-Dith Pran, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors
Lasting for four years (between 1975 and 1979), the Cambodian Genocide was an explosion of mass violence that saw between 1.5 and 3 million people killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a communist political group. The Khmer Rouge had taken power in the country following the Cambodian Civil War. During their brutal four-year rule, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodians.
The Cambodian Genocide was the result of a social engineering project by the Khmer Rouge, attempting to create a classless agrarian society. The regime would ultimately collapse when the neighboring Vietnam invaded, establishing an occupation that would last more than a decade.
Cambodia before the Genocide
Eight years before the genocide began, Cambodia was engaged in a bloody civil war. The war pitted the Cambodian monarchy, and later the Cambodian Republic, and its allies, including the United States, against the Cambodian communists. The communists received support from the neighboring Vietcong.
The Cambodian monarchy promoted a strong sense of nationalism and loyalty to the government, but was also seen as corrupt and ineffectual. This corruption would breed several underground groups with the shared goal of overthrowing the government. Early on, right-wing and leftist groups, including leaders of what would become the Khmer Rouge, were allies.
Income inequality was rampant. Cambodians living in the urban areas enjoyed relative wealth and comfort while the majority of Cambodians toiled on farms in the rural communities. This obvious division of class made Cambodia especially susceptible to revolution. Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge would take power in 1975, installing Pol Pot as the leader of the country.
The Cambodian Genocide
Once the Khmer Rouge took power, they instituted a radical reorganization of Cambodian society. This meant the forced removal of city dwellers into the countryside, where they would be forced to work as farmers, digging canals and tending to crops. Gross mismanagement of the country’s economy led to shortages of food and medicine, and untold numbers of people succumbed to disease and starvation. Families were also split up. The Khmer Rouge created labor brigades, assigning groups depending on age and gender. This policy resulted in hundreds of thousands of Cambodians starving to death.
Religious and ethnic minorities faced particular persecution. Christian and Buddhist groups were targeted for repression but it was the Cham Muslim group that was most affected by the genocide. As many as 500,000 people, or 70% of the total Cham population, were exterminated. Because the Khmer Rouge placed a heavy emphasis on the rural peasant population, anyone considered an intellectual was targeted for special treatment. This meant teachers, lawyers, doctors, and clergy were the targets of the regime. Even people wearing glasses were the target of Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
There is difficulty establishing a definitive number of victims of the Cambodian Genocide. The Cambodians kept methodical records of prisoners and executions. However, because Cambodia’s enemy, Vietnam, invaded and released the records, there is speculation they could have been exaggerated. In addition, estimating the total number of people who starved is difficult. Estimates range from 1.5 to 3 million people having died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with the consensus being approximately 2 million.
For more information about the genocide itself, check out:
- The Cambodian Genocide Program: Resources on the history and legacy of the genocide (Yale University)
- Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide: Museum on the former S-21 Prison site
- The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia: Museum founded by Dara Duong, a survivor of the Killing Fields
- I Was Born into Genocide (2008): History Day project includes survivor testimonials and provides a good overview of the genocide
- The Legacy of Pol Pot: Photos and provides an overview of the genocide (Time)
- The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan: Explores social themes and questions about Cambodia’s genocide
- The Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies previously exhibited photos of prisoners at S-21 Prison. View the original exhibition.
USC Shoah Foundation institute for Visual History and Education is now home to visual testimony of the Cambodian genocide.
Pol Pot, or Brother Number One, was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. He was born Saloth Sar to farmers in rural Cambodia in 1925. Pol Pot was a bright student and spent time studying in France, where he became involved with communist groups in the early 1950s.
After returning home in 1953, Pol Pot joined clandestine groups in Cambodia. It was during this time that he began combining Stalinist and Maoist models with a returned focus on an agrarian society. With support from rural Cambodians, North Vietnamese, and Chinese, Pol Pot was ultimately able to take control of the country in 1975.
Although he would be overthrown four years later by an invading Vietnamese army, Pol Pot avoided capture. He maintained some level of power for nearly two decades. When the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) came to the country in 1992, it engaged Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as a necessary partner to bring peace to Cambodia. One of UNTAC’s stated goals was to bring Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge officials to trial. However, Pol Pot would die in 1998, before the trials took place. Although tried in absentia, he was never punished for his crimes and remained unrepentant until the end.
For more information about Pol Pot, check out:
- BBC Figures: Pol Pot: Brief overview of Pol Pot’s life (BBC)
- Biography: Pol Pot: 45-minute documentary on the man behind the Cambodian Genocide
Reaction to the Genocide
The Cambodian Genocide represents a complicated time in history. In the early 1970s, US diplomats raised concerns about the potential for mass atrocities in Cambodia. Comparison between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were made. The level of support the Khmer Rouge received from fellow communist states North Vietnam and China also meant there were concerns over the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge aimed outwards with the goal of creating a new Angkorian empire. This led to attacks into the newly unified Vietnam, which eventually provoked the country’s army to invade Cambodia. At the time, China opposed the action by Vietnam. Because of the support from China, the Khmer Rouge regime was able to keep its seat at the UN until 1982, three years after it lost power.
The occupation by Vietnam, the support from China, and the fact that the Khmer Rouge held power in many parts of rural Cambodia for more than a decade after the Vietnamese invasion, further complicates the international reaction to the genocide.
The Cambodian Genocide Today
The Cambodian Genocide continues to play a role in Cambodia today. Although Cambodia has made the transition back to a functionary democracy since its constitution was ratified in 1993 as part of the UNTAC operation, the country still has difficulty addressing the crimes of its past.
In 1997, the Cambodian government approached the United Nations for assistance in prosecuting senior members of the Khmer Rouge. After the Vietnamese had taken power in 1979, many leaders had been tried in absentia, but were never formally punished. The courts in Cambodia, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, attempted to identify the senior members of the regime who were most complicit with the crimes occurring.
Since the court was convened, it has indicted five members of the Khmer Rouge. Three of them have been convicted and are currently serving life sentences, one died during trial, and the fifth was deemed unfit for trial and is pending further evaluation. The Khmer Rouge trials have been a source of controversy in Cambodia because of their cost and perceived ineffectiveness. In addition to the trials, the courts are also tasked with providing victim support and documenting the crimes. There is no deadline for the court to cease operating.
Many of the locations connected with the genocide are now popular tourist sites. The Tuol-Sleng museum is housed in the former S-21 prison, the scene of many executions. The museum itself was created by the Vietnamese and used to display the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. It is left in a state as the Vietnamese found it. The killing fields, popularized by major motion pictures, are also popular tourist sites in Cambodia. Signs often mark the burial places of hundreds located in mass graves. The country continues to grapple with monetizing places connected with a terrible past and the desire of tourists to experience them.
Today, arts explore the memory and legacy of the genocide. Recent popular songs have explored the genocide and its lingering impact on contemporary Cambodia. This connection has spread to the United States, where a significant number of Cambodian refugees settled in the aftermath of the genocide.
For more information on the legacy of the Cambodian Genocide, check out:
- Coping with Genocide in Cambodia: Valuable information and teaching resources that will allow you to explore the legacy of the Cambodian genocide in your classroom (PBS Frontline)
- The Cambodian Genocide and its Continuing Legacy: 14 minute podcast looks at the impact of the genocide on conflict moving into the future (Colgate University)
- The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
- The Minnesota Historical Society Khmer Oral History Project: Catalogue of the experiences of Cambodian genocide survivors who settled in the US (Minnesota Historical Society)