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Definition: Khmer Rouge from The Macquarie Dictionary

the Cambodian Communist Party which emerged as a significant rebel force during the 1960s and seized power in 1970.

Summary Article: Khmer Rouge
from Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History

The name most commonly used for the most extreme and violent faction of Cambodian Communists. While the Khmer Rouge (“Red Khmer”) held power in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, they herded millions of Cambodians into slave labor camps, executed hundreds of thousands, and were responsible for many more deaths from starvation, exhaustion, and disease. After being driven out of Phnom Penh by Vietnamese forces in early 1979, the Khmer Rouge waged a guerrilla resistance that was still active in large areas of the country more than 15 years later, despite an agreement sponsored by the United Nations (UN) that was supposed to bring peace to Cambodia after more than two decades of war.

The origins of the Khmer Rouge date to the early 1960s, when a small group of revolutionaries launched a rebellion against Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Among the leaders was a French-educated Communist, Saloth Sar. Sar would become known to history as Pol Pot, the pseudonym he adopted as leader of the Khmer Rouge after it came to power.

The uprising remained small during the 1960s, while the war in neighboring Vietnam exploded. Khmer insurgents received no help from the Vietnamese Communists, who had reached an accommodation with Sihanouk that allowed them to resupply and rest their troops on Cambodian territory and who refrained, in return, from aiding Sihanouk’s enemies.

To Saloth Sar and his colleagues this branded the Vietnamese as enemies of their own struggle, even though both groups were Communist. Making a virtue of their isolation, they nurtured an increasingly extreme and violent vision of a pure revolution, which would succeed through sheer ideological zeal and utter indifference to sacrifice and suffering.

After Sihanouk’s overthrow by rightist military leaders in March 1970, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists became partners, though mistrustful ones. Both were also now allied with Sihanouk, whose injured pride and thirst for revenge led him to join forces with his former enemies. Beside the Khmer Rouge there appeared a Vietnamese-sponsored Cambodian resistance force led mainly by a cadre of Cambodians who had fought with the Viet Minh against the French and had lived in Vietnam since the 1950s.

Old antagonisms were submerged for several years, but around the beginning of 1973 the Khmer Rouge moved to seize full control of the revolution. Hundreds of Vietnamese-trained cadres were secretly executed, as were resistance leaders associated with Sihanouk, even while the prince himself, living in China, remained the figurehead leader of the revolutionaries’ exile government.

Outside Cambodia throughout the war, almost nothing was known of the Khmer Rouge. The very name of the Communist Party of Kampuchea was kept secret (remaining so for two years after the war, history’s only case of a Communist party remaining clandestine even after it had won power). The insurgents were hardly less shadowy to the Cambodians themselves, who commonly referred to them only as the peap prey (“forest army”). But behind their veil of secrecy as they consolidated their power and pressed ever more heavily against Lon Nol’s increasingly decrepit regime, the revolutionaries nursed their hatred of the Vietnamese and their fantasies of a revolution so sweeping that it would obliterate every trace of Cambodia’s past.

Estimated Population of Cambodia, 1964-1974


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With a skull on the muzzle of his M-16 rifle, a Khmer Rouge soldier waits with his comrades for word to move out from Dei Kraham, south of Phnom Penh along Highway 2, on September 5, 1973. (Bettmann/Corbis)

April 17, 1975, the date when Lon Nol’s hapless army surrendered and the victorious guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh, was for the Khmer Rouge the first day of “Year Zero,” the beginning of the total transformation of Cambodian society. Within hours the new rulers issued an astonishing order: the entire population of Phnom Penh was to be expelled to the countryside, at once and with no exceptions.

Teenaged revolutionary soldiers, remembered by one witness as “grim, robotlike, brutal,” herded swarms of dazed civilians onto the roads leading out of the capital city. Sick and wounded hospital patients were turned out of their beds and forced to join the exodus. An estimated 2 million to 3 million people were marched out of Phnom Penh, and 600,000 to 750,000 more, in similar brutal fashion, were marched from other towns and cities, altogether about half of the country’s entire population.

In the countryside former city dwellers were put to work in slave labor camps, while the new regime, identifying itself only as Angka Loeu (“Organization on High”), embarked on a murderous purge of its former enemies and everyone else considered to represent the old society. Soldiers and civil servants of the former government were slaughtered, as were teachers, Buddhist priests and monks, intellectuals, and professionals.

The party’s frenzied search for enemies inexorably led to fantasies of traitors in its own ranks. In waves of purges, hundreds of high-ranking leaders and thousands of their followers were killed, usually after gruesome torture. At Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh school converted into an interrogation center, a grisly archive documented approximately 20,000 executions there alone.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge were also engaged in increasingly violent clashes with their former allies, the Vietnamese. Finally, on Christmas Day 1978, 100,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh two weeks later. The city was still virtually empty, however, and after the Khmer Rouge fled, residents began trickling back, “all in black pajamas,” a Vietnamese official recalled, “and thin, like ghosts.”

The Vietnamese installed a new government headed by a former Khmer Rouge commander, Heng Samrin, but they were unable to quell continued resistance from Khmer Rouge soldiers who had regrouped in the countryside. Vietnamese forces withdrew in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. Two years later the Khmer Rouge and two smaller rebel factions signed a peace agreement with the Phnom Penh regime, now led by Hun Sen, but despite the pact the Khmer Rouge never disarmed. Nor did the Khmer Rouge take part in the May 1993 election for a new government. For several years Khmer Rouge guerrillas harassed government forces in widespread areas of the country.

Beginning in 1996, however, the movement began to splinter. In August 1996 Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s former brother-in-law and one of his closest collaborators while the Khmer Rouge was in power, defected to the government side, bringing with him about 4,000 guerrillas who had been operating in western Cambodia. In return Sary requested a royal amnesty, despite the fact that he had been under a death sentence since 1979 for the bloodshed committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Reluctantly King Sihanouk granted his request.

The following spring while increasingly violent conflict between the rival co-prime ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh all but paralyzed the government in Phnom Penh, a new split opened up among Khmer Rouge leaders in their remaining stronghold in northern Cambodia. Dissident Khmer Rouge officials led by Khieu Samphan, the nominal prime minister, held a series of meetings with negotiators representing Prince Ranariddh in which they discussed terms for a cease-fire and the eventual reintegration of Khmer Rouge troops and territory under the national government. As part of the deal, the Khmer Rouge would overthrow Pol Pot, symbolically shedding its bloody past, and join Ranariddh’s National United Front, a multiparty alliance organized to oppose Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. Their guerrillas would not be disarmed or disbanded and would remain in control of the territory they occupied.

The talks led to a last spasm of bloodletting within the Khmer Rouge in June 1997 as Pol Pot and his supporters sought to block an agreement. On Pol Pot’s orders, longtime Khmer Rouge defense minister Son Sen was executed along with about a dozen family members. Shortly afterward Pol Pot’s group seized Khieu Samphan and the other senior members of the Khmer Rouge negotiating team. By this point, however, nearly all of Pol Pot’s comrades, including his old colleague Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge military commander, had turned against him. Replenishing their supplies with weapons and ammunition flown in on government helicopters, anti-Pol Pot forces pursued their former “Brother No. 1” through the jungles near the Khmer Rouge base at Anlong Veng. On June 19, 1997, the 72-year-old leader, sick and exhausted and being carried on a stretcher, was captured.

With Pol Pot’s arrest, the bloody history of the Khmer Rouge should have reached its final page. However, the bargaining between his former comrades and Prince Ranariddh’s negotiators had not only divided the Khmer Rouge but had also fatally split the unstable coalition in Phnom Penh. On July 6, 1997, just a day before an agreement with the new Khmer Rouge leaders was to be announced, Hun Sen seized power, forestalling the alliance between the Khmer Rouge and Ranariddh’s forces. The prince fled the country, and the Khmer Rouge melted back into their forest camps.

Several weeks later in an open-air meeting hall at their Anlong Veng headquarters, the Khmer Rouge staged an extraordinary show trial to condemn Pol Pot, not for the hundreds of thousands of murders carried out under his rule in the 1970s but rather for plotting against his fellow executioners Son Sen and Ta Mok during the final breakup of the movement. At his trial Pol Pot sat silent and seemingly dazed, leaning on a cane and holding a small rattan fan, while several hundred former followers chanted “Crush! Crush! Crush! Pol Pot and his murderous clique!” After the charges against him were read out, the tribunal announced a sentence of life imprisonment; however, he was under only in-house detainment. In April 1998 some of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge followers reportedly agreed to turn him over for trial in an international war crimes tribunal. The very same day that the news was leaked to the press, Pol Pot was found dead. His handlers quickly cremated the body before an autopsy could be performed, leading many to believe that he had either committed suicide or had been poisoned.

Instead of being peacefully reabsorbed into Cambodian life, however, the Khmer Rouge and its new leaders were again engaged—in alliance with military units that had remained loyal to Prince Ranariddh—in armed resistance against the pursuing government army. But Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok, and others with a good deal of blood on their own hands continued to play their part in a sorrowful cycle of vengeance and violence that had already lasted more than 30 years and had begun to seem to be Cambodia’s permanent destiny. By 1999 most of the Khmer Rouge leaders, including Ta Mok and Khieu Samphan, had surrendered, and the Khmer Rouge all but dissolved, leaving only nightmares in its wake. Most surviving Khmer Rouge leaders live in the area of Pailin or anonymously in Phnom Penh.

Today Cambodia has largely recovered from the Khmer Rouge era. The nation has a very young population, with three-quarters of them too young to remember the time when the Khmer Rouge was in power. In 2009, however, the Cambodian Ministry of Education began requiring instruction in the schools regarding Khmer Rouge atrocities.

See also

Cambodia; Heng Samrin; Hun Sen; Khieu Samphan; Lon Nol; Parrot’s Beak; Pol Pot; Sihanouk, Norodom; Vietnam, Socialist Republic of, 1975-Present

  • Becker, Elizabeth. When the War Was Over: The Voices of Cambodia’s Revolution and Its People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.
  • Chanda, Nayan. Brother Enemy: The War after the War. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
  • Deac, Wilfred P. Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.
  • Ponchaud, François. Cambodia Year Zero. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.
  • Isaacs, Arnold R.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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