Khmer Rouge

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 22:57, 3 March 2023 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs)
Flag of Democratic Kampuchea

The Khmer Rouge was the ruling political party of Cambodia—which it renamed the Democratic Kampuchea—from 1975 to 1979. The term "Khmer Rouge," meaning "Red Khmer" in French, 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. 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 (estimates range from 850,000 to two million) under its regime, through execution, starvation and forced labor. Following their leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge imposed an extreme form of social engineering on Cambodian society— a radical form of agrarian communism where the whole population had to work in collective farms or forced labor projects. In terms of the number of people killed as a proportion of the population (est. 7.5 million people, as of 1975), it was one of the most lethal regimes of the twentieth century. One of their slogans, in reference to the New People, was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." The ideology of the Khmer Rouge evolved over time. In the early days, it was an orthodox communist party and looked to the Vietnamese Communists for guidance. It became more Stalinist and anti-intellectual when groups of students who had been studying in France returned to Cambodia. The students, including future party leader Pol Pot, had been heavily influenced by the example of the French Communist Party (PCF). After 1960, the Khmer Rouge developed its own unique political ideas. For example, contrary to most Marxist doctrine, the Khmer Rouge considered the farmers in the countryside to be the proletariat and the true representatives of the working class; a form of Maoism which brought them onto the PRC side of the Sino-Soviet Split. 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 what they saw as the arrogant attitude of the Vietnamese, and were determined to establish a form of communism very different from the Vietnamese model and also from other Communist countries, including China. After four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979 as a result of an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and was replaced by moderate, pro-Vietnamese Communists. It 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 April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial. The atrocities that this brutal regime committed against its own people, 20 percent of whom perished, reached almost unimaginable heights of inhumanity. Pol Pot counts, alongside Adolf Hitler as one of the most evil men in human history. Genocide usually applies to effort to exterminate the religious or cultural "other" perceived as an enemy or as undesirable. This regime committed these crimes against its own people. Followed by such genocides as that in Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and in Bosnia during the war in the Balkans between 1992 and 1995, the international community has been slow to develop mechanisms to intervene to prevent such atrocities, even though the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide legalized stopping genocide.[1]


The Cambodian left: the 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 ten-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 1967-1968 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.

Much of the movement's history has been shrouded in mystery, largely because successive purges, especially during the Democratic Kampuchea period, have left so few survivors to recount their experiences. One thing is evident, however: the North Vietnamese Communists helped the movement grow by providing political and military support, but became bitter rivals upon the success of Khmer Rouge. In the three decades between the end of World War II and the Khmer Rouge victory, the appeal of Communism to Western-educated intellectuals (and to a lesser extent its more inchoate attraction for poor peasants) was tempered by the apprehension that the much stronger Vietnamese movement was using communism as an ideological rationale for dominating the Khmer. The analogy between the Vietnamese communists and the Nguyen dynasty, which had legitimized its encroachments in the nineteenth century in terms of the "civilizing mission" of Confucianism, was persuasive. Thus, the new brand of indigenous Communism that emerged after 1960 combined nationalist and revolutionary appeals and, when it could afford to, exploited the virulent anti-Vietnamese sentiments of the Khmers. Khmer Rouge literature in the 1970s frequently referred to the Vietnamese as yuon (Khmer term for Vietnamese).

In 1930, Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Communist Party by unifying three smaller communist movements that had emerged in Tonkin, in Annam, and in Cochinchina 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, however, 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 (possibly a brother of the nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh), 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 1954 Geneva Conference, they controlled as much as one half of the country.

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 4 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 labeled 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 percent 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.

The 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 in 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 Marx.

Another member of the Paris student group was Ieng Sary. He was a Chinese-Khmer born in 1930 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.[2] In talent he was rivaled by Hou Yuon, born in 1930, who was described as being "of truly astounding physical and intellectual strength," and who studied economics and law. Son Sen, born in 1930, studied education and literature; Hu Nim, born in 1932, studied law.[2]

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 may 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 would later 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, which blamed lack of development in the Third World on the economic domination of the industrialized nations.

Path to power

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, 21 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 center, 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.

From enemy to ally: 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 probably received some training in China, which must have 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 United States intervention and that while the bombing did help Khmer Rouge recruitment, they "would have won anyway."[3] However, more recently historians have cited the United States 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 strong correlation between villages targeted by United States bombing and recruitment of peasants by the Khmer Rouge. Kiernan and Owen argue that "Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began."[4] In his 1996 study of Pol Pot's rise to power, Kiernan argued that "Pol Pot's revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilization of Cambodia" and that the United States carpet bombing "was probably the most significant factor in Pol Pot's rise."[5]

When the United States Congress suspended aid to Cambodia in 1973, the Khmer Rouge made sweeping gains in the country. 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.

The Khmer Rouge in power

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 ("Party Center") during its period of power consisted of:

  • Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) "Brother number 1" the effective leader of the movement, General Secretary from 1963 until his death in 1998
  • Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot) "Brother number 2" Prime Minister (alive, arrested in 2007 [6])
  • Ieng Sary "Brother number 3" Deputy Prime Minister (Pol Pot's brother-in-law) (alive, arrested in 2007)
  • Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) "Brother number 4" Final Khmer Rouge leader, Southwest Regional Secretary (died in custody awaiting trial for genocide, July 21, 2006)
  • Khieu Samphan "Brother number 5" President of the Khmer Rouge (alive, arrested in 2007)
  • Son Sen Defense Minister (d. 1997)
  • Yun Yat (d. 1997)
  • Ke Pauk "Brother number 13" Former secretary of the Northern zone (d. 2002)
  • Ieng Thirith (alive, arrested in 2007)

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 labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. The idea was to return to, or to re-create, the "Year Zero," a new page in Cambodian history with the slate wiped clean of foreign influence and all ideas incompatible with state ideology.[7] 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 labor camps. 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 even minor breaches of 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 favored 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" for which the death penalty applied.

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' (mitt), and to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation, known as samphea. Language was 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'; opokar) of the ruling body known as 'Angkar'; pronounced ahngkah; meaning 'The Organization'), and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times (choeu stek arom, or 'memory sickness') could result in execution. Also, rural terms like Mae; mother) replaced urban terms like Mak; mother).

Many Cambodians crossed the border into Thailand to seek asylum. From there, they were transported to refugee camps such as Khao-I-Dang, the only camp allowing resettlement in countries such as the United States, France, Canada, and Australia.

Crimes against humanity

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims

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)
  • ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist monks
  • homosexuals
  • "economic sabotage" for which many of the former urban dwellers (who had not starved to death in the first place) were deemed to be guilty of 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 ten are known to have survived.

Photos of genocide victims on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

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 3.3 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, containing an estimated 1.39 million bodies. 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.[8]

The United States Department of State-funded Yale Cambodian Genocide Project give estimates of the total death toll as 1.2 million and 1.7 million respectively. Amnesty International estimates the total death toll as 1.4 million. R. J. Rummel, an analyst of historical political killings, gives a figure of 2 million. Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot gave a figure of 800,000, and his deputy, Khieu Samphan, said 1 million had been killed. The BBC cites a possible death toll of "up to 2.5 million."[7]

Fall of the Khmer Rouge

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. Despite Chinese aid, these Cambodian forces were repulsed by the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese 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 puppet government.

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control an area near the Thai border for the next decade. It was unofficially protected by elements of the Thai Army, and was funded by diamond and timber smuggling. 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.

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), and during the 1980s, the United States provided military and humanitarian support to Cambodian insurgent groups. 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.[9] The Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot, was the strongest of the three rebel groups in the government, and received extensive military aid from China and intelligence from the Thai military. 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.

Already in 1981, the Khmer Rouge went as far as to officially renounce Communism 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".[9] 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.[10]

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 United States insisted that such a condition was unacceptable. 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.[9]

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). 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.[9][10] 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 2005, three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge years. 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.[11] However, Cambodia’s Education Ministry has approved plans to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009.


The 1948 International Convention of the Prevention of Genocide empowers the United Nations and its member states to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in order to stop genocide. Such intervention has been slow where and when it has occurred at all. However despotic or undemocratic a regime is, this by itself is not in international law a reason for intervention. The members of the UN have been reluctant to intervene in cases of crimes against humanity. The international community failed to intervene with the crimes committed by Pol Pot's regime from 1975 to 1979. The failure was not only to bring Pol Pot to justice but in acting very slowly to institute criminal proceedings, waiting until 2006 to establish a tribunal, which is short of funds.[12] It is imperative that the international community develop effective strategies to intervene legally in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. Willingness to intervene quickly in certain situations when the strategic or economic interests of the world's richest and most powerful nations are perceived to be at risk, needs to be matched by rapid response in situations such as Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

The notorious S-21 Camp is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The 1984 film, Killing Fields based on the story of survivor Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist who interpreted for Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times, won three Academy Awards. The film revealed the extent of the atrocities committed and the suffering endured to an almost disbelieving world.[13]

Awaiting Trial

Those awaiting trial for crimes against humanity are:

  • Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head.
  • Ieng Sary, former minister of foreign affairs. Arrested with his wife, Ieng Thirith, former minister of social action, during 2007.
  • Nuon Chea, who was "Brother No. 2" (Pol Pot was No. 1.)
  • Comrade Duch - Kaing Geuk Eav, who directed of S-21 prison. (Where at least 14,000 people died.)


  1. United Nations General Assembly, 1948, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. GA Resolution 260 (III) A. Retrieved February 2, 2009.; Patricia Marchak, 2006, review of Cook. 2004. Canadian Journal of Sociology.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Paris Study Group. US Library of Congress Country Study. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  3. Craig Etcheson, 1994, The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 9780865316508. 97.
  4. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, 2006, Bombs over Cambodia. The Walrus. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  5. Kiernan 2002, 16.
  6. 2007. Former Khmer Rouge leader arrested. Bangkok Post. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 2007. Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime. BBC News. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  8. Bruce Sharp, 2005, Counting Hell: The Death Toll of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. Cambodia: Beauty and Darkness. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Rowley, Kevin. 2004. "Second Life, Second Death: The Khmer Rouge After 1978," 191-214.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Sydney Schanberg, Nate Thayer, and Elizabeth Farnsworth, 1997, Continuing Unrest. PBS. June 18, 1997 TRANSCRIPT. Online Focus, PBS. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  11. Erika Kinetz, 2007, In Cambodia, a Clash Over History of the Khmer Rouge. Washington Post. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  12. Paul Watson, 2008, Cambodia genocide tribunal running out of money. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
  13. The Killing Fields (1984). Internet Movie Database. Retrieved February 2, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Affonço, Denise. 2007. To The End Of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. Eastbourne, UK: Gardners Books. ISBN 9780955572913.
  • Becker, Elizabeth. 1998. When the War Was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution. New York, NY: Public Affairs. ISBN 9781891620003.
  • Bizot, François, and Euan Cameron. 2003. The gate. New York, NY: Knopf. ISBN 9780375412936.
  • Chanda, Nayan. 1986. Brother Enemy: The War After the War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 9780151144204.
  • Chandler, David P. 1996. Facing the Cambodian past: Selected essays, 1971-1994. St Leonards, AU: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 9780813309279.
  • Chandler, David P. 1999. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813309279.
  • Chandler, David P. 2000. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 0813335116.
  • Chandler, David. P, Kiernan, Ben, etc. 1983. Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea: Eight Essays. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0938692054.
  • Cook, Susan E. 2004. 2005. Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: new perspectives. Genocide Studies Program monograph series, no. 1. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for International and Area Studies. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. ISBN 1412805155.
  • Gottesman, Evan. 2003. Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge: Inside the politics of Nation Building. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300089578.
  • Him, Chanrithy. 2000. When broken glass floats: growing up under the Khmer Rouge, a memoir. New York, NY: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393048636.
  • Kamm, Henry. 1998. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York, NY: Arcade. ISBN 9781559704335.
  • Kiernan, Ben. 2002. The Pol Pot regime: race, power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene. ISBN 9780300096491.
  • Kiernan, Ben. 2004. How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300102623.
  • May, Sharon and Frank Stewart. 2004. In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 9780824828493.
  • Ngor, Haing and Roger Warner, Roger. 2003. Survival in the Killing Fields. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 9780786713158.
  • Pran, Dith, DePaul, Kim. 1997. Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300068399.
  • Puckridge, Donald. 2004. The Burning of the Rice: A Cambodian Success Story. Hartwell, CA: Sid Harta Publishers. ISBN 1877059730.
  • Shawcross, William. 1979. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780671230708.
  • Swain, Jon. 1997. River of Time. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312169893.
  • Ung, Loung. 2000. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060193324.
  • Vicker, Michael. 1984. Cambodia 1975-1982. Boston, MA: South End Press. ISBN 9780896081895.
  • Wagner, Carol. 2002. Soul Survivors: Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Co. 9780887393914.

External Links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.