Top 10 Facts About The Cambodian Genocide

Top 10 Things You Should Know about the Cambodian Genocide

Top 10 Facts About The Cambodian Genocide

Cambodia, once part of French Indochina, is an ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdom world famous for the beautiful temples at Angkor Wat.  For many years it was ravaged by the effects of the Vietnam War and the oppressive regime of the evil Khymer Rouge.  The country is now rehabilitated and, though poor, is again seeking to establish itself as a tourist destination and one of the friendliest countries in South East Asia.  Even today the evidence of the war and the genocide is obvious on the streets as victims of landmines walk the streets and tourists are encouraged to visit the museums dedicated to the atrocities to ensure that the world does no forget the evil perpetrated in this beautiful place.

Often overshadowed, in the west, by the contemporaneous events in neighboring Vietnam it is every bit as important that the world bears witness to the horrors of the Cambodian genocide as the Nazi holocaust or the death camps of Stalinist Russia.  With that in mind here are 10 things everyone should know about the Cambodian genocide.

10The Khmer Rouge Came to Power As a Result of Regional Instability, They Were Later Supported by Many Western Governments

The United Nations failed to timely condemn the Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge initially gained significant public support due to their opposition of the previous regime and its support for the American bombing of North Vietnamese camps in the remote areas of Cambodia.  The Khmer Rouge was, as a result, initially well supported by the North Vietnamese.  Following a coup in 1970 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge gained the unlikely support of the former ruler Prince Shianouk.

As they gained power and influence in their own country the Khmer Rouge sought to purge those who had been trained and influenced by the Vietnamese.  They subsequently started to espouse a more extreme form of communism.  By 1975 the Khmer Rouge had taken the capital Phnom Penn and had control of the country.  Having broken with their former Vietnamese patrons they looked towards communist China for support.  They maintained control of the country until 1979 and, in those four years, oversaw the descent of the nation into hell.

The Khmer Rouge were overthrown when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and installed their own regime.  They continued to fight the new regime and, as the Vietnamese were viewed as an invading as opposed to liberating force, were viewed by the west as being the legitimate government of the country; they even retained control of the Cambodian seat at the United Nations until 1982.  There are allegations that the US and UK provided support to the Khmer Rouge in their fight against Vietnam.

9Pol Pot, Leader of the Khmer Rouge Government, Was Never Brought to Trial For His Crimes

Pol Pot never faced judgment for his crimes.

Pol Pot lived a comfortable middle class childhood and came from a family with close connections to the Cambodian royal family.  He was sent to be educated in Paris where he became involved with the French Communist Party.  He idolized the Maoist view of the peasant rather than the Marxist view of the urban laborer as being the true base of the proletariat.  This formed the basis of his desire to return Cambodia to a purely agrarian society.  In 1962, Pol Pot found himself the leader of the Cambodian Communist following a purge of senior leaders by the Cambodian government.

In 1978 Pol Pot made the mistake of calling for the killing of all Vietnamese within Cambodian borders.  This was a direct cause of the later Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Pol Pot fled to Thailand and continued the fight against the new regime as the leader of the Khmer Rouge until his ‘retirement’ in 1985.

He was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to house arrest by remaining members of the Khmer Rouge for the murder of a friend.  He died in 1998 following an announcement that he would be sent to an international tribunal.  He is officially said to have died from a heart attack but there are rumors that he chose to die by his own hand rather than face justice for his crimes.

8The Year Zero

April 17, 1975 was the beginning of Year Zero

Pol Pot idolized the agrarian way of life and dreamed of creating a traditional society free from modern influence.  Following the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 they began to impose this vision of a warped utopia on their victims.

Cambodia was sent back to ‘year zero’.  Informing those who lived in the cities that they had to evacuate to escape expected bombing raids by the Americans (who had been providing support to the previous regime) almost everyone was herded into the countryside like cattle; anyone refusing or unable to move was shot.  Many of the evacuees died from exhaustion or starvation on the forced marches to the countryside.

Once in the countryside people were forced onto collective farms where they were made to live in communal barracks.  With insufficient sanitary facilities disease was rampant and food shortages were common.  People from the cities were left in no doubt that they were expendable being told ‘To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.

Pol Pot once boasted that Cambodia would create a truly communist society ‘without wasting time on intermediate steps.  Many of the people working in the collective farms had little or no knowledge of agriculture.  They were told that Cambodia could and should be self-sufficient in food terms and that production should be tripled in just one year.  The Cambodian people were not, however, provided with any information or tools to help them establish the farms.

7Almost everyone was a target ‘What is rotten must be removed’

Pol Pot and his vile Khmer Rouge targeted and murdered business owners and educated people

In its pursuit of the perfect agrarian society the peasants were presented as ‘old people who led a traditional, rural life which everyone should strive to emulate.  Those who came from the towns, people with any level of education, even those with useful (but non agrarian) skills such as doctors and dentists were viewed with suspicion.

Anyone who had owned a business or a factory was murdered and even something as simple as wearing glasses could get someone killed (glasses were considered an unnecessary western ‘affectation’ and supposedly signified that the person wearing them was an intellectual) speaking a foreign language (due to the French colonial era many Cambodians spoke French) was enough of a reason to condemn someone to death.

All religious and ethnic minority groups were viewed with suspicion and were therefore a target of the regime and anyone to ill, weak, disabled or old to work were seen as extraneous to the needs of society and frequently executed.  Membership of the Khmer Rouge itself was not enough to protect people and many party members were culled on suspicion of sabotage.  Nor could people rely on their ‘peasant’ status to keep themselves safe.  The Khmer Rouge was not satisfied with its decimation of the Cambodian elite and, towards the end of their time in power they started to execute any peasant who dared to ‘use happy words.

Unlike other examples of genocides such as the Nazi extermination of Jews or the Rwandan massacres the Khmer Rouge did not limit their target to one particular group.  They hated everyone with impunity and were quite happy to exterminate anyone who had the potential to cross them or interfere with their aims.

Pol Pot gave a chilling summary of the aims of the Khmer Rouge when he said in 1978 that ‘there are no schools, faculties or universities…because we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past.  There is no money, no commerce as the state takes care of provisioning all its citizens…We evacuated the cities…the countryside should be the focus of attention of our revolution and the people will decide the fate of the cities’.

6Almost everything was banned ‘we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past’

The Khmer Rouge even outlawed music

In order to build their new agrarian society the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe out all evidence of any other type of life.  Factories, schools, universities and hospitals were shut down as they were superfluous to the needs of the new regime.  Some were put to new ‘appropriate’ uses such as prison camps.

Emotions were banned; people had to cultivate a complete lack of any kind of facial or body language emotional response to situations.  Falling in love was anathema, marriages were contracted by the state and any couple found engaged in (and enjoying) sexual relations not specifically permitted by the Khmer Rouge could result in the people involved being sent to a prison camp. Families were broken up between different farms with no effort being made to keep them together.

Religion was termed reactionary and all religious worship was banned.  Personalized clothing was seen as an extravagance; all Cambodian had to wear a black uniform and were not permitted to move away from the collective farm they were assigned to.

Modern, energy saving appliances were gathered together and destroyed.  The victory of the Khmer Rouge led to things such as fridges, music players and air conditioners being gathered together and burned in the street.  Music in all forms was banned, as was reading (books went up in flames to prove the point) and money disappeared from use.


A high school was converted into S-21. One of the most notorious torture chambers of the Cambodian Genocide

gary yim /

S-21 is one of the best known of all the Khmer Rouge prisons.  While it was one of many (possibly part of a network of up to 150 prisons) it has, in recent years been turned into a memorial museum to the genocide.

S-21 was a torture and interrogation center based in a converted school building in the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  The classrooms were turned into prison cells, some designed to be communal cells where prisoners were shacked to iron bars.  Others were turned into small isolation rooms.

On arrival all prisoners were photographed, so it is possible today to put a face to every victim at S-21.  Of the 16,000 prisoners who were processed through S-21 no more than 7 survived.  Prisoners were stripped to their underpants before being sent to a cell, if they had babies with them they had to watch them murdered by having their heads smashed against a tree (it is estimated that approximately 2000 children were murdered in this way).  Once in the cells prisoners were not allowed so much as to even move without the permission of a guard, if they did they would be subjected to a severe beating.  From time to time prisoners were hosed down with cold water and some were used as living surgical models.

Any prisoners who died were buried in mass graves at a nearby killing field, Choeung Ek, while those who survived the ordeal were taken there alive to be killed and then buried.

4The Khmer Rouge perfected cheap and effective methods of torture

A simple plastic bag became a torture tool in the hands of the Khmer Rouge

It was not enough, as far as the Khmer Rouge was concerned, to simply kill those who did not (or even might not) agree with them.  They took great delight in designing cheap yet horribly effective methods of torture to ensure that they were truly feared.

One of the scenes in the famous (and very accurate as regards the regime) Hollywood film, The Killing Fields shows Khmer Rouge guards using ‘the dry submarine’ suffocating victims with a plastic bag almost to the point of insensibility before reviving them and repeating the process.

Other favorite methods of torture included simulated drowning and the targeted use of boiling water.  Leeches, a common medical cure for many hundreds of years and available in abundance in the Cambodian countryside were collected and applied to victims so they could watch the leeches grow as they sucked their blood.  Electrocution and even skinning alive were not unknown methods of torture used by the degraded guards following their sick masters.

3Cambodia’s Killing Fields – a modern hell of biblical proportions

Stacked Skulls at the Killing Fields, Cambodia

Most Cambodian villages and prisons had a killing field, the place where those condemned to die were taken for execution.  The condemned were walked out to the fields where they were made to dig their own graves; others were just left to rot where they fell.  Most people who were executed were killed with a club to the head or with a hoe in order to save on bullets, even young children were killed if they refused to work.  Many more people simply died from overwork and malnutrition and their bodies were brought to the killing field.

Many mass graves have been discovered and the remains collected and removed to charnel houses where they bear witness to the appalling cruelty that man can visit upon man.  Even today, as more and more areas are cleared of landmines and opened up for agricultural use once more, bones are unearthed with heartbreaking regularity.

2Only five people have been brought to justice for the Cambodian Genocide

Only 5 people were tried for the atrocities of the Cambodian Genocide.

Cambodia refused to permit the establishment of a Yugoslav style international war crimes tribunal.  They have, however, come together with the United Nations to set up the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to prosecute the crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, sadly because the court was not established until 2003 many of the guiltiest parties, including Pol Pot, had already evaded justice through death.

Five people have been charged with crimes before the court.  Of these the most notorious was Kang Kek Iew (known as Comrade Duch) who ran the infamous S-21.  He had converted to Christianity in the interim time and admitted his responsibility and guilt and even asked for his victims to allow the possibility of forgiveness.  He was sentenced to 35 years in jail and by reason of credit for time served pre-trial and time for good behavior he will serve a sentence of only 19 years.  Whether or not the God he now claims to worship will forgive him for the horrors he perpetrated on his fellow men and, in particular the deaths of 2000 little children, only Comrade Duch will ever know.

Other people who have appeared before the court include Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two to Pol Pot’s Brother Number One), the chief architect of the agrarian ideal and the Year Zero plan.  He will serve the rest of his life in prison.  Kiehu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge Head of State from 1976 to the fall of the regime was also sentenced to life in prison.

The only other two people charged have managed to escape the wrath of the court.  Ieng Sary, Brother Number Three who was the Khmer Rouge Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime minister died before his trial was finished.  Ieng Thirith, his wife, was the Khmer Rouge Minister or Social Affairs and responsible for many of the Khmer Rouge’s purges.  She was declared medically unfit to stand trial.

The whole trial process has been slow and deeply unsatisfactory for many of the ordinary Cambodians who are still traumatized by memories of that time.

1It is likely that ¼ of the Cambodian population was killed by the Khmer rouge

A killing tree during the Cambodian Genocide

gary yim /

It has proved very difficult to obtain a full and accurate count of the people who were killed by the Khmer Rouge during their time in power.  The figures range from ‘just’ 750,000 to an unimaginable 3,000,000.  Neither of those extreme figures are given much credibility.  The most commonly believed statistics, calculated in the 1980s list that 33% of all urban Cambodians and 15% of the rural population died, with half of those deaths being attributable to executions and the other half to starvation but even these figures are based on very questionable estimates.  Using census data, projections and the Khmer Rouge’s own population figures suggest a death toll approaching 1,800,00 people.

A full analysis of all estimates of the death toll has down that approximately ¼ of the Cambodian population died as a result of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.  This estimate excludes the deaths of those killed in the pre and post regime civil wars.  All in all the most likely death toll is around 2,018,000 people.  Every single one of those people lived, breathed, loved and was loved; they mattered.  Because of the Khmer Rouge and their perverted ideology their personalities were counted useless, their lives were cut short in the most brutal of ways and they suffered unimaginably before they died.  That only three people have faced justice for this travesty of human behavior is unconscionable.


The Cambodian Genocide did not happen in the mists of some dark distant time, it did not happen in some obscure corner of the globe.  In the years leading up to the genocide the attention of the world and its super-powers was focused on South East Asia, it happened within living memory.  Babies born in the west at the same time as those whose brains were bashed out against trees celebrated the turn of the millennium as college students.

Those people who endured the terrors of the Khmer Rouge were saved only by the Vietnamese Invasion (after which they endured even more suffering) and received aid only from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.  Caught on the wrong side of cold war politics these victims were conveniently forgotten by the west.  There are even allegations that the US and UK supported the Khmer Rouge government in exile with weapons, training and funding (although to be fair such allegations are rarely substantiated and usually come from very far left sources who have an interest in blackening the reputations of the right wing Reagan and Thatcher governments of the time).

Cambodia is still dealing with the ravages of the genocide and its aftermath.  A whole generation is scarred by the atrocities witnessed and many lack a decent or even a basic education.  Many in government were once involved with the Khmer Rouge and it will take many years for the nation to be at ease with itself once more.  It is all too easy to read about such events and promise ‘never again’.  We educate our children on the Nazi Holocaust to ensure that it acts as a warning to future generations.  Hopefully the mute charnel houses of Cambodia will be as powerful a signal to the future as the terrifying gates of Auschwitz.