The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's Regime
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.
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
The combination of
these events resulted in the economic and military regression in Cambodia
and led to a swell of popular support for Pol
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
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
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
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,
overworked and undernourished. This is how the "killing
fields" came to
Pol Pot leading Khmer Rouge troops
Cambodians evacuating the cities
Khmer Rouge soldiers were usually made up of teenage peasants
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
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.
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
live in the
cities, proving their loyalty to capitalism. Because of this, hundreds of
of Cambodians were automatically branded enemies of the new communist state
and were killed.
When Pol Pot’s
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
of society, who still lingered from the prior regime. Consequently,
he rid his party of pro-Vietnamese members by sentencing them to death, including
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