Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Chronicle of Survival
Cambodia walks a fine line Caught in the crossfire Terror and genocide Back to square oneMoving ahead, looking back

1975-1979: Terror and genocide Profile: Pol Pot
On April 17, 1975, less than two weeks before the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh and immediately began to drive the city's 2 million residents into the countryside. This was the first stage in its brutal attempt to transform Cambodia into a primitive communal utopia. In reality, the Khmer Rouge turned the country into an enormous forced labor camp. Money, property, books and religion were outlawed. Cambodia's economy, already severely damaged by years of bombing and civil war, ground to a halt. All decisions in the newly renamed Democratic Kampuchea came from a shadowy and unquestionable leadership known simply as angkar,or "the organization."

Forced labor
Forced Labor under the Khmer Rouge - April 1976

In less than four years, between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people died, out of a population of 8 million. Many succumbed to starvation or exhaustion. Tens of thousands were tortured and executed in places like Phnom Penh's infamous Tuol Sleng prison.

The Khmer Rouge completely closed Cambodia to the outside world. But reports of atrocities trickled out of the country, sparking a debate in the United States and the West. News of mass killings and starvation seemed to vindicate those who had predicted a bloodbath once the Khmer Rouge came to power. Khmer soldiers in Phnom PenhHowever, some antiwar activists questioned the accuracy of these reports, claiming that they were exaggerations meant to discredit the new Communist regime.

In the face of mounting evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, the U.S. government stayed quiet. After the debacle of the Vietnam War, few American politicians were willing to get reinvolved in Southeast Asia, and the government was not eager to examine its complex role in Cambodia's collapse. Not until April 1978 did President Jimmy Carter declare the Khmer Rouge "the worst violator of human rights in the world."

Khmer boy soldiers
Khmer Rouge boy soldiers in Phnom Penh - April 17,1975

By then, the Khmer Rouge had less than a year left in power. Ironically, its downfall was brought on by a conflict with its former ally, Vietnam. A border dispute between Democratic Kampuchea and communist Vietnam flared into full-scale war, and in January 1979, Vietnamese forces rolled into Phnom Penh.

NEXT - 1980-1991:



photo: Pol Pot greeting Khmer Rouge Cadres
credit: Photo Courtesy Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM)

photo: Forced Labor under the Khmer Rouge - April 1976
credit: Photo Courtesy AFP/Claude Juvenal

photo: Khmer Rouge soldiers enter Phnom Penh - April 17,1975
credit: Photo Courtesy AFP

photo: Khmer Rouge boy soldiers in Phnom Penh - April 17,1975
credit: Photo Courtesy AFP