museum panel of pictures of victims of the Cambodian genocide

Cambodian Genocide:
Background History

by Denise Lavinia Selvakumar

December 15, 2005

web project for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Cambodia project main page)

The Killing Fields: Genocide in Cambodia
Killings and Torture
Fall of the Khmer Rouge
The Legacy
Cambodia Project
Main Page

The Killing Fields: Genocide in Cambodia (back to top)

Francoise Ponchaud, a French historian, once asked, "How many of those who say they are unreservedly in support of the Khmer revolution would consent to endure one hundredth part of the present sufferings of the Cambodian people?" [Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero (1978), p. 193] Numerous books and articles have been written on the Cambodian genocide that focus on the period during which the Red Cambodians or "Khmer Rouge" controlled the country that they renamed "Democratic Kampuchea" between 1975 and 1978. Under the Khmer Rouge, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died from execution, forced labor, disease and starvation. Since it will never be possible to ascertain the exact number of deaths as the Khmer Rouge did a remarkable job of burying live and dead people in mass graves at one go, estimates fall on a range. Experts say that almost 750,000 intellectuals and political renegades were killed during this regime alone, while another 800,000 peasants and village folk were killed wantonly. "The Khmer revolution was perhaps the most pernicious in history; reversing class order, destroying all markets, banning private property and money. It is one worth studying for the ages, not for what it accomplished, but for what it destroyed." (Sophal Ear, UC Berkeley honors thesis)

Khmer Rouge Rise to Power

The Khmer Rouge ascension to power was by no means democratic nor by force either. In the 1960s, Cambodia had been governed by a monarchy led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk had taken to being ambivalent to the chaos and anarchy that was happening across the border in Vietnam between the USA and the Communist forces in Vietnam. As a traditionalist, Prince Sihanouk tended to favor with the Vietnamese and offer them land to build base camps in Cambodia. This angered many in the military as they believed that their Prince was betraying their cause. As such, in 1970, General Lon Nol led a coup d'etat to depose Prince Sihanouk. The Prince of course was not passive about this and went on to found the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK). This government boasted many neutralists like the Prince and many non-Communists who eventually deflected to form the Khmer Rouge.

Lon Nol now faced enemies in the form of the Communists and the Khmer Rouge, and had to depend on the US for financial aid to help build his country's economy and maintain political stability. This however was impeded by US bombings in Cambodia as they tried to destroy Communist base camps everywhere in Indochina. The bombings claimed the lives of many innocent Cambodians, and many in the rural areas fell victim to these bombings as well. This led many to believe that General Lon Nol was not doing enough for Cambodia if they too were being drawn into the fight between the United States and Vietnam. Historians thus speculate this to be why many eventually were drawn to the Khmer Rouge's propaganda and supported them. Sihanouk was deemed to be part of the Khmer Rouge. Since he was in exile in Beijing, this fact was not clarified, though many Cambodians revealed that they had thought Sihanouk to be part of them which was why they pledged support for the Khmer Rouge.

Through the use of vigorous guerrilla warfare, the Khmer Rouge was able to seize many parts of Cambodia and by 1973, they had "de facto power over the country." ( The U.S. Congress was naturally displeased with this for the Khmer Rouge was deemed Communist in their eyes, and limited aid to Cambodia to rebuild its economy. However, at the same time, bombings of "Khmer Rouge positions in Cambodia" stopped and it seemed as if Cambodia was back to normal. General Lon Nol too realized that he was fighting a loosing battle as they ran out of ammunition and mass support for the Khmer Rouge grew. Not surprisingly, on 17th April 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and seized the government.

It did not take long for the Khmer Rouge to reveal their sole purpose of wanting to seize power. Within days of capturing Phnom Penh, all residents in the cities and towns were asked to pack their bags and follow Khmer Rouge troops to new settlements that were to be built especially for them. They were taken here on the pretext that it would be temporary move for less than a week as the Khmer Rouge tried to consolidate its power. "Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the "threat of American bombing" and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. (

1975 was now deemed "Year Zero" to the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge had a draconian plan that attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population into agricultural communes. Money, private property, education and even religion were outlawed as all Cambodians were rehoused in concentration camps as farmers. History now calls this era the Killing Fields, as more than a million people died. Many were overworked and had to work for almost 15 hours a day non-stop with only one meal. Work lasted from 6am to 9pm, after which they had to listen to classes on the greatness of the Khmer Rouge. Men, women and families were separated and contact with each other was prohibited. One could even be killed for trying to find one's wife or child. Often, Khmer officials would hire nannies to take care of their children on the pretext that the children were orphans who needed a home. Life truly was brutal even for officials and the civilians. British historians reported on the BBC that

"Opponents of the ultimate aim of restoring Cambodia's medieval greatness were deemed enemies of the state and dealt with accordingly. During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups (including intellectuals) and killing many others for even minor breaches of rules. They did not believe in western medicine but instead favored traditional peasant medicine; many died as a result."(

Even language during the Khmer changed as all symbols of hierarchy and words in Khmer that would denote socio-economic status were abolished. Everyone was to be called comrades just as communism would entail. All Cambodians who were resettled in these concentration labor camps had to go for intense brainwashing propaganda sessions that would last almost five hours each day. They were constantly taught that "they were the "instruments" (Khmer: "opokar") of the Angkar or the Organization, and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times or memory sickness (Khmer: "choeu stek arom") could result in their "receiving Angkar's "invitation" to be deindustrialized and to live in a rustic concentration camp." (

Killings and Torture (back to top)

Paranoia and extremism would be apt adjectives to describe the course the Khmer Rouge took. Anyone who was suspected to have been part of Lon Nol's regime was arrested, tortured and executed as traitors of Cambodia. Western educated Cambodians who were deemed to be intellectuals, have connections with overseas governments or had professional occupations were also arrested and tortured. Even doctors were kept in a hospital under close scrutiny and could be shot on sight for even prescribing medicine that the Khmer Rouge guards were not acquainted with. It was almost as if everyone was a victim of the Khmer Rouge as even ethnic Vietnamese, Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist monkshood were targets of persecution. Religion did not go hand in hand with the Khmer brand of Communism and was also a deemed a foreign influence that needed to be dispelled immediately.

All these victims were herded together in an inspection centre where they would be either sent to work in communes or killed instantly in mass graves. More than 200,000 people were sent to this centre in 1974-1975 alone and were taken to sites outside Phnom Penh such as Cheoung Ek, where these victims were made to dig large pits and stand inside as they were either shot or buried alive. As no proper records were kept of these mass murders. Historians continue to debate the exact death toll or for that matter who was targeted. Cambodians who were bespectacled could be called off the roads and led to mass graves just because they looked intellectual. Just saying hello could also cause you death as this was a Western term and the Khmer Rouge did not look favorably on this at all.

It has been estimated that almost 100,000 people were killed by execution alone but the total death toll was obviously much higher given that many Cambodians were buried in mass graves alive for starting fights in concentration camps or for that matter even joking and laughing. Many also died of starvation and this only brought the death toll up higher. Wikipedia reports that

"The United States Department of State and the State Department funded Yale Cambodian Genocide Project give estimates of the total death toll as 1.2 million and 1.7 million respectively. Amnesty International gives estimates of the total death toll as 1.4 million. R. J. Rummel, an analyst of historical political killings, gives a figure of 2 million. Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot gave a figure of 800,000." (

Interestingly, although the Khmer Rouge was the legally recognized government in Cambodia, it was extremely quiet about its mechanisms and policies. Many even in Cambodia did not know who was in the Khmer Rouge apart from the names of the main leaders. The Khmer Rouge hid behind the term "Angkar" or the organization--a general and ambiguous term that many did not even understand. It was actually Lon Nol and his supporters who gave the Khmer Rouge its name, which was ironic considering it was a French term for a Communist Red Army and that the Khmer Rouge was anti-West. Reports on the state of the Khmer Rouge wereambigious and no proper records were kept of who they killed or for that matter why they were killed. Unlike the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge was not a disciplined and organized party of power but still managed to replicate the German genocide in Asia. Nobody even knows what principles and ideologies that the Khmer Rouge actually stood for apart from the fact that they prided themselves on being a passionate nationalist organization with an innate hatred for the Vietnamese who they deemed to be the greatest enemies of the Cambodian people. In 1962, the last census before Cambodia was engulfed by war, the population of the country was 5.7 million. A decade later, in 1972, the population was estimated at 7.1 million. Using Amnesty International's figure of 1.4 million deaths, about 20 percent of the population would have died between 1975 and 1978. This is the largest amount of people killed in genocide ever. Even during the Nazi regime, the 5 million that were exterminated made up less than 3% of the Third Reich.

Fall of the Khmer Rouge (back to top)

Ironically, it was the Vietnamese who helped rid Cambodia of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Aided by defectors from the Khmer Rouge's main government, Vietnam fought to gain control of Phnom Phenh and finally succeeded on January 7, 1979. Considering that the Cambodians had spent all their lives fighting Vietnamese attack, it was strange that this invasion was more of a blessing than a curse. Pol Pot and his followers were forced to retreat westwards and were granted asylum in Thailand, where they settled on the border of Burma and Thailand-an already politically tumultuous region. The Khmer Rouge was fortunate to have the unofficial protection of the Thai army but this fact was not made public until slightly more than a decade ago when the UN came under pressure to bring the perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide to justice. Pol Pot and his men had been keeping alive through the illegal diamond timber and poppy plant trade, which they used to train young children as future soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia was now in mayhem too as Vietnam installed its own "People's Republic of Kampuchea" whilst the UN and the USA rallied for recognition of a "Democratic Kampuchea" headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the son of Prince Sihanouk. It was 1979 and the world was in the depths of the Cold War which only exacerbated things. Cambodia was no longer simply a country that had just experienced a genocide but a pawn in the fight between democracy and communism. The rift between China and Russia also saw Cambodia caught in this struggle. China supported and provided arms to the Khmer Rouge all the way to the late 1980s while Russia supported Vietnam in its attempt to make Cambodia fully communist. Eastern and central Vietnam may have been in Vietnamese hands but the west remained in political anarchy as landmines littered the fields and the democrats, Vietnamese communists and the Khmer Rouge fought for supremacy.

Interestingly, reports done by the UN seemed to show that despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge was such a murderous regime and were declared mass murderers, many still liked and believed in the Khmer Rouge. In Khmer-controlled area in the west of Cambodia, it was as if the Khmer Rouge rule never ended and yet no one complained. Historians still argue if this was a genuine reflection of popular opinion or if the masses were just too brainwashed to have an opinion of their own. Many believed in a pure Khmer race and thought of the surrounding political struggle as an inevitable fight to cleanse one race. This is very much like how Hitler envisioned a pure Aryan German race. The system of brainwashing of devoting your life to the angkar had proven so successful that children from birth were indoctrinated to believe that only the Khmer Rouge were the legitimate rulers of Cambodia.

This fighting went on for more than a decade before all Cambodian political factions signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament but this proved futile when fighting broke out again in 1992. The Khmer Rouge was also diminishing in size as many deflected to democratic side to avoid punsihment for atrocties committed duyring the Khmer Rouge. "Factional fighting in 1997 led to Pol Pot's trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge itself." ( Pol Pot passed away in April 1998, and his successor, Khieu Samphan, surrendered to the Democrats in December. "On December 29, 1998 the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologised for the deaths in the 1970s." ( By 1999, almost all of the remaining members of the Khmer Rouge had either surrendered, or been captured and by the end of the year, the Khmer Rouge effectively ceased to exist. The Khmer Rouge resistance also collapsed due to military defeat, but also due to internal dissent, frustration at poverty and ideological decay. The group has ended up fighting itself and had less than a 1000 supporters and fighters who are led by General Ta Mok. Ironically, they still have asylum on the Thai border by the Thai army and only serves as an indicator to the world that the evil is not necessarily over. Pol Pot, the regime's leader had become, along with Hitler and Stalin, synonymous with brutal despotism. He finally died from natural causes on April 15, 1998, and deprived the world of a sense of justice and closure to the Khmer Rouge era.

The Legacy (back to top)

Sadly, even though it has been more than twenty years since the Khmer Rouge were disposed from power by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge's legacy of death, starvation and suffering lives on across Cambodia. It is most visible in the piles of skulls and bones across the countries, which are still being discovered every week. It can also be seen in the countless unexploded landmines and the psychological problems suffered by many who cannot forget whey they saw. Cambodia may have physically and economically tried to recover but still suffer the psychological trauma of the past.

The current socialist democratic government of Cambodia that is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has offered defectors of the Khmer Rouge "immunity from persecution provided they made public apologies and agreed to pledge allegiance to his government" ( Many Khmer Rouge deflectors were great leaders and military men that Cambodia needs to survive in this competitive world today. This policy has come under public scrutiny for allowing many former Khmer Rouge commanders to become senior officials in the Cambodian government despite their obvious inhumane tendencies and past trangressions. This was not a case of justice or forgiveness but political strategy. The government has made it such that blame for the genocide be pinned to top leaders of the Khmer Rouge and since Pol Pot is dead, General Ta Mok is held accountable for most of the blame whilst most of the other officials have escaped scot-free.

It then seems unfair to the murdered Cambodians to have no justice served to them. Hun Sen was even quoted as saying that he was going to "short-circuit any plans for a full Nuremberg-style accounting of war crimes" ( What seems interesting here is that due to mass conspiracy to forget the past, the world has rarely even been told that Cambodia ever had a genocide. Even the UN, the international body of peace, has done nothing concrete to uphold its role as a defender of human rights especially amongst the oppressed and downtrodden. Further sections in this project will reveal whether justice was ever served, how the international community reacted to this massacre, and if it was in any way parallel to the Holocaust.

Sources (back to top)

  1. François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1978)
    This book gives a comprehensive description of exactly what happened that led to the Khmer Rouge as well as what happened during the Khmer Rouge and if the perpetrators were ever brought to justice. It links the notion of genocide in relation to Cambodia and if international laws have helped the country cope with such a traumatic human setback.
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  2. Sophal Ear, "The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979: The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia," senior honors thesis, Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, May 1995
    Online at:, December 2005
  3. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984)
    This movie portrays how the Cambodian genocide began and what happened during it. One of the main characters, Sydney Schanberg, is a New York Times journalist, covering the civil war in Cambodia. Together with local representative Dith Pran, they cover some of the tragedy and madness of the war. When the Americans forces leave, Dith Pran sends his family with them, but stays behind himself to help Schanberg cover the event. As an American, Schanberg did not have any trouble leaving the country, but the situation is different for Pran; as he is a local, and the Khmer Rouge are moving in. The movie, as such, depicts his struggle in the concentration camps and his attempt to escape that drove him nearly to madness.
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  4. From Sideshow to Genocide: The Khmer Rouge Years
    Online Source:, 11th December 2005
    This slideshow is by Andy Carvin, the director of the Digital Divide Network and developer of the website Edweb: Exploring Technology and School Reform. It is an excerpt from a school project on the Khmer Rouge. It outlines the important dates and events that the occurred during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  5. Khmer Rouge
    Online Source:, 12th December 2005
    This website gives a succinct overview of the Khmer Rouge and its effect on history.
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  6. The Forgotten Genocide In Cambodia
    Online Source:, 12th December 2005
    A reflection on the events that transpired during the Cambodian genocide.
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  7. Cambodian Genocide Program
    Online Source:, 12th December 2005
    This study on the Khmer Rouge was undertaken by Yale University as an outstanding example of a genocide that was never really acknowledged by the world and especially the USA. This centre for Cambodian genocide studies has a comprehensive guide to the history of Cambodia and provides one with much visual and aural evidence of this horrific event.
    Written By: Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
  8. Cambodia Mass Genocide
    Online Source:, 12th December 2005
    A July 1998 BBC report on the events that transpired during the Cambodian genocide.
  9. Borgna Brunner, "Who Was Who in the Khmer Rouge: Beyond Pol Pot and Ta Mok," March 1999; (accessed Dec. 7, 2005).
  10. Alain Destexhe, "The Crime of Genocide," from Rwanda And Genocide in the Twentieth Century (New York University Press, 1995). excerpt on PBS's Frontline website
    Alain Destexhe is the former Secretary General of Doctors Without Borders.

About the Author (back to top)

Denise Lavinia Selvakumar
I'm a third year History major who is currently studying in UCSB as part of an exchange programme from Singapore. I've always been extremely interested in European history and am particularly intrigued by dictators and totalitarian regimes that arose throughout the 20th century. As a fervent supporter of human rights and equality, I have done a lot of research on genocides and have always been intrigued by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as it happened less than 30 years ago in a country that is less than 5 hours away from my homeland.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/6/05; last updated: 12/15/05, typos 2/20/20
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