Throughout Cambodia, I don’t think I met one person not affected by the impacts of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s.
The most common statement and question I repeatedly heard was ‘I don’t understand why Khmer killed Khmer’ and ‘Why did they kill their own?’.
So who and what is Khmer Rouge?
There is a significant amount of information available, so I’ve taken the following from Cambodia Tribunal Monitor as it provides they key highlights. Source
Khmer Rouge History: Overview
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975. The CPK created the state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and ruled the country until January 1979. The party’s existence was kept secret until 1977, and no one outside the CPK knew who its leaders were (the leaders called themselves “Angkar Padevat”).
While the Khmer Rouge was in power, they set up policies that disregarded human life and produced repression and massacres on a massive scale. They turned the country into a huge detention center, which later became a graveyard for nearly two million people, including their own members and even some senior leaders.
The Rise of the Khmer Rouge
The Cambodian communist movement emerged from the country’s struggle against French colonization 1940s, and was influenced by the Vietnamese. Fueled by the first Indochina War in the 1950s, and during the next 20 years, the movement took roots and began to grow.
In March 1970, Marshal Lon Nol, a Cambodian politician who had previously served as prime minister, and his pro-American associates staged a successful coup to depose Prince Sihanouk as head of state. At this time, the Khmer Rouge had gained members and was positioned to become a major player in the civil war due to its alliance with Sihanouk. Their army was led by Pol Pot, who was appointed CPK’s party secretary and leader in 1963. Pol Pot, born in Cambodia as Solath Sar, spent time in France and became a member of the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1953, he joined a clandestine communist movement and began his rise up the ranks to become one of the world’s most infamous dictators.
Aided by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge began to defeat Lon Nol’s forces on the battlefields. By the end of 1972, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia and turned the major responsibilities for the war over to the CPK.
From January to August 1973, the Khmer Republic government, with assistance from the US, dropped about half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia, which may have killed as many as 300,000 people. Many who resented the bombings or had lost family members joined the Khmer Rouge’s revolution.
By early 1973, about 85 percent of Cambodian territory was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and the Lon Nol army was almost unable to go on the offensive. However, with US assistance, it was able to continue fighting the Khmer Rouge for two more years.
April 17, 1975 ended five years of foreign interventions, bombardment, and civil war in Cambodia. On this date, Phnom Penh, a major city in Cambodia, fell to the communist forces.
Life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge Regime
A few days after they took power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced perhaps two million people in Phnom Penh and other cities into the countryside to undertake agricultural work. Thousands of people died during the evacuations.
The Khmer Rouge also began to implement their radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist transformation program at this time. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes.
During this time, everyone was deprived of their basic rights. People were not allowed to go outside their cooperative. The regime would not allow anyone to gather and hold discussions. If three people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested or executed.
Family relationships were also heavily criticized. People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor or pity. The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only Angkar Padevat, which was to be everyone’s “mother and father.”
The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. Soon after seizing power, they arrested and killed thousands of soldiers, military officers and civil servants from the Khmer Republic regime led by Marshal Lon Nol, whom they did not regard as “pure.” Over the next three years, they executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals; city residents; minority people such as the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese; and many of their own soldiers and party members, who were accused of being traitors. Many were held in prisons, where they were detained, interrogated, tortured and executed. The most important prison in Cambodia, known as S-21, held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation. Only about 12 survived.
Under the terms of the CPK’s 1976 “Four-Year Plan,” Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare throughout the country. This meant that people had to grow and harvest rice all 12 months of the year. In most regions, the Khmer Rouge forced people to work more than 12 hours a day without rest or adequate food.
Fall of the Khmer Rouge
By the end of 1977, clashes broke out between Cambodia and Vietnam. Tens of thousands of people were sent to fight and thousands were killed.
In December 1978, Vietnamese troops fought their way into Cambodia. They captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The Khmer Rouge leaders then fled to the west and reestablished their forces in Thai territory, aided by China and Thailand. The United Nations voted to give the resistance movement against communists, which included the Khmer Rouge, a seat in its General Assembly. From 1979 to 1990, it recognized them as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia.
In 1982, the Khmer Rouge formed a coalition with Prince Sihanouk, who was exiled in China after the Cambodian Civil War, and the non-communist leader Son Sann to create the Triparty Coalition Government. In Phnom Penh, on the other hand, Vietnam helped to create a new government – the People?s Republic of Kampuchea – led by Heng Samrin.
The Khmer Rouge continued to exist until 1999 when all of its leaders had defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or had died. But their legacy remains.
Life in Cambodia Today
Democratic Kampuchea was one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. Nearly two million Cambodians died from diseases due to a lack of medicines and medical services, starvation, execution, or exhaustion from overwork. Tens of thousands were made widows and orphans, and those who lived through the regime were severely traumatized by their experiences. Several hundred thousand Cambodians fled their country and became refugees. Millions of mines were laid by the Khmer Rouge and government forces, which have led to thousands of deaths and disabilities since the 1980s. A large proportion of the Cambodian people have mental problems because their family members were lost and their spirits damaged. These factors are one of the major causes of the poverty that plagues Cambodia today.
Significant portions of the following historical overview were contributed by DC-Cam from Khamboly Dy’s “A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979).”
Throughout my time in Cambodia the statistics of the number of people tortured and killed varied between 2 and 3 million, but regardless of the number, what was consistently repeated was that the number killed was approximately 25% of the population.
It was told that many people died through starvation and many people emigrated to neighboring countries.
It’s difficult to grasp the torture and despair that was shared by the locals. Like the holocaust, many lost their entire families.
It is consistently told that in order to save bullets, the Khmer Rouge would beat babies and children against trees to kill them.
In addition to the caves and killing fields of Phnom Sampeou Mountain, I also visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum [also called S-21] and Choeung Ek Killing Field and saw see further evidence of the brutality that occurred in this country.
Tuol Sleng was previously a school prior to the Khmer Rouge occupying it as a place of torture, interrogation and execution.
I was fortunate to meet one of the very few survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison, Chum Mey, now probably in his 80’s.
He, along with one or two other survivors published books on their experiences. Mr. Mey’s is ‘Survivor’. It is less than 100 pages and provides a great insight.
There are many stories of the Khmer Rouge forcing ‘confessions’ out of prisoners. You’ll hear evidence of this in both places.
Coincidentally, a few days after I left Cambodia, the New York Times published this video on Tuol Sleng [S21]. Click here to view or copy and paste the URL in your browser.
It is very clear that the scars left on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge will continue to be felt, emotionally and economically well into the future.
Although there were subsequent trials for a handful of the Khmer Rouge, it’s also clear that many Cambodians feel they never received justice. Even justice cannot undo what was done or return what was lost.
It was ironic for me that, as Cambodia was a country I was keen to visit when I started this journey, it became a country I decided to cut my visit short and was keen to move on.
I did however leave Cambodia much more educated than when I arrived and I’m thankful for the experience.
Love & light,
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References and Other Information:
- Book: Survivor by Chum Mey with Documentation Center of Cambodia