During the four years that the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, it spear-headed one of the worst genocides of the 20th Century.

From 1975-1979, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of up to two million people.

Under its Marxist leader Pol Pot, the despotic regime attempted to return Cambodia to the Middle Ages, "forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside" and killing those who resisted or were too weak to survive -- whether by execution, or due to the terrible work and living conditions on the "farms".









The Khmer Rouge originated in the 1960s, as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea - the decolonized and original local name that the Communists used for Cambodia.


Initially operating from the remote jungles and mountains in the north-east of the country, the group was, at first, fairly low key .Then, taking advantage of a right-wing military coup that deposed of the head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, the Khmer Rouge entered into a political coalition with him and began to gain power.


In a civil war that extended over nearly five years, it gradually extended its domain in the countryside. Khmer Rouge forces finally seized the capital, Phnom Penh, and therefore the nation as a whole in 1975.

During his time with the tribes in the remote jungles and mountains in the remote north-east of Cambodia, Pol Pot had been influenced by their self-sufficiency and their communal living, romanticizing the fact that the tribals were free from the lure of money and "were 'untainted' by Buddhism" (BBC News). When Pol Pot came to power, he and his followers were determined to transform Cambodia - now re-named Kampuchea - into their vision of "an agrarian utopia" (BBC).

Deciding that the nation would re-set its destiny at "Year Zero", Pol Pot isolated Cambodians from the rest of the world and forcibly relocated people the cities, banning all forms of private capital and religion, and setting up rural collectives.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was executed. Often people were condemned for appearing to be 'intellectuals" because they wore glasses, or as dissidents because they knew a foreign language. Ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims in Cambodia were also targeted.

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The Khmer Rouge was largely inspired by China's ruling Communist Party.

Image courtesy: Getty Images/BBC

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Tuol Sleng was turned from a school to a prison, torture site and death camp.

Image courtesy: Getty Images/BBC

Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes met their grim fates in special detention centers, the worst of which was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, where approximately 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured, and executed during the regime's four years in power. Hundreds of thousands of other indentured laborers died from inhumane conditions as members of the Khmer Rouge - often just teenagers themselves - forced people to do back-breaking work (BBC).

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. The higher ups in the party fled to remote areas of the country, where their fearful influence gradually declined.

In the decades that followed, as Cambodia returned to the international community, the full horrors of the Khmer Rouge became public knowledge. Survivors shared their stories with a shocked world, and in the 1980s the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields brought the Cambodian genocide to worldwide attention. Former comrades testified against Pol Pot in a "show trial" in July 1997, and he was sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home. But less than a year later he was dead - denying the millions of people who were affected by this brutal regime the chance to bring him to justice.

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Pol Pot the leader of the Khmer Rouge died before he could be brought to justice.. Photograph: AP

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Kaing Guek Eav - known as Duch - was jailed for life for his role in running the Tuol Sleng prison. Image courtesy: The Guardian (U.K.)

                  In a 1997 New York Times Magazine interview, Pol Pot, the man responsible for the                        deaths of at least a million Cambodians argued that he “had saved Cambodia from                      domination by its longtime enemy, Vietnam.” (Mydans)


The UN helped establish a tribunal to oversee the trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, which began its work in 2009. Only three Khmer Rouge leaders have ever been sentenced.

  • Kaing Guek Eav - known as Duch - received a life sentence in 2012 for running the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

  • In August 2014, Nuon Chea - considered Brother Number 2 to Pol Pot - and the regime's head of state Khieu Samphan were also jailed for life for crimes against humanity.

  • In November 2018, the tribunal also found them guilty of genocide over the attempted extermination of the Cham and Vietnamese minorities.


As the BBC notes: "It remains the first and only genocide conviction against the Khmer Rouge."


BBC News. Asia. "Khmer Rouge: Cambodia's years of brutality." 18 Nov. 2018. 
Mydans, Seth. "In an Interview, Pol Pot Declares His Conscience Is Clear." The New York
         Times. 23 Oct. 1997 < 
Vlasic, Mark. "Life for Comrade Duch, a milestone for international justice." The Guardian, 
         UK. 13 Mar. 2012 
Whymant, Robert. "From the archive, 11 December 1979: Deposed Pol Pot gives interview in
          the jungle." The Guardian, U.K. 11 Dec. 2013.