The ideology of communism left great scars on the parts of the world where it came into power. Russia, as the Soviet Union, suffered famines as agricultural systems collapsed. Political repression became the standard, with millions being sent off to the Soviet work camps, known as the gulags. After World War II, this repression was extended to Eastern Europe, creating the so-called Iron Curtain, splitting the world between east and west.
But horrible as the Soviet Union was to political dissidents, it was relatively moderate when compared to what happened in another part of the world, in the small country of Cambodia. There are internet debates, and indeed even real-life debates, over whether communism is inherently an “evil” ideology, but today, the story we tell is unquestionably communism at its worst. This is the story of the Khmer Rouge, and one of the bloodiest genocides in human history.
The Cold War
The country of Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia, nestled between Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. It has a long history, being the center of the Khmer Empire for over 600 years, but the story of modern Cambodia begins with its becoming a French protectorate in 1863. The French did some good, such as abolishing slavery, and a lot of bad, such as stealing cultural artifacts of the Khmer Empire and exploiting the country’s resources, such as rubber, as well as putting down any revolts from people who disagreed.
Colonialism came and went, and Cambodia gained formal independence in 1953. The government was established as a monarchy, as it had been before the French arrived, under the monarch Norodom Sihanouk, a major figure in the times that follow. From there, Cambodia largely minded its own business, adopting a neutral stance in the ongoing Cold War. But one issue would prove to be impossible to ignore – Vietnam.
Cambodia and Vietnam have a long and, sometimes, troubled relationship. To start with, there were territorial disputes. The Mekong Delta, today the southernmost part of Vietnam, was declared part of Vietnam by the French following their withdrawal. This was disappointing to Cambodia, as many ethnic Khmers lived in the area, giving Cambodia some claim to it. Nevertheless, it was a relatively minor issue, and King Sihanouk accepted the decision in favor of maintaining good relations with his neighbor.
From there, King Sihanouk abdicated in 1955, giving the throne to his father and instead running for prime minister. He won, and when his father died in 1960, he took the title of Prince. But it was in the 1960s that things began to fall apart, both from within and without.
The most salient problem was the Vietnam War, raging on Cambodia’s border. Communist North Vietnam was attempting to take back anti-communist South Vietnam, which was supported by America, and North Vietnamese fighters were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply their operations in the south. That trail ran partly through Cambodia. Everyone knew this, and the United States started pressuring the Cambodian government to do something about it.
Sihanouk, still the prime minister, wanted to find some way to stay out of the conflict, and tried to play both sides. Unfortunately, he wasn’t savvy enough to make it work, and instead only alienated everybody. He cut diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965 and instead sought economic aid from China and the Soviet Union. He declined to oust the Vietcong from his territory, but gave the US permission to perform air strikes on Cambodian soil, so long as no Cambodians were killed. However, that didn’t go over well, forcing him to publicly retract the statement. Figures in both the United States and Sihanouk’s own government started to see him as an unreliable partner.
The other problems facing Sihanouk were internal in nature. He led a fractious country, with various ethnic minorities and political dissidents. Sihanouk, despite being an elected prime minister, was by no means a democrat. After winning the elections of 1955, he turned the Cambodian Republic into a one-party state, demanded fealty towards him personally, and suppressed any dissenting factions. One of those factions was the left-wing Worker’s Party of Kampuchea, led by a man named Saloth Sar, better known by his revolutionary name of Pol Pot.
Since 1962, Pol Pot and his party had been organizing a low-level insurgency in the jungle-dense northeast of the country, home to disaffected minority groups that had been wronged by the central government. Unbeknownst to Sihanouk, they were being supported by the North Vietnamese and Mao Zedong’s China; Pol Pot had visited both Hanoi and Beijing, where he allegedly received training in ideology, military, and party purges.
But again, Sihanouk didn’t know any of this. He had friendly relations with both Vietnam and China, and had no reason to think they were working against him. Sihanouk ridiculed this small movement in the rural northeast, calling them “Khmers rouges”, adopted into English as “Khmer Rouge”.
Despite Sihanouk’s dismissal, the movement grew stronger as politics deteriorated, the war in Vietnam spilled over, and arms poured in from China. Then, in 1968, Pol Pot started his war, launching attacks on army posts and police stations to seize weaponry. Pol Pot’s army numbered only around 5,000 soldiers, and as such the war was minor in scope, not really a threat to the central government. But that would soon change, starting with an election in the United States.
Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States in 1968. Where his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was averse to expanding the war across the Cambodian border, Nixon had no such qualms. Along with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, Nixon authorized the use of B-52 bombers on Viet Cong bases in eastern Cambodia. For the next five years, America would do to Cambodia what it had been doing to North Vietnam, dropping thousands of bombs over the country, in villages and even cities, in an attempt to defeat the communist guerillas there.
Sihanouk and the government protested forcefully against American bombing, but Nixon didn’t listen, using Sihanouk’s earlier statements authorizing the bombing runs as pretext. Anywhere from 30,000 to 150,000 Cambodians were killed, the vast majority of them civilians.
American bombs completely destabilized the already fragile balance that Cambodia was in. Refugees fled westward; tens of thousands of disaffected people were pushed into the arms of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk’s inability to get America to listen further disillusioned members of his government, and it was decided that he had to go. So, when Sihanouk left the country on a diplomatic trip in 1970, there was a coup, possibly, though questionably, supported by the United States.
A member of Sihanouk’s government, a man named Lon Nol, was brought into power, and it’s difficult to overstate just how bad of a choice that was. Lon Nol had been in and out of Sihanouk’s good graces before, and he was most well known for violently putting down a revolt in 1967. With a name synonymous with bloodshed, Lon Nol’s becoming leader turned many in the country against the government.
Lon Nol further weakened his position by making an impossible demand: the Viet Cong had to leave Cambodia within three days, or face a military response. The Viet Cong, heavily dependent on their bases in the country, obviously did not listen to this, and suddenly there was real fear that the Vietnam War would expand to Cambodia. Paranoia flourished, and in this environment, violence broke out against Cambodia’s sizeable ethnic Vietnamese population. Lon Nol’s government supported this violence, to the harsh objections of both Vietnams. Three months after the coup, North Vietnam would invade Cambodia in response, seizing the northeastern part of the country.
Lastly, there was Sihanouk. Now an exile, he went to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong, who pushed Sihanouk to make an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk, determined to get revenge on the government that had betrayed him, did so, declaring that Lon Nol’s government was dissolved, and that the Khmer Rouge was now part of the legitimate government. Sihanouk had done this before, counterbalancing right-wing factions with left-wing ones, just as he had tried to do with his foreign policy. Now, he threw his lot in entirely with Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.
With that done, North Vietnam handed over the territories it had captured to the Khmer Rouge. They also started training their troops and supplying them arms. In one fell swoop, Pol Pot went from being a lowly insurgent to leading an army tens of thousands strong, controlling half of Cambodia’s population, and being supported by North Vietnam, China, and the former prime minister. He probably couldn’t believe his luck.
America provided support to Lon Nol’s government against the communist alliance, sending troops over the border and using air strikes the way it had before. But it was no use. By 1972, America wasn’t even fighting in Vietnam anymore, and by 1973 the bombing runs stopped, leaving the Cambodian Republic to fend for itself.
Cambodia’s armed forces suffered much the same problems as South Vietnam’s: corruption, low morale, high rates of desertion, and war crimes committed on suspected communists. Lon Nol bungled his way through politics, rigging an election to remain prime minister and demanding personal loyalty much like Sihanouk had. As such, they were ineffective against the Vietnamese-trained Khmer Rouge.
During this time, ominous reports started surfacing in areas under Khmer Rouge control – stories of forced relocations of villages or summary executions, for things as simple as asking questions. The reports grew louder following North Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia, to focus on conquering South Vietnam. The next two years would see the Khmer Rouge besiege the capital, Phnom Penh, which was filled with starving, desperate refugees – from a population of 600,000 at the start of the war, to 2 million in its final days.
By January of 1975, it was clear the city would fall. America evacuated its embassy by helicopter in April, a feat it would perform again in Saigon the same month. Lon Nol fled the country, leaving his successor to negotiate the surrender of the capital. The Civil War was over, and as many as 300,000 Cambodian civilians were dead. But no one could’ve imagined just how quaint that number would seem in hindsight.
After the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge evacuated every person in the city, claiming that there was an American bombing raid coming. This was not true, but nonetheless, 2.5 million people, including hospital patients, were taken from the city and marched into the countryside. 20,000 people died on the march.
The reasons for emptying Phnom Penh were both ideological and practical. Phnom Penh, as the capital of the old government, was a symbol of the system that the Khmer Rouge wanted to destroy. It was also the seat of power for many old government officials, as well as the center for alleged American intelligence networks.
But it was largely ideology that drove the decisions of the new government. Pol Pot believed in a kind of self-sufficient agrarian socialism, in the same style as his sponsor, Mao Zedong, and he was hell-bent on making it happen, no matter the cost. To that end, one of the first things that the Khmer Rouge did was empty the cities of Cambodia, sending the urban population into the countryside to work on collective farms.
When they reached these farms, individuals were told to write a short essay about themselves – their life, what they believed, and what they had done before the Khmer Rouge came to power. A tiny minority with technical skills were sent back to the cities for industrial work. Those who were considered “elites” or who had been involved in the previous government were often immediately killed or sent to labor camps. The rest remained on the farms.
On these farms, Cambodian citizens were expected to work in rice fields, without pay. That was because there was no pay to give them – the government had abolished currencies, believing they would lead to corruption. Workers were given clothes, rations, housing, and that was that. Based on this, some have characterized the Khmer Rouge’s government as a slave state. But even forced labor like this seems moderate, compared to everything else.
Khmer Rouge militias operated with impunity, regularly killing people who were, by their judgement, “bad elements”. When people were killed, they were often buried by the rice fields, using their bodies as fertilizer. A common statement said to those executed was, “To keep you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” People were killed for appearing intellectual, which could be something as trivial as wearing glasses. The government also targeted ethnic minorities, including Chinese and Vietnamese who had remained following the Civil War.
When it wasn’t the soldiers killing people, it was the forced labor causing exhaustion, the inevitable starvation that came with forcing inexperienced city dwellers to start farming, and the proliferation of diseases due to a lack of medicine. The government had banned the import of Western goods to promote self-sufficiency.
In 1976, Pol Pot declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, with Sihanouk as its head of state. But Sihanouk was aware of what was happening in the countryside, and was increasingly uncomfortable with it. He resigned, and was subsequently placed under house arrest. He would remain there for the rest of the Khmer Rouge’s time in power, which would not be very long. But a lot can happen in three years.
The government empowered the party’s secret police, the “Santebal”, to start rounding up suspected counterrevolutionaries. People were arrested on the merest suspicion of dissent, and entire families were imprisoned along with the suspects. Most of the time, prisoners were not told why they were there, and were punished for asking.
The government also began building a network of prisons and labor camps to house them, the most infamous of which was S-21, or Tuol Sleng. A former high school, Tuol Sleng is today a museum, dedicated to the memory of the atrocities committed there. As many as twenty thousand people passed through S-21. Of that number, only twelve are known to have survived, seven adults and five children. They described their experiences, in addition to the massive amounts of evidence uncovered at the prison. And you must be warned, the picture they paint is not pretty.
Prisoners were kept in classrooms converted into large cells, shackled to the floors and forbidden to talk to each other. The conditions were unhygienic; disease and parasites such as mosquitos and lice were rampant. Each inmate received miniscule amounts of food, consisting of rice and water, and next to no medical attention when they caught disease. Many were sleep deprived, which was often done by guards as a part of interrogations. And the interrogations made this look mild.
Every prisoner was routinely tortured, using beatings, electric shocks, hot metal rods, and stress positions. They were cut with knives and had fingernails pulled out. Alcohol was thrown on their wounds. They had plastic bags pulled over their heads, waterboarded, or held underwater for long periods of time. Some doctors in the prison’s medical unit performed medical torture, removing internal organs without anesthetic.
The notional purpose was to extract confessions, and names of other “enemies of the people”. When confessions were given, the prisoner was sent to the “Killing Fields”, a term coined by Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist who escaped the regime. The Killing Fields were not one place, but a system of 20,000 mass graves throughout the country. These were where the vast majority of the regime’s victims died, executed after being sent there from the prisons or the collective farms. Prisoners were often killed with metal tools, including axes, scythes, or even hammers and nails. Bullets were too expensive.
Not even children were spared the brutality. Young teenagers, and even some under age ten, were often recruited to aid in the regime’s actions, either carrying out executions or serving as child soldiers. Inside the prisons, children and babies were not normally kept as prisoners; instead, they were brought outside, where they were held by the legs and swung against the sides of trees until they were dead. Medical staff used children as assistants, having them perform operations on non-consenting patients.
This went on for four long years, until external forces would put an end to it. Pol Pot had distanced himself from his erstwhile allies, the Vietnamese, ever since coming to power. Their governments had been chaotically hostile to each other ever since, with Cambodian forces intermittently launching attacks over the border. Pol Pot himself was also acting erratically, calling for friendship one day and accusing the Vietnamese of secret plans for expansionism the next.
Vietnam proposed multiple times for the two countries to talk it out, but Pol Pot refused every time. So, Vietnam made the decision to remove him by force, and launched a full invasion on Christmas Day, 1978. The invasion was incredibly one-sided, as the better-equipped and well-experienced Vietnamese army overran the Cambodian forces in just two weeks. On January 7th, 1979, the Vietnamese army entered Phnom Penh and declared the Khmer Rouge government to be dissolved, establishing a puppet regime and bringing the murderous time of the last four years to a close.
The death toll of the Cambodian Genocide is estimated to be anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people, around one quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. Some estimates go as high as 3 million, although those are generally considered exaggerations. Of those that died, approximately 1.3 to 1.4 million were murdered, their bodies dumped in mass graves in the killing fields. Some Cambodians were lucky, and managed to escape over the borders of Thailand or Vietnam, but generations of people have never returned.
Four Long Years
The severity of the atrocities took time to settle in. The Khmer Rouge actually maintained their seat in the United Nations long after being deposed, mainly due to the new government being under Vietnamese management, and for Sihanouk’s advocacy for it not to be recognized. China, which had maintained support for the Khmer Rouge the entire time, actually invaded Vietnam over Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, but Vietnam bloodied their nose and China simply left, claiming they had made their point.
Nevertheless, there was disagreement. Many left-leaning Western academics, such as Noam Chomsky, initially downplayed the atrocities committed in Cambodia, calling them anti-communist propaganda by hawkish conservatives who were trying to save face over the failure in Vietnam, or to justify America’s attempts to contain communism. The outright denial ceased when the mass graves were discovered, but the point to be made was that America was the catalyst for any bloodshed.
The reality is more complex than that. It is true that it was America’s bombing campaigns that pushed the country over the edge, but it is also true that the country was sitting on a knife’s edge to begin with. It was the breakdown in peaceful society, plus the political machinations of self-interested leaders, that paved the way for one of the most brutal regimes in human history to take power.
Following the end of the Khmer Rouge, the government and Pol Pot retreated to the jungles in the west of the country, continuing an insurgency against Vietnam. Some factions of the Khmer Rouge were even trained in Thailand by the British Special Air Service, which just goes to show how completely unprincipled the Vietnam War actually was.
Peace talks began in 1989, and a treaty was signed in 1991. In 1993, the monarchy was restored, with who else but Sihanouk as king. But Pol Pot refused to stop fighting, splitting with Sihanouk and resuming the insurgency that he had begun thirty years earlier. Around this time, several leaders in the Khmer Rouge had had enough, and Pol Pot was betrayed and imprisoned by his own men, before he died in April of 1998. Within a year, the group’s major members had mostly surrendered, and by the turn of the century, the Khmer Rouge had effectively dissolved.
The legacy of the Khmer Rouge is one of shocking, unrelenting violence. Today, several major perpetrators of the genocide have either been convicted of crimes against humanity, or died in custody while waiting to be convicted. The head of Tuol Sleng died in prison while serving a life sentence, a better fate than most of his victims received.
Most Cambodians are today too young to remember the genocide of the 1970s, and are more focused on current problems. Cambodia still isn’t very democratic, and it suffers from poverty, plus the occasional controversy surrounding a cultural artifact. But to the few still old enough to remember, those must be problems that are nice to have.