Cambodian Genocide


The Cambodian Genocide refers to the attempt of Khmer Rouge party leader “Pol Pot” to nationalize and centralize the peasant farming society of Cambodia virtually overnight, in accordance with the Chinese Communist agricultural model. This resulted in the gradual devastation of over 25% of the country’s population in just three short years.

Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia, is less than half the size of California, with its present day capital in Phnom Penh. In 1953, Cambodia gained its independence from France, after nearly 100 years of colonialist rule. As the Vietnam War progressed, Cambodia’s elected Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality. Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 by a military coup led by his own Cambodian General Lon Nol, a testament to the turbulent political climate of Southeast Asia during this time. In the years preceding the genocide, the population of Cambodia was just over 7 million, almost all of whom were Buddhists. The country borders Thailand to its west and northwest, Laos to its northeast, and Vietnam to its east and southeast. The south and southwest borders of Cambodia are coastal shorelines on the Gulf of Thailand.

The actions of the Khmer Rouge government which actually constitute “genocide” began shortly after their seizure of power from the government of Lon Nol in 1975, and lasted until the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1978. The genocide itself emanated from a harsh climate of political and social turmoil. This atmosphere of communal unrest in Cambodia arose during the French decolonization of Southeast Asia in the early 1950s, and continued to devastate the region until the late 1980s.


Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country less than half the size of California, was the center of the ancient kingdom of Khmer with its capital city Angkor.  Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, after nearly 100 years of colonial rule.  Power was given to Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk but in 1970, he was deposed in a military coup led by his own Cambodian Lieutenant-General Lon Nol, a response to the turbulent political climate of Southeast Asia during this time.  Lon Nol was made president of the new Khmer Republic while Prince Sihanouk and his loyal followers joined forces with a communist guerilla organization known as the Khmer Rouge.  Soon after, civil war in Cambodia began.

The conflict in Cambodia was also caught up in another country’s war: Vietnam.  Vietnam at this time was fighting against the French for independence.  The French were defeated in 1954, and Vietnam found itself divided in two: communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam.  Civil war immediately broke out between the two factions. The Viet Congo, a Vietnamese communist guerilla group with support from North Vietnam and China, fought the South Vietnamese army.[1]  In 1964, the US entered the Vietnam War and, after several years of fighting, the US finally withdrew.  The war was inconclusive, had cost over three million American and Vietnamese lives, and left the region devastated.[2]

Under Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia had maintained neutrality during the Vietnam War by giving support to both sides. The Viet Cong were allowed to use Cambodian ports to ship in supplies while the US was allowed to bomb Viet Cong hideouts in Cambodia- secretly and illegitimately.  US troops were allowed to move freely into Cambodia to continue their struggle with the Viet Cong. For the next four years, American B-52 bombers led attacks to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines. In this effort, as many as 750,000 Cambodians were killed.[3]  In 1975, North Vietnamese forces seized South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon, and by the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot defeated Cambodian Lieutenant-General Lon Nol.  Approximately 156,000 Cambodians died in the civil war, half of them civilians.[4]

Khmer Rouge timeline



The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, murderous revolutionary group intent on revolutionizing Cambodian society.  On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh, the modern capitol.  Khmer Rouge soldiers, young peasants from the provinces, mostly uneducated teenage boys who had never been in a city before, swept through town.  They set to their job right away, evacuating Phnom Penh and forcing all of its residents to leave behind all their belongings and march towards the countryside.  “Hospital patients still in their white gowns stumbled along carrying their IV bottles.  Screaming children ran in desperate search for their parents.”[5]

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (AP Photo/Christoph Froehder)

Although the Khmer Rouge movement was small at first, new people were constantly being recruited. Many Cambodians had become disenchanted with western democracy due to the huge loss of Cambodian lives that resulted from the US strategy to involve Cambodia in the Vietnam War.  The heavy U.S. bombardment, and Lon Nol’s collaboration with the US, drove new recruits to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerilla movement.  Pol Pot’s communism brought with it images of new hope and national tranquility for Cambodia.  By 1975, Pol Pot’s force had grown to over 700,000 men. Within days of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Phen, Pol began implementing his extremist policies of collectivization. The government confiscated and took control of all property including schools, hospitals, various other societal institutions, and communal labor.

Pol Pot was educated in France and he was an ardent admirer of “Mao” (Chinese) communism as well as Stalinism.  Pol Pot envisioned the creation of a “new” Cambodia based on the Maoist-Communist model and wanted to restore the country to an agrarian society based on Maoist ideals.[6] The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to deconstruct Cambodia back to a primitive “Year Zero,” wherein all citizens would participate in rural work projects, and any Western innovations would be removed.  “It was an attempt of the Khmer Rouge to nationalize and centralize the peasant farming society of Cambodia virtually overnight, in accordance with the Chinese Communist agricultural model.”[7]

Taking Cambodia back to Year Zero

In order to achieve the “ideal” communist model, the Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to labor for a federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated.  Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages.  The ill, disabled, old, and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivized farms and labor camps were killed on the spot.  People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. Residents of entire cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children and parents were separated and sent to different labor camps.[8]

Cambodians who survived the purges and marches became unpaid laborers, working on minimum rations for endless hours.  They were forced to live in public communes, similar to military barracks, with constant food shortages and rampant disease.  Due to conditions of virtual slave labor, starvation, physical injury, and illness, many Cambodians became incapable of performing physical work and were killed by the Khmer Rouge as expenses to the system.[9]

 “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”

-Kang Kek Iew (mid-level leader of the Khmer Rouge regime)

This list of “potential opposition” included, but was not limited to, journalists, lawyers, doctors, professionals, intellectuals, such as students and professors, and members of the upper class.  Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered along with their extended families.  It was very common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language or wearing glasses as these were traits that were associated with the West.  Many were also shot for smiling or crying as it was forbidden to show any kind of emotion.  Much of the killing was inspired by the extremist propaganda of a militant communist transformation with the belief that individuals such as journalists, intellectuals, and others were threats to the state.

The Khmer Rouge also targeted various religious and ethnic groups during its time in power.   Religious enthusiasts, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry, were all persecuted.  Leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned.[10]  Minority groups were forcibly relocated and the use of minority language was also banned.

The Khmer Rouge also vigorously interrogated its own membership and frequently executed members on suspicions of treachery or sabotage. Survival in Khmer Rouge Cambodia was determined by one’s ability to work. Therefore, Cambodia’s elderly, handicapped, ill, and children suffered enormous casualties for their inability to perform unceasing physical labor on a daily basis.

While the Khmer Rouge was gaining power, the U.S. government had very little interest in the events that were occurring in Southeastern Asia.  The American Embassy had little concern about the regime and was principally concerned with Cambodia in relation to the effect on the Vietnam War.[11]  The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh was not particularly interested in the victims, either.  General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, stated, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.  Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.”[12]

It is estimated that one and a half to three million Cambodians lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  On July 25, 1983, the Research Committee on Pol Pot’s Genocidal Regime issued its final report, including detailed province-by-province data.  The data showed that the number of deaths was 3,314,768.  An estimated 25 percent of the total population died due to the Khmer Rouge policies of forced relocation of the population from urban centres, torture, mass executions, used of forced labour, and malnutrition.[13][14]

Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the people of Cambodia suffered greatly.  Thousands of people fled to Thailand; many forced to eat leaves, roots, and bugs along the way. [15]  Many died of starvation en route, or stepped on land mines, for Khmer Rouge soldiers had laid mines almost everywhere along the western border, to prevent their victims from fleeing.  Those who made it to Thailand brought malaria, typhoid, cholera, and a host of other illnesses into the camps.  Human rights groups estimated that about 650,000 more people died in the year following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.[16]

Khmer Rouge Killing Fields


Most of the nation’s Khmer Rouge survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but through the 1990s, no one in Cambodia recognized this or was offered any treatment.  No one paid any attention at all, allowing the illness to fester and, in some cases, worsen.  For someone suffering from PTSD, almost anything out of the ordinary could set off a heart-wrenching panic.  For older people with heart trouble, these panics could trigger a heart attack.[17]

In the early 1990s, mass graves were uncovered throughout Cambodia.  “Each held dozens, or hundreds, of skeletal remains from Khmer Rouge execution grounds.  Most often villagers piled the remains in barns or outbuildings the Khmer Rouge had once used.  Even now, decades later, villagers say the skulls speak to them.”[18]

Skeletal remains unearthed (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)



Bringing the perpetrators to justice proved to be a difficult task.  Almost three decades after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian government requested help from the United Nations in prosecuting its former leaders for crimes that were committed between 1975 and 1979.  Initially, the UN wanted to create a court resembling the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, but the Cambodian government resisted the establishment of such as court.  The Cambodian government refused the UN’s proposal, opposing Western influence in prosecuting individuals of the Khmer Rouge regime.  After much negotiation through the UN General Assembly, the Cambodian government agreed to an amended bi-lateral agreement on June 6, 2003, which approved an agreement on the prosecution of crimes committed between 1975 and 1979.[19]  This agreement resulted in the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

Because it took so long to set up the Extraordinary Court, many of the members of Khmer Rouge had already died before the trials began.  The deceased included Pol Pot, Son Sen (Defense Minister and responsible for the Santebal, the Political Police), Yun Yat (Minister), Thiounn Thioeunn (Minister), Ta Mok (Chief of Military Command), and his deputy Ke Pauk.[20]  Many suspected perpetrators were also killed in the military struggle with Vietnam or eliminated as internal threats to the Khmer Rouge itself.  So far the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has prosecuted the following cases:

Kang Kek Iew (AKA Comrade Duch)

  • The head of the Khmer Rouge’s internal security branch who extended the prison system nationwide.  He was responsible for overseeing the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Pehn.  Kang Kek Iew was placed in charge of Tuol Sleng together with his lieutenants Mam Nai and Tang Sin Hean.  Approximately 16,000 Cambodians were killed within the Tuol Sleng prison.  There are only seven known survivors.[21]

Cambodian victims of Tuol Sleng

  • He was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture.
  • During his trial, Kang Kek Iew admitted his guilt over the crimes carried out in Tuol Sleng and on July 26, 2010, he was found guilty on charges of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture in which he was given a sentence of 30 years imprisonment.[22]

Nuon Chea (AKA Brother Number Two)

  • Second in command of the Khmer Rouge regime and was their chief ideologist.
  • Nuon Chea was arrested at his home on September 19th, 2007, and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.[23]  He denied all charges but was ultimately convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to imprisonment for the remainder of his life.[24]

Ieng Sary (AKA Brother Number Three)

  • A co-founder and senior member of the Khmer Rouge, he was the Minister of foreign affairs as well as deputy prime minister.
  • Ieng Sary was arrested on November 12th, 2007, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Before the trial could conclude, Ieng Sary died of a gastrointestinal problems.[25]

Ieng Thirith

  • Minister of Social Affairs from 1975 until 1979.
  • Ieng Thirith was arrested on November 12, 2007, after being indicted by the Cambodian Tribunal.[26]  She was arrested for crimes against humanity and “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges…and the unlawful killing or murder of staff members from within the Ministry of Social Affairs.”[27]  Following evaluations from medical experts, she was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial due to her severe case of Alzheimer’s Disease.[28]

Khieu Samphan

  • Was an extremely powerful politician in the Khmer Rouge and served as head of state of Cambodia from 1976 until 1979.
  • Khieu Samphan was arrested on November 19, 2007, charged with crimes against humanity, and was given a life sentence.[29]

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia has been criticized for being slow, as only three people who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 have been tried and convicted.[30]  There have also been allegations of corruption and politicization since the Chambers have been in session and concerns about the costs of the court, which has exceeded over $200 million.[31]

In 2013, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodia’s National Assembly approved a bill, which makes illegal the denial of the Cambodian genocide and the atrocities that were committed by the Khmer Rouge.[32]

Updated: World Without Genocide, March, 2015. By Sandro Krkljes, World Without Genocide associate, William Mitchell College of Law.

[1] “Cambodia 1975.”  Peace Pledge Union Information.

[2] “Cambodia 1975.”

[5] Joel Brinkley. Cambodia’s Curse:  A Modern History of a Troubled Land. (2011). pg. 40.

[6] Alex Alvarez. Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach. Indiana University Press, 2001). pg. 50.

[8] “Cambodia 1975.”  Peace Pledge Union Information.

[9] “Cambodia 1975.”  Peace Pledge Union Information.

[10] Alex Alvarez. Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach. (Indiana University Press, 2001). pg. 12.

[11] Joel Brinkley. pg. 38.

[12] Joel Brinkley. pg. 39.

[13] Craig Etcheson. After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide. Greenwood.  (2005).

[14] Patrick Heuveline. ‘Between One and Three Million’: Towards the Demographic Reconstruction of a Decade of Cambodian History (1970-79). Population Studies (Taylor & Francis, 1998) pp. 49-65.

[15] Joel Brinkley. Cambodia’s Curse:  A Modern History of a Troubled Land. (2011). pg.  53.

[16] Joel Brinkley. pg. 53

[17] Joel Brinkley. pg. 134.

[18] Joel Brinkley. pg. 133.

[19] Sopheada Phy.  Getting Away With Murder:  The Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  University for Peace and Conflict.  Nov. 11th, 2011.

[20] Criminal Court for Cambodia:  Establishment of Extraordinary Chambers Responsible for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Trial.  June 6, 2014.

[21] Paul R. Bartrop. A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporary Genocide. (2012).

[22] Paul R. Bartrop. A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporary Genocide. (2012).

[23] Corfield, Justin J. Corfield. “Nuon Chea,” The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War A Political, Social, and Military History. (2011).

[24] Euan McKirdy.  Top Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of crimes against humanity, sentenced to life in prison.  (CNN, Aug. 11th, 2014).

[25] Ieng Sary, Khmer Rouge Leader Tied to Genocide, Dies at 87.  New York Times, March 14th, 2013.

[26] Ian MacKinnon. Leading Khmer Rouge figures arrested. (The Guardian, November 12th, 2007).

[27] Ker Munthit. Ieng Thirith:  A pioneer among female leaders of the Khmer Rouge. (MSNBC. Associated Press. Nov. 18th, 2007).

[28] Sothanarith Kong.  Tribunal Finds Ieng Thirith Unfit for Upcoming Trial.  (VOA Khmer, Feb. 2nd, 2014).

[29] Ker Munthit. Ex-Khmer Rouge Head of State Charged. (Associated Press, November 19th, 2007).

[30] Cambodia sentence two top Khmer Rouge leaders to life in prison.  The Telegraph. (Associated Press. August 7th, 2014).

[31] Charlie Campbell.  Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trials are a Shocking Failure.  (Time, Feb. 13th, 2014).

[32] Sopheng Cheang.  Cambodia Passes Bill Criminalizing Genocide Denial.  (Associated Press, June 7th, 2013).