When hearing the word “genocide”, the first thing that would come to your mind is the Holocaust, but actually, there are more of these events in human history, especially during the last century that has seen genocides happening around the world. One of the grisliest genocides was in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, where the Khmer Rouge killed 21% of the country’s population.
Situated in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is home to the Khmer people, and after many years as a protectorate of France, it regained its independence in 1953 under Prince Norodom Sihanouk. However, this independence made the country’s future unstable, given that that it happened in the onset of the Vietnam War and in the midst of the Cold War and that it was ruled by Sihaouk with an iron fist. Because of his style of leadership, his opponents established the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1960, also called the Khmer Rouge, which was led by Pol Pot with a goal to turn the country into an agrarian utopia based on principles of communism.
The Vietnam War boosted the rise of the Khmer Rouge, as Sihanouk broke relations with the US due to its move to step up its military campaign against North Vietnamese. However, internal frustrations with the Cambodian leader had led to civil war in the country, where the prince was overthrown in 1970 by pro-US general Lon Nol. In response, the prince encouraged the people in his country to rise up against the general, and the Khmer Rouge answered this call, starting to conquer territory that caused many Cambodians to flee to the capital, Phnom Penh.
While the US started a bombing campaign against North Vietnamese forces who were amassing in eastern Cambodia, forcing many Cambodians to move to Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge had closed in on the capital and eventually entered it on April 17, 1975 to become a victorious regime.
Statistics of the Cambodian Genocide
With respect to its population, the human catastrophe in Cambodia was considered unparalleled in this century, where slightly less than 4,000,000 people were lost out of a 1970 population of about 7,100,000 to rebellion, war, mass murder, man-made famine, politicide and genocide. The vast majority of this number of about near 2,400,000 men, women and children were murdered from 1970 to 1980 by the murderous communist regime, Khmer Rouge.
The first day of Khmer Rouge’s regime in Phnom Penh saw the party going into action, using soldiers with bullhorns and guns to drive the population out of the cities and into the fields in order to create a farming utopia. Homes, hospitals and schools were emptied as everyone was forced to go to the countryside, leading to a mass exodus that caused thousands of deaths. During this time, all signs of self-expression and culture were outlawed and punished, as the Khmer Rouge believed that the country should start from the beginning and progress without any outside influences.
The regime then began targeting certain groups for destruction, seeing two different kinds of people existing in the country—the old and new people—where the former comprising uneducated rural peasants and the latter comprising the middle class city dwellers, such as lawyers, doctors and journalists. Influenced by foreign values and not leading agrarian lives, the new people were considered undesirable by the regime, even stating that to keep them would be not beneficial and destroying them would be no loss. Thus, they were targeted for extermination, along with the ethnic minorities, such as the Muslim Cham people and Vietnamese nationals, and those perceived to be political enemies by the regime.
In 1976, the Khmer Rouge announced a 4-year plan to transform rice farming and property collectivization, but this plan was poorly planned and led to famine. The regime expressly targeted the new people for allegedly exhausting labor in creating ineffective farms and water systems, where many of them were worked to death and even murdered in the fields. However, most of the victims died from starvation in the man-made famine that particularly caused mass death in the countryside, giving rise to the name, “Killing Fields”. In 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, the regime murdered approximately 1.7 million people, which amounted to a staggering 21% of the country’s population. The total number of civilian deaths the genocide made from 1975-1978 was around 2 million, which was likely 25% of the Cambodian population during that time. Finally in 1979, the regime was removed from power after Vietnam invaded the country.
Facts About the Cambodian Genocide
It is also important to know the facts behind the horrors of the Cambodian Genocide as the Holocaust and Stalin’s Death Camps. Here are some of the things that everyone should know about the event:
1. Pol Pot was never brought to trial for his crimes.
In 1978, the leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea made the mistake of killing all Vietnamese within his country’s borders, which later lead to the Vietnamese invasion of the country and the downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime, though he continued his fight after he fled to Thailand against the new Cambodian regime until he retired in 1985. He was then arrested in 1997 and sentenced by the remaining members of the Khmer Rouge to house arrest for the murder of a friend and died from a heart attack in 1998 just after an announcement was made that he would be sent to an international tribunal. However, there are rumors that he committed suicide rather than facing justice for the crimes he committed.
2. The Khmer Rouge rose to power from regional instability and was supported by several Western governments.
The Khmer Rouge did initially gained significant support because of its opposition of the previous regime ruled by Prince Shianouk and its approval of the American bombing of North Vietnamese camps within Cambodia. As it gained influence and power in its own country, the regime sought to purge those who had been influenced and trained by the Vietnamese, subsequently beginning to espouse a form of communism that was more extreme. Having broken ties with the Vietnamese, it looked towards China for support. Though it maintained control over Cambodia until 1979, it saw the fall of the country into a hellish turmoil.
3. Almost everyone was a target by the Khmer Rouge.
In its quest to create the perfect agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge presents peasants as “old people” who were leading a rural and traditional life to be emulated by everyone. Aside from this group, other people were viewed with suspicion, including educated individuals coming from cities, those who own factories and businesses, and even those who were seen to have “unnecessary” Western affectation, who were condemned to death and even murdered. All ethnic and religious minority groups were also suspected and were therefore targeted by the regime, and those who were weak, ill, old and disabled to work were considered as extraneous to society’s needs, thus frequently executed. Even membership of the Khmer Rouge was not enough for protection, as many of its members were still suspected of sabotage.
4. The Khmer Rouge brought Cambodia to “Year Zero”.
Following Khmer Rouge’s victory, it started imposing its vision of a warped utopia on its victims by sending the country back to “Year Zero”. They informed citizens in the cities that they need to evacuate to the countryside to escape expected bombing raids by the US, and anyone who refused was shot. But while in the countryside, people were forced onto collective farms, where lived in communal barracks with insufficient sanitary facilities. This means that food was scarce and diseases were rampant.
5. Cheap and effective methods of torture were perfected during the Cambodian Genocide.
As far as the regime was concerned, just killing those who did not agree with them was not enough, as member of the Khmer Rouge took great delight in torturing individuals using cheap yet horribly effective methods to ensure that people truly fear them. Among these methods were targeted use of boiling water, simulated drowning, use of leeches, electrocution and skinning.
6. Almost everything was banned during the regime.
To build a new agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy all evidence of other types of life, such as hospitals, factories, universities and schools, as they were considered to be superfluous to the new regime’s needs. Modern appliances were gathered together and destroyed, and media of any form was banned. Religious worship was termed as reactionary, thus all religious groups were banned. Not only these, but personalized clothing was seen as an extravagance, money disappeared from use and even emotions were banned, which means that people had to develop a complete lack of any kind of body or facial language or expression to respond to situations. Families were broken up between different farms in an effort to keep them away from each other.
7. Cambodia’s Killing Fields were of Biblical proportions.
During the Cambodian Genocide, virtually every village and prison had a killing field, where those condemned were taken to dig their own graves and to die through execution. Many more deaths were from overwork and malnutrition.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.