The Khmer Rouge

Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims.
Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims
The Khmer Rouge (Khmer: ខ្មែរក្រហម Khmer Krahom; English: Red Khmers) was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam. It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian Genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies.[1] Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide.[2]
 By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, while the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was being established.[3] The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer Rouge) still had a seat in the UN at this point but it was later taken away, in 1993, as the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later thousands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty. In 1996, a new political party the Democratic National Union Movement was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for all of his roles as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge.[4] The organisation itself was officially dissolved sometime in December 1999.
Historical legacy
After taking power, the Khmer Rouge leadership renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society.[5] The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people from the cities to the country to take up work in agriculture. They forced many people out of their homes and ignored many basic human freedoms; they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, whom they could talk to, and many other aspects of their lives. Over the next years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors.[6]
The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of “involvement in free-market activities.” Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.
The Khmer Rouge believed parents were tainted with capitalism, so they separated children from their parents, indoctrinated them in communism, and taught them torture methods with animals. Children were a “dictatorial instrument of the party”[7] and were given leadership in torture and executions.[1]
One of their mottos, in reference to the New People (usually urban civilians), was: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”[8] The philosophy of the Khmer Rouge had developed over time. It started as a communist party[6] that was working together and searching for direction from the Vietnamese guerrillas who were fighting their own civil war.[9]
Pol Pot was a key leader in the movement after he returned to Cambodia from France. He had become a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) which gave guidance to the ideas of the Khmer Rouge.[6]
The movement gained strength and support in the northeastern jungles and established firm footing when Cambodia’s leader Prince Sihanouk was removed from office during a military coup in 1970. The former prince then looked to the Khmer Rouge for backing. With the threat of civil war looming, the Khmer Rouge gained support by posing as a “party for peace.”
After four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979 as a result of an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and was replaced by moderate, pro-Vietnamese Communists. The Khmer Rouge survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement operating in western Cambodia from bases in Thailand. In 1996, following a peace agreement, their leader Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial.[10]


The Khmer Rouge’s ideology was based on an extreme version of Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. It combined an idealization of the Angkor Empire (802–1431), with an existential fear for the existence of the Cambodian state, which had historically been liquidated under Vietnamese and Siamese intervention.[11] Their ideology was also influenced by colonial French education, which posited Khmers as “Aryans among Asians”, who were morally superior to Chinese or Vietnamese. The spillover of Vietnamese fighters from the Vietnam War further aggravated anti-Vietnamese feeling. The Khmer Rouge explicitly targeted the Chinese, Vietnamese, and even their partially Khmer offspring for extinction; although the Cham Muslims were treated unfavorably, they were encouraged to “mix flesh and blood”, to intermarry and assimilate. Some people with partial Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry were present in the Khmer Rouge leadership; as in the Soviet Union, they either were purged or participated in the ethnic cleansing campaigns.[12]
Although a radical movement, the Khmer Rouge also drew on the idioms of Cambodian Buddhist culture. The time that the party spent in the forests in the 1960s, supposedly accumulating knowledge, has similarities to Buddhist lore. Before coming to power, the Khmer Rouge also demonstrated characteristics of “the Buddhist ideals of propriety and social justice”, more so than the current government. Rather than maintaining a bureaucracy based on names and reputation, the Khmer Rouge also used charismatic leadership that is characteristic of Buddhist societies.[12]
The Khmer Rouge’s social policy focused on working towards a purely agrarian society. Pol Pot strongly influenced the propagation of this policy. He was reportedly impressed with how the mountain tribes of Cambodia lived, which the party interpreted as a form of primitive communism; as a result, those minorities received more lenient and sometimes even favorable treatment than the urbanized “bourgeois” Chinese and Vietnamese.[12] Pol Pot wanted to remove social institutions and to transform the society into an agrarian one. This was his way of “[creating] a complete Communist society without wasting time on the intermediate steps” as the Khmer Rouge said to China in 1975.[13] The evacuation of the cities disproportionately affected Chinese and Vietnamese, who were not accustomed to agricultural work, segregated from Khmers in labor camps, and forbidden to speak their own language or practice non-Khmer religion.[12]

  Name history

The term “Khmer Rouge”, French for “Red Khmer,” was coined by Cambodian head of state Norodom Sihanouk and was later adopted by English speakers. It was used to refer to a succession of Communist parties in Cambodia which evolved into the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and later the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. The organization was also known as the Khmer Communist Party and the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.



The history of the communist movement in Cambodia can be divided into six phases: the emergence of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), whose members were almost exclusively Vietnamese, before World War II; the 10-year struggle for independence from the French, when a separate Cambodian communist party, the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), was established under Vietnamese auspices; the period following the Second Party Congress of the KPRP in 1960, when Saloth Sar (Pol Pot after 1976) and other future Khmer Rouge leaders gained control of its apparatus; the revolutionary struggle from the initiation of the Khmer Rouge insurgency in 1967–68 to the fall of the Lon Nol government in April 1975; the Democratic Kampuchea regime, from April 1975 to January 1979; and the period following the Third Party Congress of the KPRP in January 1979, when Hanoi effectively assumed control over Cambodia’s government and communist party.
In 1930, Ho Chi Minh founded the Communist Party of Vietnam by unifying three smaller communist movements that had emerged in northern, central and southern Vietnam during the late 1920s. The name was changed almost immediately to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), ostensibly to include revolutionaries from Cambodia and Laos. Almost without exception, all the earliest party members were Vietnamese. By the end of World War II, a handful of Cambodians had joined its ranks, but their influence on the Indochinese communist movement and on developments within Cambodia was negligible.
Viet Minh units occasionally made forays into Cambodian bases during their war against the French, and, in conjunction with the leftist government that ruled Thailand until 1947, the Viet Minh encouraged the formation of armed, left-wing Khmer Issarak bands. On April 17, 1950 (25 years to the day before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh), the first nationwide congress of the Khmer Issarak groups convened, and the United Issarak Front was established. Its leader was Son Ngoc Minh, and a third of its leadership consisted of members of the ICP. According to the historian David P. Chandler, the leftist Issarak groups, aided by the Viet Minh, occupied a sixth of Cambodia’s territory by 1952; and, on the eve of the Geneva Conference, they controlled as much as one half of the country.[14]
In 1951 the ICP was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers’ Party, the Lao Itsala, and the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). According to a document issued after the reorganization, the Vietnam Workers’ Party would continue to “supervise” the smaller Laotian and Cambodian movements. Most KPRP leaders and rank-and-file seem to have been either Khmer Krom, or ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. The party’s appeal to indigenous Khmers appears to have been minimal.
According to Democratic Kampuchea’s version of party history, the Viet Minh’s failure to negotiate a political role for the KPRP at the 1954 Geneva Conference represented a betrayal of the Cambodian movement, which still controlled large areas of the countryside and which commanded at least 5,000 armed men. Following the conference, about 1,000 members of the KPRP, including Son Ngoc Minh, made a “Long March” into North Vietnam, where they remained in exile.
In late 1954, those who stayed in Cambodia founded a legal political party, the Pracheachon Party, which participated in the 1955 and the 1958 National Assembly elections. In the September 1955 election, it won about four percent of the vote but did not secure a seat in the legislature.
Members of the Pracheachon were subject to constant harassment and to arrests because the party remained outside Sihanouk’s political organization, Sangkum. Government attacks prevented it from participating in the 1962 election and drove it underground. Sihanouk habitually labelled local leftists the Khmer Rouge, a term that later came to signify the party and the state headed by Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and their associates.
During the mid-1950s, KPRP factions, the “urban committee” (headed by Tou Samouth), and the “rural committee” (headed by Sieu Heng), emerged. In very general terms, these groups espoused divergent revolutionary lines. The prevalent “urban” line, endorsed by North Vietnam, recognized that Sihanouk, by virtue of his success in winning independence from the French, was a genuine national leader whose neutralism and deep distrust of the United States made him a valuable asset in Hanoi’s struggle to “liberate” South Vietnam.
Advocates of this line hoped that the prince could be persuaded to distance himself from the right wing and to adopt leftist policies. The other line, supported for the most part by rural cadres who were familiar with the harsh realities of the countryside, advocated an immediate struggle to overthrow the “feudalist” Sihanouk.
In 1959 Sieu Heng defected to the government and provided the security forces with information that enabled them to destroy as much as 90% of the party’s rural apparatus. Although communist networks in Phnom Penh and in other towns under Tou Samouth’s jurisdiction fared better, only a few hundred communists remained active in the country by 1960.
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One comment on “The Khmer Rouge

  1. A more positive story is now emerging from the gloomy terror filled years of the Cambodian civil war. A documentary is now in production about General Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey and an Australian QANTAS flight attendant whose life he saved in 1971 when targeted by the Khmer Rouge. “Dale of Cambodia” is the true story of the unusual friendship between the Australian, Spencer Dale and the Prince. It's a story of commitment, loyalty and friendship towards a man and a country facing complete inhalation from Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. We need to be uplifted by some good thing that happened and be inspired to make a positive change in a world that doesn't seem to learn from its mistakes. It's good to know there are still people who care and prepared to make a difference.
    Previews can be seen at and

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