Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge
period (1975-1979) refers to the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
political party over Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge renamed as Democratic
The four-year period saw the death of approximately 2 million Cambodians through the combined
result of political executions, starvation, and forced labor. Due to the large numbers, the deaths during the rule
of the Khmer Rouge are often considered a genocide, and commonly known as the
Cambodian Holocaust or Cambodian Genocide.
The Khmer Rouge period ended with the invasion of Cambodia by neighbor and former ally Vietnam
in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, which left Cambodia under Vietnamese
occupation for a decade.
Evacuation of the cities
The deportations were one of the markers of the beginning of the Khmer Rouge rule. They demanded
and then forced the people to leave the cities and live in the countryside. Phnom Penh—populated by 2.5 million
people —was soon nearly empty. The roads out of the city were clogged with evacuees. Similar evacuations occurred
throughout the nation.
The conditions of the evacuation and the treatment of the people involved depended often on
which military units and commanders were conducting the specific operations. Pol Pot's brother – Chhay, who worked
as a Republican journalist in the capital – was reported to have died during the evacuation of Phnom Penh.
Even Phnom Penh's hospitals were emptied of their patients. The Khmer Rouge provided
transportation for some of the aged and the disabled, and they set up stockpiles of food outside the city for the
refugees; however, the supplies were inadequate to sustain the hundreds of thousands of people on the road. Even
seriously injured hospital patients, many without any means of conveyance, were summarily forced to leave
regardless of their condition.
According to Khieu Samphan, the removal of Phnom Penh's
population resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. The foreign community, about 800 people, was quarantined in the
French embassy compound, and by the end of the month the foreigners were taken by truck to the Thai border. Khmer
women who were married to foreigners were allowed to accompany their husbands, but Khmer men were not permitted to
leave with their foreign wives.
Aside from the alleged threat of US air strikes, the Khmer Rouge justified the evacuations in
terms of the impossibility of transporting sufficient food to feed an urban population of between 2 and 3 million
people. Lack of adequate transportation meant that, instead of bringing food to the people (tons of it lay in
storehouses in the port city of Kampong Saom, now known as Sihanoukville,
according to Father François Ponchaud), the people had to be brought to (and had to grow) the food.
Western historians claim that the motives were political, based on deep-rooted resentment of the
cities. The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and
"parasitism" of city life would be completely uprooted. In addition, Pol Pot wanted to break up the "enemy spy
organizations" that allegedly were based in the urban areas. Finally, it seems that Pol Pot and his hard-line
associates on the CPK Political Bureau used the forced evacuations to gain control of the city's population and to
weaken the position of their factional rivals within the communist party.
Society under the Angkar
The social transformation wrought by the Khmer Rouge, first, in the areas that they occupied
during the war with Lon Nol and, then, in varying degrees, throughout the country, was far more extreme than
anything attempted by the Russian, Chinese, or Vietnamese revolutions.
According to Pol Pot, five classes existed in pre-revolutionary Cambodia: peasants, workers,
bourgeoisie, capitalists, and feudalists. Post-revolutionary society, as defined by the 1976 Constitution of
Democratic Kampuchea, consisted of workers, peasants, and "all other Kampuchean working people." No allowance was
made for a transitional stage such as China's "New Democracy" in which "patriotic" landlord or bourgeois elements
were permitted to play a role in socialist construction.
Sihanouk writes that in 1975 he, Khieu Samphan, and Khieu
Thirith went to visit Zhou Enlai, who was gravely ill. Zhou warned them not to attempt to achieve communism in a
single step, as China had attempted in the late 1950s with the Great Leap Forward. Khieu Samphan and Khieu Thirith
"just smiled an incredulous and superior smile." Khieu Samphan and Son Sen later boasted to Sihanouk that "we will
be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps."
Although conditions varied from region to region, a situation that was, in part, a reflection of
factional divisions that still existed within the CPK during the 1970s, the testimony of refugees reveals that the
most salient social division was between the politically suspect "new people," those driven out of the towns after
the communist victory, and the more reliable "old people", the poor and lower middle-class peasants who had
remained in the countryside. Despite the ideological commitment to radical equality, CPK members and the armed
forces constituted a clearly recognizable elite.
The working class was a negligible factor because of the evacuation of the urban areas and the
idling of most of the country's few factories. The one important working class group in pre-revolutionary
Cambodia—laborers on large rubber plantations—traditionally had consisted mostly of Vietnamese emigrants and thus
was politically suspect.
The number of people, including refugees, living in the urban areas on the eve of the communist
victory probably was somewhat more than 3 million, in a wartime population that has been estimated between 5.7 and
7.3 million. As mentioned, despite their rural origins, the refugees were considered "new people"—that is, people
unsympathetic to Democratic Kampuchea. Some doubtless passed as "old people" after returning to their native
villages, but the Khmer Rouge seem to have been extremely vigilant in recording and keeping track of the movements
of families and of individuals.
The lowest unit of social control, the krom (group), consisted of ten to fifteen nuclear
families whose activities were closely supervised by a three-person committee. The committee chairman was selected
by the CPK. This grass roots leadership was required to note the social origin of each family under its
jurisdiction and to report it to persons higher up in the Angkar hierarchy. The number of "new people" may
initially have been as high as 2.5 million.
The "new people" were treated as slave laborers. They were constantly moved, were forced to do
the hardest physical labor, and worked in the most inhospitable, fever-ridden parts of the country, such as
forests, upland areas, and swamps. "New people" were segregated from "old people," enjoyed little or no privacy,
and received the smallest rice rations. When the country experienced food shortages in 1977, the "new people"
suffered the most.
The medical care available to them was primitive or nonexistent. Families often were separated
because people were divided into work brigades according to age and sex and sent to different parts of the country.
"New people" were subjected to unending political indoctrination and could be executed without trial.
The situation of the "old people" under Khmer Rouge rule was more ambiguous. Refugee interviews
reveal cases in which villagers were treated as harshly as the "new people," enduring forced labor, indoctrination,
the separation of children from parents, and executions; however, they were generally allowed to remain in their
Because of their age-old resentment of the urban and rural elites, many of the poorest peasants
probably were sympathetic to Khmer Rouge goals. In the early 1980s, visiting Western journalists found that the
issue of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge was an extremely sensitive subject that officials of the People's Republic of Kampuchea had little inclination to
On the basis of interviews with refugees from different parts of the country as well as other
sources, Michael Vickery, author of Cambodia 1975-1982, has argued that there was a wide regional variation in the
severity of policies adopted by local Khmer Rouge authorities. Ideology had something to do with the differences,
but the availability of food, the level of local development, and the personal qualities of cadres also were
important factors. The greatest number of deaths occurred in undeveloped districts, where "new people" were sent to
clear land. While conditions were hellish in some localities, they apparently were tolerable in others.
Vickery describes the Eastern Zone, which was dominated by pro-Vietnamese cadres, as one in
which the extreme policies of the Pol Pot leadership were not adopted (at least until 1978, when the Eastern
leadership was liquidated in a bloody purge). Executions were few, "old people" and "new people" were treated
largely the same, and food was made available to the entire population.
Although the Southwestern Zone was one original center of power of the Khmer Rouge, and cadres
administered it with strict discipline, random executions were relatively rare, and "new people" were not
persecuted if they had a cooperative attitude.
In the Western Zone and in the Northwestern Zone, conditions were harsh. Starvation was
widespread in the latter zone because cadres sent rice to Phnom Penh rather than distributing it to the local
In the Northern Zone and in the Central Zone, there seem to have been more executions than there
were victims of starvation.
Little reliable information emerged on conditions in the Northeastern Zone, one of the most
isolated parts of Cambodia.
On the surface, society in Democratic Kampuchea was strictly egalitarian. The Khmer language,
like many in Southeast Asia, has a complex system of usages to define speakers' rank and social status. These
usages were abandoned. People were encouraged to call each other "friend, or "comrade" (in Khmer, មិត្ដ mitt), and
to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation.
Language was transformed in other ways. The Khmer Rouge invented new terms. People were told
they must "forge" (lot dam) a new revolutionary character, that they were the "instruments" (opokar) of the Angkar,
and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times (cchoeu sttak aram, or "memory sickness") could result in their
receiving Angkar's "invitation" to be deindustrialized and to live in a concentration camp.
However, some people were "more equal" than others. Members and candidate members of the CPK,
local-level leaders of poor peasant background who collaborated with the Angkar, and members of the armed forces
had a higher standard of living than the rest of the population. Refugees agree that, even during times of severe
food shortage, members of the grass-roots elite had adequate, if not luxurious, supplies of food. One refugee wrote
that "pretty new bamboo houses" were built for Khmer Rouge cadres along the river in Phnom Penh.
According to Craig Etcheson, an authority on Democratic
Kampuchea, members of the revolutionary army lived in self-contained colonies, and they had a "distinctive
warrior-caste ethos." Armed forces units personally loyal to Pol Pot, known as the "Unconditional Divisions," were
a privileged group within the military.
Although their revolutionary ideology was extreme, the highest ranks of the Khmer Rouge
leadership exhibited a talent for nepotism that matched that of the Sihanouk-era elite. Pol Pot's wife, Khieu
Ponnary, was head of the Association of Democratic Khmer Women and her younger sister, Khieu Thirith, served as
minister of social action. These two women are considered among the half-dozen most powerful personalities in
Democratic Kampuchea. Son Sen's wife, Yun Yat, served as minister for culture, education and learning.
Several of Pol Pot's nephews and nieces were given jobs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One
of Ieng Sary's daughters was appointed head of the Calmette Hospital although she had not graduated from secondary
school. A niece of Ieng Sary was given a job as English translator for Radio
Phnom Penh although her fluency in the language was extremely limited.
Family ties were important, both because of the culture and because of the leadership's intense
secretiveness and distrust of outsiders, especially of pro-Vietnamese communists. Greed was also a motive.
Different ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Industry, were controlled and
exploited by powerful Khmer Rouge families. Administering the diplomatic corps was regarded as an especially
Religious and minority communities
Article 20 of the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea guaranteed religious freedom, but it
also declared that "all reactionary religions that are detrimental to Democratic Kampuchea and the Kampuchean
People are strictly forbidden." About 85 percent of the population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. The
country's 40,000 to 60,000 Buddhist monks, regarded by the regime as social parasites, were defrocked and forced
into labor brigades.
Many monks were executed; temples and pagodas were destroyed or turned into storehouses or
jails. Images of the Buddha were defaced and dumped into rivers and lakes. People who were discovered praying or
expressing religious sentiments were often killed. The Christian and Muslim communities also were even more
persecuted, as they were labeled as part of a pro-Western cosmopolitan sphere, hindering Cambodian culture and
The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was completely razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims
to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and
Muslim imams were executed.
The Khmer Rouge's treatment of minorities seems to have varied from group to group. The
Vietnamese endured the greatest suffering. Tens of thousands were raped, mutilated, and murdered in
regime-organized massacres. Most of the survivors fled to Vietnam.
The Cham, a Muslim minority who are the descendants of migrants
from the old state of Champa, were forced to adopt the Khmer language and
customs. Their communities, which traditionally had existed apart from Khmer villages, were broken up. Forty
thousand Cham were killed in two districts of Kampong Cham Province alone. Thai minorities living near the Thai
border also were persecuted.
Despite the fact that Chinese and Sino-Khmers had dominated the Cambodian economy for centuries
and could be considered exploiters of the peasantry, the Khmer Rouge apparently did not single them out for harsh
treatment. The war drove most rural Chinese into the cities and, after the forced evacuations of the cities, they
and their urban compatriots were equally regarded as "new people." They shared the same hardships as Khmers,
however. Khmer Rouge's very tentative and informal contact with China was probably a factor in the regime's
reluctance to persecute them openly.
In the late 1980s, little was known of Khmer Rouge policies toward the tribal peoples of the
northeast, the Khmer Loeu. Pol Pot established an insurgent base in the tribal areas of Ratanakiri Province in the
early 1960s, and he may have had a substantial Khmer Loeu following. Predominantly animist peoples, with few ties
to the Buddhist culture of the lowland Khmers, the Khmer Loeu had resented Sihanouk's attempts to "civilize" them.
Cambodia expert Serge Thion notes that marriage to a tribal person was considered "final proof of unconditional
loyalty to the party." Khieu Samphan may have been married to a tribal woman.
Education and health
Like the radical exponents of the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge
regarded traditional education with undiluted hostility. After the fall of Phnom Penh, they executed thousands of
teachers. Those who had been educators prior to 1975 survived by hiding their identities.
Aside from teaching basic mathematical skills and literacy, the major goal of the new educational
system was to instill revolutionary values in the young. For a regime at war with most of Cambodia's traditional
values, this meant that it was necessary to create a gap between the values of the young and the values of the
The regime recruited children to spy on adults. The pliancy of the younger generation made them,
in the Angkar's words, the "dictatorial instrument of the party." In 1962 the communists had created a special
secret organization, the Democratic Youth League, that, in the early 1970s, changed its name to the Communist Youth
League of Kampuchea. Pol Pot considered Youth League alumni as his most loyal and reliable supporters, and used
them to gain control of the central and of the regional CPK apparatus. The powerful Khieu Thirith, minister of
social action, was responsible for directing the youth movement.
Hardened young cadres, many little more than twelve years of age, were enthusiastic accomplices
in some of the regime's worst atrocities. Sihanouk, who was kept under virtual house arrest in Phnom Penh between
1976 and 1978, wrote in War and Hope that his youthful guards, having been separated from their families and given
a thorough indoctrination, were encouraged to play cruel games involving the torture of animals. Having lost
parents, siblings, and friends in the war and lacking the Buddhist values of their elders, the Khmer Rouge youth
also lacked the inhibitions that would have dampened their zeal for revolutionary terror.
Health facilities in the years 1975 to 1978 were abysmally poor. Many physicians either were
executed or were prohibited from practicing. It appears that the party and the armed forces elite had access to
Western medicine and to a system of hospitals that offered reasonable treatment, but ordinary people, especially
"new people," were expected to use traditional plant and herbal remedies that usually were ineffective. Some
bartered their rice rations and personal possessions to obtain aspirin and other simple drugs.
In its general contours, Democratic Kampuchea's economic policy was similar to, and possibly
inspired by, China's radical Great Leap Forward that carried out immediate collectivization of the Chinese
countryside in 1958. During the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge established "mutual assistance groups" in the areas
After 1973, these were organized into "low-level cooperatives" in which land and agricultural
implements were lent by peasants to the community but remained their private property. "High-level cooperatives,"
in which private property was abolished and the harvest became the collective property of the peasants, appeared in
1974. "Communities," introduced in early 1976, were a more advanced form of high-level cooperative in which
communal dining was instituted. State-owned farms also were established.
Far more than the Chinese communists, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly pursued the ideal of economic
self-sufficiency, in their case the version that Khieu Samphan had outlined in his 1959 doctoral dissertation.
Extreme measures were taken. Currency was abolished, and domestic trade or commerce could be conducted only through
barter. Rice, measured in tins, became the most important medium of exchange, although people also bartered gold,
jewelry, and other personal possessions.
Foreign trade was almost completely halted, though there was a limited revival in late 1976 and
early 1977. Mainland China was the most important trading partner, but commerce amounting to a few million dollars
was also conducted with France, with Britain, and with the United States through a Hong Kong intermediary.
From the Khmer Rouge perspective, the country was free of foreign economic domination for the
first time in its 2,000-year history. By mobilizing the people into work brigades organized in a military fashion,
the Khmer Rouge hoped to unleash the masses' productive forces.
There was an "Angkorian" component to economic policy. That ancient kingdom had grown rich and
powerful because it controlled extensive irrigation systems that produced surpluses of rice. Agriculture in modern
Cambodia depended, for the most part, on seasonal rains.
By building a nationwide system of irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs, the leadership
believed it would be possible to produce rice on a year-round basis. It was the "new people" who suffered and
sacrificed the most to complete these ambitious projects.
Although the Khmer Rouge implemented an "agriculture first" policy in order to achieve
self-sufficiency, they were not, as some observers have argued, "back-to-nature" primitivists. Although the 1970-75
war and the evacuation of the cities had destroyed or idled most industry, small contingents of workers were
allowed to return to the urban areas to reopen some plants.
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Cambodian communists had great faith in the inventive power
and the technical aptitude of the masses, and they constantly published reports of peasants' adapting old
mechanical parts to new uses. Much as the Chinese had attempted unsuccessfully to build a new steel industry based
on backyard furnaces during the Great Leap Forward, the Khmer Rouge sought to move industry to the countryside.
Significantly, the seal of Democratic Kampuchea displayed not only sheaves of rice and irrigation sluices, but also
a factory with smokestacks.
By the April 1975 communist victory, Pol Pot and his close
associates occupied the most important positions in the CPK and in the state hierarchies. He had been CPK general
secretary since February 1963. His associates functioned as the party's Political Bureau, and they controlled a
majority of the seats on the Central Committee.
Khieu Thirith's management of youth groups meant that Pol Pot had ample reserves of zealous
young cadres, "the nucleus and wick of the struggle," committed to imposing the party center's will throughout the
country. But his domination of the revolutionary movement was not complete. In different areas of the country,
especially in the Eastern Zone, pro-Vietnamese and veteran Khmer Issarak commanders were jealous of their
independence. They questioned, and at times openly defied, his policies of revolutionary terror and hostility
toward Vietnam. The highest ranks of the party were not free of dissension.
Through the 1970s, and especially after mid-1975, the party was shaken by factional struggles.
There were even armed attempts to topple Pol Pot. The resultant purges reached a crest in 1977 and 1978 when
hundreds of thousands of people, including some of the most important CPK leaders, were executed.
The exact number of people who died as a result of the Khmer Rouge's policies is debated, as is
the cause of death among those who died. Access to the country during Khmer Rouge rule was very limited. In the
early 1980s, the Vietnamese-installed regime that succeeded the Khmer Rouge conducted a national household survey,
which concluded that over 3.3 million had died, but most modern historians do not consider that number to be
Modern research has located thousands of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia,
containing an estimated 1.39 million bodies. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and
3,000,000, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to
executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.
The United States Department of State and the State Department funded Yale Cambodian Genocide
Project give estimates of the total death toll as 1.2 million and 1.7 million respectively. Amnesty International
estimates the total death toll as 1.4 million. R. J. Rummel, an analyst of historical political killings, gives a
figure of 2 million. Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot gave a figure of 800,000, and his deputy, Khieu Samphan, said 1 million had been killed.
Establishing the Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea
The communists abolished the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (established in
1970). Cambodia did not have any form of government until the proclamation of the Constitution of Democratic
Kampuchea on January 5, 1976. Three months later, on April 2, Sihanouk resigned as head of state. Sihanouk remained
under comfortable, but insecure, house arrest in Phnom Penh, until late in the war with Vietnam he departed for the
United States where he made Democratic Kampuchea's case before the Security Council. He eventually relocated to
Khieu Samphan described the 1976 Constitution as "not the result of any research on foreign
documents, nor…the fruit of any research by scholars. In fact the people—workers, peasants, and Revolutionary
Army—wrote the Constitution with their own hands." It was a brief document of sixteen chapters and twenty-one
articles that defined the character of the state; the goals of economic, social and cultural policies; and the
basic tenets of foreign policy.
The "rights and duties of the individual" were briefly defined in Article 12. They included none
of what are commonly regarded as guarantees of political human rights except the statement that "men and women are
equal in every respect." The document declared, however, that "all workers" and "all peasants" were "masters" of
their factories and fields. An assertion that "there is absolutely no unemployment in Democratic Kampuchea" rings
true in light of the regime's massive use of forced labor.
The Constitution defined Democratic Kampuchea's foreign policy principles in Article 21, the
document's longest, in terms of "independence, peace, neutrality, and nonalignment." It pledged the country's
support to anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World. In light of the regime's aggressive attacks against
Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao territory during 1977 and 1978, the promise to "maintain close and friendly relations
with all countries sharing a common border" bore little resemblance to reality. Governmental institutions were
outlined very briefly in the Constitution. The legislature, the Kampuchean People's Representative Assembly (KPRA),
contained 250 members "representing workers, peasants, and other working people and the Kampuchean Revolutionary
army." One hundred and fifty KPRA seats were allocated for peasant representatives; fifty, for the armed forces;
and fifty, for worker and other representatives. The legislature was to be popularly elected for a five-year term.
Its first and only election was held on March 20, 1976. "New people" apparently were not allowed to
The executive branch of government also was chosen by the KPRA. It consisted of a state
presidium "responsible for representing the state of Democratic Kampuchea inside and outside the country." It
served for a five-year term, and its president was head of state. Khieu Samphan was the only person to serve in
this office, which he assumed after Sihanouk's resignation. The judicial system was composed of "people's courts,"
the judges for which were appointed by the KPRA, as was the executive branch.
The Constitution did not mention regional or local government institutions. After assuming
power, the Khmer Rouge abolished the old provinces (khet) and replaced them with seven zones; the Northern Zone,
Northeastern Zone, Northwestern Zone, Central Zone, Eastern Zone, Western Zone, and Southwestern Zone. There were
also two other regional-level units: the Kracheh Special Region Number 505 and, until 1977, the Siemreab Special
Region Number 106.
The zones were divided into damban (regions) that were given numbers. Number One, appropriately,
encompassed the Samlot region of the Northwestern Zone (including Battambang Province), where the insurrection
against Sihanouk had erupted in early 1967. With this exception, the damban appear to have been numbered
The damban were divided into srok (districts), khum (subdistricts), and phum (villages), the
latter usually containing several hundred people. This pattern was roughly similar to that which existed under
Sihanouk and the Khmer Republic, but inhabitants of the villages were organized into krom (groups) composed of ten
to fifteen families. On each level, administration was directed by a three-person committee (kanak, or kena).
CPK members occupied committee posts at the higher levels. Subdistrict and village committees
were often staffed by local poor peasants, and, very rarely, by "new people." Cooperatives (sahakor), similar in
jurisdictional area to the khum, assumed local government responsibilities in some areas.
The 'Democratic Kampuchea' regime had closer ties with China (its main backer) and to a lesser
extent with North Korea. In 1977, in a message congratulating the Cambodian comrades on the 17th anniversary of the
CKP, Kim Jong-Il congratulated the Cambodian people for having "wiped out [...] counterrevolutionary group of spies
who had committed subversive activities and sabotage" Only China, North Korea, Egypt, Albania, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam
(until December 1977), Romania and Yugoslavia had diplomatic missions in Phnom Penh.
The fall of Democratic Kampuchea
Not content with enslaving Cambodia in the name of “communism”, the KR leaders also dreamed of
reviving the Angkorian empire of a thousand years earlier, which ruled over large parts of what today are Thailand
and Vietnam. This involved launching military attacks into southern Vietnam in which hundreds of unarmed villagers
were massacred. Immediately following the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, there were skirmishes between their troops
and Vietnamese forces. A number of incidents occurred in May 1975. The Cambodians launched attacks on the
Vietnamese islands of Phu Quoc and Tho Chu and intruded into Vietnamese border provinces. In late May, at about the
same time that the United States launched an air strike against the oil refinery at Kampong Saom, following the
Mayagüez incident, Vietnamese forces seized the Cambodian island of Poulo Wai.
The following month, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary visited Hanoi. They proposed a friendship treaty
between the two countries, an idea that met with a cool reception from Vietnam's leaders. Although the Vietnamese
evacuated Poulo Wai in August, incidents continued along Cambodian's northeastern border. At the instigation of the
Phnom Penh regime, thousands of Vietnamese also were driven out of Cambodia.
Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam improved in 1976, in part because of Pol Pot's
preoccupation with intraparty challenges. In May Cambodian and Vietnamese representatives met in Phnom Penh in
order to establish a commission to resolve border disagreements.
The Vietnamese, however, refused to recognize the Brévié Line—the colonial-era demarcation of
maritime borders between the two countries—and the negotiations broke down. In late September, however, a few days
before Pol Pot was forced to resign as prime minister, air links were established between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.
With Pol Pot back in the forefront of the regime in 1977, the situation rapidly deteriorated.
Incidents escalated along all of Cambodia's borders. Khmer Rouge forces attacked villages in the border areas of
Thailand near Aranyaprathet. Brutal murders of Thai villagers, including women and children, were the first widely
reported concrete evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities. There were also incidents along the Lao border.
At approximately the same time, villages in Vietnam's border areas underwent renewed attacks. In
turn, Vietnam launched air strikes against Cambodia. In September, border fighting resulted in as many as 1,000
Vietnamese civilian casualties. The following month, the Vietnamese counter-attacked in a campaign involving a
force of 20,000 personnel.
Vietnamese defense minister General Vo Nguyen Giap underestimated the tenacity of the Khmer
Rouge, however, and was obliged to commit an additional 58,000 reinforcements in December. On January 6, 1978,
Giap's forces began an orderly withdrawal from Cambodian territory. The Vietnamese apparently believed they had
"taught a lesson" to the Cambodians, but Pol Pot proclaimed this a "victory" even greater than that of April 17,
1975. For several years, the Vietnamese government sought in vain to establish peaceful relations with the KR
regime. But the KR leaders were intent on war. Behind this seeming insanity clearly lay the assumption that China
would support the KR militarily in such a conflict.
Faced with growing Khmer Rouge belligerence, the Vietnamese leadership decided in early 1978 to
support internal resistance to the Pol Pot regime, with the result that the Eastern Zone became a focus of
insurrection. War hysteria reached bizarre levels within Democratic Kampuchea. In May 1978, on the eve of So Phim's
Eastern Zone uprising, Radio Phnom Penh declared that if each Cambodian soldier killed thirty Vietnamese, only 2
million troops would be needed to eliminate the entire Vietnamese population of 50 million. It appears that the
leadership in Phnom Penh was seized with immense territorial ambitions, i.e., to recover the Mekong Delta region,
which they regarded as Khmer territory.
Massacres of ethnic Vietnamese and of their sympathizers by the Khmer Rouge intensified in the
Eastern Zone after the May revolt. In November, Vorn Vet led an unsuccessful coup d'état. There were now tens of
thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese exiles on Vietnamese territory.
On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced the formation of the Kampuchean National United Front
for National Salvation (KNUFNS). This was a heterogeneous group of communist and noncommunist exiles who shared an
antipathy to the Pol Pot regime and a virtually total dependence on Vietnamese backing and protection. The KNUFNS
provided the semblance, if not the reality, of legitimacy for Vietnam's invasion of Democratic Kampuchea and for
its subsequent establishment of a satellite regime in Phnom Penh.
In the meantime, as 1978 wore on, Cambodian bellicosity in the border areas surpassed Hanoi's
threshold of tolerance. Vietnamese policy makers opted for a military solution and, on December 22, Vietnam
launched its offensive with the intent of overthrowing Democratic Kampuchea. A force of 120,000, consisting of
combined armor and infantry units with strong artillery support, drove west into the level countryside of
Cambodia's southeastern provinces. Together, the Vietnamese army and the National Salvation Front struck back at
the KR on December 25.
After a seventeen-day campaign, Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese on January 7, 1979.
Pol Pot and the main leaders initially took refuge near the border with Thailand. After making deals with several
governments, they were able to use Thailand as a safe staging area for the construction and operation of new
redoubts in the mountain and jungle fastness of Cambodia's periphery, Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders
regrouped their units, issued a new call to arms, and reignited a stubborn insurgency against the regime in power
as they had done in the late 1960s.
For the moment, however, the Vietnamese invasion had accomplished its purpose of deposing an
unlamented and particularly violent dictatorship. A new administration of ex-Khmer Rouge fighters under the control
of Hanoi was quickly established, and it set about competing, both domestically and internationally, with the Khmer
Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia.
Peace still eluded the war-ravaged nation, however, and although the insurgency set in motion by
the Khmer Rouge proved unable to topple the new Vietnamese-controlled regime in Phnom Penh, it did nonetheless keep
the country in a permanent state of insecurity. The new administration was propped up by a substantial Vietnamese
military force and civilian advisory effort.
As events in the 1980s progressed, the main preoccupations of the new regime were survival,
restoring the economy, and combating the Khmer Rouge insurgency by military and by political means. The fostering
of activity to meet these imperatives and the building of institutions are described in subsequent articles in the
History of Cambodia series.
The Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea
The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the KR to retain their seat at the UN. The seat
was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old cadre of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary from their student days in Paris and one of
the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name 'Democratic Kampuchea'
until 1982 and then 'Coalition Government of
Democratic Kampuchea' until 1993.
According to journalist Elizabeth Becker, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew
Brzezinski said that in 1979, "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could
never support him, but China could." Brzezinski has denied this, writing that the Chinese were aiding Pol Pot
"without any help or encouragement from the United States."
China, the U.S., and other Western countries opposed an expansion of Vietnamese and Soviet
influence in Indochina, and refused to recognize the People's
Republic of Kampuchea as the legitimate government of Cambodia, claiming that it was a puppet state
propped up by Vietnamese forces. China funneled military aid to the Khmer Rouge, which in the 1980s proved to be
the most capable insurgent force, while the U.S. publicly supported a non-Communist alternative to the PRK; in
1985, the Reagan administration approved $5 million in aid to the republican KPNLF, led by former prime minister
Son Sann, and the ANS, the armed wing of the pro-Sihanouk FUNCINPEC party.
The KPNLF, while lacking in military strength compared to the Khmer Rouge, commanded a sizable
civilian following (up to 250,000) amongst refugees near the Thai-Cambodian border that had fled the KR regime.
Funcinpec had the benefit of traditional peasant Khmer loyalty to the crown and Sihanouk's widespread popularity in
In practice, the military strength of the non-KR groups within Cambodia was minimal, though
their funding and civilian support was often greater than the KR. The Thatcher and Reagan administrations both
supported the insurgents covertly, with weapons, and military advisors in the form of Green Berets and Special Air
Service units, who taught sabotage techniques in camps just inside Thailand.
Critics such as Human Rights Watch alleged that U.S. policy was contradictory; while claiming to
not support the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. continually supported UN recognition of the shadow Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea(CGDK,
formed in 1982) as the legitimate Cambodian government, despite the fact that the tripartite alliance included the
Khmer Rouge. The U.S. government stated it would bolster the position of groups not under the control of the
Vietnamese-supported government (including the Khmer Rouge) through humanitarian and military aid.
The end of the CGDK and Khmer Rouge
A UN-led peacekeeping mission that took place from 1991-95 sought to end violence in the country
and establish a democratic system of government through new elections. The 1990s saw a marked decline in insurgent
activity, though the Khmer Rouge later renewed their attacks against the government. As Vietnam disengaged from
direct involvement in Cambodia, the government was able to begin to split the KR movement by making peace offers to
lower level officials. The Khmer Rouge was the only member of the CGDK to continue fighting following the
reconciliation process. The other two political organizations that made up the CGDK alliance ended armed resistance
and became a part of the political process that began with elections in 1993.
In 1997, Pol Pot ordered the execution of his right-hand man Son
Sen for attempting peace negotiations with the Cambodian government. In 1998, Pol Pot himself died, and
other key KR leaders Khieu Samphan and Ieng
Sary surrendered to the government of Hun Sen in exchange for immunity
from prosecution, leaving Ta Mok as the sole commander of the Khmer Rouge forces; he was detained in 1999 for
"crimes against humanity." The organization essentially ceased to exist.
Recovery and trials
Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer
Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. The current
government teaches little about Khmer Rouge atrocities in schools. Cambodia has a very young population and by 2005
three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge years. The younger generations would only
know the Khmer Rouge through word-of-mouth from parents and elders.
In 1997, Cambodia established a Khmer Rouge Trial Task Force to create a legal and judicial
structure to try the remaining leaders for war crimes and other crimes against humanity, but progress was slow,
mainly because the Cambodian government of ex-Khmer Rouge Cadre Hun Sen, despite its origins in the
Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s, was reluctant to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.
Funding shortfalls plagued the operation, and the government said that due to the poor economy
and other financial commitments, it could only afford limited funding for the tribunal. Several countries,
including India and Japan, came forward with extra funds, but by January 2006, the full balance of funding was not
yet in place.
Nonetheless, the task force began its work and took possession of two buildings on the grounds
of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) High Command headquarters in Kandal
province just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The tribunal task force expects to spend the rest of 2006
training the judges and other tribunal members before the actual trial is to take place. In March 2006 the
Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, nominated seven judges for a trial of the Khmer Rouge
In May 2006, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana announced that Cambodia's highest judicial body
approved 30 Cambodian and U.N. judges to preside over the genocide tribunal for some surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
The chief Khmer Rouge torturer Kang Kek Iew - known as Duch and ex-commandant of the notorious S-21 prison - went
on trial for crimes against humanity on 17 February 2009. It is the first case involving a senior Pol Pot cadre
three decades after the end of a regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia.
Legal questions relating to the status of the deaths in Cambodia as a genocide
While the events in Cambodia are widely considered to be a genocide and referred to as such,
some argue that the deaths in Cambodia fail to meet the definition of genocide in the Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.