, 1950 (25 years to the day before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh), the first nationwide congress of the Khmer Issarak groups convened, and the United Issarak Front was established.

Its leader was Son Ngoc Minh, and a third of its leadership consisted of members of the ICP. According to the historian David P. Chandler, the leftist Issarak groups, aided by the Viet Minh, occupied a sixth of Cambodia's territory by 1952; and, on the eve of the Geneva Conference, they controlled as much as one half of the country.[19]

In 1951 the ICP was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers' Party, the Lao Itsala, and the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP). According to a document issued after the reorganization, the Vietnam Workers' Party would continue to "supervise" the smaller Laotian and Cambodian movements. Most KPRP leaders and rank-and-file seem to have been either Khmer Krom, or ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. The party's appeal to indigenous Khmers appears to have been minimal.

According to Democratic Kampuchea's version of party history, the Viet Minh's failure to negotiate a political role for the KPRP at the 1954 Geneva Conference represented a betrayal of the Cambodian movement, which still controlled large areas of the countryside and which commanded at least 5,000 armed men. Following the conference, about 1,000 members of the KPRP, including Son Ngoc Minh, made a "Long March" into North Vietnam, where they remained in exile.

In late 1954, those who stayed in Cambodia founded a legal political party, the Pracheachon Party, which participated in the 1955 and the 1958 National Assembly elections. In the September 1955 election, it won about four percent of the vote but did not secure a seat in the legislature.

Members of the Pracheachon were subject to constant harassment and to arrests because the party remained outside Sihanouk's political organization, Sangkum. Government attacks prevented it from participating in the 1962 election and drove it underground. Sihanouk habitually labelled local leftists the Khmer Rouge, a term that later came to signify the party and the state headed by Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and their associates.

During the mid-1950s, KPRP factions, the "urban committee" (headed by Tou Samouth), and the "rural committee" (headed by Sieu Heng), emerged. In very general terms, these groups espoused divergent revolutionary lines. The prevalent "urban" line, endorsed by North Vietnam, recognized that Sihanouk, by virtue of his success in winning independence from the French, was a genuine national leader whose neutralism and deep distrust of the United States made him a valuable asset in Hanoi's struggle to "liberate" South Vietnam.

Champions of this line hoped that the prince could be persuaded to distance himself from the right wing and to adopt leftist policies. The other line, supported for the most part by rural cadres who were familiar with the harsh realities of the countryside, advocated an immediate struggle to overthrow the "feudalist" Sihanouk.

In 1959 Sieu Heng defected to the government and provided the security forces with information that enabled them to destroy as much as 90% of the party's rural apparatus. Although communist networks in Phnom Penh and in other towns under Tou Samouth's jurisdiction fared better, only a few hundred communists remained active in the country by 1960.

Paris student group

During the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement, which had little, if any, connection to the hard-pressed party in their homeland. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot, who rose to the leadership of the communist movement in the 1960s, was born in 1928 (some sources say 1925) in Kampong Thum Province, northeast of Phnom Penh. He attended a technical high school in the capital and then went to Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics (other sources say he attended a school for printers and typesetters and also studied civil engineering). Described by one source as a "determined, rather plodding organizer", he failed to obtain a degree, but, according to the Jesuit priest, Father François Ponchaud, he acquired a taste for the classics of French literature as well as for the writings of Karl Marx.

Another member of the Paris student group was Ieng Sary, a Chinese-Khmer born in 1925 in South Vietnam. He attended the elite Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh before beginning courses in commerce and politics at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (more widely known as Sciences Po) in France. Khieu Samphan, considered "one of the most brilliant intellects of his generation", was born in 1931 and specialized in economics and politics during his time in Paris.[citation needed] In talent he was rivalled by Hou Yuon, born in 1930, who was described as being "of truly astounding physical and intellectual strength",[citation needed] and who studied economics and law. Son Sen, born in 1930, studied education and literature; Hu Nim, born in 1932, studied law.

These men were perhaps the most educated leaders in the history of Asian communism. Two of them, Khieu Samphan and Hou Yuon, earned doctorates from the University of Paris; Hu Nim obtained his degree from the University of Phnom Penh in 1965. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that these talented members of the elite, sent to France on government scholarships, could launch the bloodiest and most radical revolution in modern Asian history. Most came from landowner or civil servant families. Pol Pot and Hou Yuon may have been related to the royal family. An older sister of Pol Pot had been a concubine at the court of King Monivong. Three of the Paris group forged a bond that survived years of revolutionary struggle and intraparty strife, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary married Khieu Ponnary and Khieu Thirith (also known as Ieng Thirith), purportedly relatives of Khieu Samphan. These two well-educated women also played a central role in the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

The intellectual ferment of Paris must have been a dizzying experience for young Khmers fresh from Phnom Penh or the provinces. A number turned to orthodox Marxism-Leninism. At some time between 1949 and 1951, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary joined the French Communist Party, the most tightly disciplined and orthodox Marxist-Leninist of Western Europe's communist movements.

In 1951 the two men went to East Berlin to participate in a youth festival. This experience is considered to have been a turning point in their ideological development. Meeting with Khmers who were fighting with the Viet Minh (and whom they subsequently judged to be too subservient to the Vietnamese), they became convinced that only a tightly disciplined party organization and a readiness for armed struggle could achieve revolution. They transformed the Khmer Students' Association (KSA), to which most of the 200 or so Khmer students in Paris belonged, into an organization for nationalist and leftist ideas.

Inside the KSA and its successor organizations was a secret organization known as the Cercle Marxiste. The organization was composed of cells of three to six members with most members knowing nothing about the overall structure of the organization. In 1952 Pol Pot, Hou Yuon, Ieng Sary, and other leftists gained notoriety by sending an open letter to Sihanouk calling him the "strangler of infant democracy". A year later, the French authorities closed down the KSA. In 1956, however, Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan helped to establish a new group, the Khmer Students' Union. Inside, the group was still run by the Cercle Marxiste.

The doctoral dissertations written by Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan express basic themes that were later to become the cornerstones of the policy adopted by Democratic Kampuchea. The central role of the peasants in national development was espoused by Hou Yuon in his 1955 thesis, The Cambodian Peasants and Their Prospects for Modernization, which challenged the conventional view that urbanization and industrialization are necessary precursors of development.

The major argument in Khieu Samphan's 1959 thesis, Cambodia's Economy and Industrial Development, was that the country had to become self-reliant and end its economic dependency on the developed world. In its general contours, Khieu's work reflected the influence of a branch of the "dependency theory" school,[citation needed] which blamed lack of development in the Third World on the economic domination of the industrialized nations.

Path to power and reign

KPRP Second Congress

After returning to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot threw himself into party work. At first he went to join with forces allied to the Viet Minh operating in the rural areas of Kampong Cham Province (Kompong Cham). After the end of the war, he moved to Phnom Penh under Tou Samouth's "urban committee" where he became an important point of contact between above-ground parties of the left and the underground secret communist movement.

His comrades, Ieng Sary and Hou Yuon, became teachers at a new private high school, the Lycée Kambuboth, which Hou Yuon helped to establish. Khieu Samphan returned from Paris in 1959, taught as a member of the law faculty of the University of Phnom Penh, and started a left-wing, French-language publication, L'Observateur. The paper soon acquired a reputation in Phnom Penh's small academic circle. The following year, the government closed the paper, and Sihanouk's police publicly humiliated Khieu by beating, undressing and photographing him in public—as Shawcross notes, "not the sort of humiliation that men forgive or forget".

Yet the experience did not prevent Khieu from advocating cooperation with Sihanouk in order to promote a united front against United States activities in South Vietnam. As mentioned, Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim were forced to "work through the system" by joining the Sangkum and by accepting posts in the prince's government.

In late September, 1960, twenty-one leaders of the KPRP held a secret congress in a vacant room of the Phnom Penh railroad station. This pivotal event remains shrouded in mystery because its outcome has become an object of contention (and considerable historical rewriting) between pro-Vietnamese and anti-Vietnamese Khmer communist factions.

The question of cooperation with, or resistance to, Sihanouk was thoroughly discussed. Tou Samouth, who advocated a policy of cooperation, was elected general secretary of the KPRP that was renamed the Workers' Party of Kampuchea (WPK). His ally, Nuon Chea (also known as Long Reth), became deputy general secretary; however, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were named to the Political Bureau to occupy the third and the fifth highest positions in the renamed party's hierarchy. The name change is significant. By calling itself a workers' party, the Cambodian movement claimed equal status with the Vietnam Workers' Party. The pro-Vietnamese regime of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) implied in the 1980s that the September 1960 meeting was nothing more than the second congress of the KPRP.

On July 20, 1962, Tou Samouth was murdered by the Cambodian government. In February 1963, at the WPK's second congress, Pol Pot was chosen to succeed Tou Samouth as the party's general secretary. Tou's allies, Nuon Chea and Keo Meas, were removed from the Central Committee and replaced by Son Sen and Vorn Vet. From then on, Pol Pot and loyal comrades from his Paris student days controlled the party centre, edging out older veterans whom they considered excessively pro-Vietnamese.

In July 1963, Pol Pot and most of the central committee left Phnom Penh to establish an insurgent base in Ratanakiri Province in the northeast. Pol Pot had shortly before been put on a list of 34 leftists who were summoned by Sihanouk to join the government and sign statements saying Sihanouk was the only possible leader for the country. Pol Pot and Chou Chet were the only people on the list who escaped. All the others agreed to cooperate with the government and were afterward under 24-hour watch by the police.

Sihanouk and the GRUNK

The region Pol Pot and the others moved to was inhabited by tribal minorities, the Khmer Loeu, whose rough treatment (including resettlement and forced assimilation) at the hands of the central government made them willing recruits for a guerrilla struggle. In 1965, Pol Pot made a visit of several months to North Vietnam and China.

He received some training in China, which had enhanced his prestige when he returned to the WPK's liberated areas. Despite friendly relations between Norodom Sihanouk and the Chinese, the latter kept Pol Pot's visit a secret from Sihanouk. In September 1966, the party changed its name to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

The change in the name of the party was a closely guarded secret. Lower ranking members of the party and even the Vietnamese were not told of it and neither was the membership until many years later. The party leadership endorsed armed struggle against the government, then led by Sihanouk. In 1967, several small-scale attempts at insurgency were made by the CPK but they had little success.

In 1968, the Khmer Rouge forces launched a national insurgency across Cambodia (see also Cambodian Civil War). Though North Vietnam had not been informed of the decision, its forces provided shelter and weapons to the Khmer Rouge after the insurgency started. Vietnamese support for the insurgency made it impossible for the Cambodian military to effectively counter it. For the next two years the insurgency grew as Sihanouk did very little to stop it. As the insurgency grew stronger, the party finally openly declared itself to be the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

The political appeal of the Khmer Rouge was increased as a result of the situation created by the removal of Sihanouk as head of state in 1970. Premier Lon Nol, with the support of the National Assembly, deposed Sihanouk. Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, made an alliance with the Khmer Rouge and became the nominal head of a Khmer Rouge-dominated government-in-exile (known by its French acronym, GRUNK) backed by the People's Republic of China.

Sihanouk's popular support in rural Cambodia allowed the Khmer Rouge to extend its power and influence to the point that by 1973 it exercised de facto control over the majority of Cambodian territory, although only a minority of its population. Many people in Cambodia who helped the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol government thought they were fighting for the restoration of Sihanouk.

The relation between the massive carpet bombing of Cambodia by the United States and the growth of the Khmer Rouge, in terms of recruitment and popular support, has been a matter of interest to historians. In 1984 Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia argued that it is "untenable" to assert that the Khmer Rouge would not have won but for U.S. intervention and that while the bombing did help Khmer Rouge recruitment, they "would have won anyway".[20]

Conversely, some historians have cited the U.S. intervention and bombing campaign (spanning 1965–1973) as a significant factor leading to increased support of the Khmer Rouge among the Cambodian peasantry. Historian Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen have used a combination of sophisticated satellite mapping, recently unclassified data about the extent of bombing activities, and peasant testimony, to argue that there was a correlation between villages targeted by U.S. bombing and recruitment of peasants by the Khmer Rouge.

In the fall of 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President since Nixon to visit Vietnam. Clinton, in a humanitarian gesture, released extensive U.S. Air Force data on all American bombings from 1964 to 1975 in Indo China. This allowed bombing sites to be mapped out, and possible undetonated ordinance to be located. [21]

In his 1996 study of Pol Pot's rise to power, Kiernan argued that foreign intervention "was probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot's rise".[22]

By 1975, with the Lon Nol government running out of ammunition, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the government would collapse. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh.

U.S Involvement

In 1973, right before Pol Pot's complete rule over Cambodia, the Khmer Republican Government, with the help from US assistance, "dropped about half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia." Many of those who lost family members and close friends joined the Khmer Rouge's revolution. Those bombings may have killed as many as 300,000 people. [23]

It is said that the US sided with Cambodia but the efforts were to overthrow the Vietnamese; it was all part of the anti-Vietnamese and anti-Soviet attitudes that prevailed, especially in the midst of the Sino-Soviet Split, since the People's Republic of China also supported the Khmer Rouge. The United States aided Khmer Rouge guerrillas who fled to Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodian territory. The U.S. sided with China in supporting the Khmer Rouge in order to destabilize the Hun Sen Government in China and its Vietnamese allies. [24]


The leadership of the Khmer Rouge remained largely unchanged from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. The leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities.

The Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge's Central Committee during its period of power consisted of:

  • Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) (died 1998), "Brother number 1", General Secretary from 1963 until his death, effectively the leader of the movement
  • Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot), "Brother number 2", Prime Minister, arrested in 2007, high status made him Pol Pot's "right hand man"
  • Ieng Sary (Pol Pot's brother-in-law), "Brother number 3", Deputy Prime Minister, arrested in 2007
  • Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) (died July 21, 2006), "Brother number 5", Southwest Regional Secretary, final Khmer Rouge leader, died in custody awaiting trial for genocide
  • Khieu Samphan, "Brother number 4", President of Democratic Kampuchea, arrested in 2007
  • Son Sen (died 1997), Defense Minister, Superior of Kang Kek Iew
  • Yun Yat (died 1997)
  • Ke Pauk (died 2002), "Brother number 13", former secretary of the Northern zone
  • Ieng Thirith, arrested in 2007, sister in law to Pol Pot [25]

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labour. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.

In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about "two or three kilometers" outside the city and would return in "two or three days". Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the "threat of American bombing" and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. These were not the first evacuations of civilian populations by the Khmer Rouge. Similar evacuations of populations without possessions had been occurring on a smaller scale since the early 1970s.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population ("New People") into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps.

Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered, to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halt of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.

During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who had the potential to undermine the new state (including intellectuals or even those that had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses) and killing many others for breaching even minor rules.

Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. They did not believe in western medicine but instead favoured traditional peasant medicine; many died as a result.

Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.

The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them. Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as "private enterprise" and punished by death.

The Khmer language has a complex system of usages to define speakers' rank and social status. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, these usages were abolished. People were encouraged to call each other "friend" or "comrade" (មិត្ត; mitt), and to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation, known as samphea.

Language was also transformed in other ways. The Khmer Rouge invented new terms. People were told to "forge" (lot dam) a new revolutionary character, that they were the "instruments" (ឧបករណ៍; opokar) of the ruling body known as "Angkar" (អង្គការ, "The Organization"), and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times (chheu satek arom, or "memory sickness") could result in execution. Also, rural terms like Mae (ម៉ែ; mother) replaced urban terms like Mak (ម៉ាក់; mother).

Many Cambodians crossed the border into Thailand to seek asylum. From there, they were transported to refugee camps such as Sa Kaeo or Khao-I-Dang, the only camp allowing resettlement in countries such as the United States, France, Canada, and Australia. In some refugee camps such as Site 8, Phnom Chat or Ta Prik the Khmer Rouge cadre controlled food distribution and restricted the activities of international aid agencies.[26]

Crimes against humanity

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims.
Remains of victims of the Khmer Rouge in the Kampong Trach Cave, Kiry Seila Hills, Rung Tik (Water Cave) or Rung Khmao (Dead Cave).

The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed "enemies":

  • Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments.
  • Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, or even people wearing glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they were literate). Ironically and hypocritically, Pol Pot himself was a university-educated man (albeit a drop-out) with a taste for French literature and was also a fluent French speaker. Many artists, including musicians, writers and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai and other minorities in Eastern Highland, Cambodian Christians (most of whom were Catholic, and the Catholic Church in general), Muslims and the Buddhist monks. For example, The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was completely razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. (A similar policy was enacted in Maoist China, where Muslims were forced to breed pigs.) Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed. One former Khmer Rouge Commander, Comrade Duch, converted to evangelical Christianity in the years after the regime fell.
  • "Economic saboteurs": many of the former urban dwellers (who had not starved to death in the first place) were deemed to be guilty by virtue of their lack of agricultural ability.

Through the 1970s, and especially after mid-1975, the party was also shaken by factional struggles. There were even armed attempts to topple Pol Pot. The resultant purges reached a crest in 1977 and 1978 when thousands, including some important KCP leaders, were executed.

Today, examples of the torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge can be seen at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum occupies the former grounds of a high school turned prison camp that was operated by Khang Khek Ieu, more commonly known as "Comrade Duch". Some 17,000 people passed through this centre before they were taken to sites (also known as The Killing Fields), outside Phnom Penh such as Choeung Ek where most were executed (mainly by pickaxes to save bullets) and buried in mass graves. Of the thousands who entered the Tuol Sleng Centre (also known as S-21), only twelve are known to have survived. These survivors are thought to have been kept alive due to their skills, judged by their captors to be useful.

The buildings of Tuol Sleng have been preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Several of the rooms are now lined completely with black and white photographs that were of the thousands taken by the Khmer Rouge. .[27]

Number of deaths

The exact number of people who died as a result of the Khmer Rouge's policies is debated, as is the cause of death among those who died. Access to the country during Khmer Rouge rule and during Vietnamese rule was very limited. In the early 1980s, the Vietnamese-installed regime that succeeded the Khmer Rouge conducted a national household survey, which concluded that over 4.8 million had died, but most modern historians do not consider that number to be reliable.

Modern research has located thousands of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.[28]

The U.S. State Department-funded Yale Cambodian Genocide Project gives estimates of the total death toll approximately 1.7 million, which was about 21 percent of the country's population.[29] R. J. Rummel, an analyst of historical political killings, gives a figure of 2 million.[30] Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot gave a figure of 800,000, and his deputy, Khieu Samphan, said 1 million had been killed.[citation needed]


By December 1978, because of several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Cambodia, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed. Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.

Along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members,[31] the Vietnamese armed forces then invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Despite a traditional Cambodian fear of Vietnamese domination, defecting Khmer Rouge activists assisted the Vietnamese, and, with Vietnam's approval, became the core of the new People's Republic of Kampuchea, quickly dismissed by the Khmer Rouge and China as a "puppet government".

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade. These included Phnom Malai, the mountain areas near Pailin in the Cardamom Mountains and Anlong Veng in the Dângrêk Mountains.[32]

These Khmer Rouge bases were not self-sufficient and were funded by diamond and timber smuggling, military assistance from China channeled by means of the Thai military, and food from markets across the border in Thailand.[33]

Despite its deposal, the Khmer Rouge retained its UN seat, which was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old compatriot of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary from their student days in Paris, and one of the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name "Democratic Kampuchea" until 1982, and then "Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea" (see below) until 1993. Western governments repeatedly backed the Khmer Rouge in the U.N. and voted in favour of retaining the Cambodia's seat in the organization. Margaret Thatcher stated that "So, you'll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea.".[34] Sweden on the contrary changed its vote in the U.N. and withdrew support for the Khmer Rouge after a large number of Swedish citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives demanding a policy change towards Pol Pot's regime.[35]

Vietnam's victory, supported by the Soviet Union, had significant ramifications for the region; the People's Republic of China launched a punitive invasion of northern Vietnam and retreated (with both sides claiming victory). China, the U.S. and the ASEAN countries sponsored the creation and the military operations of a Cambodian government-in-exile known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea which included, besides the Khmer Rouge, republican KPNLF and royalist ANS.[35]

Eastern and central Cambodia were firmly under the control of Vietnam and its Cambodian allies by 1980, while the western part of the country continued to be a battlefield throughout the 1980s, and millions of landmines were sown across the countryside. The Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot, was the strongest of the three rebel groups in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, and received extensive military aid from China, Britain and the United States and intelligence from the Thai military.

In an attempt to broaden its support base, the Khmer Rouge formed the Patriotic and Democratic Front of the Great National Union of Kampuchea in 1979. In 1981, the Khmer Rouge went as far as to officially renounce Communism[32] and somewhat moved their ideological emphasis to nationalism and anti-Vietnamese rhetoric instead. However, some analysts argue that this change meant little in practice, because, as historian Kelvin Rowley puts it, "CPK propaganda had always relied on nationalist rather than revolutionary appeals".[35]

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force of Khmer Rouge insurgency, giving speeches to his followers. Journalists such as Nate Thayer who spent some time with the Khmer Rouge during that period commented that, despite the international community's near-universal condemnation of the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule, a considerable number of Cambodians in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas seemed genuinely to support Pol Pot.[36]

While Vietnam proposed to withdraw in return for a political settlement excluding the Khmer Rouge from power, the rebel coalition government as well as ASEAN, China and the US insisted that such a condition was unacceptable.[32] Nevertheless, in 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990 and did so in 1989, having allowed the government that it had instated there to consolidate and gain sufficient military strength.[35]

After a decade of inconclusive conflict, the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government and the rebel coalition signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament. In 1992, however, the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting, boycotted the election and, in the following year, rejected its results. It now fought the new Cambodian coalition government which included the former Vietnamese-backed Communists (headed by Hun Sen) as well as the Khmer Rouge's former non-Communist and monarchist allies (notably Prince Rannaridh). In July 1994 a "Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation of Cambodia" was established by Khmer Rouge authorities.

There was a mass defection in 1996, when around half the remaining soldiers (about 4,000) left. In 1997, a conflict between the two main participants in the ruling coalition caused Prince Rannaridh to seek support from some of the Khmer Rouge leaders, while refusing to have any dealings with Pol Pot.[35][36] This resulted in bloody factional fighting among the Khmer Rouge leaders, ultimately leading to Pol Pot's trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in April 1998. Khieu Samphan surrendered in December.

On December 29, 1998, the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the 1970s genocide. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured. In December 1999, Ta Mok and the remaining leaders surrendered, and the Khmer Rouge effectively ceased to exist. Most of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders live in the Pailin area or are hidden in Phnom Penh.

Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era.

Members of this younger generation may know of the Khmer Rouge only through word of mouth from parents and elders. In part, this is because the government does not require that educators teach children about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools.[37] However, Cambodia's Education Ministry started to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009.[38][39] China has defended its ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, "For a long time China has ... had normal and friendly relations with previous Cambodian governments, including that of Democratic Kampuchea".[40]

At present, the Khmer Rouge Case trials are taking place, with the charges accusing the Khmer Rouge regime of genocide and crimes against humanity.[41] After claiming to feel great remorse for his part in Khmer Rouge atrocities, Kaing Guek Eav, head of a torture centre from which 16,000 men, women and children were sent to their deaths, surprised the court in his genocide trial on November 27, 2009 with a plea for his freedom. His Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, stunned the tribunal further by issuing the trial's first call for an acquittal of his client, even after his French lawyer denied seeking such a verdict.[42] On July 26, 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to thirty years. Many condemned the sentence as too lenient.[43] Theary Seng responded indignantly:

'We hoped this tribunal would strike hard at impunity, but if you can kill 14,000 people and serve only 19 years – 11 hours per life taken – what is that? It's a joke.' 'My gut feeling is this has made the situation far worse for Cambodia.' 'It has taken a lot of faith out of the system and raised concerns of political interference.'

See also

Further reading

Among the very few western scholars who know the Khmer language and have published works about Cambodia are Ben Kiernan, David P. Chandler and Michael Vickery. Nayan Chanda, the Indochina correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is also very familiar with this period (through personal reporting, including many interviews with principals).

  • Denise Affonço: "To the End of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge"
  • Elizabeth Becker: When the War Was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution
  • Francois Bizot: The Gate
  • Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War After the War (Collier, New York, 1986) (very comprehensively footnoted)
  • David P. Chandler: A History of Cambodia (Westview Press 2000); ISBN 0-8133-3511-6.
  • David P. Chandler: Brother Number One: A Political Biography (Westview Press 1999); ISBN 0813335108
  • David P. Chandler: Facing the Cambodian past: Selected essays, 1971–1994 (Silkworm Books 1996); ISBN 974-7047-74-8.
  • David P. Chandler, Ben Kiernan etc.: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea: Eight Essays (Yale University Press 1983); ISBN 0-938692-05-4.
  • JoAn D. Criddle: To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family; ISBN 978-0963220516
  • Chanrithy Him: When Broken Glass Floats
  • Ben Kiernan: The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79; ISBN 0-300-09649-6.
  • Ben Kiernan: How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930–1975 (Yale University Press, Second Edition 2004); ISBN 0-300-10262-3.
  • Henry A. Kissinger: White House Years, Years of Upheaval, and Years of Renewal
  • Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey
  • Dith Pran (compiled by): Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors
  • William Shawcross: Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia
  • Jon Swain: River of Time; ISBN 0-425-16805-0.
  • Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers; ISBN 0-06-093138-8
  • Michael Vickery: Cambodia 1975–1982


  1. ^ Khmer Rouge News. Cambodia Information Center, 2011. Web. 1 Nov 2011.- Cambodia.
  2. ^ a b McLellan, Janet (April 1, 1999). "5". Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto (1st ed.). University of Toronto Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0802082251. 
  3. ^ Ratner, Steven R.; Abrams, Jason S. (April 5, 2001). Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy (2nd ed.). OUP Oxford. p. 272. ISBN 978-0198298717. 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ewald, Uwe (December 7, 2006). K. Turkovic. ed. Large-scale Victimisation as a Potential Source of Terrorist Activities (Illustrated ed.). IOS Press. p. 208. ISBN 978-1586036942. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Jackson, Karl D. (1992). Cambodia, 1975–1978: Rendezvous with Death. Princeton University Press. ISBN 069102541X. 
  10. ^ Soizick Crochet, Le Cambodge, Karthala, Paris 1997, ISBN 2-86537-722-9
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ citation needed
  16. ^ How the mighty are falling.The Economist
  17. ^ Doyle, Kevin (October 14, 2008). "It is now know as National Day of Hatred or Day of Remembrance (Cambodia). Cambodian Khmer Rouge Killers Sentenced". TIME.,8599,1849959,00.html. Retrieved February 22, 2009. 
  18. ^ Adam Jones, Genocide, a Comprehensive Introcution, London, 2006
  19. ^ Chandler, 180–181
  20. ^ Etcheson, Craig, The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, Westview Press, 1984, p. 97
  21. ^
  22. ^ Kiernan, Ben, The Pol Pot Regime,1996, Yale University Press, p. 16
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Picq L. Beyond the horizon: five years with the Khmer Rouge. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
  27. ^ [2]
  28. ^ Sharp, Bruce (April 1, 2005). "Counting Hell: The Death Toll of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia". Retrieved July 5, 2006. 
  29. ^ "Cambodian Genocide Program | Yale University". July 18, 2007. Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  30. ^ "Rummel, RJ, "Statistics of Cambodian Democide: Estimates, Calculations, And Sources."". Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  31. ^ Vickery, Michael (1984). Cambodia : 1975–1982. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0896081893. 
  32. ^ a b c "Kelvin Rowley, ''Second Life, Second Death: The Khmer Rouge After 1978''" (PDF). Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  33. ^ Tom Fawthrop & Helen Jarvis, Getting away with genocide?, ISBN 0868409049
  34. ^ "Margaret Thatcher – Transcript for the interview with Blue Peter in 1988". June 28, 2007. Retrieved January 25, 2010. 
  35. ^ a b c d e Pilger, John. 2004. In Tell me no lies", Jonathan Cape Ltd
  36. ^ a b CONTINUING UNREST. PBS. June 18, 1997 TRANSCRIPT
  37. ^ Kinetz, Erika.In Cambodia, a Clash Over History of the Khmer Rouge", Washington Post, May 8, 2007.
  38. ^
  39. ^ De Launey, Guy (November 10, 2009). "Textbook sheds light on Khmer Rouge era". BBC News. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  40. ^ Blanchard, Ben (February 17, 2009). "China defends its Khmer Rouge ties as trial opens". Reuters. 
  41. ^ "An Introduction to The Khmer Rouge Trial". 
  42. ^ Sopheng Cheang and Luke Hunt (November 28, 2009). "Surprise plea in Khmer Rouge trial". Associated Press, via The Raleigh News & Observer. 
  43. ^ Richard Shears (July 27, 2010). "Daily Mail Report on Comrade Duch's sentencing". Daily Mail (UK). Retrieved July 27, 2010. 

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