The Khmer Rouge period, from 1975 until 1979, refers to the rule of Cambodia by the communist forces of Pol Pot, who renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and embarked on one of the most brutal and radical restructurings ever known. Their four-year reign saw the death of millions through political execution, famine and forced labour, with the era often referred to as genocide or holocaust.
Rise to power
The Khmer Rouge or ‘Red Khmer’ – a term coined by one-time ally King Sihanouk – developed under the guidance of Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungles during the 1960s, where followers had fled to escape persecution by right-wing security forces. It advocated a radical communist revolution that would purge Cambodia of Western influence and create a solely agrarian society. During the Vietnam War, with the aid of North Vietnamese communist forces, the Khmer Rouge began widespread insurgencies against government forces to take control of a third of the country by 1970.
Two incidents defined the movement; the first was the overthrow of King Sihanouk in absentia by US-backed Lon Nol in 1970, with Sihanouk exiling himself in China and establishing a partnership with the Khmer Rouge who worshipped the extreme Marxism under Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The second was the ‘secret’ bombing campaign by President Nixon that saw more bombs dropped on Cambodia (a nation the US was never officially at war with) in a bid to flush out Viet Cong than were used in all of the Second World War.
Both of these actions sparked a five-year civil war, from 1970 to 1975, that drove the disenchanted population into the welcoming arms of the Khmer Rouge. The bombings in Cambodia by the US eventually forced the Vietnamese out, with the Khmer Rouge filling the power vacuum created. In April 1975, just two weeks before the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh from the pro-US regime and proclaimed the Kampuchean People’s Republic.
Ideology and Year Zero
Upon taking the capital, the Khmer Rouge launched a savage reformation of Cambodian society. The entire city was evacuated and forced to march into the countryside where they were to put to work for 15 hours a day as members of the new agrarian utopia. The Khmer Rouge proclaimed this Year Zero, and calendars, currency and government services were all abolished. Disobedience brought immediate execution, with women, children, the elderly and infirm beaten to death.
The Khmer Rouge’s Marxist/Leninist/Maoist interpretation of communism believed a classless society would be created through the systematic elimination of all social classes except for the ‘old people’ or peasants who work the land. They claimed Cambodia should return to an ideological ‘golden age’ where all members would be agricultural workers rather than educated urban citizens who had been corrupted by the West.
Children were seen as the embodiment of the revolution, their young minds easily moulded, conditioned and indoctrinated. From the age of eight, all youths were separated from their families and placed in labour camps where they were taught that Angkar (the organisation) was their true parent. Encouraged to denounce their parents, child-soldiers were taught to obey orders and to kill.
Civil and political rights were abolished. Factories, hospitals and educational facilities were shut down. Lawyers, teachers, engineers, doctors and qualified professionals were considered a threat to the new regime. Execution was meted out for the most trivial of offences, such as wearing glasses or having clean fingernails – a sign of elitism. For the Khmer Rouge, the only acceptable lifestyle was that of ignorant agricultural workers.
Religion was banned, as were music and radios, with thousands of years of traditional lost forever. Money was abolished and every aspect of life subject to arbitrary regulation.
By instigating ‘Year Zero’ the Khmer Rouge aimed to create a society centred upon on their rural idyll, where all citizens pledged loyalty to Angkar in such a way that prohibited personal, community or religious allegiances. For four years, Cambodia was a prison without walls.
The regime was ultimately deposed by the Vietnamese in 1979 after cross-border excursions by the Khmer Rouge left many civilians dead. They staged a show trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary and installed a new ‘friendly’ government that included the current Prime Minister Hun Sen. The exact number of deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge remains unknown. The Vietnamese claim as many as four million, though historians and researchers place the figure between one and two million.
Today, a chilling reminder of torture methods can be found at Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), where ‘Comrade Duch’ ran a barbaric operation that processed some 17,000 victims on their way to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Duch remains the only member of the Khmer Rouge to be found guilty of crimes against humanity.
Born in 1925 to a wealthy Kampong Thom farming family, Saloth Sar (also known as Pol Pot or Brother Number One) first entered political activism in 1946 when he joined the Indochinese Communist Party in efforts to oust the French. He received a scholarship to study in Paris where he developed his radical Marxist thought, which would later become the principles of extreme Maoism.
Upon returning to Phnom Penh in 1954, he taught geography and history at a private school and joined the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which later became Workers’ Party of Kampuchea (WPK). Assuming command of the WPK in 1964, he embarked on tours of Vietnam and China, where he developed closer ties to the communist Marxism.
In 1975 he renamed Cambodia the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, and became Prime Minister and the official Cambodian head of state a year later, overseeing the hateful reign of a nation effectively cut off from the outside world. He fled to Thailand and the jungle borders after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and officially resigned from the party in 1985, though he maintained an active role in coordinating guerrilla movements.
He was arrested by ‘Brother Number Five’ Ta Mok in 1997 and sentenced to life imprisonment by a ‘people’s tribunal’, which critics denounced as a yet another show trial to appease the international community. He died in 1998, allegedly of heart failure, while under house arrest. His modest grave can be visited in Ang Long Veng.