War and Cambodia

Group of Cambodians being transported in wagon pulled by driver on bicycle Monk in doorway On a waterway in Vietnam, a man sits on the edge of a boat with lush green fields behind him.

Cambodia’s recent history is a complicated one, marred by years of terror and violence. In the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the country served as a transport route between North and South Vietnam. Because of Cambodia’s proximity to Vietnam, the Vietcong army set up bases there. Although Cambodia remained neutral during the war, the presence of these bases caused American military forces to bomb the country heavily, launching secret bombing campaigns beginning in 1969. MSN Encarta estimates that the amount of bombs dropped on Cambodia during the war exceeded the amount dropped on Europe during World War II.

Shelves filled with skulls. Bottom row has flowers amongst the skulls.
Killing Fields Memorial

In 1975, communist forces known as the Khmer Rouge took control of the weakened country, initiating one of the most radical restructurings of a society ever attempted. They believed in creating an agrarian utopia, dubbing their first year in power “Year Zero.” Within days, entire cities were evacuated and destroyed, money and property was deemed worthless and hundreds of thousands were executed immediately in what are now called “the killing fields.” Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge murdered more than 1.5 million Cambodians—15 to 20 percent of the country’s population—over the next four years, in one of the most brutal and disastrous regimes in modern history.

When the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979, many Cambodians fled the country. In the chaos, many escaped to refugee camps in Thailand. More than 100,000 refugees later relocated in the United States, where approximately 175,000 people of Cambodian descent live today.

Timeline: Modern Cambodian History


Vietnam War begins.


The U.S. sends combats troops into South Vietnam.


The North Vietnamese Army retreats into Laos and Cambodia.


American B-52s launch secret bombing raids over Cambodia.


Cambodia’s pro-American General Lon Nol deposes Prince Sihanouk, who then aligns with the Communist Khmer Rouge. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invade Cambodia.


U.S. continues its air strikes in Laos and Cambodia.


The Khmer Rouge’s army grows to some 50,000 soldiers, many of whom joined to retaliate for the U.S. bombings.


The Vietnamese and Americans sign the Paris Peace Agreement. The Vietnamese begin to withdraw their troops from Cambodia. The last remaining American troops withdraw from Vietnam. The U.S. stops its bombing campaign on Cambodia, in which nearly 540,000 tons of bombs were dropped.


Fall of South Vietnam; reunification of North and South. The Khmer Rouge come to power in Cambodia. Approximately 34,000 Cambodians flee toward Thailand to escape the government-sponsored genocide, which results in the murder of nearly one quarter of the population.


The Vietnamese invade Cambodia in response to border attacks, depose the Khmer Rouge and install a Vietnamese backed government. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians escape into Thailand. Cambodian refugees begin to arrive in the U.S.


Refugee camps open in Thailand to house some 160,000 Cambodian refugees.


The Vietnamese begin gradual troop withdrawal from Cambodia.


A formal ceasefire is adopted. The United Nations begins repatriating over 350,000 refugees from the camps in Thailand.


U.S. Trade Embargo lifted against Vietnam.


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