The Cambodian communist movement took root during the first Indochina War in the 1950s. They became known as the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, allowing King Norodom Sihanouk to act as Head of State. Cambodia was peaceful and prosperous in the early Sihanoouk years, but the Vietnam War brought many troubles to this small country that wanted to stay out of the war. Sihanouk declared Cambodia neutral, however, the fighting spilled over the Cambodian border. North Vietnamese troops were using parts of Cambodia as sanctuary and Sihanouk refused to align himself with the U.S.
The U.S., frustrated with the war and inability to use Cambodia as a base, started a secret bombing campaign. From October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons’ worth of ordnance on Cambodia, more than what was dropped in WWII. The number of civilians killed from the bombings reached 600,000, and left many more refugees fleeing in to the arms of the Khmer Rouge, embracing them with idealistic promises of a world with out these foreign invasions.
Sihanouk continued to keep the Khmer Rouge at bay, but also had troubles with the other extreme side, those closest to him who were in support of American influence in Cambodia. In 1970, the cambodian military led by Lon Nol successfully architected a coup d’état to overthrow Sihanouk. Lon Nol backed and encouraged to do so by the American government, declared himself as President of Cambodia. Sihanouk, eager to regain his power decided to set up alliance with the Khmer Rouge to fight Lon Nol’s army. The civil war continues and takes a turn for the worse.
Sihanouk’s alliance with the Khmer Rouge allowed the movement to gain credibility and support from many more civilians who revered the former King. The Khmer Rouge party swelled in numbers from news of King Sihanouk’s support. Lon Nol’s army proved to be incredibly corrupt, with most officials pocketing the money given in support of the fight against communism, leaving the army vulnerable to the increasing Khmer Rouge resistance.
By 1975, the Khmer Rouge was able to topple Lon Nol’s army. The Khmer Rouge stormed in to Phnom Penh declaring that the civil war has ended and evacuated the city of 2 million citizens on foot by gunpoint, executing those who resisted along the way. All of Cambodian cities were evacuated, and people were herded onto rural communal farms in the countryside. Now in control of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge kept the king hostage and introduced a dark era of extreme suffering upon the innocent lives of Cambodia. No one expected it to come to this, Cambodia will come to be known as the Killing Fields.
Pol Pot began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia inspired in part by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, renaming Cambodia as the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. He declared this” Year Zero,” purified from any and all “capitalists” influences. The new society that was in power were referred to as “Angkar.”
“ALL FOREIGNERS WERE THUS EXPELLED, EMBASSIES CLOSED, AND ANY FOREIGN ECONOMIC OR MEDICAL ASSISTANCE WAS REFUSED. THE USE OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES WAS BANNED. NEWSPAPERS AND TELEVISION STATIONS WERE SHUT DOWN, RADIOS AND BICYCLES CONFISCATED, AND MAIL AND TELEPHONE USAGE CURTAILED. MONEY WAS FORBIDDEN. ALL BUSINESSES WERE SHUTTERED, RELIGION BANNED, EDUCATION HALTED, HEALTH CARE ELIMINATED, AND PARENTAL AUTHORITY REVOKED. THUS CAMBODIA WAS SEALED OFF FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD.” –
The Khmer Rouge did more than kill, they destroyed. Cambodia was nearly annihilated by their extreme ideologies. People were forced to work in the labor camps for long hard hours on nothing but a small ration of rice porridge a day. If they were caught stealing food, they would be tortured and executed. Dead bodies became the norm, many died from starvation, disease, overwork, and exhaustion. Formal buddhist ceremonies of cremation and burial was forbidden.
If the Khmer Rouge discovered anyone that knew a foreign language, wore glasses, had ties with any one in the previous government, they would kill immediately, purging the country of any intellectuals, professionals, religious and educated persons. They saw them as enemies of the revolution, causing many people to lie about their history and profession. Families were separated, and had to pledge their allegiance to Angkar. Angkar was now their family and they were forced to gather for brainwashing sessions to believe, obey and respect only Angkar. Nothing belonged to them, they were deprived of their basic rights, it all belonged to Angkar, even their children.
From 1975 – 1979, an estimated 1.7 million perished, filling the country with mass graves of innocent lives. It really was hell on earth for those under the Khmer Rouge.
Freedom from these conditions came in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge in to hiding. This allowed the people to run for the Thai Cambodian border where refugee camps were set up, or back to their homes to rebuild. In the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, the full horrors of the regime became apparent. Evil prevailed in those years and it’s still a long road to recovery for Cambodia and her people.