The Rise and Fall of The Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh in 1975 during the Cambodia Civil War

Image source: Flickr

Documenting the rise and fall of The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia’s heartbreaking story of mass murder is certainly a rough truth to get into.

I had admittedly never heard of The Khmer Rouge, or even the Cambodian Genocide until I made the last-minute decision to live in Cambodia.

If you also went to a school in the Western world, the chances are when you think of the word “genocide,” you immediately think of the atrocities that took place during the Nazi Holocaust, or quite possibly that’s the only one of its kind that you’ve ever heard of.

What happened in Cambodia is sadly not an exception, joining Rwanda, Armenia, East Timor (Timor-Leste) and several others on an unwanted list of countries, that have endured nationwide massacres due to propaganda-promoting hatred towards certain individuals. 

I’m not a historian and I usually write about the brighter, fun side of travel and the most famous historical piece on my blog to date is the painless topic of which city is the muse for The Chronicles of Narnia.

But after living in the country and having a strong affection for the Cambodian people, I thought I’d have a crack at telling the story of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide and how it’s affected the nation for those who are unaware of the tragedy.

Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia was one of the most brutal ever to rule a nation. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his followers, known as the Khmer Rouge, terrorized citizens of the Southeast Asian country, aiming to achieve classlessness and equality.

However, such ideas led only to death and suffering when they came at all costs.

Many were sent off into labour camps, imprisoned, or even executed on sight by those who claimed loyalty to Pol Pot; others died because they couldn’t afford medical care or had no access to food, water, and other essential supplies.

Although lesser known in the West than atrocities such as The Holocaust during World War II, the Cambodian Genocide is undoubtedly one of the most ruthless of the 20th century, with over 25% of the population losing their lives in an incredibly dark chapter of Cambodia’s history.

And while the fall of The Khmer Rouge occurred in 1979, its brutal legacy still lingers and haunts today, with Cambodia ranking as one of the poorest countries in Asia and having some of the lowest literacy rates globally.

Within this blog post, we’ll explore the Khmer Rouge’s motives, how it came into power and why it fell, and how the aftermath of this radical communist movement continues to affect Cambodia well into the 21st century.

Who Were The Khmer Rouge & How Did They Come To Power?

Six members of The Khmer Rouge pose dressed with the full Khmer Rouge uniform
Source: Wikipedia

The Khmer Rouge was a radical communist movement that rose to power through a violent guerrilla war. Its operation can be traced back to the 1960s when communism first became prominent within Cambodia.

Founded in 1967, the Khmer Rouge was the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. They initially operated in remote jungle and mountainous Northeastern Cambodia, at which point they had little support across the nation, particularly in the capital, Phnom Penh, and other cities across the country.

By 1970, a military coup led to Cambodia’s ruling monarch – Prince Norodom Sihanouk, joining forces with the Khmer Rouge, which soon brought on the civil war within Cambodia.

Over the next five years, the Khmer Rouge was able to gain significant support across the nation, allowing them to take over the country’s capital by 1975. 

By this point, the Khmer Rouge decided to hand power to their new leader, Pol Pot, who would then set about his vision of creating a communist-style agricultural utopia and an ethnic clearout of anyone who didn’t fit into his warped ideas, ultimately leading to the atrocity that would eventually become known as the Cambodian Genocide.

Pol Pot: Cambodia’s Worst Serial Killer 

Portrait of a young Pol Pot
Source: Flickr

Born as Saloth Sâr on 19 May 1925 in the small village of Prek Sbauv, Pol Pot was a Cambodian political leader who would later in his life transform Cambodia into a one-party state called Democratic Kampuchea (DK).

During his childhood, his parents owned around 50 acres of rice paddy, about ten times greater than what would be considered average for Cambodia at that time.

By 1934, Pol Pot had moved to Phnom Penh, continuing his Cambodian education until 1949, after which he became actively involved in communism while studying in Paris.

After returning to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot became increasingly fascinated by communism, so much so that he became the Cambodian party chief, and would eventually become the leader of the Khmer Rouge by 1975. After taking charge, Pol Pot aimed to create an agrarian socialist society that he believed would develop into communism. 

During four years between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot was responsible for mass killings that claimed the lives of up to 25% of Cambodia’s population – one of the worst atrocities to have occurred, making the unwanted list of the World’s worst genocides in history.

What Happened Under The Khmer Rouge?

Pieces of bones remaining after excavation in Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot took power in Cambodia, standing at the helm in the capital after a bloody 8-year civil war, the first day being April 17th, 1975. 

Throughout this time, the Khmer Rouge mercilessly killed many city dwellers and educated individuals seen as enemies of the state. At the same time, they rounded up people like cattle and forced individuals to work on farm collectives set up by Pol Pot.

Those working on the farms had no choice but to partake in demanding work or face execution for failing to follow orders. Overworked and with limited food supplies, many died due to disease or starvation within just months because of the inhumane conditions they found themselves in.

During their time in power, the Khmer Rouge also established specialist centres throughout Cambodian cities. The most infamous was Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng jail, where almost 17,000 people lost their lives.

By the end of his reign, Pol Pot and his followers were responsible for the deaths of millions in one of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.

How Did The Khmer Rouge Fall?

A Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldier begs for mercy during interrogation by Vietnamese troops near the Vietnamese border
Source: Flickr

Khmer Rouge’s regime crumbled by 1979 after Vietnamese forces invaded the Cambodian capital in retaliation for raids across their borders. At this point, Pol Pot fled to the border region with Thailand, where he and his followers continued to fight against the Vietnamese-backed government.

Before this demise, the Khmer Rouge continued to receive support and military aid from the US and other Western nations because they opposed Vietnam’s communist regime. (One of those weird “enemy of my enemy” paradoxes).

Back in 1970, the Vietnamese War spilt out into Cambodia as the Americans pulverised the Cambodian/Vietnamese border with massive airstrikes. This gave increased support for Pot as many rural people died due to the attack.

However, Pot got too big for his boots later on. Drunk on his own power, Pot craved a megalomaniacal armageddon against the Vietnamese. Vietnam responded with brute force after repeated attacks over the border in late December 1977, retribution for the death of thousands of Vietnamese civilians.

Despite remaining active for a while in remote locations throughout Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge gradually became less powerful and slowly faded away in the years following their reign’s end.

How Many People Died in The Cambodian Genocide? 

Skulls of Cambodian genocide victims
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields have an eerie, sobering monument to the victims of The Khmer Rouge.

By the time Pol Pot’s brutal regime was over, it’s estimated that around 2 million Cambodians died under his leadership, comprising about 15–33% of the total population of Cambodia, including 99% of Cambodian Viets, 50% of Cambodian Chinese and Cham, and 40% of Cambodian Lao and Thai, among others.

The exact death toll is disputed and 25% seems to be a popular theory, the Cambodian Genocide remains one of the most horrific atrocities in history, with its devasting impact still felt throughout Cambodia today.

Pot’s hatred was for anyone of higher class, wealth, or education and also utter contempt for ethnic minorities, which he wanted to completely eradicate from existence.

It’s said that of Cambodia’s largest ethnic minorities at the time, the Chinese – half of them were wiped out under the Khmer Rouge era. Pot also targeted people with fair skin – as that meant they were privileged and corrupt and only manual labour or death could ‘purify’ them.

Ethnic Muslims fell prey to Pot’s malice, but his biggest malevolence was reserved for the Vietnamese, where he would get husbands to shoot their own Vietnamese-born wives on the spot. Remarkably, there are no recorded Vietnamese ethnics to have survived the vicious Pol Pot era.

How and Where Did Pol Pot Die?

The city square of Anglong Veng with the Dove of Peace Monument on a roundabout

Pol Pot officially retired in 1985 but remained Khmer Rouge’s leader until a 1997 show trial ousted him from his position within the organisation. Subsequently, he was sentenced to life under house arrest in Anlong Veng, Northern Cambodia, close to the Thai border.

Many hoped Pol Pot would later stand trial for his crimes against humanity, but he passed away in his jungle home on 15 April 1998, less than a year after his sentencing. 

American investigative journalist Nate Thayer was the last person to interview Pot, who refused to apologise (not that this would have sufficed anyway) and spoke of a clear conscience, affirming that what he did was for the greater good of the people of Cambodia.

Many believe his death resulted from natural causes, although there are alternative theories, including one suggesting Pol Pot may have committed suicide.

How Many From The Khmer Rouge Member Trial Were Brought To Justice?

The Accused Mr Kaing Guek Eav AKA "Duch" testifying before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
Source: Flickr

The 1997 founding of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) began the process of bringing Khmer Rouge members to justice for their actions under Pol Pot’s leadership.

But as mentioned in the last section, Pol Pot died before he could be convicted of his crimes against the Cambodian people. Ultimately, this meant that the victims never got the justice they deserved when it came to the man responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent Cambodians.

More recently, other Khmer Rouge members have gone on trial for their crimes, the first of whom was Kaing Guek Eav, also known as “Duch,” who served as head of the government’s internal security branch. He was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity after a trial conducted by the ECCC.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – second-in-command and Head of State respectively, each received a sentence of life imprisonment in November 2018 for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979. They were both already serving life sentences, but this was a landmark decision despite the controversy surrounding the trials.

It took nine years before any cases were brought to court, with a total cost of $320 million. And even then, it managed to convict only the three defendants above for their crimes during the horrors of the Cambodian Genocide. 

Nowadays, many Cambodians, particularly the youngest citizens, pay little attention to the tribunal in hopes of starting a new chapter in their country’s history.

How Has The Khmer Rouge Affected Cambodia Today?

A man smiles in a pollution mask as he holds onto a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In present-day Cambodia, the approximately 16 million population has to contend with lost generations and underdevelopment compared to neighbouring countries on the Southeast Asia trail, a hangover resulting from the actions of Pol Pot and his followers.

Mental and physical health issues of its people also result from the Khmer Rouge’s time in power, with many citizens living below the poverty line and the country’s literacy rates being incredibly low compared to many other nations around the world.

Still, while many Cambodians struggle to move on from the harsh reality of life under Khmer Rouge rule, the country as a whole remains determined to rebuild itself by continuing the growth it has experienced since the 1990s.

3 Charities That Support Cambodian Genocide Victims

Even many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, Cambodia is suffering from the effects brought on by the Cambodian Genocide in more ways than one. Around 35% of Cambodians are living in poverty and so need continual support to help them survive. 

Many charities were established to help Cambodia recover, including helping provide medical care for locals, education for Cambodian children, and clean water to communities across the country.

One such charity that accepts donations and provides medical care to Cambodia is ActionAid, which supports Cambodians by helping send children to school, preventing domestic violence, and modernising farming production techniques.

The Cambodian Children’s Fund, a nonprofit organization, was established in 2004 to provide much-needed education in Cambodia to help those most affected by poverty and improve literacy rates.

Even many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, landmines laid throughout their reign continue to have a devastating impact on the Cambodian people. Thankfully, charities such as The Halo Trust remain present in Cambodia, helping to remove landmines and provide guidance to locals and their families on how to stay as safe as possible.

Visiting The Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Memorials hang from the killing tree in the killing fields of Cambodia

Much like visiting Auschwitz in Poland, The Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are places where Cambodian people and tourists can learn more about the country’s dark past. In each location, visitors can pay their respects to the many people who died under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule.

The museum and memorial aim to encourage peace and harmony through shared knowledge for future generations, which will hopefully help prevent history from ever repeating itself.

If spending time in the country’s capital, a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is highly recommended. It is a sobering experience, but one that will provide a deep insight into the Khmer Rouge’s rule and how it continues to affect the country today.

Is Cambodia Worth Visiting? 

A stunning temple made of Italian marble and silver in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Given its dark past and the long-lasting effects of the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge, you may wonder whether Cambodia is worth visiting at all. 

I don’t blame you, this must have been a tough read if you are new to this information.

But despite the horrors to have occurred here in the 20th Century, Cambodia is a beautiful country. Cambodians are incredibly warm and friendly people, the weather is tropical, and the culture is fascinating, with Angor Wat being a good enough reason alone to visit Cambodia.

The country’s capital, Phnom Penh, might be aeons behind the likes of Bangkok in terms of development, but it’s celebrating small victories and slowly improving as a place to attract more people from abroad.

All in all, if you plan on visiting Cambodia, locals will welcome you with open arms as they know they need the support of foreign tourists to progress and move on from the horrors their people have experienced in the past.

There is so much more to Cambodia than the horrific rise and fall of The Khmer Rouge regime, however as a former resident of the country, I thought I’d add this entry for those who are interested in knowing, going and learning more about the place.

Anthony Middleton

A former loser who took a risk. I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting over 100 countries. Stay tuned for the next challenge against that clock!
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Hi, I'm Anthony!

In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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