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Life under the Khmer Rouge

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2009-11-24

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge submitted Cambodia to a totalitarian regime that killed more than a million people.

How did the Khmer Rouge come to power?

In the 1960s, ‘Khmer Rouge’ was the name given to followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the name given by the communists of Cambodia to the country). Following the military coup of 1970, they formed an alliance of convenience with the ousted prince. They then threw themselves into an insurgency, and, after five years of civil war, succeeded in capturing Phnom Penh and ousting the military.

What was their ideology?

Most of the movement’s leaders, including Pol Pot, studied for a time in France, where they were very influenced by the French Communist Party. But the Asian context – and the Vietnamese and Chinese examples – also contributed to the forging of their own ideological framework. As in Maoism, the Khmer Rouge made farmers their proletariat. They were also opposed to their Vietnamese neighbours, whom they considered arrogant intellectuals.

What kinds of policies were implemented during the Pol Pot regime?

When he came to power, Pol Pot declared it “Year Zero” for the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge completely isolated the country. Anyone suspected of being an “intellectual” was tortured and most often executed. Even wearing glasses was considered enough to warrant such treatment. This purging of Cambodian society gradually turned into a hunt for anyone suspected of opposition. In terms of economic policies, the Khmer Rouge abolished its currency and private property and went so far as to empty the cities and force the population into labour camps.

How many people were killed under this totalitarian regime?

According to estimates, between one and 2.5 million Cambodians -- out of 8 million -- died under the Khmer Rouge regime. The University of Hawaii performed a statistical calculation of the number of victims of Pol Pot’s regime. According to the study, 2,400,000 people died between 1970 and 1980. This estimate included deaths caused by famine.

How did the reign of the Khmer Rouge end?

In 1978, tensions between Vietnam and Cambodia turned into all-out war. On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge was forced to retreat west, where they continued an insurgency against the government until Pol Pot’s death in 1988. “Democratic Kampuchea” held on to its seat at the United Nations General Assembly until 1993.


Date created : 2009-11-24


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