Genocide: Cambodia

The rule of the Khmer Rouge (or Khmer Rouge) in Cambodia is one of the most eloquent forms of genocide. Rarely has a country become so quickly and so completely into a large prison and death camp. Everything that was modern, ‘Western’, anti-communist or even just traditionally Cambodian was banned, with the death penalty as a direct consequence. Cambodia was turned into ‘the killing fields’, where escape was virtually impossible.

Rise of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975, the party had been relatively small until recently, but due to a combination of circumstances the party grew rapidly. The leader, Pol Pot, had been educated in France and had fallen under the spell of Maoism there. During this period Cambodia was involved in the Vietnam War. The Americans used Cambodia as a base for their bombing of Vietnamese communists and Lon Nol, the Cambodian leader, let them have their way. During this period, 750,000 Cambodians died. The attitude of the Cambodian government and the Americans drove many Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. China supported the party and North Vietnam provided military training. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge ousted Lon Nol, a battle that left some 156,000 dead.

Kampuchea: the Maoist utopia

Cambodia / Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Things happened very quickly when the Khmer Rouge came to power. The country was renamed Kampuchea and immediately had to be turned into a Maoist utopia. This was done in a very extreme and inhumane way. The country was turned into a federation of collective farms and the entire population was put to work there. Those who were unable to do this: the elderly, the sick, small children, were unlucky and those who refused were killed. Anyone belonging to the opposition had to be eliminated, which meant death for people educated in the West, even all those educated and considered ‘intellectuals’. Traditional Cambodian customs that were considered anti-communist were also punishable by death. Political and civil rights were simply abolished. Children were taken from their parents and put in separate camps. The simplest things were punishable by death: music, games, emotional expressions, glasses (this meant that someone was an intellectual), laughing or crying.

Ethnic Minorities and Intellectuals

Schools, factories, hospitals and universities were closed and the people who had worked there were considered enemies of the state and killed. Their relatives also received the death penalty. Buddhist monks were killed and Buddhist temples destroyed, religion in its entirety was banned, the small number of Christians were also killed (about 8,000 people) and the same applied to Muslims. Half of the Islamic Cham was murdered. Other ethnic minorities also suffered extremely hard: Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese and even people who had someone from an ethnic minority in a previous generation.

Two Million Deaths

The people who were not killed ended up in labor camps. The entire country had been transformed into a labor camp. There people worked long hours with the only compensation being small rations. People were deliberately placed in communes as far away as possible from their original place of residence. Personal relationships were frowned upon and many people weakened, became ill and subsequently died. There were no medicines or nurses or doctors to assist people. It is not clear exactly how many people died, estimates vary: from 1,700,000 to more than two million. This means more than 20 to 25% of the then Cambodian population.


The Khmer Rouge maintained good ties with China, something that was disappointing to neighboring country Vietnam. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia (or Kampuchea), overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime and installing a puppet government in its place. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge were driven towards Thailand. The new government was progress for the people, but there was little outside help and the country was in ruins after the actions of the Khmer Rouge. The most astonishing thing was that the West supported the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and that the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat in the UN. This was a clear sign of how deeply the Cold War had penetrated international relations. This greatly delayed the construction of Cambodia. In 1989, the last Vietnamese troops withdrew under international pressure.


In 1995, the horrors of the Pol Pot regime slowly began to become clear. Mass graves were found, where simple memorials were now erected using the skulls and bones of the victims. The center in Phnom Penh where most of the torture was carried out has also been converted into a memorial: skulls and photos of the victims are on display. Pol Pot died in 1998, his camp in the jungle has become a site for tourists.