Southeast Asia’s Most Murderous Regime: The Khmer Rouge Explained

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge, was a despotic government that seized control of Cambodia during the final days of the Vietnam War. Across the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia – known then as Democratic Kampuchea – it enacted one of the largest mass killings of the 20th century. From 1975 to 1979 the regime were responsible for the deaths of two million people.

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The figurehead of this murderous regime was Pol Pot, a Marxist whose vision for Cambodia involved dismantling the cities and forcing a mass exodus to communal farms in the countryside.

This social engineering was attempted without any thought for the human cost. Thousands of families were executed, starved or worked to death.

Origins

Cambodia emerged in the 1940s, after the end of French colonial rule in Indochina, politically fluid. The Khmer Rouge, then the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was originally a marginal force in this arena.

It was energised by the right-wing military coup, led by Marshal Lon Nol, which toppled Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. The Khmer Rouge entered a political coalition with Sihanouk and gradually accumulated support.

A 5-year civil war ensued, during which the Khmer Rouge took gradual control of the countryside. Pol Pot, as Head of the Army, grew in stature and position.

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Its rise was aided by Operation Menu, the Nixon/Kissinger policy of secretly bombing Cambodia in order to destroy sanctuaries for the enemy North Vietnamese.

The Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Pol Pot and the Genocide

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Pol Pot’s formative experience was his time in remote north-east Cambodia, where he observed the simple, communal self-sufficient tribal societies that peppered the region. They had no money, and were not influenced by Buddhism. This provided the framework for Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian utopia.

On having seized power, Pol Pot declared a fresh start. This would be “Year Zero”, and the regime would set about abolishing all traces of capitalism and religion.

The regime claimed that only pure people were qualified to participate in the revolution. Minority peoples – Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese – and soldiers and civil servants from the defeated government were singled out as targets for assimilation, extinction or ethnic cleansing. Intellectuals were brutally targeted in the crudest fashion. If you wore glasses or were multi-lingual, you were murdered.

Family relationships were actively broken. People were forbidden from showing affection or pity, and the Angkar Padevat – the leaders of the Khmer Rouge – became everyone’s mother and father.

Almost ironically, the genocide was structured in industrial fashion. The most notorious of many death centres was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, where approximately 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned.

Aftermath

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by an invading Vietnamese force.

The party leaders retreated into the hills more or less unscathed, and over time Cambodia began to recover and process this horrific episode in its history.

Pol Pot was put on trial in July 1997, sentenced to house arrest, and died a year later in his home.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.