Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk coined the term Khmer Rouge in the 1960s to describe his country's then heterogeneous, communist-led dissidents, with whom he allied after his 1970 overthrow. More precisely, he called them Khmers rouges in French, khmaer krahom in Khmer, both meaning "Khmer Reds." In 1975, the Khmer Rouge leadership, secretly headed by Pol Pot, took power, pushed the Prince aside, and established the Democratic Kampuchea regime (DK).
Cambodian communism first emerged in 1930 as part of a multinational anti-French independence movement, the Indochina Communist Party (ICP), which extended throughout what was then French Indochina. In 1951, the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, separated the ICP into national branches. In Cambodia, the ICP set up the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP). Its members, especially former Buddhist monks, led the nationwide Khmer Issarak ("independence") movement. They adopted for its flag a silhouette of the medieval temple of Angkor Wat: five towers on a red background. A faction of the movement made early use of the name "Democratic Kampuchea." An anti-KPRP group flew a flag with a three-towered Angkor motif which would later become the emblem of the DK regime. Members of another anti-communist splinter group perpetrated portentous racial massacres, targeting minority Vietnamese residents in 1949 and Cham Muslims in 1952. A Cambodian student in Paris named Saloth Sar, then calling himself the "Original Khmer," returned home in 1953 and served briefly in the communist-led Issarak ranks. He later assumed the nom de guerre "Pol Pot."
The First Indochina War ended with the 1954 Vietnamese victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva settlement brought Cambodia full independence under Prince Sihanouk, who soon adopted a foreign policy of cold war neutrality. That was, in part, an accommodation to the communists' internal challenge, implicitly acknowledging both the their role in the independence war and their potential to disrupt a more pro–United States regime. Neutrality also served an international strategy to keep Cambodia out of the escalating conflict in neighboring Vietnam.
The Changing of the Vanguard
Radicals of both the left and the right, dissatisfied with Sihanouk's domestic and foreign policies, had to bide their time, head for the hills, or leave for Vietnam or Thailand. Half of Cambodia's Issarak veterans took up exile in Hanoi. Most of the remaining grassroots leftists were either mollified by Sihanouk's neutrality, jailed by his police, or disappeared, like the underground Cambodian communist leader, Tou Samouth, who was mysteriously killed in 1962. At that point a group of younger, Paris-educated militants headed by Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary, and Son Sen quickly assumed top leadership positions within the debilitated KPRP. Of these, only Sar had previously been a member of the three-person Standing Committee of the party's Central Committee; in 1960 he had been named No. 3, ranking third in that three-person body. Now, however, Saloth Sar and Ieng Sary ranked first and third in an expanded Standing Committee of five members. Former students occupied the first, third, fifth, sixth, and eleventh ranks in the Central Committee of twelve.
With the support of ICP veteran Nuon Chea, who became Sar's second in command, the younger cohort now dominated both the Standing Committee and the Central Committee, referring to themselves as the "Party Center" (mocchim paks). Technically this was a codeword for the Central Committee, but henceforth, the latter rarely if ever met. Quietly abandoning their teaching jobs in the capital for rural redoubts, the party's new leadership launched it onto the offensive, changing its name to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966.
The veteran party leaders had been from rural and Buddhist backgrounds, and were pro-Vietnamese though relatively moderate. However, they were mostly replaced by younger, urban, French-educated, anti-Vietnamese extremists headed by "the Original Khmer," Pol Pot. Ieng Sary and Son Sen were both Khmer Krom, natives of Vietnam's Mekong Delta, and were resentful of the Vietnamese majority there. From the jungles of Cambodia's remote northeast, these new CPK leaders planned an armed rebellion against Sihanouk's independent regime, ignoring his neutral nationalism and labeling him a U.S. puppet. Sihanouk sensed the threat and cracked down on all leftists, driving above-ground moderates into the arms of the younger militants who were leading the CPK. Sihanouk began denouncing other "Khmers Rouges," especially three prominent elected politicians: Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim. In 1967, they too joined the rural underground.
Accompanying them into clandestine opposition came a new generation of disgruntled youth who had benefited from Sihanouk's rapid post-independence expansion of educational opportunities, but had failed to secure commensurate employment in a fragile economy that grew in the period spanning 1963 to 1965 and remained plagued by corruption. Young rural schoolteachers and students soon comprised the bulk of "Khmer Rouge" cadres.
In 1967, the CPK Center launched a limited insurgency, which provoked repression by the Cambodian Army. Sihanouk's regime was also unable to handle the Vietnam War's impacts on Cambodia, from plunging national revenues to the politically explosive presence of Vietnamese communist troop sanctuaries. General Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk on March 18, 1970, and allied Cambodia with the United States. From his exile in Beijing, the Sihanouk quickly joined forces with the Khmer Rouge insurgents, led by Pol Pot's shadowy CPK Center. Lon Nol's army massacred thousands of the country's ethnic Vietnamese residents, driving 300,000 more to flee to Vietnam. This set a precedent for later "ethnic cleansing" by the CPK Center, which began attacking its Vietnamesecommunist military allies in September 1970.
Both sides in the Vietnam conflict treated Cambodia as a theater of their ground and air war. United States aerial bombardments of Cambodia's border areas, begun in March 1969, escalated across the country until August 1973. American aircraft dropped over half a million tons of bombs on rural Cambodia, killing over 100,000 peasants and driving many survivors into the insurgent ranks.
This triggered a second wave of Khmer Rouge rural recruitment. On May 2, l973, the Directorate of Operations of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reported the results of its investigations in Kandal province:
- Khmer Insurgent (KI [Khmer Rouge]) cadre have begun an intensified proselyting [sic] campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents in the area of Chrouy Snao, Kaoh Thom district, Kandal province, Cambodia, in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organizations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda. The cadre tell the people that the Government of Lon Nol has requested the airstrikes and is responsible for the damage and the "suffering of innocent villagers" in order to keep himself in power. The only way to stop "the massive destruction of the country" is to remove Lon Nol and return Prince Sihanouk to power. The proselyting [sic] cadres tell the people that the quickest way to accomplish this is to strengthen KI forces so they will be able to defeat Lon Nol and stop the bombing.
- This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men for KI forces. Residents around Chrouy Snao say that the propaganda campaign has been effective with refugees and in areas of Kaoh Thom and Leuk Dek districts which have been subject to B-52 strikes.
CPK internecine purges also accelerated during the U.S. bombardment. Portending the genocide to come, and while secretly, systematically killing off nearly all one thousand Khmer Issarak communist returnees from Hanoi, in 1973 and 1974 the Center stepped up CPK violence against ethnic Vietnamese civilians. It also purged and killed ethnic Thai and other minority members of the CPK's Western and Northeast Zone committees, banned an allied group of ethnic Cham Muslim revolutionaries in the East, and instigated severe repression of Muslim communities. Other victims of the Center included its former Sihanoukist allies, moderate local communists, and more independent Marxists such as Hou Yuon, a popular Paris-educated intellectual who had differed with Pol Pot. Yuon was marginalized, then murdered in 1975. The Center sponsored the CPK Southwest and Northern Zone military commanders, Chhit Choeun (alias "Mok") and Ke Pauk, in their purges of suspected rivals and opponents there. CPK moderates were concentrated in the Eastern Zone, where regional differences remained evident as late as 1977.
The U.S. Congress ended the American bombardment on August 15, 1973. The opposing Cambodian armies fought out the last two years of the war, with continuing large-scale U.S. military assistance to Lon Nol's Republican forces based in the cities, and sporadic Vietnamese aid to the Khmer Rouge dominating the rural areas, which the CPK termed its "bases" (moultanh).
On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge armies entered Phnom Penh. The new state was formally re-named Democratic Kampuchea (DK) the following January. CPK Secretary-General Pol Pot headed the regime as DK's Prime Minister. He and the other members of the CPK Center who moved into the capital comprised the regime's effective national leadership. They included the CPK Standing Committee members Nuon Chea (Deputy CPK Secretary), Vorn Vet, Ieng Sary, and Son Sen (hierarchically ranked three, five, and eight, respectively) who served as Deputy Prime Ministers for the Economy, Foreign Affairs, and Defense. Also among the leadership was Khieu Samphan, who ranked number nine and served as DK's head of state. In the rural Zones, in concert with the Center, Southwest, and Northern military chiefs Mok (who ranked seventh in the Standing Committee hierarchy) and Ke Pauk (ranking thirteenth still outside the Standing Committee, but a member of the CPK Central Committee) gained increasing power as they consolidated the CPK's victory, executed its enemies, and purged its regional administrations. Mok and Pauk later became National Chief and Deputy Chief of the army's General Staff. Two other CPK Standing Committee members, So Phim and Moul Sambath (numbers four and six in the hierarchy), ran the Eastern and Northwest Zones, but held no comparable national posts.
Immediately upon victory, the CPK labeled the two million conquered urban dwellers "new people" (neak thmei), driving them in all directions from the capital and other cities. It forcibly settled townspeople among the rural "base people" (neak moultanh) who had lived in the countryside during the 1970–1975 war, and put them to work in agricultural labor camps without wages, rights, or free time. Before the rice harvest of late 1975, the CPK Center again rounded up 800,000 of these urban deportees from various regions and dispatched them to the Northwest Zone, doubling its population. Tens of thousands died of starvation there during 1976, while the regime began exporting rice. Meanwhile, the CPK hunted down, rounded up, and killed thousands of Lon Nol's defeated Khmer Republic officials, army officers, and increasingly, soldiers, schoolteachers, and alleged "pacification agents" (santec sampoan) who, in most cases, had merely protested the repression or just the rigorous living conditions imposed on them. By early 1979, approximately 650,000 people, or one quarter of the "new" Khmer, died from execution, starvation, overwork, disease, and denial of medical care.
The Khmer Rouge revolution had won initial support among the peasant "base people," but they, too, were rewarded with a life of unpaid collective labor. The CPK regime prohibited rights to land, freedom of religion, and family life. Meals were served in plantation-style communal mess halls. Couples were separated, and youths were drafted into the workforce, army, or militia. Many peasant children were trained to spy on their parents, and to kill suspected "enemies" such as former city dwellers, "CIA" and "KGB agents," recalcitrants, and alleged malingerers. In 1976 and 1977, the CPK Center and its security apparatus, the Santebal, supported by Mok's and Pauk's divisions, conducted massive new purges of the Northwest and Northern Zone CPK administrations, arresting and killing tens of thousands of peasants who were related to the purged local officials. Starvation and repression escalated nationwide in 1977 and especially in 1978. By early 1979, 675,000 Khmer "base people" (15% of the neak moultanh) had perished from execution or other causes like starvation, for which CPK policies were responsible.
Pol Pot claimed to be "four to ten years ahead" of other Asian communist states, adding: "We have no model in building up our new society." This disguised the Maoism in the CPK's call for a "Super Great Leap Forward," the influence of Stalinism, and even that of the French revolution, which DK copied by introducing a ten-day working week (with one-day weekends). The CPK exported agricultural and forest products, including rare tropical fauna, to China in return for its massive military assistance program. In all, imposing these policies by force caused the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.
The Center charged that local and national veteran communists, who were more moderate and favored "a system of plenty" over the DK regime's policies, with being corrupted by "a little prosperity," neglectful of ideology, and "taken to pieces" by material things. Its Santebal purged and killed prominent national-level communists like Keo Meas in 1976, Hu Nim in 1977, and So Phim, Moul Sambath, and even Vorn Vet in 1978, all the while asserting increasingly tight control of Zone and Region committees. By 1978 the Santebal had executed over half the members of the CPK Central Committee, accusing most of involvement in fantastic plots hatched by a hostile new troika: "the CIA, the KGB, and the Vietnamese." Deuch, the commandant of the Santebal's central prison, "S-21" or Tuol Sleng, incarcerated and executed 14,000 Khmer Rouge members and others, leaving only seven survivors.
The Center's severe repression of the majority Khmer rural population and its Stalin-like massive purge of the party were accompanied by intensified violence against ethnic minorities, even among the "base people," escalating the patterns of 1973–1975. In mid-1975, the new CPK regime expelled from Cambodia more than 100,000 Vietnamese residents. In the next four years, more than half of the nation's ethnic Chinese, 250,000 people, perished in the Cambodian countryside, the greatest tragedy ever to befall Southeast Asia's Chinese diaspora. In late 1975, the CPK ferociously repressed a Cham Muslim rebellion along the Mekong River. Pol Pot then ordered the deportation of 150,000 Chams living on the east bank of the Mekong, and their forced dispersal throughout the Northern and Northwest Zones. In November 1975, a Khmer Rouge official in the Eastern Zone complained to Pol Pot of his inability to implement "the dispersal strategy according to the decision that you, Brother, had discussed with us." Officials in the Northern Zone, he complained, "absolutely refused to accept Islamic people," preferring "only pure Khmer people." Santebal communications, available through the Documentation Center of Cambodia, show that Northern Zone leader Ke Pauk sent a message to Pol Pot two months later, in which he listed "enemies" such as "Islamic people." Deportations of Chams began again in 1976, and by early 1979, approximately 100,000 of the country's 1975 Cham population of 250,000 had been killed or worked to death. The 10,000 ethnic Vietnamese remaining in the country were all hunted down and murdered in 1977 and 1978. Oral evidence suggests that the ethnic Thai and Lao minorities were also subjected to genocidal persecution.
Meanwhile the Khmer Buddhist monks were decimated in a nationwide CPK campaign to repress "reactionary religion," banned by DK's 1976 Constitution. A Center document stated in September 1975: "Monks have disappeared from 90 to 95 percent . . . Monasteries . . . are largely abandoned . . . the cultural base must be uprooted." Of a total of 2,680 monks in a sample of 8 of Cambodia's 3,000 monasteries in 1975, only 70 monks were found to have survived to 1979. If this toll could be extrapolated to the other monasteries, as few as 2,000 of the country's 70,000 Buddhist monks may have survived. That constitutes a prima facie case of genocide of a religious group.
Rebellion and Vietnamese Intervention
Most of the CPK's victims came from the majority Khmer population, and the major resistance it faced was in the East. From late 1976, accelerating the purges of regional administrations, the Santebal and Center army units subjected all five regions of the Eastern Zone to concerted waves of arrests and massacres of local CPK officials and soldiers. These reached a crescendo on May 10, 1978, when Phnom Penh Radio broadcast a call not only to "exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese" but also to "purify the masses of the people" of Cambodia. Khmer Rouge officers in the Eastern Zone mutinied two weeks later. Pol Pot's divisions were unable to crush them quickly. One and one-half million easterners were now branded as "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds" (kbal yuon khluon khmaer). Center forces massacred between 100,000 and 250,000 people in six months. Of the 1.7 million dead in less than four years of CPK rule, more than 500,000 had been deliberately murdered.
The Eastern Zone rebels, led by Heng Samrin and Chea Sim, fought back for several months before retreating across the Vietnamese border, where they requested aid and joined earlier Khmer Rouge rebels and defectors like Hun Sen. Hanoi was ready to intervene. Beginning in early 1977, Phnom Penh had mounted brutal cross-border attacks on Thailand, Laos, and especially Vietnam, slaughtering thousands of both Vietnamese and Khmer Krom there. On December 25, 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops launched a multipronged assault and took the Cambodian capital on January 7, 1979. They drove the CPK forces, including Pol Pot and most Center leaders, to the Thai border.
The dissident Khmer Rouge commanders established a new communist-led regime in Phnom Penh. Former regimental officer Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in mid-1977, became Foreign Minister. Promoted to Prime Minister in 1985, he began a limited liberalization which accelerated in 1989. After UN-organized elections in 1993, Hun Sen became Second Prime Minister in a coalition with Sihanoukist party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But Pol Pot's 10,000-strong rump Khmer Rouge army, revived during the 1980s by international assistance and enjoying sanctuary in Thailand, posed a continuing threat on the northwestern border.
The Khmer Rouge movement finally began to unravel in August 1996. First, in return for a "pardon," Ieng Sary defected to the Cambodian government with the military units under his command. Other Khmer Rouge leaders sought similar treatment from Phnom Penh. In June 1997, fearing further betrayal, Pol Pot murdered Son Sen. In the jungle of northern Cambodia, as the last military forces loyal to Pol Pot evacuated their headquarters, they drove their trucks over the bodies of Son Sen, his wife Yun Yat—the former DK minister of culture—and a dozen family members. Mok turned in pursuit, arrested Pol Pot, and subjected him to a show trial in the jungle. But in March 1998, Pauk led a new mutiny against Mok and defected to the government. Pol Pot died the next month. Then, in December 1998, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan abandoned Mok and surrendered to the Cambodian government. They said they were now "sorry" for the crimes they had perpetrated. In 1999, the Cambodian army captured Mok and arrested the former Center security chief, Deuch. As of May 2004, they remained in jail awaiting trial.
Central Intelligence Agency (1973). "Efforts of Khmer Insurgents to Exploit for Propaganda Purposes Damage Done by Airstrikes in Kandal Province," Intelligence Information Cable, May 2, l973, Directorate of Operations, declassified February 19, 1987.
Kiernan, Ben (1989). "The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969–1973." Vietnam Generation 1:1 (Winter):4–41.
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Kiernan, Ben (1996). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979, 2nd edition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Peschoux, Christophe (1992). Les "nouveaux" Khmers rouges: enquête, 1979–1990: reconstruction du mouvement et reconquête des villages. Paris: Éditions L'Harmattan.
Vickery, Michael (1984). Cambodia 1975-1982. Boston: South End.
The Khmer Rouge (Cambodian for “Red Khmer”) was a Communist regime that ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979. The group, led by Pol Pot, was formally the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In trying to reach its ambitious agricultural production goals and to protect itself against opposition, the regime worked large numbers of people to death and slaughtered its perceived opponents. Characterized by extreme brutality, the regime was responsible for the deaths through slaughter, starvation, overwork, and disease of 1 to 1.7 million Cambodians of a pre-1975 population of 7 or 8 million.
Under the Khmer Rouge, the cities were emptied; industry virtually halted; money, markets, and religion extinguished; and the entire populace sent out to agricultural labor camps in the countryside. Despite the regime’s notional commitment to creating a classless society, in practice, people were divided into “base people,” those who had been under the Khmer Rouge before April 1975 and “new people,” those who came under the regime’s control only with the final victory. New people suffered particularly in the austere rural labor conditions. Food was inadequate, the work schedule was harsh, and medical facilities and medicine were almost nonexistent. Gradually, the family unit was broken up; from 1977 dining was communalized.
The regime slaughtered officials from the old regime, intellectuals (which included teachers), Buddhist monks, and uncovered “enemies.” The Santebal internal security service kept meticulous records of the tortures and executions in which it engaged, Phnom Penh’s S-21/Tuol Sleng facility being the pinnacle of the regime’s torture camps. Failures to achieve the regime’s unrealistic economic goals were blamed on internal and external conspirators. Confessions of sabotage were wrung from Cambodians who were forced to name their accomplices, drawing more innocents into the regime’s web of terror. Cambodia’s numerous mass grave sites have come to be known as the Killing Fields.
Khmer Rouge thought placed particular attention to the idea of Khmer purity. Non-Khmer Cambodians of Vietnamese, Cham (Muslim), or Chinese descent faced particular threats. The young were considered especially pure by the Khmer Rouge, as they had not been tainted by the attitudes of the past (Pol Pot’s Little Red Book cites the following Khmer Rouge slogan: “Clay is molded while it is soft”). Society was supposed to start afresh from the “year zero.”
Heavily influenced by the ideas of Mao Zedong of China, Cambodia’s Communist leaders believed they could substitute human willpower for other economic inputs, thus carrying out a “super great leap forward” and revolutionizing agricultural production. The need to continually write one’s autobiography and correct errors of thought were also borrowed from the Chinese Communists. Self-reliance was a core value and, with the exception of supporter China, the regime was effectively closed to the outside world.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power by a Vietnamese invasion. The regime’s remnants fled to the Thai border and continued to control territory and followers into the 1990s. A United Nations (UN)–organized election in 1993 marginalized the group, which boycotted the polls. By 1996–1997, primarily through defections to the new government, the Khmer Rouge was virtually nonexistent. A show trial of Pol Pot was held in the Khmer Rouge–controlled zone of Cambodia in 1997, and the former leader was put under house arrest. He died in April 1998. In conjunction with the UN, Cambodia agreed in 2003 to set up a mixed Cambodian/international tribunal to bring remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for their crimes while in power, including Ta Mok, known as “the Butcher,” and Comrade Duch, the head of the S-21 camp.
SEE ALSO Communism; Genocide; Killing Fields; Military Regimes; Pol Pot; Underclass; United Nations
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Paige Johnson Tan