Cambodia is the home of the Khmer people and a number of ethnic minority groups. Between the ninth century and the eighteenth century, the Khmer Empire of Angkor and its successor kingdom ruled. From the late eighteenth century, Cambodia was conquered and turned into a protectorate of Thailand, Vietnam, and after that, a French colony. In 1953, Cambodia gained its independence from France, but was faced with severe underdevelopment and illiteracy. In the 1960s, as the U.S. war escalated in neighboring Vietnam, it spilled over into neutral Cambodia. The North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong set up military bases in the eastern region of the country, which they used to attack U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, and in 1965, American fighter aircrafts began striking targets across the border.
In 1969, American President Richard Nixon launched what became a four-year B-52 carpet-bombing campaign that spread west across the country. These bombings destabilized Cambodia and killed about 100,000 Khmer civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people abandoned their rural homes and went to live in the cities, which undermined the economic and social fabric of Cambodian society. During 1973 the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam and ended its bombing of Cambodia. The underground Communist organization, known as the Khmer Rouge, had successfully recruited and grew from a few thousand guerrillas in 1969 to over 200,000 troops and militia by 1973. Its secret leader, Pol Pot, set out to return the country to its former greatness during the Angkor Empire, which reigned from the ninth to thirteenth century. The U.S.-backed Cambodian government remained undemocratic, unstable, and corrupt, and could not begin to rehabilitate the country from the damage caused by the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the situation and under the leadership of Pol Pot marched to the capital Phnom Penh and conquered it on April 17, 1975.
Pot declared “a rebirth of civilization.” History, he explained, was starting over again. But apparently he was referring to a different kind of history, in which not everyone could participate. The farmers, and only the farmers, who he called “the old people,” had the right to bring into existence the utopian Communist vision. His intention was to create one superior class of farmers, and the rural bourgeoisie had no place in the plan.
As the first step in “Agricultural Utopia” plan, Pol Pot isolated Cambodia from the world. He deported foreigners, closed the embassies, and banned all economic or humanitarian aid from foreign countries. Media outlets, businesses, and health and educational systems were all closed; the use of mail, telephones, and money was banned. In addition all foreign languages and any kind of religion were outlawed.
Pol Pot also deported the urban population to rural areas. Approximately 2 million people were expelled from the cities in long marches to rural regions; 20,000 died during the journey. Those who survived were forced to work in agricultural labor in what later became known as “Pol Pot’s killing fields.” Many died from fatigue, disease, and primarily from hunger, as a consequence of being given only 90 grams of rice a day for food.
The new regime set out to systematically slaughter former soldiers, teachers, policemen, and religious leaders. Most of these people, along with their families, were shot to death or killed with hoes. Those suspected of opposing the regime were shot on the spot or taken to the Tuol Sleng prison, where they were tortured to death. Ethnic minorities, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Muslims, were also murdered. Often those who were literate, spoke a foreign language, or even wore glasses were defined as enemies of the revolution. At best, they were taken to be “re-educated” in concentration camps. At worst, they were taken to the killing pits. The Khmer Rouge believed that it was not enough to erase the bourgeois class, but all traces of its existence needed to be eradicated; hundreds of thousands were systematically slaughtered. Many of the victims were buried in mass graves which they themselves were forced to dig prior to their deaths. According to various estimates, between 1.6 and 2 million people were murdered.
The Pol Pot regime also launched military attacks on its neighboring countries. On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. On January 7, 1979, Phnom Penh fell and a puppet government was established with the support of opponents. Vietnamese forces withdrew from the country in 1989.
After the Genocide:
Only in 1993, under United Nations auspices did democracy return to Cambodia. However the U.S., China, and the UN Security Council all long opposed Cambodian and other international efforts to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. Some figures in the Cambodian government and opposition hindered trials, based on personal interests in not re-opening difficult issues. However, in 1999 the U.N. finally did take up the case A further hindrance was the extended negotiations over the specific powers of the special tribunal, conducted between the United Nations representatives and the country who administered the courts, and the representatives of the Cambodian government. These tumultuous negotiations lasted for more than a decade before an agreement was reached. The trials of the leading Khmer Rouge war criminals continue until today.
*This article was written with the help of Dr Ben Kiernan