The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's Regime

Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh

On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot led the Communist forces of the Khmer Rouge into the capital city of Phnom Penh, beginning a vicious four-year regime in Cambodia. Approximately one million people were killed, or one-seventh of Cambodia’s population according to conservative estimates, in a country no bigger than the state of Missouri. Most died from starvation, malnutrition and mistreated or misdiagnosed illness. Another 200,000 were executed as enemies of the state. How did this happen?

In November 1954, Cambodia received full independence after being a French protectorate since 1863. This marked the beginning of a 16-year rule under Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Prince Sihanouk terminated a U.S.-run aid program in 1963 and relations between Cambodia and the U.S. were severed completely in May 1965.

In the meantime, a man named Saloth Sar returned to Cambodia after becoming absorbed in Marxism during his studies abroad. He took the pseudonym Pol Pot and joined the underground communist movement. By 1962, Pol Pot was leading the Cambodian Communist Party, which had fled to the jungle in order to escape the wrath of Norodom Sihanouk. While in the jungle, Pol Pot organized armed forces known as the Khmer Rouge and began waging guerilla war as opposition to Sihanouk’s government.

In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted by U.S.-backed right wing military forces and retaliated by joining with Pol Pot to resist the new military government. This same year, the U.S. invaded Cambodia looking to drive out the North Vietnamese from their military camps along the border. This just drove the Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia where they united themselves with the Khmer Rouge.

The United States erratically bombed North Vietnamese shelters in eastern Cambodia from 1969 until 1973, resulting in the deaths of up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. Because of this threat, hundreds of thousands of peasants left the countryside to settle in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh.

The combination of these events resulted in the economic and military regression in Cambodia and led to a swell of popular support for Pol Pot.



Pol Pot





The Beginning of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea

The U.S. had pulled its troops from Vietnam by 1975 and Cambodia's government lost its American military support. Pol Pot took advantage of this opportunity and led his Khmer Rouge army, consisting primarily of teenage peasant guerrillas, into Phnom Penh. On April 17, the Khmer Rouge successfully seized control of Cambodia.

Pol Pot, inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of communist China, then attempted to build his own agrarian utopia in Cambodia, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.

Pol Pot declared the year zero and began to “purify” society. In support of an extreme form of peasant communism, western influences such as capitalism and city life were expelled. Religion and all foreigners were to be extinguished. Embassies were shut down, and the use of foreign languages was banned. Sources of media and news were no longer allowed and communication through mail or phone was limited. All businesses were closed, education stopped, health care disappeared, and parental authority annulled. Any foreign economic or medical assistance was rejected. Thus, Cambodia became sealed off from the outside world.

Every city in Cambodia was forcibly evacuated. Two million people in Phnom Penh had to leave the city on foot for the countryside at gunpoint. It is estimated that around 20,000 died along the way.

Millions of Cambodian city dwellers were now forced into manual slave work in rural areas. Since they were only fed a tin of rice (180 grams) every two days, they quickly began to die from disease, being overworked and undernourished. This is how the "killing fields" came to be known.







Pol Pot leading Khmer Rouge troops



Cambodians evacuating the cities









Khmer Rouge soldiers were usually made up of teenage peasants

"What is rotten must be removed.”

Throughout Cambodia, deadly cleansings were performed to abolish all that was left of the "old society." People were executed because they were educated or wealthy and based on their occupation, such as police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Ex-soldiers were killed along with their wives and children. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot, which eventually included many Khmer Rouge leaders, was killed.

The three largest minorities - the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims - were attacked as well as twenty other smaller groups. Of the 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975, half of them were killed. The Khmer Rouge carried out many atrocities against these minority groups, including forcing Muslims to eat pork and shooting those who refused.


The Khmer Rouge saw cities as the heart of capitalism and therefore they had to be eliminated. Khmer Rouge soldiers referred to Phnom Penh as "the great prostitute of the Mekong." (Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History, 247). Ordinary citizens were moved out of the cities to live and work in the countryside as peasants in order to create the ideal communist society. The goal of converting everyone to peasants was due to the fact that this class of people was believed to be “simple, uneducated, hard-working and not prone to exploiting others.” They had lived that way for years and always managed to get by. For this reason, the Khmer Rouge called the peasants "old people" and considered them as the ideal communists for the new Cambodian state.

Those who lived in the cities were seen as "new people" and were considered “the root of all capitalist evil” by the Khmer Rouge. New people were the quintessence of capitalism and therefore the opponent of communism. No matter what their profession was - teacher, tailor, civil servant or monk - it was irrelevant. According to the Khmer Rouge, the new people had made the decision to live in the cities, proving their loyalty to capitalism. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were automatically branded enemies of the new communist state and were killed.

When Pol Pot’s plan didn’t work out, he refused to blame himself, his peers or the plan itself. He decided there were enemies amongst him as well as what he perceived to be an emerging pro-Vietnamese faction inside the Cambodian Communist party. Another part of the blame went to the upper class of society, who still lingered from the prior regime. Consequently, he rid his party of pro-Vietnamese members by sentencing them to death, including some of his oldest colleagues. Pol Pot became more paranoid than ever and was convinced that he was surrounded by enemies as Cambodia began to fall apart. This increased the number of murders and arrests and transformed the party into a terrifying reign of brutality that went on until the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979.