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The events that incited the Cambodian genocide were due to difficult living conditions caused by miscalculations of foreign governments. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge and the Communist Party of Kampuchea, would never have gained power without the US destabilization of Cambodia.[i] In the late 1960s the conflict between the U.S. and Vietnam was escalating. Under the auspices that the Vietnamese communists were seeking shelter in Cambodia, the U.S. began carpet-bombing the Cambodian countryside. Later, the U.S. assisted the pro-U.S. The Cambodian government, under the leadership of Lon Nol, into power. By 1973, the U.S. bombarded the Cambodian countryside with half of 540,000 tons of bombs were dropped in six months.[ii] The bombing caused major destruction to peasant villages and left many casualties. An estimated 50,000-150,000 Cambodians were killed during the bombing campaign.[iii] Due to U.S. intervention in Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge cadres began using the destruction and massacre of peasants in the countryside to recruit new revolutionaries. They used propaganda claiming the government under Lon Nol was responsible for the bombing of the countryside. The Khmer Rouge men told the villagers they must rise up against the imperialist government to stop the destruction of Cambodia.[iv]


On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge cadres marched into Phnom Penh and began their social revolution. In the name of Angkar (The High Organization), the Khmer Rouge entered the cities, forced all residents out of their home and to walk into the countryside. The cadres conducted summary executions for all known former opponents of the Khmer Rouge and those regarded hostile to the regime. The Khmer Rouge claimed they were “purifying” an entire population by moving them into the countryside to achieve a “Super Great Leap Forward” and turning all Cambodians into peasant farmers.[v]

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge sought to socially transform Cambodia by changing ideological superstructures, institutions, and political systems, which would reconfigure social relations and daily life. They wanted to destroy all that came before and “turn back the clock” and start at “year zero.”[vi] This meant turning the country into an egalitarian agrarian “utopia” without material possessions or money. They sought to eliminate the basic family structure, individual thought, and “impure” elements of western capitalism, intellectualism, and imperialism, which became a policy of eradication by killing. The Khmer Rouge facilitated violence as a way of “purifying” the country.[vii]

After the evacuation of the cities, the entire population of Cambodia became indentured servants forced to work on the farms in the countryside. They were organized into massive labor gangs that worked long hours, without wages or leisure.[viii] The Khmer Rouge regime maintained complete control over the collective farms, making sure everyone met their daily targets in the “killing fields.” While in the farms, the Khmer Rouge and the peasant population dehumanized evacuees from the cities. They were called “new people.” They were seen as a contaminated population corrupted by capitalism, imperialism, and intellectualism. The Khmer Rouge cadres were taught to be suspicious of all “new people,” who needed to be re-educated.[ix] “New people” were seen as indispensible. The Khmer Rouge would say,“ if he lives there is no gain […] if he dies there is no loss.”[x] The “new people” did not have rights according to the Khmer Rouge, thus making them subhuman to the local “pure” peasants, who were called “old people” or “base people.”[xi] People were forced to attend indoctrination sessions where they were to assess their loyalty to the regime and “reconstruct” themselves along the Khmer Rouge ideology. Many people were killed during the nightly sessions to intimidate the population into obeying the rules of the regime. Communication between people completely stopped in fear that the Khmer Rouge would accuse them of not being loyal which meant their death.[xii]

Indoctrination of children was very important to the Khmer Rouge regime. In order to destroy the basic family structure, children were taught not to love their parents and to transfer their love to the regime. The Khmer Rouge cadres taught children not to respect or trust their parents. Many children believed the Khmer Rouge ideology and informed on their parents to the cadres, who would punish the family.[xiii] At indoctrination sessions, children were also forced to watch executions of prisoners or those deemed “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge to instill loyalty to the regime.[xiv]

By 1976-1978, The Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid about “hidden enemies” or “microbes” within the Khmer Rouge regime. This environment resulted in an increase of killing. Between 1976-1977, thousands of party cadres and hundreds of thousands of “new people” were murdered.[xv] Pol Pot began targeting non-ethnic Cambodians. He initiated a purge of the Vietnamese, Chinese, and all foreigners living inside Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge also murdered based on religion, killing Muslim Chams and Buddhist Monks.[xvi] Ultimately, the fear and paranoia of the Cambodian population became the Khmer Rouges demise. The local support and loyalty to the Khmer Rouge started to diminish.

In 1977, the Khmer Rouge attacked the border of Vietnam. The Vietnamese responded by sending 50,000 troops into Cambodia. On July 7, 1979, the Khmer Rouge capitulated to the Vietnamese troops in Phnom Penh. The government of the Khmer Rouge quickly collapsed.[xvii] An estimated number of 1.5 to 2 million people were murdered between 1975-1979, around twenty percent of the population.[xviii] Together, Cambodia and the United Nations are still trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Unfortunately, Pol Pot, the planner and leader of the genocide, died in 1998, before going to trial.

[i] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 16

[ii] Ibid., 18-19.

[iii] Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction Second Edition, (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011), 287.

[iv] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, 19-22.

[v] Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 280-281.

[vi] James A. Tyner, The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide, and the Unmaking of Space, (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 86.

[vii] David P. Chandler, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc, 1992), 80.

[viii] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, 164-167.

[ix] Judy Ledgerwood, Cambodia Emerges from the Past: Eight Essays, (Dekalb: Southeast Asia Publications, 2002), 81.

[x] Ngor, Haing, Survival in the Killing Fields, (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003), 242.

[xi] Ibid., 141.

[xii] JoAn D. Criddle, To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family, The story of Teeda Butt Mam (East/West Bridge Publishing House, 1987), 93.

[xiii] Dith Pran, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs of Survivors, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 156.

[xiv] Ibid., 77.

[xv] Short, Pol Pot, 370.

[xvi] Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, (New York: Routledge, Taylor, and Francis Group, 2011), 299.

[xvii] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, 452.

[xviii] Ibid., 456-457.

Photo credits: Scott Edwards

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