Cambodia under Pol Pot

cambodia khmer rouge
A map of Cambodia, showing its neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and the capital city, Phnom Penh

Cambodia is a south-east Asian nation bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Caught up in the effects of the Cold War in Asia, and the Vietnam War more specifically, Cambodia was overrun by communist revolutionaries in 1975. These communists, known to the world as the Khmer Rouge, undertook a radical transformation in Cambodia and carried out one of the worst genocides in human history.

From Angkor to French colony

In medieval times Cambodia was home to the powerful Khmer Empire. From its magnificent capital in Angkor, the Khmers dominated the region in agriculture, trade, culture and philosophy for more than six centuries.

The Khmer Empire went into a gradual decline and eventually collapsed in the mid-1400s. After the fall of the Khmer Cambodia’s regions weakened and became vassal states to neighbouring kingdoms, particularly the Siamese (Thais). In 1867, Cambodia was colonised by the French, who ruled the area for almost a century.

Cambodia was given its independence in November 1953. From this point, Cambodia’s fate was influenced by the Cold War generally and the Vietnam War specifically. Its leaders tried to steer a course of neutrality – but Cambodia tumbled into years of aerial bombardment, political division, foreign interference and civil war.

In 1975, the Cambodian government was seized by a left-wing insurgency led by the ruthless Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge promised to purify Cambodia, return to simple agricultural life and restore social harmony. Instead, Cambodia under Pol Pot became a murderous experiment that produced more than two million deaths.

The Khmer Rouge

The rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was a byproduct of the war in neighbouring Vietnam. In 1951 Vietnamese communists, working with Cambodian supporters, formed the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). The KPRP was formed as a native Cambodian communist party, though in its first years it was controlled by Vietnamese communists.

By the late 1950s, Cambodians had taken leadership positions in the KPRP. One was Saloth Sar, a history teacher who wanted a more radical movement. Sar joined the KPRP’s central committee in 1960 and became the party’s de facto leader in February 1963. A few weeks later Saloth Sar and his followers fled the capital Phnom Penh. They relocated to remote north-east Cambodia and set up a base camp, with help from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

Under Sar’s leadership, the party became more militant and radical, seeking revolution rather than political reform. In 1966, the group was reformed as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Like the followers of Mao Zedong in China, the CPK abandoned traditional Marxist ideology. The true path to a classless society, its leaders argued, was to restore Cambodia’s peasant economy and eradicate Western influence, intellectualism and technology.

cambodia pol pot
The Khmer Rouge leader Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot

The movement grows

During the mid-1960s, the CPK worked on recruiting, training its members and gathering arms and supplies. The English press in Phnom Penh dubbed its members the Khmer Rouge (‘Red Khmers’).

The Khmer Rouge began attacking government forces in January 1968. These attacks intensified following a March 1970 coup by pro-American general Lon Nol. Support for the Khmer Rouge grew steadily, fuelled by opposition to Lon Nol and continued American bombing in Cambodia.

By 1972, the Khmer Rouge boasted around 30,000 regular soldiers and more than 100,000 reservists. As the Khmer Rouge grew in size it drove back government forces and occupied more territory. By the start of 1975, it was evident that the Khmer Rouge would soon control the entire country.

On April 1st, as Khmer Rouge forces reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Lon Nol resigned and fled the country. Twelve days later the United States military evacuated American diplomats, foreigners and some Cambodian officials.

cambodia pol pot
A Khmer Rouge soldier in Pnomh Penh, 1975

Phnom Penh falls

The Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975. It was the first time a national capital had fallen to communist forces since the Korean War (1950-53).

Pol Pot’s soldiers entered the city around noon. Most were armed, well-disciplined and clad in black. They were also noticeably young, some in their early teens. Many residents of Phnom Penh, pleased to be finally rid of Lon Nol, cheered and welcomed the victors.

Their tone changed in the afternoon when the Khmer Rouge began firing weapons and ordering people out of buildings and into the streets. Children were pulled from schools and the elderly were driven from their homes at gunpoint. There were reports of patients undergoing surgical procedures being forced onto the road, still bleeding from wounds and incisions.

According to the guerrillas, Phnom Penh was at risk of a counter-revolutionary attack and American bombing, so Khmer Rouge leaders had ordered a three-day evacuation of the city. For most, however, it would be more than three years before they returned to Phnom Penh – and many would never return at all.

Government by Angkar

The Khmer Rouge also worked to identify and arrest foreigners. Once found, they were either summarily executed, imprisoned or chased out of Cambodia.

Sar’s men abolished the royal government and restored the former king Norodom Sihanouk, then living in exile in China, as head of state. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in September 1975 and became a roving ambassador for the Khmer Rouge.

The real decisions were made by the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, or Angkar (‘Organisation’), as it was better known. The Angkar leadership was less visible than that of other communist regimes. Orders and information were distributed down the line to functionaries, rather than in grand public statements or propaganda.

The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Saloth Sar, did not allow a personality cult; he held few political rallies or meetings and gave only occasional speeches. Instead, the Khmer Rouge maintained a cloak of secrecy around its leaders. Sar was variously referred to as Pol Pot, ‘Brother Number One’ or ‘One with the Gun’.

In January 1976, the Khmer Rouge gave their new regime a political basis, declaring a new constitution and reforming Cambodia as Democratic Kampuchea.

From social upheaval to genocide

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A shocking image of a man being tortured inside the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison

The Khmer Rouge’s transformation of Cambodian society was even more radical. Mimicking the leaders of the French Revolution, Pol Pot and his followers proclaimed their victory in April 1975 as “Year Zero”. Cambodia’s history – along with its colonial corruption, Western influences and technical advances – would be ‘wound back’ and started again.

Pol Pot’s objective was to construct a classless, communal and self-sufficient Kampuchea, unspoiled by foreign influences, intellectualism and non-communist ideas. Schools and colleges were closed, foreign embassies were seized and Buddhist pagodas were demolished. Cambodia’s legal system and courts were virtually abolished; justice was instead to be dispensed by Khmer Rouge ‘death squads’ and its ‘re-education camps’.

Millions of people were frogmarched out of Phnom Penh and other cities, which the Khmer Rouge condemned as “hives of bourgeois corruption”. Any Cambodians with higher education or professional training were singled out for immediate execution.

Most Cambodians were herded into collective farms, where they were put to work in the fields and forced to labour from dawn to dusk. This work was carried out without adequate food, rest or medical care. Books were burned; money was destroyed; communication networks like television, radio and telephone wires were all dismantled and destroyed.

The ‘Killing Fields’

cambodia killing fields
One of Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’, where thousands were executed and dumped

The Khmer Rouge’s social experiments were accompanied by a murderous campaign of political genocide. Anyone suspected of being a potential enemy of the revolution was whisked away, tortured and murdered. Most were killed with pickaxes, their bodies disposed of in mass graves or left in the open to rot.

The first targets were those associated with the old regime: politicians, military personnel, bureaucrats, businessmen, priests and monks. Before long, anyone deemed to be pro-American, pro-Western, pro-capitalist or ‘intellectual’ – including academics, lawyers, doctors, journalists, artists, teachers, students, even musicians and clerks – were arrested and marched to the notorious ‘killing fields’. Just having fair skin, speaking a second language, wearing Western clothing or spectacles was enough to get you killed.

During the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, between 1.2 and 2.2 million Cambodians and foreigners died – either at the hands of Pol Pot’s murder squads or from malnutrition, starvation and disease in the collective farms.

Pol Pot falls

In December 1978, Democratic Kampuchea was invaded by almost a quarter-million soldiers of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Without foreign allies or an industrial base to supply their military, the Khmer Rouge was hopelessly outgunned by Vietnamese planes, tanks and armoured vehicles. Phnom Penh fell to the Vietnamese in just two weeks, forcing Pol Pot and his followers to seek refuge in western Cambodia. They would remain in these jungle hideouts for two decades, leading a small but persistent insurgency against the new order.

The Vietnamese eventually withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. An October 1991 peace agreement reformed the Cambodian state and scheduled elections for mid-1993. The Khmer Rouge, by now down to a few thousand insurgents, interfered with elections but could not prevent the formation of a new government.

By 1996, Pol Pot had lost most of his supporters and was in poor health. He died in April 1998.

A historian’s view:
“While the United States and Vietnam do share responsibility for much of Cambodia’s sorrows, ultimately Cambodians were the victims of their own leaders and their own traditions and history. The shimmering patina of a tropical paradise masked a country that had been told its people were threatened by extinction, and whose rulers encouraged a belief in Cambodia’s cultural and ethnic superiority. It is a country one accustomed to quarrelsome, despotic rulers who treated their subjects, or citizens, like children, and saw Cambodia as one of history’s great victims. And it is a country with a tradition of violence.”
Elizabeth Becker

cold war cambodia

1. Cambodia is a south-east Asian nation, sandwiched between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Once the home of the powerful Khmer Empire, Cambodia was colonised by the French in the mid-1800s.

2. Cambodia gained its independence in 1953. Its leaders attempted to steer a neutral course, however, the war in neighbouring Vietnam led to the rise of a communist insurgency in Cambodia.

3. The Khmer Rouge, led by Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), seized control of Cambodia in April 1975. They evacuated the capital Phnom Penh and relocated millions of Cambodians to giant collective farms.

4. The Khmer Rouge renamed the nation Democratic Kampuchea. They sought to ‘wind back’ history, return the people to peasant farming and eradicate all vestiges of Western influence.

5. The Khmer Rouge was forced from power in early 1979. Their four-year rule decimated Cambodia, created widespread human suffering and as many as 2.2 million deaths.

Citation information
Title: “Cambodia under Pol Pot”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 12, 2020
Date accessed: November 24, 2022
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