Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge

The flag of Democratic Kampuchea. The design was used by Khmer guerrillas since the 1950s with the building design varying.
Active 1968–1999
Ideology Agrarian socialism
Khmer nationalism
Leader Pol Pot
Headquarters Phnom Penh
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, in 1978

Khmers rouges (French for "Red Khmers"; French pronunciation: [kmɛʁ ʁuʒ]; Khmer: ខ្មែរក្រហម Khmer Kraham), more commonly known in English as Khmer Rouge (/kəˈmɛər ˈrʒ/) was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People's Army from North Vietnam, and allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-communist forces from 1968 to 1975. Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the Cambodian Civil War, overthrew the military dictatorship of the Khmer Republic and installed their own government Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. This was followed by the Cambodian genocide from 1975 until 1979, when Khmer Rouge was finally removed from power by Vietnam in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The military power of the Khmer Rouge organization was not broken however, and a long era of guerilla warfare involving large swaths of the Cambodian countryside began. Many different military factions were involved in the guerilla war era and it ended around 1994.

The Khmer Rouge organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies.[1] 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 death 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 genocide.[2]

The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer Rouge) held onto Cambodia's UN seat (with considerable international support) until 1993, when the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later, thousands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty. In 1996, a new political party, the Democratic National Union Movement, was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for his role as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge.[3] The organization (Khmer Rouge) was largely dissolved by the mid-1990s, and finally surrendered completely in 1999.[4] In 2014, two Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Kheiu Samphan, were jailed by a UN-backed court for life, which found them guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country's then population, during the "Killing Fields" era between 1975-1979.

Name history

The term "Khmers rouges", French for "Red Khmers", was coined by Cambodian head of state Norodom Sihanouk and later adopted by English speakers (in the form of the corrupted version 'Khmer Rouge'). 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 Kampuchea or Khmer Communist Party and the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.[5]


The Khmer Rouge's ideology combined elements of Marxism with an extreme version of Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. It combined an idealization of the Angkor Empire (802–1431), with an existential fear for the existence of the Cambodian state, which had historically been liquidated under Vietnamese and Siamese intervention.[6] The spillover of Vietnamese fighters from the Vietnam War further aggravated anti-Vietnamese feeling. The Khmer Rouge explicitly targeted the Chinese, Vietnamese, and even their partially Khmer offspring for extinction; although the Cham Muslims were treated unfavorably, they were encouraged to "mix flesh and blood", to intermarry and assimilate. Some people with partial Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry were present in the Khmer Rouge leadership; they either were purged or participated in the ethnic cleansing campaigns.[7]

Khmer Rouge bullet holes left at Angkor Wat temple

The Khmer Rouge's social policy focused on working towards a purely agrarian society. Pol Pot strongly influenced the propagation of this policy. He was reportedly impressed with how the mountain tribes of Cambodia lived, which the party interpreted as a form of primitive communism; as a result, those minorities received more lenient and sometimes even more favorable treatment than the urbanized "bourgeois" Chinese and Vietnamese.[7] Pol Pot wanted to remove social institutions and to transform the society into an agrarian one. 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.[8] The evacuation of the cities disproportionately affected Chinese and Vietnamese who were not accustomed to agricultural work, and therefore segregated from Khmers in labor camps, and forbidden from speaking their own language.[7]

The Khmer Rouge had a policy of state atheism.[9]


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.[10]

In 1930, Ho Chi Minh founded the Communist Party of Vietnam 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.[11]

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.[12]

In 1951, the ICP was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers' Party, the Lao Issara, 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.[13]

According to Democratic Kampuchea's perspective 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.[11] 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.[14] 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.[10]

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.[15] Advocates 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.[16]

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.[17]

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 an interest in the writings of Karl Marx.[18]

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 was born in 1931 and specialized in economics and politics during his time in Paris. Hou Yuon was born in 1930 and studied economics and law. Son Sen, born in 1930, studied education and literature; Hu Nim, born in 1932, studied law.[19]

Two members of the group, 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. 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. 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.[20]

A number turned to orthodox Marxism-Leninism. At some time between 1949 and 1951, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary joined the French Communist Party. 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.[21]

Inside the KSA and its successor organizations, there was a secret organization known as the Cercle Marxiste (Marxist circle). 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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

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".[25]

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.[11]

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.[11]

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.[11]

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.[26]

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.[21]

Sihanouk and the GRUNK

The region where 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.[21]

Pol Pot 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 was officially formed and its 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).[21]

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 China. The Nixon administration, although thoroughly aware of the weakness of Lon Nol's forces and loath to commit American military force to the new conflict in any form other than air power, announced its support of the newly proclaimed Khmer Republic.[27]

On 29 March 1970, the North Vietnamese launched an offensive against the Cambodian army. Documents uncovered from the Soviet archives revealed that the invasion was launched at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge following negotiations with Nuon Chea.[28] A force of North Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia reaching to within 15 miles (24 km) of Phnom Penh before being pushed back. By June, three months after the removal of Sihanouk, they had swept government forces from the entire northeastern third of the country. After defeating those forces, the North Vietnamese turned the newly won territories over to the local insurgents. The Khmer Rouge also established "liberated" areas in the south and the southwestern parts of the country, where they operated independently of the North Vietnamese.[29]

After Sihanouk showed his support for the Khmer Rouge by visiting them in the field, their ranks swelled from 6,000 to 50,000 fighters. Many of the new recruits for the Khmer Rouge were apolitical peasants who fought in support of the King, not for communism, of which they had little understanding.[30] 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.

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.

Foreign involvement

Further information: Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal

The relationship 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. 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.[31] However, Pol Pot biographer David P. Chandler argues that the bombing "had the effect the Americans wanted – it broke the Communist encirclement of Phnom Penh".[32][33] Peter Rodman and Michael Lind claimed that the US intervention saved the Lon Nol regime from collapse in 1970 and 1973.[34][35] Craig Etcheson agreed that it was "untenable" to assert that US intervention caused the Khmer Rouge victory while acknowledging that it may have played a small role in boosting recruitment for the insurgents.[36] William Shawcross, however, wrote that the US bombing and ground incursion plunged Cambodia into the chaos that Sihanouk had worked for years to avoid.[37]

The North Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, launched at the request of the Khmer Rouge,[38] has also been cited as a major factor in their eventual victory, including by Shawcross.[39] Communist Vietnam later admitted that it played "a decisive role" in their seizure of power.[40] China "armed and trained" the Khmer Rouge during the civil war and continued to aid them for years afterward.[41]

The UN sided with the CGDK, which included the Khmer Rouge, against the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea.

The regime


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:

Life under the Khmer Rouge

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, 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.[21]

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. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people.[43] 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.[43]

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. 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 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 were seen as "private enterprise" and punished by death. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. They did not believe in Western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead; because of the famine, forced labour, and the lack of access to appropriate services there was a high number of human losses.[43]

Commercial fishing was banned by the Khmer Rouge in 1976,[44] resulting in a loss of primary food sources for millions of Cambodians, 80% of whom rely on fish as their only source of animal protein.[45]

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 halting of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.[46]

Rooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum contain thousands of photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims.

During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state. People who they perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses, would also be killed. People would also be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.[47]

All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs.[48] The Khmer Rouge actively persecuted Buddhists during their reign from 1975 to 1979.[49] The repression of adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism was extensive. And according to Kiernan, the "fiercest extermination campaign was directed against the ethnic Cham Muslim minority".[50] The regime massacred nearly 25,000 Buddhist monks.[51] Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately. Almost all freedom to travel was abolished. Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy; instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune. All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with. In many cases, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.[43][48]

Language reforms

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.[21]

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 cadres controlled food distribution and restricted the activities of international aid agencies.[52]

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",[21] including:

Those who were convicted of treason were taken to a top-secret prison called S-21. The prisoners were rarely given food, and as a result, many people died of starvation. Others died from the severe physical mutilation that was caused by torture.[53]

Examples of the Khmer Rouge torture methods 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", together with his subordinates Mam Nai and Tang Sin Hean. 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 with 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.[54]

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 with thousands of black-and-white photographs of prisoners that were taken by the Khmer Rouge.[54]

On 7 August 2014, when announcing convictions and handing down life sentences for two former Khmer Rouge leaders, Cambodian judge Nil Nonn said there were evidences of "a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Cambodia." He said the leaders, Nuon Chea, the regime's chief ideologue and former deputy to late leader Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, together in a "joint criminal enterprise" were involved in murder, extermination, political persecution and other inhumane acts related to the mass eviction of city-dwellers, and executions of enemy soldiers.[55]

Number of deaths

Modern research has located 20,000 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.[56]

The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University estimates the number of deaths at approximately 1.7 million (21% of the population of the country).[57] A UN investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimates that 3 million had been killed.[58] Demographic analysis by Patrick Heuveline suggests that between 1.17 and 3.42 million Cambodians were killed,[59] while Marek Sliwinski estimates that 1.8 million is a conservative figure.[60] Researcher Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia suggests that the death toll was between 2 and 2.5 million, with a "most likely" figure of 2.2 million. After five years of researching grave sites, he concluded that "these mass graves contain the remains of 1,386,734 victims of execution".[56]

An additional 300,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980, largely as a result of the after-effects of Khmer Rouge policy.[61]


Photo images of the Ba Chúc massacre at a Vietnamese museum. The massacre was one of the events that prompted the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea.

On April 18, 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages, mostly in the border town of Ba Chúc. Of the 3,157 civilians who had lived in Ba Chúc,[62] only two survived the massacre. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.[63]

By December 1978, due to several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Kampuchea, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed. On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members,[64] invaded Cambodia and captured 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; the new government was quickly dismissed by the Khmer Rouge and China as a "puppet government".[63]

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade.[65] These included Phnom Malai, the mountainous areas near Pailin in the Cardamom Mountains, and Anlong Veng in the Dângrêk Mountains.[66]

These Khmer Rouge bases were not self-sufficient and were funded by diamond and timber smuggling, by military assistance from China channeled by means of the Thai military, and by food smuggled from markets across the border in Thailand.[67]

Place in the United Nations

Despite its deposal, the Khmer Rouge retained its United Nations 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 under the name "Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea". Western governments voted in favor of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea retaining Cambodia's seat in the organization over the newly installed Vietnamese-backed PRK, even though it included the Khmer Rouge. Margaret Thatcher stated: "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."[68] Sweden on the contrary changed its vote in the U.N. and withdrew its 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.[69]

Ramifications of Vietnamese victory

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.[70]

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 which received extensive military aid from China, Britain, and the United States and intelligence from the Thai military. Britain and the United States in particular gave aid to the two non-Khmer Rouge members of the coalition.[71]

Photos of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

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[66] 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."[69]

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force behind the 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.[72]

While Vietnam proposed to withdraw from Cambodia in return for a political settlement that would exclude the Khmer Rouge from power, the rebel coalition government, as well as ASEAN, China, and the US, insisted that such a condition was unacceptable.[66] Nevertheless, in 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990, and it did so in 1989, having allowed the government that it had installed there to consolidate its rule and gain sufficient military strength.[69]

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 from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, when around half of its 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.[69][72] 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 hiding in Phnom Penh.


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. Nonetheless, their generation is affected by the traumas of the past.[73]

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.[74] However, Cambodia's Education Ministry started to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009.[75][76] China has defended its ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, "[T]he government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than 70 countries".[77]

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

Kang Kek Iew before the Cambodian Genocide Tribunal on July 20, 2009.

The ECCC was established as a Cambodian court with international participation and assistance to bring to trial senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.[78] It has been handling four cases since 2007.[78] ECCC's efforts for outreach toward both national and international audience include public trial hearings, study tours, video screenings, school lectures, and video archives on the web site.

At present, the Khmer Rouge Case trials are taking place, with the charges accusing the Khmer Rouge regime of genocide and crimes against humanity.[79] After claiming to feel great remorse for his part in Khmer Rouge atrocities, Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), 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.[80] On July 26, 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to thirty years. Many condemned the sentence as too lenient.[81] Theary Seng responded: "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." She also stated: "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."[82]

Both Duch and the prosecution appealed against the verdict. In February 2012, Judge Kong Srim dismissed his appeal, saying that Duch's crimes were "undoubtedly among the worst in recorded human history" and deserved "the highest penalty available". He increased Duch's sentence to life imprisonment.[83]

Public trial hearings in Phnom Penh are open to the people of Cambodia over the age of 18 including foreigners.[84] In order to assist people's will to participate in the public hearings, the court provides free bus transportation for groups of Cambodians who want to visit the court.[84] Since the commencement of Case 001 trial in 2009 through the end of 2011, 53,287 people have participated in the public hearings.[78] ECCC also has hosted Study Tour Program to help villagers in rural areas understand the history of the Khmer Rouge regime. The court provides free transport for them to come to visit the court and meet with court officials to learn about its work, in addition to visits to the genocide museum and the killing fields.[85] ECCC also has visited village to village to provide video screenings and school lectures to promote their understanding of the trial proceedings.[78] Furthermore, trials and transcripts are partially available with English translation on the ECCC's website.[86]


Skulls displayed in the memorial tower.

The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and Choeng Ek Killing Fields are two major museums to learn the history of the Khmer Rouge.

The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is a former high school building, which was transformed into a torture, interrogation and execution center between 1976 and 1979.[87] The Khmer Rouge called the center "S-21".[87] Of the estimated 15,000 to 30,000 prisoners,[88] only seven prisoners survived.[87] The Khmer Rouge photographed the vast majority of the inmates and left a photographic archive, which enables visitors to see almost 6,000 S-21 portraits on the walls.[87] Visitors can also learn how the inmates were tortured from the equipment and facilities exhibited in the buildings. In addition, one of the seven survivors shares his story with visitors at the museum.

The Choeng Ek killing fields are located about 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.[89] Most of the prisoners who were held captive at S-21 were taken to the fields to be executed and deposited in one of the approximately 129 mass graves.[89] It is estimated that the graves contain the remains of over 20,000 victims.[89] After the discovery of the site in 1979, the Vietnamese transformed the site into a memorial and stored skulls and bones in an open-walled wooden memorial pavilion.[89] Eventually, these remains were showcased in the memorial's centerpiece stupa, or Buddhist shrine.[89]


The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an independent research institute,[54] published A History of Democratic Kampuchea 1975 - 1979,[90] the national first textbook on the Khmer Rouge history.[91] The 74-page textbook was approved by the government as a supplementary text in 2007.[92] The textbook is aiming at standardising and improving the information students receive about the Khmer Rouge years because the government-issued social studies textbook devotes eight or nine pages to the period.[92] The publication was a part of their genocide education project that includes leading the design of a national genocide studies curriculum with the Ministry of Education, training thousands of teachers and 1700 high schools on how to teach about genocide, and working with universities across Cambodia.[91]

Youth for Peace,[93] a Cambodian NGO that offers education in peace, leadership, conflict resolution, and reconciliation to Cambodian's youth, published a book titled "Behind the Darkness:Taking Responsibility or Acting Under Orders?" in 2011. The book is unique in that, instead of focusing on the victims as most books do, it collects the stories of former Khmer Rouge, giving insights into the functioning of the regime and approaching the question of how such a regime could take place.[94]


While the tribunal contributes to the memorialization process at national level, some civil society groups promote memorialization at community level. The International Center for Conciliation (ICfC)[95] began working in Cambodia in 2004 as a branch of the ICfC in Boston. ICfC launched the Justice and History Outreach (JHO) project in 2007 and has worked in villages in rural Cambodia with the goal of creating mutual understanding and empathy between victims and former members of the Khmer Rouge.[96] Following the dialogues, villagers identify their own ways of memorialization such as collecting stories to be transmitted to the younger generations or building a memorial.[97] Through the process, some villagers are beginning to accept the possibility of an alternative viewpoint to the traditional notions of evil associated with anyone who worked for the Khmer Rouge regime.[96]

Media coverage

Radio National Kampuchea (RNK),[98] as well as private and NGO radio stations, broadcast programmes on the Khmer Rouge and trials.[99] ECCC has its own weekly radio program on RNK, which provides an opportunity for the public to interact with court officials and deepen their understanding of Cases.[100]

Youth for Peace,[93] a Cambodian NGO that offers education in peace, leadership, conflict resolution, and reconciliation to Cambodian's youth, has broadcast the weekly radio program "You also have a chance" since 2009.[101] Aiming at preventing the passing on of hatred and violence to future generations, the program allows former Khmer Rouge to talk anonymously about their past experience.[101]

All Cambodian television stations include regular coverage of the progress of the trials.[99] The following stations feature special programming:

International television stations such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, NHK, and Channel News Asia also cover the development of trials.[99]

ECCC also uses various social media to update the development of the tribunal.[102]

Historic 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.[103] The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people from the cities to the countryside to take up work in agriculture. They forced many people out of their homes and ignored many basic human freedoms; they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, to whom they could talk, and many other aspects of their lives. Over the next three years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors.[104]

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.[105]

The Khmer Rouge believed that parents were tainted with capitalism, so they separated children from their parents, indoctrinated them in communism, and taught them torture methods with animals. Children were a "dictatorial instrument of the party"[106] and were given leadership in torture and executions.[1]

One of their mottos, in reference to the New People (usually urban civilians), was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."[107] The philosophy of the Khmer Rouge had developed over time. It started as a communist party[104] that was working together and searching for direction from the Vietnamese guerrillas who were fighting their own civil war.[108]

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, and with the threat of civil war looming, the Khmer Rouge were able to supplant the Lon Nol led Khmer Republic in most of the Cambodian countryside.[109]

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. 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 15 April 1998,[110] having never been put on trial.[111]

See also


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