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Map of Cambodia from the CIA World Factbook.

Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia, is bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.  It is home to the ancient Hindu and later, Buddhist Khmer empire and religious center, Angkor Thom.  The Angkor (Khmer for “Holy City”) empire dates from the 9th to the 14th century.   At its zenith, this vast complex of temples extended political and religious power over Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Malaysia.  Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 and to this day, it stands as an extraordinary cultural monument to Cambodia’s ancient glory. 

The Khmer empire declined in political power during its transition from Hindu to Buddhist influence in the 13th and 14th centuries leaving it susceptible to encroachment by Thailand from the west and Vietnam from the east.   In the 18th century, the French occupied Indochina (modern day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) offered Cambodia support against this insurgence.  In 1863 it was formally declared a protectorate, leading to 90 years of French colonial rule.

Anti-colonial sentiment swept across Indochina in the years following World War II.  Cambodia gained independence in 1953, becoming a constitutional monarchy led by King Norodom Sihanouk.  Two primary nationalist factions emerged in Cambodia, divided by status. The Khmer aristocracy and government officials believed the former eminence of the empire could be restored once the French relinquished control, another younger, less privileged faction maintained that Cambodia could achieve complete and autonomous independence through political or revolutionary reform.  This latter group founded the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) organized by their young leader, Pol Pot and his friend Nuon Chea.  In 1962, Pol Pot became leader of the party and Chea, his “brother number 2”.

Pol Pot envisioned the radical Khmer Rouge as a completely autonomous Cambodian regime charged with returning the country to “Year Zero”, a primitive agrarian society emulating the success of the ancient empire.  As the Vietnamese and French left Cambodia, Pol Pot’s regime gained more control.  Years of guerrilla warfare culminated in the Cambodian Civil War.  In 1970, Sihanouk’s general, Lon Nol, led a military coup against him.   The National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office and Lon Nol seized control of the government.  During this time, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War extended into Cambodian borders.  By 1973, an estimated 1.5 million tons of American B-52 bombs ravaged the landscape and left 750,000 dead.  The Khmer used this U.S. military insurgence as propaganda, further increasing the power of the regime. On April 1, 1975, President Lon Nol fled the country in fear of the encroaching Khmer Rouge.  When they invaded Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, they executed the president’s entire cabinet.

In the years 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge led a forced march of civilians to rural agricultural collectives, eliminated currency, closed schools, businesses, and monasteries, and imprisoned and tortured Cambodian intelligencia.  At least 1.5 million Cambodians died of hunger, disease and execution.  Widespread suspicion within the regime resulted in the execution of his own followers.   Tens of thousands of potential “traitors” were executed at S-21, an interrogation center and prison in Phnom Penh.

In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, driving the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh to the countryside.  The regime’s dispersal and decentralization marked decades of further decline.  In 1989 the Vietnamese retreated and the United Nations intervened, establishing a new government. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer soldier, became the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).  

Scholars maintain that in the 20th century, no other revolution resulted in such a sudden, devastating and lasting impact to society.   As a result of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, 50 percent of the Cambodian population is under 21.  The decades of unrest following the genocide, impeded educational and economic progress.  Approximately 65 percent of Cambodians are illiterate.

While the international community was shocked by the cruelty and magnitude of the Khmer Rouge atrocities and strongly condemned the regime, it has taken decades to bring its perpetrators to justice.   The regime leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.  The Khmer’s remaining leaders, Nuon Chea (second in charge),  Ieng Sary (co-founder), Ieng Thirith (minister of foreign affairs and wife of Sary), and Kang Kek Ieu  (S-21 prison camp director) were finally arrested in 2007.  Ieng Sary died in March, 2013.  Thirty years have passed since the official end of the Khmer Rouge and many of its perpetrators still await trial.

Recommended Resources 

Arn Chorn-Pond Cambodian Survivor  
Sophal Leng Stagg Cambodian Survivor  
Ben Kiernan Professor, Yale University  

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