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The Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. In only four years, the regime enacted a genocide that killed one-fourth of the country’s population.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge attempted to transform Cambodia through a vision of social engineering that involved a purging of the upper classes, abolishing money and religion and relocating people from the cities to mass labor camps in the countryside. The result was one of the worst mass killings in modern history, as two million Cambodians perished from torture, starvation, disease and execution.

The Origins

Courtesy of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

In 1960, a group of leftists formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Three years later, they fled to the countryside to launch a small, armed insurgence. The faction gained popularity in 1970, when it became an ally of the ousted former head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Five years of civil war followed as the Vietnam War raged on. As part of its “secret” campaign against Vietnamese targets in the Cambodian border areas, the United States bombed Cambodia heavily, dropping 2.7 million tons of munitions on more than 113,000 sites between 1965 and 1973, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Enraged Cambodians gave their support to a growing insurgency—the Khmer Rouge.


The Khmer Rouge aimed to restore Cambodia to its former medieval greatness. Fiercely nationalistic, the group was particularly opposed to the Vietnamese, whom they viewed as historic enemies of the Cambodian people. During its years in power, the organization mainly went by Angka, or the Organisation. Khmer Rouge, or the Red Khmer, was a name that had been flippantly given to them by former Prince Shanouk.

Pol Pot

Courtesy of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

Born Saloth Sar in 1928 to successful Cambodian landowners, Pol Pot won a scholarship to study electrical technology in Paris as a young man, where he became involved with the French Communist party and enamored of its ideologies. After he returned to Cambodia in 1953, he helped establish the country’s first Communist party, the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party. In 1960, he and several other members founded the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Pol Pot became party secretary three years later, traveling to Beijing for further organizational training. In 1971, he was elected the CPK’s secretary general and commander of its Revolutionary Army. By the mid-1970s, a new Communist-led government had taken power in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and Pol Pot became the country’s premier.

Kampuchea, Year Zero

A painting of Tuol Sieng depicts Khmer Rouge atrocities
Courtesy of Bruce Sharp

On April 17, 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh, effectively taking power of Cambodia. Its forces began to drive the capital’s two million residents into the countryside to work in labor camps.

The Khmer Rouge set out to change Cambodia, which they renamed Kampuchea, into a primitive agrarian utopia. They shut the country off from the rest of the world and declared that the nation would begin again at Year Zero. All institutions, including hospitals, families, private property, banks, schools and religion, were abolished. Hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and executed, and hundreds of thousands more died from disease and starvation. Anyone suspected of being an intellectual was killed. Towns and cities were emptied as the population was taken to massive rural collectives to toil in labor camps. Everyone had to pledge total allegiance to Angka, or risk death.

In the camps, children were separated from their parents to work as soldiers or laborers. People were forced to work 14 hours per day on little to no food. In Phnom Penh, the notorious S-21 extermination center Tuol Sleng Prison, a former high school, systematically imprisoned, tortured and executed more than 17,000 men, women and children. Only seven survived.

The Aftermath

Courtesy of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge government was overthrown by invading Vietnamese troops. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps on the Thai border. As the country reopened itself to the rest of the world, the brutality and horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War years became more widely known. Ten million landmines remained in the ground, one for every Cambodian. There were more than 300 mass graves and 19,000 grave pits. Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the effects of the regime still linger.

Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders fled to the countryside, but still maintained a presence in remote areas as a guerilla insurgency, fighting government forces in the jungles of northern and western Cambodia for almost two decades. As part of a peace agreement, the Khmer Rouge was given control of Pailin, a semiautonomous area near Thailand.

Burial pits, Choueng
Ek killing field

In 1996, nearly half of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces formed a deal with the Phnom Penh government and broke with the organization. When additional forces tried to strike a similar deal, the now-elderly Pol Pot responded by sparking a violent purge of the organization’s ranks. The following year, a “people’s tribunal” put Pol Pot on trial, in which he was denounced by several former comrades. He was sentenced to house arrest and three of his allies were executed. But Pol Pot died less than a year later.

Since then, the Khmer Rouge has been further weakened through internal fighting, frustrations and factionalism. The Cambodian government offered defectors immunity from prosecutions, which has not only resulted in mass defections, but also many former Khmer Rouge leaders becoming senior officials in the country’s government. Ta Mok, the regime’s military commander and one of Pol Pot’s top accomplices, died in 2006. Meanwhile, former leaders in the genocide have never been brought to justice. Many have been granted a pardon from the Cambodian government and deny any wrongdoing.

In 2007, five former Khmer Rouge leaders were detained by a United Nations-backed tribunal in Cambodia, held on charges of war crimes. Trials are scheduled to begin in late 2008.

View a timeline of Southeast Asia >>

View a photo journal of Socheata Poeuv's travels to Cambodia >>

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