The Cambodian Genocide 1975-1979

The Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia on 17 April 1975. Their aim was to create a communist, self-providing society. The new regime led by Pol Pot was renamed the Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Citizens were evacuated, schools and Buddhist monasteries were closed, money was abandoned and the concept ‘family’ no longer existed. Private property was no longer allowed and everything seen as foreign was criticized. 1,7 million would die during the four years the Khmer rouge was in power.

Cambodia before 1975
On the one hand a middle class of landowners existed in Cambodia, on the other hand there were many poor peasants. Previously the land was more equally distributed than in the neighboring countries, but by the 1970s the difference between the cities and the countryside increased. De farmers saw the cities as the political and economic power, completely different from their own lives. There were more factors however which would contribute to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The educational gap between peasants and their children increased, due to the bad quality of education during French colonial reign. The peasants’ children were often unable to find work. Cambodia was economically and military destabilized by American bombardments. The Americans, waging war in neighboring Vietnam, bombed Vietnamese targets in Cambodia. This would all contribute to the replacement of the, by the Americans supported, Lon  Nol by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge felt the Cambodians were national and racial superior. Their totalitarian regime was based on secrecy and violence. The national security service Santebal was much feared by Cambodians. Suspects were tortured to extract ‘confessions’ in their prison S-21, and urged to give up their ‘contacts’.

The genocide in Cambodia targeted different groups. One of them was the religious minority the Buddhists. Also ethnic minorities were one of the targets. Of the dozens ethnic minorities, especially the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham were persecuted. The majority of the Cambodian population was also targeted. Society was divided between the ‘old citizens’ who lived in the areas of the Khmer Rouge when they took over power, and the ‘new citizens’, who lived in the cities. Especially the ‘new’ citizens were targeted. In 1976 they were renamed ‘deportees’. It is estimated that 29 percent of this group died between 1975-1979.

The end of the Khmer Rouge
In January 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese troops would stay in the country until 1989. Pol Pot however was still acknowledged as the leader of Cambodia and he held his UN seat for twelve years. The other members of Pol Pot’s regime who were hiding in the north of Cambodia would perish of paranoia and betrayal.

The peace treaty of Paris
On October 23, 1991 the peace treaty of Paris was signed. This would mean the end of the twelve year civil war in Cambodia. Cambodia was temporarily governed by the National Council and the United Nations Transit Authority of Cambodia. In May 1993 the first free elections in more than twenty years would be held.

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Children at work during Democratic Kampuchea. Source: Documentation Center of Cambodia.