The Cambodian genocide, which occurred under the Khmer Rouge, the official regime of Pol Pot from 1975 – 1979, is a striking example of a genocide from recent memory, It is inexorably tied to the geopolitical and ideological conflicts of the Indochinese Peninsula in the Cold War era.
In March 1965, United States Marines entered South Vietnam in an escalation of their efforts against Communist North Vietnam. Against the background of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the spread of communism in Southeast Asia to countries like Cambodia was a deep-seated American fear, recalling the famous ‘domino theory’ articulated by President Eisenhower. In this context, Prince Norodom Sihanouk ruled as prince and prime minister from 1955, initially proclaiming Cambodia’s neutrality in the Cold War. However, this neutral position was eroded in the 1960s as both North and South Vietnamese insurgents were operating from sanctuaries just inside Cambodia. Sihanouk finally broke off diplomatic relations with the US upon the escalation of the Vietnam War and allied himself with North Vietnam. His position and influence was to become increasingly precarious. In March 1969, President Nixon secretly ordered the US Air Force to conduct extensive bombing campaigns in eastern Cambodia. This was followed by ground troops entering the east to seize Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in April 1970. In total, American warplanes dropped over 2.7 million tons of bombs on 113,000 sites in Cambodia; as a result of which over 2 million people fled their homes to escape the bombing and ground fighting.
Against this background, the Khmer Rouge originated as an offshoot of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in the 1960s. While they initially relied on North Vietnamese fighters to capture large swathes of the Cambodian countryside through the late 1960s, the Khmer Rouge gradually increased in number and battle prowess themselves. Simultaneously, Sihanouk was overthrown by pro-American general Lon Nol in March 1970, and allied with the Khmer Rouge to urge Cambodians to retake control of the country.
Today, many historians believe that American military action in Cambodia helped strengthen the Khmer Rouge and led to their victory. It is argued that the bombing campaigns not only deepened Communist Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia (therefore providing aid to the Khmer Rouge), but also sparked anger among civilians and helped them recruit supporters. Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge amassed enough strength and support to enter Phnom Penh and conquer Cambodia on April 17, 1975.
The Khmer Rouge Revolution and Day One
The Khmer ideology had been influenced by Pol Pot’s time spent among hill tribes in the north-east, who lived a self-sufficient, communal lifestyle without need of money. As such, the Khmer Rouge hoped to reset Cambodia to “Year Zero”, building an agrarian, intensely nationalist utopia and regaining the glory of the Khmer Empire. Practically speaking, this would result in a one-party state in rejection of urban, ‘Western’ ideals, alongside an economy entirely reliant upon collective farming.
Upon entering the capital, the Khmer Rouge immediately began to implement this plan to ruralise Cambodia. By the afternoon of April 17, soldiers were herding the 2 million residents of Phnom Penh into the countryside, emptying houses, schools, and hospitals at gunpoint and killing thousands in the process. Foreign citizens were directed to the French embassy compound and later expelled from Cambodia, thus losing the only outside witnesses to the beginning of the genocide.
A hallmark of the Cambodian genocide was the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to completely dismantle any ‘modern’, urban or cultural elements of Cambodian society. To enforce a new, classless society, the government targeted the middle class and the educated, to the extent that people were often killed or tortured merely for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. Ethnic or national minorities, such as Vietnamese or Cham Muslims were also targeted. The government also denounced cultural traditions and heritage as a hindrance, seizing Buddhist temples, labeling Buddhist monks as parasites, and destroying works of art.
Additionally, the Khmer Rouge aimed to abolish the traditional family, forcibly separating children from their parents and putting them into labor brigades, and encouraging people to turn on each other and inform the authorities. Individuality of any kind was forbidden, as men and women alike wore a shapeless, black peasant garb as the national uniform.
Collectivisation and forced labor
In 1976, the Khmer Rouge issued a “Four Year Plan”, which aimed to achieve a yield of 3 tons of rice per hectare each year – much more than had ever been produced before. In the process, thousands of people were sent to work in the fields, and given primitive tools to dig canals and erect dams. Exhaustion, disease, and hunger abounded. Denise Affonco, a survivor of the genocide, stated in the Khmer Rouge tribunal regarding the conditions: “Every day, people died in the village. Every morning, they were hauling away a corpse.”
The economic self-reliance stressed by the Khmer Rouge, alongside the slaughter of most of the country’s doctors, also created extreme shortages of food, drugs, and medical care. Countless deaths occurred due to easily-preventable diseases as a result. The food shortages produced a man-made famine, as an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million deaths occurred solely due to this.
‘Cleansing’ the country of internal enemies
A striking aspect of the genocide was the brutal persecution of anyone considered disloyal to Angkar (“the organisation”), either through killings or mass torture in prison centres. Thousands of people involved in the previous government – soldiers, civil servants, low-level leaders – were detained and murdered.
The most infamous of these prisons was the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, run by Kaing Guek Eav (known as Duch), which detained between 14,000 – 17,000 prisoners, of which only 12 are believed to have survived. Electric shocks, beatings, and waterboarding were liberally used to extract forced confessions around being involved with the CIA or the Vietnamese. Bodies were dumped into mass graves in farms, known as the ‘killing fields’; and over 388 sites, containing 19,733 mass graves have been identified.
By the end of the genocide, an estimated 2 million people (around a third of the population) died from execution, starvation, disease, and overwork. The Khmer Rouge regime ended on January 7, 1979, after Vietnam launched a full invasion; but for Cambodians, the ordeal was not yet over. The process of rebuilding the country and ensuring accountability had just begun.
Although the Vietnamese established a new government upon defeating the Khmer Rouge, the ousted Khmer Rouge continued to wage guerrilla attacks upon them. Meanwhile, international allies of the new government (including the USSR) were attempting to provide it a seat at the United Nations; but the US alongside China and several countries voted to keep the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s UN representatives in a widely condemned vote; continuing to boycott the new government as an attempt to curb Soviet influence. Sihanouk became the head of a coalition of non-Communist groups and the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to expel Vietnam from Cambodia; and while the US sent aid to non-Communist groups, China sent arms to the Khmer Rouge.
The renewed war further disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of refugees in Thailand and civilians who had lived through the genocide. A peace agreement was only officially reached in 1991, while lasting peace was only reached in 1999 after the death of Pol Pot and the surrender of the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Accountability: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)
After a failed series of early attempts to ensure justice for the atrocities of the genocide, a criminal investigation began in July 2006 under the ECCC, which was carried out by both foreigners and Cambodians. Four major cases emerged concerning international crimes: including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Notably, Duch was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment in July 2010, which was later increased to life imprisonment. As of December 2018 however, only 3 defendants were actually convicted. Former mid-level and low-level members of the Khmer Rouge still live in communities across the country, and some hold high positions in today’s government, sparking the debate over whether due justice was truly achieved.
Overall, the court proceedings are mainly considered a success, since senior Khmer Rouge figures such as Duch were prosecuted, and the proceedings occurred inside Cambodia and allowed for Cambodians to witness and participate in the ECCC firsthand. The work of the ECCC, alongside contemporary and modern coverage of the regime (such as the 1984 film The Killing Fields) has successfully produced a thorough historical record of the mass atrocities that occurred between 1975-79, preserving it in cultural memory.
Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s years of brutality: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399
Life term for Cambodia Khmer Rouge jailer Duch: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16865834
Cambodia, 1975-79: https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/cambodia/case-study/background/an-ancient-kingdom