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Timeline: The History of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

Find out more about the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and the parallel story of Thet Sambath, investigative journalist and co-director of Enemies of the People.

A History of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

Explore Thet Sambath's personal timeline, spanning his youth, the Khmer Rouge's rule and the production of the documentary Enemies of the People

French Rule

Cambodia becomes a protectorate of France

Picture: Flag of French Protectorate of Cambodia (Wikipedia user Xiengyod, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

November 9, 1953

Cambodia gains independence from France after 90 years of French rule. King Sihanouk becomes the ruler of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Picture: King Sihanouk (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

Beginnings of the Khmer Rouge

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) is formed out of the growing opposition to the rule of King Sihanouk. King Sihanouk nicknames the CPK “Red Khmer” (“Khmer Rouge” in French) as a sign he does not take the group seriously.

Picture: Flag of Khmer Rouge (BBC)

Armed Rebellion

Leaders of the Khmer Rouge flee their home base of Phnom Penh and begin an armed rebellion.


Thet Sambath is born near Battambang, a province capital in northwest Cambodia.


At the height of Cambodia's civil war, Sambath's father sends his family to live in a government-controlled zone, but he remains in a Khmer Rouge-controlled "liberated" zone.


Sambath's father is killed by a Khmer Rouge cadre over a property dispute.


Sambath is sent to build small dams in the fields, and his mother is forced to marry a Khmer Rouge cadre.

April 17, 1975
Seizing Power

After years of civil war, Khmer Rouge forces seize Phnom Penh and establish their regime. They drive city-dwellers into the countryside in an attempt to create an agrarian, communist utopia. Brutal persecution of intellectuals, religious figures and ethnic minorities begins. The Khmer Rouge bans family relationships and begins an aggressive campaign of brainwashing young children to worship the state and spy on their parents. If parents try to disguise themselves as uneducated peasants, children are instructed to report them as enemies of the state.

Picture: Phnom Penh

August 1975

Four months after the Khmer Rouge establish their regime, a local high school in Phnom Penh is converted into what will become the notorious S-21 or Tuol Sleng prison and interrogation center run by the man known as Duch, later deemed “Cambodia’s Heinrich Himmler.” Between 1975 and 1979, roughly 17,000 people, labeled traitors, will be brought to the prison, tortured in order to extract “confessions” and systematically executed outside of the capital.

Picture: The list of rules at S-21 Prison

Four-Year Plan

The Khmer Rouge establishes the state of Democratic Kampuchea. Khmer Rouge leaders write their first four-year plan, which calls for a seizing all private property and establishes rice cultivation as a primary initiative. With little regard for families, as citizens are meant to have allegiance only to the state, citizens are assigned to work in groups. The goal is to achieve a yield of three tons of rice per hectare across the country. Most Cambodians are forced to work more than 12 hours a day in inhumane conditions in order to achieve this. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians starve to death in the rice fields.

Picture: Democratic Kampuchea's Coat of Arms (Wikipedia User O'erTheRampardos, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)


Sambath's mother dies in childbirth. Sambath is by her side.

September 1977
The Face of Angka

For the first two years of Khmer Rouge rule, most Cambodians have no idea who is running the country. The Khmer Rouge leaders, collectively known to the people as Angka, believe that secrecy is the best way to control the population. Angka pulls back the curtain in September 1977, when Saloth Sar, known as “Pol Pot,” introduces himself in a national radio broadcast.

A Second Round of Purges

Pol Pot begins a second round of purges aimed at eliminating all communist dissidents and moderates. Early on, the violence targets specific groups, but by 1978 executions become more widespread and affect all of Cambodia's population. Cambodia starts to attack people across its borders in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. There is speculation that Pol Pot wants to reclaim parts of Vietnam populated by the Khmer. Between 1977 and 1979, some 30,000 Vietnamese citizens are murdered.

Picture: Skulls in Cambodia


Sambath's older brother disappears in a political purge. Later, Sambath will discover that his brother died in a Khmer Rouge prison camp.

April 1978
President Carter Makes a Declaration

U.S. president Jimmy Carter declares the Khmer Rouge “the worst violator of human rights in the world.”

Picture: Jimmy Carter

People's Republic of Kampuchea

After the fall of Phnom Penh, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) is established with Vietnamese support. The Khmer Rouge’s campaign to create a classless society and the resulting executions of intellectuals, artists and other educated people make rebuilding difficult.

Picture: Flag of People's Republic of Kampuchea (Wikipedia User NsMn, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)


After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Sambath remains in Battambang province. He survives by herding cows and buffalo for farmers in his village.

January 1979
Fall of Khmer Rouge

Vietnamese forces take Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge regime falls. Pol Pot continues to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997. It is estimated that somewhere from 1.2 to 1.7 million people died because of starvation or execution while the Khmer Rouge was in power.

Picture: Skulls on a map of Cambodia


Sambath makes his way to a refugee camp on the Thai border, crossing an active battlefield where the Cambodian and Vietnamese army is fighting the Khmer Rouge forces.


Sambath becomes a health worker for the American Refugee Committee and starts to learn English.

The Paris Conference

Following the first Paris conference on Cambodia, Vietnamese troops withdraw from the country and the Khmer Rouge attempts to regain power.

The Paris Peace Agreement

The Paris Peace Agreement is signed by the four opposing factions vying for power. The Khmer Rouge is forced to sign, but refuses to abide by its provisions.


Sambath works as an interpreter for the U.N. civilian police unit under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

Coaltion Government

General elections result in the FUNCINPEC Party and the Cambodian People’s Party forming a coalition government

Khmer Rouge Outlawed

The Cambodian National Assembly votes to outlaw the Khmer Rouge.


Sambath starts working as a journalist at The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper.

Pol Pot Arrested

Pol Pot is arrested by one of his colleagues after in-fighting within the Khmer Rouge. He is sentenced to house arrest.

Picture: Pol Pot

April 15, 1998
Pol Pot Dies

Pol Pot dies. Nuon Chea ("Brother Number Two") surrenders and is then allowed to live as a private citizen in Pailin province, Cambodia.


Sambath begins researching the history of the Khmer Rouge.

June 21, 1999
Ta Mok Arrested

Ta Mok, the man who originally placed Pol Pot under house arrest, is himself arrested by Cambodian officials. He was notorious during the Khmer Rouge years, when he earned the nickname “the Butcher.”

February 18, 1999
UN Tribunal Recommendations

The “Report of the Group of Experts for Cambodia Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 52/125” is published by a U.N. group charged with determining the feasibility of trying Khmer Rouge leaders. The report recommends the creation of an international tribunal and truth commission to charge and try Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes.

May 9, 1999
Duch of the S-21 Prison Arrested

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, prison chief at the notorious S-21 prison, where an estimated 17,000 people were questioned, tortured and killed, is charged with murder and membership in an outlawed group under the 1994 Cambodian law banning the Khmer Rouge.

Picture: Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch (Flickr user ECCC, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Approval of Tribunal Legislation

The Cambodian Senate, National Assembly and Constitutional Council all approve the Khmer Rouge tribunal legislation and King Sihanouk signs it into law, despite some reservations on the part of the United Nations.


Sambath is introduced to "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea and starts having regular meetings and interviews with him on weekends. Meanwhile, Sambath also scours the country, looking for Khmer Rouge killers to speak to him.

February 15, 2002
Ke Pauk Dies

Former Khmer Rouge commander Ke Pauk dies.

Picture: Ke Pauk

February 22, 2002
Ta Mok Charged

Cambodian prosecutors charge former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok with crimes against humanity.

July 2, 2002
Cambodia to Compromise with the United Nations

Prime Minister Hun Sen announces that his government is ready to compromise with the United Nations on legislation governing the Khmer Rouge tribunals.

Picture: Prime Minister Hun Sen (Wikimedia user Daffy123, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

January 6, 2003
Resuming Talks

Cambodia and the United Nations resume talks over the Khmer Rouge trials.

June 2003
UN Agreement

The United Nations and Cambodia agree to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to try Khmer Rouge leaders.

Picture: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC Pool/Mak Remissa, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)


Nuon Chea begins to open up to Sambath, and Sambath starts to audiotape their conversations. Sambath meets Chan, a former Khmer Rouge member, who will play a key role in the investigation from now until his death in 2010.

UN Approval

The United Nations approves the tribunal after years of debate.


Through Chan, Sambath meets Suon, who introduces him to Khoun, who in turn introduces him to Sister Em, a former district chief of the Khmer Rouge in northwest Cambodia.

Ta Mok Dies

Ta Mok dies without going to trial.

Picture: Ta Mok's death (AFP)


As the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal swears in judges, Sambath starts to videotape his interviews with Nuon Chea. That same year, Sambath meets Rob Lemkin in Phnom Penh. They start to work on the film that will become Enemies of the People.

Duch's First Court Appearance

Duch appears in court for the first time for a hearing about his bail plea.

Picture: Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch (ECCC via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)


Sambath and Lemkin film former Khmer Rouge, from leaders like Nuon Chea to foot soldiers like Suon and Khoun.

"Brother Number Two" Arrested

Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two,” is one of four Khmer Rouge leaders arrested and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Picture: Nuon Chea aka "Brother Number Two" (ECCC via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)


The filming and investigation continue and involve other former Khmer Rouge cadres. In 2008, Khmer language footage totaling 160 hours is translated under conditions of total secrecy, and Sambath starts to work with another English language newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post.

Duch's Trial

Kaing Guek Eav ("Duch"), the chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, becomes the first former Khmer Rouge leader to stand trial.

Picture: Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch (ECCC via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)


Sambath and Lemkin complete production of Enemies of the People and fly to Amsterdam for the world premiere.

Duch's Conviction

Duch is convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in jail.

Picture: Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch (ECCC via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)


The film has its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, winning a special jury prize for documentary filmmaking.

Khmer Rouge tribunal judges seek to use the film as evidence in the case against Nuon Chea, but Sambath and Lemkin refuse, fearing that if they share their footage, former Khmer Rouge will refuse to speak to them in the future.

The Cambodian government refuses to allow the film an official release, but a small art cinema in Phnom Penh screens it for one week. The screenings sell out. Cambodian-Americans see the film in theaters across the United States, and the filmmakers organize a three-hour video conference, connecting survivors of the "killing fields" with the Khmer Rouge perpetrators who appear in the film.

Duch is sentenced to 35 years in jail. What the tribunal calls "Case 002" involves charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for Nuon Chea and others.

June 27, 2011
"Brother Number Two" On Trial

The trial of "Brother Number Two," along with three other senior members of the Khmer Rouge is set to begin.

Track the trial progress by following the news reporting on the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor and the Enemies of the People filmmaker blog.

Picture: Nuon Chea aka "Brother Number Two" (ECCC via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Note: Video embedded in this timeline is archival and from YouTube, and was not produced by POV, PBS or the filmmakers of Enemies of the People.

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