1.7 million people killed out of a population of 8 million (21% of the country's population).
Cambodia traditionally has suffered from ethnic rivalry leading to several exchanges of political power between the substantial Vietnamese minority and the Buddhist Khmer
majority. When independence came in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk took charge of the newly born state. A revolution led by General Lon Nol in 1970 temporarily dispelled the government. This government
attempted to suppress the Communist and Vietnamese presence. In the meantime, the small Communist group, the Khmer Rouge, grew in popularity and by 1975 was able to take over, proclaiming the Republic of
In asserting its new power, the Party began a campaign of cleansing from 1975 to 1978. The Kampuchean Communist Party's interpretation of the state required destruction of
cities and the foreign-educated elite in order to rustify, or to make rural, the country. The goal was a centralized communal organization of atheistic factory workers and peasant farmers free of
external support. Cities were raided and people relocated to communal farms. Most people were left to starve or work to death. Although international organizations offered aid to the demolished
population, the government refused outside assistance.
Ethnically, the targets of the cleansing were Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, Muslims (particularly ethnic Chams), and Buddhist monks.
They all were virtually, if not entirely, eliminated from the population by expulsion, execution, or starvation.
The Vietnamese had long been in conflict with Kampuchea and responded to the
violence against its nationals. A Vietnamese invasion in 1979 replaced the government with moderate Communists sympathetic to Vietnam's interests. The Khmer Rouge became a guerilla organization and began
a civil war that continued until a tenuous peace was reached in 1991. A new coalition government (excluding the Khmer Rouge) under United Nations guidance took power. Cambodia since has taken steps
toward trying members of the Khmer Rouge as war criminals.
International observers have been hesitant to call the Khmer Rouge's actions genocide. Since the motivation of the perpetrators was
generally political, the case does not fit in the common United Nations definition for genocide, but other definitions include the Cambodian genocide as one of the most horrific. Often, the 1979
Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that deposed Pol Pot during the America's controversial Vietnam War is instead the focus of criticism since the US backed the Lon Nol government as one of its
anti-Communism spheres of influence. Only in the past few years have international organizations, including the UN, begun to acknowledge the crimes. The new Cambodian government is preparing to summon a
war crimes tribunal. Yet, international observers who believe that the government's court cannot credibly try the Khmer Rouge perpetrators have asked the United Nations to mediate.
Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, goes to Paris on government scholarship and becomes absorbed with communist ideology.
Pol Pot sets up communist party after Cambodia's independence from France.
Pol Pot becomes party's general-secretary. Flees to jungle to escape repression by Cambodia's ruler, Prince
Khmer Rouge takes up arms in support of peasant against a government rice tax. Army suppresses insurrection.
Civil war begins after right-wing coup topples Sihanouk.
Khmer Rouge seizes power, begins doomed experiment in agrarian communism. Up to 2 million people die over four years from
starvation, overwork and execution.
Vietnam invades Cambodia to stop Khmer Rouge border attacks. Phnom Penh falls to Vietnamese two weeks later.
Last time Pol Pot seen by outsiders.
All Cambodian factions sign peace agreement.
Khmer Rouge boycotts U.N.-supervised general election.
Unconfirmed rumors that Pol Pot has died.
Government announces Khmer Rouge breakup. Pol Pot's brother-in-law, Ieng Sary, leads 10,000 guerrillas to defect.
June 13, 1997
Pol Pot reportedly orders top general Son Sen and family killed; hard-liners split into factions. Officials offer a series of conflicting accounts on Pol Pot's fate.
Former comrades capture Pol Pot, both rival co-prime ministers say.
A "people's tribunal" held at the guerrillas' last stronghold in northern Cambodia condemns Pol Pot for
crimes that included the killing of the group's longtime guerrilla defense minister, Son Sen, and his family.
United States offers assistance to any effort to bring Pol Pot before an
Pol Pot dies in his sleep, at 73, Khmer Rouge officials say.
The Fall of the Khmer Rouge
As the Khmer Rouge systematically
destroyed nearly all aspects of Cambodian society, a new conflict simmered with its historical enemy, Vietnam. While both forces grudgingly supported each other as they fought U.S.-backed Cambodia and
South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, ethnic animosities prevented them from developing any lasting bonds with each other. Even as early as April 1975 - days after the fall of Phnom Penh - the Khmer
Rouge exploited the situation in South Vietnam by seizing several small islands in the Gulf of Siam while the Vietnamese communists completed their choke hold on Saigon.
Though one might have
expected the new communist governments of Vietnam and Cambodia to eventually settle into some kind of political agreement, their hatred and mistrust of each other ran too deep. The Khmer Rouge received
support from China, Vietnam's rival to the north, while the Vietnamese were assisted by the Soviet Union, which competed with China for standing in the communist world. Pol Pot also showed signs of a
severe inferiority complex when it came to Vietnamese communists, for it was the Vietnamese who had helped the Cambodian communists organize into a political force. To Pol Pot, the fact that Cambodian
communists had once needed outside help to get their act together was so shameful that he purged thousands of Khmer Rouge cadres simply because certain KR leaders acknowledged that the Cambodian
communist party was founded in 1951, at a time when the Vietnamese communists were involved in Cambodian insurgencies. Pol Pot insisted that the party didn't really begin its activities until 1960, when
he was named to the party's Central Committee. The distinction may seem academic, but Pol Pot's extreme paranoia over Vietnamese influence led to the deaths of many Cambodians who were associated with
the Vietnamese in the early 1950s. Some of Pol Pot's oldest friends were swept up and killed in the purges. It was as if the Khmer Rouge were stranded under the shadow of the Vietnamese communists,
apparently willing to start a war just to boost their sense of independence.
In July 1977, Vietnam signed a cooperation treaty with neighboring Laos, which had also become communist in 1975. The
Khmer Rouge viewed this as flagrant aggression against Cambodia: given the geography of the region (Laos wraps around Cambodia's north), Pol Pot interpreted the treaty as the next step in Vietnam's
strategy to strangle Cambodia. If anything, he thought, it was Cambodia that should be attempting to strangle Vietnam. The south of Vietnam was populated by ethnic Cambodians, the Khmer Krom, who had
been in the region for generations. If the Khmer Rouge played their cards right, perhaps the Khmer Krom would revolt against the Vietnamese and wrestle the land from their ethnic rivals. Not unlike Nazi
Germany's almost successful dream of uniting the German peoples under one Reich, Pol Pot envisioned a greater Cambodia in which Khmers could reclaim the lands once controlled under the ancient kingdom of
The Khmer Rouge regime reached a climax in September 1977 when Pol Pot took to the airwaves and spoke for nearly five hours on Cambodian radio. For the first time, Pol Pot acknowledged to
the world that Cambodia was now run by a communist government. The day after the speech he flew to Beijing to meet with Hua Guofeng, who had just become leader of the People's Republic of China following
the death of Mao Ze Dong. The Chinese pledged to support the Khmer Rouge's rivalry with the Vietnamese but recommended against all-out war, knowing full well that Vietnam was in a much better position to
win the fight. The meeting probably delayed an impending Cambodian assault on Vietnam, but the Vietnamese interpreted it as another sign of China's military support of an increasingly dangerous Cambodia.
By the end of 1977, Vietnam concluded a pre-emptive strike against Cambodia was inevitable. In late December they sent troops as far as 20 miles across the border, capturing Cambodian villages
and troops. Before the end of January 1978, though, Vietnam pulled back, returning their forces to Vietnamese territory. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge publicly celebrated the pullout as a humiliating
Vietnamese retreat, but their anti-Vietnamese fervor blinded them to the long-term implications of the incursion. As the Vietnamese returned turned to their territory they brought along many of the
captured Cambodian soldiers, as well as numerous Khmer Rouge defectors who feared they would be purged by Pol Pot. These Cambodians were carefully groomed in the hopes of eventually establishing a
Vietnam-aligned Cambodian government some time in the future. Among these detained Cambodians was a young Khmer Rouge lieutenant named Hun Sen, who had fled the country after realizing he too was the
target of the purge.
During the spring of 1978, Vietnam amassed thousands of troops along the Cambodian border. Khmer Rouge forces skirmished with Vietnamese troops in isolated, but recurrent
incidents, raising tensions between the two nations even further. Spring also marked the signing of a friendship treaty between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, a direct response to Cambodia's close
relationship with China. Cambodia and Vietnam were now the pawns of a Chinese-Soviet rivalry, not unlike when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. took advantage of the regional instability of the Vietnam War to
further their own Cold War interests. And just as they had done so against the Americans and South Vietnamese, Vietnam patiently prepared for the right moment to gain an advantage while their enemy
On December 25, 1978 - Christmas Day - 100,000 Vietnamese troops poured across the Cambodian border, quickly gaining a foothold in Cambodia's northeast. The Vietnamese intended to
create a secure buffer zone between Vietnam proper and Khmer Rouge forces. The military encroachment went so well, though, Vietnam quickly realized that they could even seize Phnom Penh and knock out the
Khmer Rouge in a matter of weeks. By January 7, 1979, less than two weeks after their initial attack, Vietnamese forces successfully occupied Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee into the
wilderness. Pol Pot himself escaped by helicopter as the city fell, ironically mirroring the U.S. ambassador's departure in April 1975.
As the dust settled, Vietnam established a new Cambodian
government known as the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Leading the PRK would be a new prime minister, Hun Sen, the young Khmer Rouge cadre who fled to Vietnam a year earlier. Hundreds of thousands
of Cambodian families began the long march to their home villages in the hopes of finding surviving relatives. In many cases, though, Cambodians returned to find nothing left of their former lives - no
homes, no possessions, and most tragic, no relatives. The Khmer Rouge came hauntingly close to succeeding in their radical attempt to erase all memories of the old Cambodia.
forces, who themselves were hardened by the brutalities of the Vietnam War, were shocked as they soon discovered the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. Throughout the countryside, Cambodia was pockmarked by
sunken depressions of dirt, as if hell had sucked in small pockets of earth in the hopes of devouring the world above it. As we all soon discovered, the depressions were indeed the stuff of hell, for
each marked the spot of another mass grave: the graves of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians slaughtered by their own countrymen.
The Faces of Angka :
The People Behind the Genocide
first two years of Khmer Rouge regime, most Cambodians had no idea who was running the country. The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), the political movement behind the Khmer Rouge, believed that
secrecy was one of the best tools for controlling the population. The Cambodian people didn't even know the CPK existed. All they were told was that the country was now run by Angka. No leaders were
mentioned by name - there was only Angka. The less the people knew about Angka, so the idea went, the more effective (and powerful) Angka would be. But as we know today, this unprecedented level of
secret governance did little to save hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from their deaths at the hands of starvation, neglect or worse.
Behind this mysterious political veil, though, were a core
group of radicals who began espousing communism in the mid 1950s after studying in Paris, as well as their supporters who joined them in the jungle in the 1960s. These individuals were the masterminds of
Cambodian communism and the architects of the policies that led to the genocide:
Khieu Samphan. The studious former National Assembly member, Khieu Samphan served as the political leader of the
Khmer Rouge. His doctoral research in Paris served as the basis for Khmer Rouge ideology. Though Khieu was never known for his military skills he became commander in chief of the Khmer Rouge army and led
its forces into Phnom Penh in 1975. Khieu eventually was assigned the role of prime minister and president of the Khmer Rouge regime, even though decisions were made collectively by the KR leadership.
Essentially, Khieu's purpose was to put a diplomatic, public face on Khmer Rouge policy.
Ieng Sary. Known as "Brother Number Three," Ieng Sary also joined the communist movement in the
late 1950s. As a leading member of the KR rebel forces, he became foreign minister in 1975 and was one of the key decisionmakers during the KR years.
Chhit Chhoeun (Ta Mok). Though Chhit never
studied in Paris he joined the communist movement early on as a rebel fighter. Despite his training as a Buddhist Monk, Chhit was a merciless warrior, and he eventually adopted the name "Grandpa
Mok," - Ta Mok. After the Khmer Rouge victory, Ta Mok became one of the most powerful men behind Angka, leading purges against suspected KR cadres and coordinating massacres against Vietnamese
civilians. His taste for brutality eventually caused many people to call him Ta Mok the Butcher.
Nuon Chea. Like Ta Mok, Nuon Chea did not receive his communist indoctrination in France; instead,
he was exposed to it by the Thai Communist Party during World War II. As "Brother Number Two," Nuon dictacted Khmer Rouge policy for over three years, developing the radical economial
strategies that eliminated money and trade with the outside world.
Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). After flunking out of his electronics scholarhip in Paris, Saloth returned to Cambodia to help build the
Communist Party of Kampuchea. As one of the leading masterminds behind the Khmer Rouge, Saloth Sar became best known under his pseudonym, Pol Pot. Pol Pot served as chairman of the party, for which he
claimed the infamous title "Brother Number One" and the reputation as the all-out leader of the Khmer Rouge.
The people behind Angka were known only among themselves until September,
1977, when Saloth Sar - using his nom de guerre Pol Pot - introduced the world to Democratic Kampuchea through a public radio broadcast.
The Horrors of Tuol Sleng
As hundreds of
thousands of Cambodians slowly starved in the rice fields, a select number of political prisoners and their families met a terrible fate inside Khmer Rouge interrogation centers. The most famous of these
centers, codenamed S-21, was located in the abandoned suburban Phnom Penh high school of Tuol Sleng, which ironically translates to "hill of the poison tree." To workers assigned by the Khmer
Rouge to the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as konlaenh choul min dael chenh - "the place where people go in but never come out." Tuol Sleng's reputation was brutally accurate:
the sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek. Nearly 20,000 people
are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.
The majority of the victims of Tuol Sleng were actually former Khmer Rouge cadres. With each passing year Angka
became more and more paranoid, blaming many of its loyal supporters for Cambodia's woes. The Khmer Rouge leadership saw conspiring enemies around every corner: one particular document from the DK foreign
ministry which described these "pests buried within" noted that 1% to 5% of all Cambodians were "traitors." (see Ben Kiernan's translation of The view of the contemporary situation in
Cambodia) To exterminate this perceived infestation the Khmer Rouge rounded up hundreds of fellow communists each month, sending them to S-21 in order to extract forced confessions. No one was immune
from the purges - even some of the most committed members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, including information minister Hu Nim and deputy prime minister Vorn Vet, were arrested, interrogated and
condemned to death at Tuol Sleng.
From the moment you arrived as a prisonor at S-21, your rights and responsibilities were made painfully clear by a set of ten standing orders. These rules
dictated how you acted, how you responded to questioning, and how you had no choice but to accept the fact that you were a traitor and would be treated as such.
The methods of
extracting confessions at Tuol Sleng were cruel and barbaric. Prisoners were tortured with battery powered electric shocks, searing hot metal prods, knives and other terrifying implements. For example,
in the prison courtyard stood a large wooden frame once used by students for gymnastics practice. The Khmer Rouge converted it into gallows for the hanging torture and execution of prisoners. Though many
prisoners died from the constant abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, for it was much more important for the Khmer Rouge to get confessions on paper first. As part of its quest to wipe out
traitors, the Khmer Rouge leadership sought to "investigate their personal biographies clearly" in order to get at what caused the prisoners to become traitors as well as to find out who their
co-conspirators were. Over time they were tortured as necessary in order to extract whatever confession was needed.
Confessions were an arbitrary concept - in truth, the vast majority of S-21
prisoners were probably innocent of the charges against them, so therefore most prisoners' admissions were lies borne out of excessive torture. Even loyal Khmer Rouge cadres would eventually admit to
spying for the CIA or the KGB, secret loyalty to the Vietnamese, sexual crimes - whatever the interrogators asked for they usually got. It was only a matter of time before the torture would break even
the strongest of prisoners. The dubious nature of the confessions mattered little to the Khmer Rouge leadership; like the Salem witch trials of puritan Massachusetts, each confession fanned the fires of
conspiracy by offering new names (and people) to target. Because prisoners would often name names in their forced confessions, the confessions served as a misguided, but self-fulfilling prophecy to the
Khmer Rouge, allowing them to proove to themselves that there was indeed a massive web of traitors amongst them.
Thousands of these confession files, including 5,000 photographs, survive to this
day, giving us a grim look at the activities that occured inside Tuol Sleng. The Yale Cambodian Genocide Center has spent many years examining these records, but thousands of the people sent to S-21 have
yet to be identified. We may never know who they were or why they were sent there; only their portraits remain to serve as affirmations of their lives - and deaths - at Tuol Sleng.
The Work Camps:
Life and Death in the Farming Cooperatives
One of the main goals behind resettling urban residents into the countryside was to build a new Cambodia focused on agricultural success: "to build socialism in the fields," as it was once
suggested (Chandler, History of Cambodia, 214). Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership developed a "four-year plan" in which Cambodians were expected to produce an average national yield of 3
metric tons of rice per hectare (1.4 tons per acre). But even during pre-Khmer Rouge, peacetime Cambodia, the average national yield was only one metric ton of rice per hectare. To meet these new demands
on rice production the Khmer Rouge enforced strict policies where workers labored in the fields for 12 hours a day without adequate rest or food. Many new people lacked any experience in manual labor and
became ill and died, since the Khmer Rouge favored the traditional medicine of the peasants and hilltribes over modern western medicine. Those new people who survived but were not well enough to work
often vanished: after being taken away to a distant field or forest, they would be forced to dig their own graves before Khmer Rouge soldiers would bludgeon them on the back of the head with a shovel or
hoe. It didn't matter whether the blow killed them or not; either way the victims were buried on the spot and left to die a suffocating death.
Many Cambodians soon discovered that hard work
wasn't necessarily enough to keep them alive. "Keeping new people is no benefit," so the Khmer Rouge slogan went; "Losing them is no loss." The lives of new people were seen as having
little to no value, so even the most minor infraction was enough reason to get sent to a killing field. For example, foraging for extra food was a capital offense, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge's
daily food allowance was so low it would cause hundreds of thousands of people to starve to death. And because family relationships were now banned (for parents exploited their children, so the argument
went), associating with a relative without the permission of Angka could get you killed. Khmer Rouge cadres would look for any excuse to kill new people. If you spoke French, you would die. If you were
educated, you would die. If you wore glasses, you would die. If you practiced Buddhism, you would die. Families with connections to previous Cambodian governments were especially susceptible to ill
treatment; while former soldiers and civil servants were usually summarily executed, their families were often forced to work themselves to death. Those who managed to survive for a time would eventually
be charged as associate enemies of the state and sent to the killing fields.
These incredibly harsh conditions limited one's options for survival. Most Cambodians submitted to each and every
Khmer Rouge demand and hoped for the best. Those Cambodians who knew they could be labeled as an enemy (the educated, monks, government officials, business owners, etc.) had no choice but to cut off all
ties to their past and pretend to be an illiterate peasant. If you could convince the Khmer Rouge you were one of the old people, you might survive, but if you were caught it would mean certain death.
Because Angka banned family relationships, the Khmer Rouge often took advantage of children and molded them into fanatical communists. Young children were seen as being pure and untainted by
capitalism and family influence. From an early age children were propagandized and brainwashed to believe in nothing but Angka - even their parents might become their worst enemies. Khmer Rouge
brainwashing techniques were often so successful that children would spy on their parents or report on their families' activities during the Lon Nol regime. If parents were disguising themselves as
uneducated peasants, their children would be rewarded for identifying them as enemies of the state. Children received expanded privileges under Angka as their parents were taken away to die. In some
farming collectives there were so many adolescent Khmer Rouge cadres it seemed their were no adults running the camps.
When Cambodians weren't working in the fields they were being lectured by
Khmer Rouge cadres in daily "livelihood meetings" (prachum chivapheap). These meetings had a duel purpose. First, they served as propaganda sessions where people could be indoctrinated into
Angka's communist ideals. Second, the meetings were opportunities for people to confess their past political and ideological sins, as well as to rat out fellow Cambodians. As Ong Thong Hoeung tells David
Chandler in The Tragedy of Cambodian History, "Politics were everything. Political formation dominated every other activity." Ong goes on to say
They [Khmer Rouge political cadres]
attacked the individualist idea successively, in material terms, in terms of thought, and in terms of feelings. Materially, we had to denounce those who had more than the people. In terms of thought,
each of us had to keep an eye on everyone else, to disclose any attitude that didn't conform to the line of the party. Everything was interpreted: words, gestures, attitudes. Sadness was a sign of
spiritual confusion, joy a sign of individualism, [while] an indecisive point of view indicated a petty bourgeois intellectualism." (Chandler, 284)
Unfortunately, many Cambodians saw these
livelihood meetings as opportunities to confess their pasts and be redeemed in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, not unlike people confessing to a priest at a Christian church. If they confessed, they were
rewarded by applause and praise, perhaps an embrace from the Khmer Rouge cadres in attendance. Later that evening (or soon afterward - it was only a matter of time), they would then be escorted quietly
from the camp and executed.
The quality of life in these farm cooperative varied greatly from district to district; overall, though, very few Cambodians were spared from suffering, misery,
starvation or the threat of death. Conditions worsened in 1977 and 1978 as Angka increased demands on rice production. With the passage of time it became more and more difficult for malnourished
Cambodians to farm efficiently. To make matters worse, the Khmer Rouge's distain of technology made it next to impossible for workers to reach their increased rice quotas when forced to farm by hand
only. Even if a particular collective farm met its rice quota, this didn't mean they would be rewarded with a proper diet. The bulk of the rice was earkmarked for Khmer Rouge soldiers and political
cadre. New people could only eat the scraps that were given to them; if they were caught supplementing their diets with grass or even insects, they too would be sent to the killing fields.