Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1975 takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge led to one of the bloodiest periods of genocide in modern history.

Summary of Event

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the United States was still embroiled in a long war, supporting the South Vietnamese government against communist Vietnamese forces (the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army). For much of this time, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces used border areas of Cambodia as sanctuaries from American ground and air forces. Khmer Rouge Cambodia;government Genocide;Cambodia [kw]Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia (Apr. 17, 1975) [kw]Cambodia, Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in (Apr. 17, 1975) Khmer Rouge Cambodia;government Genocide;Cambodia [g]Southeast Asia;Apr. 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia[01920] [g]Cambodia;Apr. 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia[01920] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia[01920] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia[01920] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr. 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge Comes to Power in Cambodia[01920] Pol Pot Sihanouk, Norodom Lon Nol Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Cambodian bombing campaign Kissinger, Henry

North Vietnamese use of Cambodian border areas began to create substantial political difficulties for Cambodia’s government, headed by King Norodom Sihanouk. The president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, and U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger applied increasing pressure on Sihanouk to deny use of the border areas to the Vietnamese. This pressure was brought to a higher level when Nixon and Kissinger instituted a secret bombing campaign in 1969 and 1970.

A turning point for Cambodia came in 1970, when American ground forces crossed the border in an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese army units in their Cambodian strongholds. Cambodians, long at odds with the Vietnamese, were at first in favor of the invasion. The United States did not succeed in destroying the enemy, however, and as a result Cambodia found itself in an even more precarious position.

There were several consequences of the American invasion. North Vietnamese forces, which had previously ignored Cambodian government troops, began attacking on sight. When combined with the long-standing ethnic tensions between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese, the situation became intolerable. On March 11, 1970, with Norodom Sihanouk out of the country, a series of civil disturbances began in Phnom Penh. They started as ethnically oriented riots against the Vietnamese but soon escalated into a full military coup, led by General Lon Nol, to remove Sihanouk from power. The coup succeeded.

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The United States supported the new Lon Nol regime with weapons, ammunition, and air power. Air strikes, often disastrously inaccurate, were directed by the American embassy. So extensive was the American support for the new regime that many Cambodians believed that the United States had taken over rule of their country.

The new regime became increasingly unpopular. Sihanouk had been regarded as a god-king by the peasantry of his country. Consequently, his removal from power guaranteed a certain level of unpopularity for the new government. Sihanouk, whose government had been fought by small bands of Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla force, since the late 1960’s, announced soon after the coup that he was supporting the Khmer Rouge. The power and size of the group began to grow. The Khmer Rouge previously had been limited to a few thousand fighters isolated in remote parts of the country. They soon became an army of tens of thousands who were able to win victories against the U.S.-supported government of Lon Nol.

Throughout the early 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge, despite devastating American air attacks on behalf of the Lon Nol regime, consistently pushed the Cambodian government’s forces back. It was during this period that many of the infamous policies of the Khmer Rouge were formulated. Khmer Rouge harshness developed from having withstood the withering American bombing during this period. The policy of civilian evacuation, later to shock the world, was developed during the early 1970’s as a device for controlling villages that they had captured.

The end of the war and the victory of the Khmer Rouge came early in 1975. By early April, Khmer Rouge forces were on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. On April 12, the last Americans evacuated their embassy. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17.

Almost immediately on completing the conquest of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, began to implement, on a far more sweeping scale, their practice of uprooting the populace of cities and towns. This time, however, the intent of the movement of the population was not just to pacify and to control the countryside. What the Khmer Rouge intended was to remove the entire population from the cities, move it to the countryside, and create a new social order based on agriculture and free of outside, imperialist influences.

In implementing this policy of evacuating the cities, the Khmer Rouge moved huge numbers of people from the capital. Phnom Penh, which before the war had a population of 600,000, had grown to 2.5 million people by the end of the war. Almost all were taken to the countryside. This exodus included the infirm, the sick, and the elderly. Many thousands died as a result of this forced movement.

In addition to forcing people to leave the cities, the Khmer Rouge began a systematic campaign of eliminating Western influences. This campaign included killing those Cambodians who were educated, individuals associated with the government and army of the Lon Nol regime, and anyone who had Western associations. Uncounted thousands died in this vengeance of the Khmer Rouge.

In moving the population to the countryside, the Khmer Rouge rapidly began to implement their version of a new social order. This concept of society was military in format and was based on continual struggle. All citizens were to give complete allegiance to an abstract concept called Angka, which has been interpreted as “organization” or, alternatively, as “the people’s will.” People were executed for the smallest infractions of the rules set down by the Khmer Rouge. Children were separated from their parents and were encouraged to inform upon them for the sake of Angka. Marriages were arranged by the Khmer Rouge, also in the name of Angka.

In the countryside, the people who had been uprooted were given small plots of land, typically seven acres in size. The transportees were encouraged to grow crops such as maize, cassava, and yams. Rice paddies, the source of the heart of the Cambodian diet, and the tractors necessary to work them on a large-scale basis were kept under the strict control of the Khmer Rouge.

The workday for those who had been transported was long. Typically, the Khmer Rouge forced people into the fields at 5:00 a.m. Once in the fields, people worked until 11:00 a.m. The Khmer Rouge then permitted a break for lunch until 2:00 p.m. Workers finally finished the day’s labors at 5:00 p.m.

The lengthy workday was quite strenuous—even for those physically able to do the labor. Many were not, and consequently many died. Even those who were able to stand the rigorous labor found conditions difficult. Because of the new government’s policies of isolation and self-sufficiency, food was in short supply. This lack of food and a corresponding lack of medicine contributed to the deaths of many more people.

Cambodians of all ages and backgrounds came to fear and hate the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. Many observers stated that they feared the younger soldiers more than the older ones, because the younger soldiers were more thoroughly indoctrinated than their older counterparts.

The time of terror finally came to an end in early 1979, when, after a period of border skirmishes, Vietnam invaded and rapidly conquered Cambodia. After driving the forces of Pol Pot from power, the Vietnamese installed a puppet government. It was only then that the world began to get an inkling of the true extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Significance

The vengeance and neglect of the Khmer Rouge led to the deaths of a huge number of Cambodians: approximately 1.5 million, by most estimates. Entire families were exterminated if it was discovered that a family member was employed by Westerners. Physicians had to conceal their profession for the fear that they would be killed for being educated. Some Cambodians were uprooted more than once: During the first evacuation, the Khmer Rouge moved people to the countryside in random patterns; consequently, some were transported to areas that could not support them. Khmer Rouge officials discovered the problem and rectified their mistakes by ordering second transports of some refugees. Many Cambodians, weakened because of short rations and the first forced movement, committed suicide to avoid the horrors of a second transportation.

The horrible personal and societal consequences of Khmer Rouge victory were manifested by waves of Cambodian refugees who struggled across Thailand’s border. Tens of thousands languished in Thai refugee camps. Thailand found it a strain to take care of large numbers of refugees, and refugee Cambodians were reluctant to return to homes that were in a war zone. In 1991, progress toward resolving the Cambodian situation was seen in the signing of a peace agreement at Paris that called for the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia, repatriation of refugees, and elections under U.N. supervision. In the historic May, 1993, election, voters repudiated the Khmer Rouge and produced a new multiparty coalition government that gradually overcame the legacy of bloodshed. Khmer Rouge Cambodia;government Genocide;Cambodia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. A broad history of Cambodia that is well researched and comprehensively presented. The author does a good job of placing the conflict in the context of Cambodian history and development. For example, he discusses the Indian roots of Cambodia, which are in part responsible for the long history of tension between Vietnam (Chinese in origin) and Cambodia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hinton, Alexander Laban, and Robert Jay Lifton. Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. A well-researched study on the cultural and ideological origins of the Cambodian genocide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade, 1998. A detailed account of Cambodia’s history beginning with the establishment of the Khmer Rouge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. A comprehensive account of the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ngor, Haing, and Roger Warner. A Cambodian Odyssey. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Autobiography of a Cambodian holocaust survivor who became famous as an actor who portrayed another survivor in the award-winning film The Killing Fields (1984). While primarily a personal story, this book contains some interesting observations about the roles of certain important characters, notably Norodom Sihanouk, in the victory of the Khmer Rouge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ponchaud, François. Year Zero. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978. One of the books that helped reveal the full extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Based on dozens of interviews with Cambodian witnesses. This book was controversial when it was first published but came to be regarded as a pioneering work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shawcross, William. The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A detailed approach to the Cambodian tragedy, examining the political causes and consequences of the Khmer Rouge victory. Focuses on the roles, past and present, of Vietnam, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China in the Cambodian tragedy.

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