The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975, with the goal of turning the country into a communist agrarian utopia. In reality, they emptied the cities and evacuated millions of people to labor camps where they were starved and abused.
Doctors, teachers and other educated people, as well as monks, the rich, and anyone perceived to be in opposition were tortured and killed.
It is estimated that between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians died during the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge, with little to no outcry from the international community.
Precursors to Genocide: Rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot
The Communist Party of Kampuchea, informally known as the Khmer Rouge, referencing the majority ethnicity of the country and red as the color of communism, was originally born out of the struggle against French colonization and was influenced by the Vietnamese. The movement was fueled by the first Indochina War in the 1950s, evolving into an official party in 1968 and grew over the next 20 years.
In the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge’s regime, the neighboring Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia. U.S. troops used Cambodia as a regrouping zone in addition to bombing parts of the country to destroy suspected Viet Cong targets, setting the foundation for animosity toward the West.
In March 1970, Marshal Lon Nol, backed by pro-American associates, staged a successful coup to depose Prince Sihanouk as the head of state. The Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot, allied itself with Sihanouk, setting the stage to become a major player in the civil war that followed.
With help from the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge began beating Lon Nol’s forces on the battlefields. And their growth was aided by the fact that Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic government, with assistance from the U.S., dropped about a half million tons of bombs on the country, killing as many as 300,000 people between January and August of 1973, further disenchanting them from the West.
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country’s capital city, Phnom Penh, effectively ousting the Lon Nol government. They immediately began emptying the city’s population into labor camps in the countryside, where physical abuse, disease, exhaustion, and starvation were extremely prevalent.
Their policies were radical adaptations of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist theories, attempting to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. The country’s name was changed to Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and Pol Pot declared it “Year Zero” as he began building his new republic.
The hypocrisy of the Khmer Rouge can be directly seen in their leadership, as many of the higher ranking officials were university-educated. In particular was “Brother Number One” – Pol Pot himself. Born as Saloth Sar in 1925, he came from a small village roughly 100 miles north of Phnom Penh. His family was relatively affluent and owned 50 acres of rice paddy, roughly 10 times the national average. He attended a French Catholic primary school in Phnom Penh until 1949, when he moved to Paris for post-secondary education and became active in communist groups.
The Khmer Rouge regime was extremely brutal. The regime generally singled out doctors, teachers, monks, journalists, the rich, artists, anyone with an education, and ethnic or religious minorities. But they also executed people who could no longer work or make the journey to the camps, those perceived to be in opposition to the party (whether or not this was true), as well as the families of those were deemed undesirable so that they could not be chased down for revenge.
Unlike in other genocides or conflicts, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Even if one was considered to be on the right side that could change the next day – many Khmer Rouge members were also killed during purges.
Children and babies were not exempt from their cruelty; it was often noted “to stop the weeds you must also pull up their roots.” Anyone affiliated with Lon Nol’s regime or military was also immediately killed.
No evidence was needed in order to send one to prison and people often fabricated their confessions of various crimes, with the belief that this would end their torment. In reality, they were more often than not executed once they gave up a list of names of new people to arrest.
In the beginning, executions were not necessary – starvation served as an effective tool to dispose of undesirable populations, but as more and more people were sent to prison, the Khmer Rouge moved over to a system of “killing fields,” establishing hundreds all over Cambodia.
As the genocide progressed, survival was determined by one’s ability to do work on the collective farms. This meant many of Cambodia’s elderly, handicapped, ill, and children became targets due to their inability to undertake harsh manual labor.
Money, free markets, schools, private property, foreign styles of clothing, religious practices, and other aspects of traditional Khmer culture were abolished, and buildings such as schools, pagodas, and government properties were turned into prisons, stables, camps, and granaries. Family relationships were heavily criticized, and the Khmer Rouge insisted that everyone consider “Angka” (translated to the Organization, referring to the top level of the regime) as their mother and father. Child soldiers were a huge tool of the Khmer Rouge, as they were easy to control and would follow orders without hesitation, to the point where many were forced to shoot their own parents.
The international community was largely silent during the course of the genocide. Neither the U.S. nor Europe called attention to the genocides as they were happening, although scholars and others in the West tried to bring attention to the atrocities being committed. At this time the U.S. had just lost the war in Vietnam, resulting in the government’s reluctance to involve itself in the region again. While their public stance against the killing gradually strengthened, it did not amount to action. It wasn’t until the regime was overthrown that the atrocities that had been committed gained the focus of the international media. However, this still did not lead to an international investigation.
— Conflict in Context —
The Killing Fields
The killing fields were sites set up all over the country where the Khmer Rouge took people to be killed once they could no longer work, had “confessed” to their alleged crimes, or simply just were not seen as being useful anymore. It is estimated that over one million people were killed at these sites and were buried in mass graves.
Today many of the killing fields have been excavated to give the victims a proper burial but some are also inaccessible due to landmines. One of the more famous ones is Choeung Ek located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Here people were taken for execution after enduring torture and interrogation at the S-21 prison, a former high school. It has been turned into a memorial site for visitors to learn about the genocide and pay their respects to the victims.
In 1984, a movie entitled “The Killing Fields” was released. It documented the horrifying conditions that Cambodians were forced to live in through the stories of American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran. When the Khmer Rouge takes Phnom Penh, Schanberg is able to evacuate but Pran is not, and he is eventually arrested. The movie shows the ordeal he is put through and his harrowing escape. For many outside of the country, this was their first look at what the Khmer Rouge regime was like.
Fall of the Khmer Rouge
Clashes with Vietnam broke out in 1977 and on January 7, 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and installing a socialist regime comprised of Khmer Rouge defectors. The rest of the party fled west into the jungles along the Thai border, carrying out guerilla attacks against the Vietnamese.
Many of the Khmer Rouge’s members escaped to Thailand, where they received aid from Western countries. Soviet-bloc countries also sought to keep Cambodia’s seat at the UN, and the U.S. voted in favor of this too. While they did not necessarily condone the Khmer Rouge’s actions, they also wanted to show their disapproval of Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia, one of many ways that Cold War politics fueled decision making.
For another decade, the Khmer Rouge fought the Vietnam-backed government with support from China and the Soviet Union. The violence and instability of this period result in the deaths of thousands of Cambodians, as well as a large influx of hundreds of thousands refugees into Thailand, still traumatized by their experiences under the Khmer Rouge and in search of food, medical care, and security.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew their troops due to economic sanctions the U.S. had placed on Cambodia and a lack of aid from the Soviet Union (their main supporter). A temporary coalition government was formed and in 1991 a peace agreement was signed between opposing parties. Elections were set for 1993, and the former monarch, Prince Sihanouk, was elected.
Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge as an insurgency until 1997 when he was arrested and placed under house arrest. The organization continued to exist until 1999, by which point most members had defected, been arrested, or died.
— Conflict in Context —
Brother Number One
On August 13, 1978, members of the Khmer Rouge unexpectedly attacked and kidnapped Kerry Hamill, John Dawson Dewhirst and Stuart Glass — three friends linked by their love of rowing — after their ship was inadvertently blown into the dangerous waters of Cambodia. Glass was immediately shot while Hamill and Dewhirst were taken as hostages into the notorious S-21 prison.
Brother Number One, directed by New Zealand filmmaker Annie Goldson, reveals Rob Hamill’s intimate journey to forgiveness as he testifies at the Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal on behalf of his brother, Kerry Hamill.
Through real footage of the trial, viewers are provided an emotional connection with Rob Hamill as he confronts Comrade Duch, the Prison Chief of S-21 and the man that brutally tortured and murdered his brother.
The title of the documentary offers compelling insight as well. The double entendre of Brother Number One not only refers to Kerry, the first of three brothers born to the Hamill family, but also to Pol Pot, the main political leader of the Cambodia genocide, who was known as “Brother Number One” in Communist propaganda.
Life after the Khmer Rouge
Rebuilding the country was extremely difficult as there was little foreign aid and all existing infrastructure had been destroyed by Pol Pot’s regime. For a long time, the country did not have any doctors, teachers, engineers, or other professionals because they had all been executed.
PTSD was very prevalent among survivors, though it largely went untreated throughout the 1990s due to the lack of healthcare professionals in the country, as well as a tradition of silence surrounding the atrocities. The level of destruction inflicted by the Khmer Rouge has greatly contributed to the large amounts of poverty that many Cambodians face today.
In 2003, the Cambodian government agreed to the establishment of a UN-backed tribunal to prosecute those who committed atrocities between 1975 and 1979, resulting in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Unfortunately by this time many of the top-level Khmer Rouge members had either died or fled the country and were unable to be prosecuted. This included Pol Pot, who died of natural causes in 1998 without any charges pressed against him.
The ECCC has been criticized for its speed and inefficiency – there have only been five indictments and one conviction, including Pol Pot’s second-in-command Nuon Chea and, Kaing Guek Eav (known as Duch) the commandant of the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh where thousands were held for interrogation and torture.
Cambodia today is still in a state of recovery from the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The country is laden with millions of landmines, which have contributed to more deaths and disabilities even up to the present. It is estimated that roughly 40,000 people in Cambodia are amputees due to landmines. Many families separated during the period of the regime still have not reunited.
Though the Khmer Rouge no longer exists, many participants in Cambodian politics were previously influential members of the organization. This includes Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander. There are also former members living in the countryside; in many villages people have lived side by side with them for decades.