Tracing The Khmer Rouge Movement in Cambodia–Nina Wei


The Khmer Rouge Movement

As promised in my last post, this week’s blog begins exploring the second unit: Communism in Cambodia. My interest in Cambodia’s Communist regime was sparked by my trip to Cambodia in 6th grade. Having Angkor Wat as the sole impression of the country before traveling, I was absorbed in learning more about Cambodian history during the visit. Our tour guide’s horrific accounts of the Khmer Rouge first introduced me to its violent communist era, and made me question historical backgrounds inducing such an appalling chapter in Cambodian history. In this unit of my independent, I will trace the origins of Cambodian Communism and examine the contexts that shaped the Khmer Rouge’s radicalized interpretation of Communist ideologies.

—Rise to Power—

Communism in Cambodia emerged in the 1930s as a tenet of the multinational Indochina Communist Party (ICP) that promoted an anti-French independence movement that spread across French Indochina. Cambodia set up the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KRKP) under Prince Sihanouk in 1951 as Ho Chi Minh separated from the ICP. However, Sihanouk’s adoption of neutrality in the Cold War and the failure to secure employment opportunities commensurate to his promotion of nationwide education in the fragile post-independent economy contributed to a debilitated KPRP. A group of young, Paris-educated extremists headed by Sloth Sar (also known as Pol Pot), Leng Sara, and Son Sen quickly dominated the KPRP, and soon changed the party’s name to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966. Headed by these three leaders, who regarded themselves as “Original Khmers,” the CPK became the first Khmer Rouge members, composed mostly of young rural school teachers and students (“The Khmer”). 


US Bombing Points in Cambodia, 1965-73

However, before CPK overturned the Sihanouk rule, General Lon Nol, who represented a U.S.-backed coup, first overthrew Sihanouk and quickly allied Cambodia with the U.S. Because of the U.S.’ utilization of Cambodia as a stage for air wars during the Vietnam War and the ensuing deaths of over 1000,000 Cambodian peasants, survivors of U.S. airstrikes and opponents of the ally-relationship joined the Khmer Rouge forces in rural Cambodia. The CPK further gained recruitment by propagandizing Lon Nol as a direct cause for the bombing (Service 405). In the meantime, Pol Pot’s CPK had not received any help from Vietnamese communists, which made him label the Vietnamese as their enemies despite both groups being communist. Pol Pot’s decision to isolate Cambodia’s communism from others signified his initiation of a unique and extreme vision of pure revolution based on ideological zeal. Pot also maintained CPK’s secrecy, clandestinely finalizing their grand plan for a revolution that would sacrifice the obliteration of every trace of Cambodia’s past for an agrarian utopia (“Khmer”).


On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, marching into Phnom Penh and renaming the nation Democratic Kampuchea (DK). It was also the day that the CPK announced the beginning of its Year Zero, a thorough transformation of old Cambodian Society (“Khmer”). The CPK labeled the 2 million urban inhabitants “new people,” expelling them from the capital into the countryside and forcing them to work together with the rural “base people” in unpaid labor camps with little food to sustain a living. Besides harsh labor, the CPK engaged in a mass purge of anyone who represented the old society, which included urban dwellers, former government officials, soldiers, Buddhist priests, intellectuals, and professionals. To carry out the frenetic genocide, the party engaged in training and political education of Cambodian youths, who were drafted into the workforce, armies and spied on their parents or any suspected “enemies.” With starvation, overwork, disease, and denial of medical resources, one-quarter of the urban inhabitants and 15% of the rural villagers perished. The CPK also conducted mass slaughtering within its own party as fantasies of traitors led to hundreds of deaths in high-ranking leadership spheres (“Khmer”). One the of the most notorious prisons, S-21, or Tuol Sleng, incarcerated and executed 20,000 Khmer Rouge members, leaving only 7 survivors (“The Khmer”).

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The Tuol Sleng Prison

CPK’s genocide intensified in 1973-1975 and escalated violence towards ethnic minorities. The party banished from Cambodia 100,000 Vietnamese dwellers, more than 250,000 Chinese, and 150,000 Cham Muslims, leaving only “pure Khmers.” By 1979, 1.7 million lives were lost in Cambodia, including those of Thais, Lao residents, and Buddhist monks who were also subject to severe repression (“The Khmer”).

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Photos of Prisoners in Tuol Sleng Prison

Despite Pol Pot asserting that his grand plan of constructing an agrarian utopia in Cambodia was “four to ten years ahead” of other communist nations in Asia, and that this extreme communization “had no preceding models,” his new Cambodian society adopted similar communist practices as those used in other communist states (“The Khmer”). For instance, he borrowed from Maoism by initiating a “Super Great Leap Forward” and was influenced by Stalinism and the French Revolution while he introduced a ten-day working week schedule for labor camps.


—Final Years and Defections—

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Pol Pot on Jun.22.1979

On December 25, 1978, Vietnamese forces launched an assault retaliating against the ruthless killing of Vietnamese by the CPK, and captured Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in January of 1979, which forced Pol Pot and his central leaders to flee to the countryside. During the next ten years, Vietnamese troops installed another government under a Khmer Rouge dissident, Heng Samrin, while the CPK under Pol Pot regrouped near the Thai border and harassed government forces in dispersed sections of Cambodia (“Khmer”).


The CPK ultimately began to crumble in 1996 when one of the top authorities within the party, Ieng Sary, a close collaborator with Pol Pot during CPK’s regime, first defected to the government with several military units and led the betrayal of other Khmer Rouge officials and engaged in negotiating for a cease-fire between the Khmer Rouge troops and the new government operated under a coalition of two prime ministers—Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The following negotiations further shredded Pol Pot’s party and turned almost every CPK military commander against him. Anti-Pol Pot forces captured the 72-year-old leader in 1997. The arrest of Pol Pot turned the Khmer Rouge chapter in Cambodian history to its final pages, and the eventual dissolution of the CPK gradually took place when Pol Pot died in 1998 and the former Khmer Rouge leaders formed alliances with military units (“Khmer”).


The anti-Capitalist political context with the victories of several preceding communist victories and an introduction of communist ideologies in foreign states, Pol Pot led the CPK to adopt a radicalized, violent interpretation. Rather than looking outward for enemies, Pol Pot targeted domestic groups as opponents and was determined to purge anyone who remained neutral facing the U.S. bombardment of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. With the formation of a frenetic Khmer Rouge army from the countryside, Pol Pot gained ample support to attain a self-sufficient agrarian society in his vision. Defections and continuous conflicts within the party sparked the final breakdown of Pol Pot’s power. However, the mass ethnic slaughterings and atrocities CPK committed left indelible scars on Cambodia and resulted in a country with many young people in its population today.

For a more concise view of the overall Khmer Rouge Movement, referencing this timeline produced by the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University is helpful. This program site also includes abundant photos of the movement and scholarly essays analyzing various policies implemented by the CPK. My first-semester work will draw to a brief stop after this blog, and I will continue to examine Pol Pot’s extreme interpretation of a communist revolution and actual Cambodians’ lives under the Khmer Rouge regime in the second semester by reading excerpts from First They Killed My Father and watching the movie The Missing Picture.


Works Cited


Isaacs, Arnold R. “Khmer Rouge.” Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection, edited by Paul R. Bartrop and Steven Leonard Jacobs, vol. 1: Armenian Genocide, Bosnian Genocide, and Cambodian Genocide, ABC-CLIO, 2015, pp. 516-518. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.

Kiernan, Ben. “The Khmer Rouge Movement in Cambodia.” Cambodia, edited by Jeff Hay and Frank Chalk, Greenhaven Press, 2013, pp. 26-39. Genocide and Persecution. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.

Service, Robert. Comrades!: A History of World Communism. Cambridge, Harvard University, 2007.


Ben Kiernan. The Tuol Sleng Prison. Yale University, 2018 Yale University, 1980, Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.

Bophana Center. The Khmer Rouge Movement., 2018 Bophana, 3 Feb. 2017, Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.

Kyodo News. Pol Pot on Jun.22.1979. The Washington Post, 1996-2018 The Washington Post, 22 June 1979, Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.

Omar Havana. Photos of Prisoners in Tuol Sleng Prison. 7 Aug. 2014. The Washington Post, 1996-2018 The Washington Post, 7 Aug. 2014, Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.

US Bombing Points in Cambodia, 1965-73. Yale University, 2018 Yale University, Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.

1 thought on “Tracing The Khmer Rouge Movement in Cambodia–Nina Wei

  1. bessgoldstein

    This is such a well-informed and well-organized post! I really enjoyed the graphics you used throughout the blog post to illustrate your point. The way you organized the timeline of Communism and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was well thought out, and easy to understand. One part for me that was heartbreaking to read was “Year Zero”, so much violence and starvation, and it was well explained! Thank you for this great post.


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