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The Cambodian genocide (Khmer: ហាយនភាពខ្មែរ or ការប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍ខ្មែរ, French: Génocide cambodgien) was carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime under the leadership of Pol Pot, and it resulted in the deaths of between 1.671 and 1.871 million people from 1975 to 1979, or 21 to 24 percent of Cambodia’s 1975 population.[1] The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic, founded on the policies of ultra-Maoism.[3][4][5] In 1976, the Khmer Rouge changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. In order to fulfill their goals, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labor camps in the countryside, where mass executions, forced labor, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease were prevalent. This resulted in the death of approximately 25 percent of Cambodia's total population.[6][7] Approximately 20,000 people passed through the Tuol Sleng Centre (also known as Security Prison S-21), one of the 196 prisons operated by the Khmer Rouge,[8][9] and only 7 adults survived.[10] The prisoners were taken to the Killing Fields, where they were executed (often with pickaxes in order to save bullets[11]) and buried in mass graves. The abduction and indoctrination of children was widespread, and many were persuaded or forced to commit atrocities.[12] The genocide triggered a second outflow of refugees, many of whom escaped to neighboring Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Thailand.[13] The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia ended the genocide by defeating the Khmer Rouge in 1979.[14]

Cambodian genocide
Part of Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia
Dead people of Cambodia.jpg
Skulls of victims of the Cambodian genocide.
LocationDemocratic Kampuchea
DateApril 17, 1975 – January 7, 1979 (3 years, 8 months, 20 days)
Target[note 1]
Attack type
Genocide, classicide, politicide, torture, famine, forced labor, deportation, crimes against humanity
Deaths1.671 - 1.871 million[1]
1.8 - 2.5 million[2]
PerpetratorsKhmer Rouge
Motive[note 2]

On 2 January 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to try the members of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for the Cambodian genocide. Trials began on 17 February 2009.[15] On 7 August 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted and received life sentences for crimes against humanity during the genocide. As of 2009, the Cambodian NGO Documentation Center of Cambodia has mapped some 23,745 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million suspected victims of execution. Direct execution is believed to account for roughly 60% of the full death toll during the genocide,[16] with other victims succumbing to starvation or disease.


Targeted populationsEdit

The Khmer Rouge regime frequently arrested and often executed anyone suspected of connections with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, the Buddhist monkhood, and ethnic minorities. As a result, Pol Pot has been described by journalists and historians, such as William Branigin, as "a genocidal tyrant".[17] British sociologist Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as "the purest genocide of the Cold War era".[18] The attempt to purify Cambodian society along racial, social and political lines led to purges of Cambodia's previous military and political leadership, along with business leaders, journalists, students, doctors, and lawyers.[19]

Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and other minorities were also targeted. The Khmer Rouge forcibly relocated minority groups and banned the use of minority languages. By decree, the Khmer Rouge banned the existence of more than 20 minority groups, which constituted 15% of the country's population.[20]

Ethnic and religious victimsEdit

Rooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum contain thousands of photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims.

While every other Cambodian then were victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, the persecution, torture, and killings committed by the Khmer Rouge have been proven to be an act of genocide according to the United Nations as ethnic and religious minorities were systematically targeted by Pol Pot and his regime.

Scholars and historians have varying opinions on whether the persecution and killings under the hands of the Khmer Rouge should be considered genocide. This is because the earlier scholarship which came about right after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 had claimed that the victims could have just been collaterals due to the circumstances they were in. For instance, Michael Vickery opined that the killings were "largely the result of the spontaneous excesses of a vengeful, undisciplined peasant army."[21] Such view was also supported by Alexander Hinton, who related an account by a former Khmer Rouge cadre who claimed that the killings were acts of retribution for the injustices of the Lon Nol soldiers when they killed people who were known to be former Viet Minh agents[22] before the rise of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge to power. Vickery – erroneously, as maintained by the more recent scholarship of Ben Kiernan – argued that the number of Cham victims during the Khmer Rouge regime to be around 20,000[23] which would rule out the crime of genocide against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The killings were a centralized and bureaucratic effort by the Khmer Rouge regime, as recently documented by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) through the discovery of Khmer Rouge internal security documents which instructed the killings across Cambodia.[24] However there were also instances of “indiscipline and spontaneity in the mass killings.”[25] On top of that, Etcherson has also maintained that with the systematic mass killings based on political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, and citizenship resulting in the loss of a third of the Cambodian population, the Khmer Rouge is effectively guilty of committing genocide.[26]

David Chandler has argued that, although ethnic minorities fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime, they were not targeted specifically because of their ethnic backgrounds, but rather because they were mostly enemies of the revolution (Kiernan, 2002:252; see also the footnote on Chandler’s The Tragedy of Cambodian History, pp. 4, 263-65, 285). Furthermore, Chandler also rejects the use of the terms “chauvinism” and “genocide” just to avoid drawing possible parallels to Hitler. This indicates that Chandler does not believe in the argument of charging the Khmer Rouge regime with the crime of genocide. Similarly, Michael Vickery holds a similar position to Chandler’s, and refuses to acknowledge the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime as genocide; Vickery regarded the Khmer Rouge a “chauvinist” regime, due to its anti-Vietnam and anti-religion policies (Kiernan, 2002:252; see Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-1982, pp. 181–82, 255, 258, 264-65). Stephen Heder also conceded that the Khmer Rouge were not guilty of genocide, stating that the atrocities of the regime were not motivated by race (Kiernan, 2002:252; see Heder’s From Pol Pot to Pen Sovan to the Villages, p. 1).

Ben Kiernan makes the argument that it was indeed a genocide and disagrees with the three scholars, by bringing forth examples from the history of the Cham people in Cambodia, as did an international tribunal finding Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty 92 and 87 counts of said crime respectively[27]


The Khmer Rouge initially ordered the expulsion of ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia but then massacred large numbers of that population as they attempted to flee the country.[28] The regime then prevented the remaining 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese from fleeing, and much of this group was also executed.[29] The Khmer Rouge also used the media to support their goals of genocide. Radio Phnom Penh called on Cambodians to "exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese."[30]

Additionally, the Khmer Rouge conducted many cross-border raids into Vietnam where they slaughtered an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese civilians.[31][32] Most notably, during the Ba Chúc massacre in April 1978, the Khmer Rouge military crossed the border and entered the village, slaughtering 3,157 Vietnamese civilians at once. This forced an urgent response from the Vietnamese government, precipitating the Cambodian–Vietnamese War in which the Khmer Rouge was ultimately defeated.[33][34]


The state of the Chinese Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime has been described as "the worst disaster ever to befall any ethnic Chinese community in Southeast Asia."[20] Cambodians of Chinese descent were massacred by the Khmer Rouge under the justification that they "used to exploit the Cambodian people".[35] The Chinese were stereotyped as traders and moneylenders associated with capitalism, while historically the group had attracted resentment due to their lighter skin color and cultural differences.[36] Hundreds of Chinese families were rounded up in 1978 and told that they were to be resettled, but were actually executed.[35] At the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, there were 425,000 ethnic Chinese in Cambodia; by the end of 1979 there were just 200,000. Furthermore, the Chinese were predominantly city-dwellers, making them vulnerable to the Khmer Rouge's revolutionary ruralism and evacuation of city residents to farms.[20] The government of the People's Republic of China did not protest the killings of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia.[37]

Cham MuslimsEdit

According to Ben Kiernan, the "fiercest extermination campaign was directed against the ethnic Cham Muslim minority."[38] Islam was seen as an "alien" and "foreign" culture that did not belong in the new Communist system. Initially, the Khmer Rouge aimed for the "forced assimilation" of Chams through population dispersal. Pol Pot then began using intimidation efforts against the Chams that included the assassination of village elders but ultimately ordered the full-scale mass killing of Cham people. American professor Samuel Totten and Australian professor Paul R. Bartrop estimate that these efforts would have completely wiped out the Cham population were it not for the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.[39]

The Cham began to rise in prominence through joining the communists as early as the 1950s, with a Cham elder, Sos Man joined the Indochina Communist Party and rose through the ranks to become a major in the Party’s forces. He then returned home to the Easterns Zone in 1970 and joined the CPK, and co-established the Eastern Zone Islamic Movement with his son, Mat Ly. Together, they became the mouthpiece of the CPK to get the Cham people to take part in the revolution (2002:258). Sos Man’s Islamic Movement was also tolerated by CPK’s leadership between 1970-75 (2002:258). The Chams were gradually made to abandon their faith and distinct practices as early as 1972 in the Southwest (2002:258).

Ten Cham villages were taken over by the CPK in 1972-73, where new Cham leaders were instated and led the villagers to work in the fields away from their hometowns. A witness interviewed by Kiernan asserts that they were well-treated by the CPK then, and allowed to return to their homes in 1974 (2002:259). On top of that, the Cham were also classified as “depositee base people,” which makes them further vulnerable to prosecution.

Ben Kiernan argues that the violence and killings in the Eastern Zone did not occur or were not very intense before late 1976.[40] This came largely from Kiernan’s interviews with the locals in 1979 to 1993. Henri Locard in 1995 argues that the violence and killings in the Eastern Zone were similarly intense due to the presence of “a closely interconnected three-tier prison network” across the country in the forms of detention centres on the commune level, the district prisons on the district level, and zone prisons on the provincial level.[41] A similar pattern was discovered in Region 23 within the Eastern Zone, in which the prisons were constructed prior to the Khmer Rouge rise to power in April 1975, which further affirms Locard’s argument (2005:104).[42] Hence, the rate of violence and killings were considerably more intense after the rise of Khmer Rouge to power, beginning 1978. Pol Pot had considered people living in the Eastern Zone as traitors and “enemies with Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds,” no thanks to the proximity of the area to the border of Vietnam, as well as the association of some to the previous regime. Hence, Kiernan was quite accurate to point out that the persecution was not as intense before the rise of Pol Pot to power. On the other hand, Locard’s argument about the constant rate of persecution before and after the coming of Pol Pot to power was also non-substantive due to the new data provided by witnesses.[43] However, it is almost accurate to suggest that oppressive forms of persecution have already existed before the rise of Pol Pot to power.

Despite that, the Cham in many areas do live side by side with the locals, speaking the Khmer language, and even inter-marrying with the majority Khmers as well as the minority Chinese and Vietnamese (Kiernan, 2002:257). The diverse ethnic and cultural practices of Cambodians began to deteriorate with the rise of the CPK in 1972, when the Cham were prohibited from practising their faith and culture – Cham women were required to keep their hair short like the Khmers did; Cham men were not allowed to put on the sarong; farmers were made to put on rudimentary dark or black clothing; religious activities like the mandatory daily prayers were curbed (Kiernan, 2002:258-259). Vickery notes that the Cambodian Cham were discriminated against by the Khmer before the beginning of the war “in some localities,” partly because the Cham were stereotyped as being practitioners of black magic (Kiernan, 2002:256; see also Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-1982, pp. 181.) However, in other localities, the Cham were well-assimilated within the host communities, speaking the Khmer language and inter-marrying to Khmers, Vietnamese, and the Chinese (2002:256).

Between 1972 and 1974, the enforcement of such restrictions was further amplified as the Khmer Rouge found the Cham to be a threat to its communist agenda due to their unique language, culture, belief, and independent communal system. Not only that, the Cham were also renamed “Islamic Khmers,” to disassociate them with their ancestral heritage and ethnicity, and assimilating them into the larger Khmer-dominated Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge believed that the Cham would jeopardise the communist efforts of establishing close-knit communities where everyone could be easily monitored. As such, the regime had decided to disperse the Cham by deporting them from their respective localities to work as peasants across Cambodia, hence contributing directly to the new DK economy. This move was undertaken to ensure that the Cham will not congregate to form its own community again, which undermines the regime’s plan of establishing central economic cooperatives. Slowly, those who defied these restrictions were arrested by the regime. Hence in October 1973, Cham Muslims in the Eastern Zone of DK demonstrated their displeasure towards the CPK restrictions by beating the drums – which are traditionally used to inform local of the time for daily prayers – at the local mosques. This act of communal defiance prompted the blanket arrest of many leaders and religious teachers from the Cham Muslim community (Kiernan, 2002:260-261).

In February 1974, the Cham in Region 31, which is in the Western Zone of DK, protested the CPK policy which required the fishermen to register their daily catch with the local cooperative and sell them to the cooperative at a low price. At the same time, the locals were also made to buy those fishes from the cooperative at a higher price. This prompted the locals to confront the cooperative to express their discontent, only to be shot at, “killing and wounding more than 100,” as one account put it. By December 1974, a rebellion by the Cham in Region 21 of the Eastern Zone had broken out against the CPK after community leaders were arrested. The rebellion was repressed forcefully by the regime with no records of casualties documented (Kiernan, 2002:260-261).

As much as there are records of these restrictions, resistance, and repressions, there were also accounts from the Cham community which deny the oppression by the regime between 1970 and early 1975. While restrictions on certain activities like trade and travel were in place during that period, they were understood to be by-products of the ongoing civil war. Moreover, some Cham had also joined the revolution as soldiers and members of the CPK. According to some local accounts, people had confidence in the Khmer Rouge when they first came to the village communities who assisted the locals with food and provisions, and there were no bans on local culture or religion; even if restrictions were imposed, the consequences were not harsh (Kiernan, 2002:262). The CPK were considered heroes of the revolution as they struggled for the cause of the peasantry and nation against the United States (Hinton, 2005:58). As the Cham communities were to be found across DK, various Cham communities might have experienced the effects of the CPK pre-1975 differently; some communities experienced the repressions and restrictions while others did not. Only when Pol Pot had consolidated power by the end of 1975 that the prosecutions became more severe and affected all of the Cham people indiscriminately.

This could well be one of the simpler factors as to why the Cambodian government and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) do not prosecute the pre-1975 Khmer Rouge perpetrators before Pol Pot consolidated his power. As such, the accounts of those who experienced the repressions prior to 1975 were not considered to be part of the genocide as the case for a systematic annihilation of a people based on ethnic or religious profiling was not concrete enough.

In 1975, upon the victory of the CPK over the Khmer Republic forces, two brothers of Cham descent who had joined the Khmer Rouge as soldiers returned home to Region 21 within the Kampong Cham province, where the largest Cham Muslim community could be found. The brothers then told their father of the adventures they had experienced being part of the revolution which included killing Khmers and consuming pork, in the hopes of convincing their father to join the communist cause. The father who had remained silent, was clearly not intrigued by the accounts related by his sons. Instead, he grabbed a cleaver, killed his sons, and told his fellow villagers that he had killed the enemy. When the villagers pointed out that he had indeed murdered his own sons, he recounted the stories he was told by his sons earlier, citing the Khmer Rouge’s hatred for Islam and the Cham people. This prompted a unanimous agreement amongst the villagers to kill all Khmer Rouge soldiers within the area on that night. The next morning, more Khmer Rouge forces descended the area with heavy weapons and surrounded the village, killing every single villager in it (Kiernan, 2002:263). Similarly in June or July 1975, the CPK authorities in Region 21 of the Eastern Zone tried to confiscate all copies of the Qur'an from the people, while at the same time impose a mandatory short haircut for Cham women. The authorities were met with mass demonstration staged by the local Cham community who were shot at by the regime soldiers. The Cham retaliated forcefully with swords and blades killing a few soldiers, only to be met with military reinforcement from the regime which annihilated the villagers and their properties (Kiernan, 2002:263-264). In another account by Cham refugees in Malaysia, thirteen leading figures within the Cham Muslim community were killed by the regime in June 1975. The reasons behind the killings was supposedly because some of them were “leading prayers instead of attending a CPK meeting,” while the others were purportedly “petitioning for the permission on marriage ceremonies” (Kiernan, 2002:263).

Events got from bad to worse in mid-1976 due to the rebellion, when the ethnic minorities were obliged to pledge loyalty only to the Khmer nationality and religion – there were to be no other identities besides Khmer. Consequently, the Cham language were not uttered, communal eating where everyone shares the same food became mandatory, forcing the Cham Muslims to raise pigs and consume pork against their religious belief (Kiernan, 2002:269). One explanation for the rise of such rebellions offered by that locals is that some of the Cham were involved in the Khmer Rouge as soldiers who were anticipating positions of power once Pol Pot consolidated power. In 1975, these Cham soldiers were dismissed from the Khmer Rouge forces, deprived from their Islamic practices and robbed of their ethnic identity (Kiernan, 2002:264).

Here, we could point out that the patterns were consistent throughout the killings of the Cham people; first, the dismantling of the communal structure through the murder of the leaders of the Cham Muslim communities, which include the Muftis, Imams, and other learned men of influence; second, the dismantling of the Cham’s Islamic and ethnic identities through the restrictions against distinct practices which distinguished the Cham from the Khmers; third, the dispersal of the Cham from their respective communities, either by forced labour in the fields, or arresting them for alleged plots of resistance or rebellion against the CPK.

During the Khmer Rouge era, all religions, including both Buddhism and Islam were persecuted. According to Cham sources, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era, many others were desecrated, and Muslims were not allowed to worship. Muslims were forced to eat pork and were murdered when they refused. Whole Cham villages were exterminated. Chams were not permitted to speak their language. Cham children were taken away from their parents and raised as Khmers.

Orders given by the Khmer Rouge government in 1979 stated: "The Cham nation no longer exists on Kampuchean soil belonging to the Khmer. Accordingly, Cham nationality, language, customs and religious beliefs must be immediately abolished. Those who fail to obey this order will suffer all the consequences for their acts of opposition to Angkar [the Khmer Rouge high command]."[44]

After the end of Khmer Rouge rule all religions were restored. Vickery believes that about 185,000 Cham lived in Cambodia in the mid-1980s and that the number of mosques was about the same then as it was before 1975. In early 1988, there were six mosques in the Phnom Penh area and a "good number" in the provinces, but Muslim dignitaries were thinly stretched; only 20 of the previous 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia survived the Khmer Rouge period.[45]

Religious groupsEdit

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, who was an ardent atheist,[46] the Khmer Rouge had a policy of state atheism. According to Catherine Wessinger, "Democratic Kampuchea was officially an atheist state, and the persecution of religion by the Khmer Rouge was matched in severity only by the persecution of religion in the communist states of Albania and North Korea." [47] All religions were banned, and the repression of adherents of Islam,[48] Christianity,[49] and Buddhism was extensive. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Buddhist monks were massacred by the Khmer Rouge.[50][51]


Ideology played an important role in the genocide. Pol Pot was influenced by Marxism and desired an entirely self-sufficient agrarian society free from all foreign influences. Stalin's work has been described as a "crucial formative influence" on Pol Pot's thought. Also heavily influential was the work of Mao Zedong, particularly his On New Democracy. In the mid-1960s, Pol Pot reformulated his ideas about Marxism–Leninism to better suit the Cambodian situation aimed to bring Cambodia back to its "mythic past" of the powerful Khmer Empire, to stop corrupting influences like foreign aid and western culture, and to restore the country to an agrarian society. Attempts to implement these goals were key factors in the ensuing genocide.[52][53] One Khmer Rouge leader said that the killings were meant for the "purification of the populace."[54]

The Khmer Rouge forced virtually the entire population of Cambodia into mobile work teams.[55] Michael Hunt said that it was "an experiment in social mobilization unmatched in twentieth-century revolutions."[55] The Khmer Rouge used an inhumane forced labor regime, starvation, forced resettlement, land collectivization, and state terror to keep the population in line.[55]

Historian Ben Kiernan has compared the Cambodian genocide to the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire and the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi-era Germany. While each was unique, they shared certain common features. Racism was a major part of the ideology of all three of the genocidal regimes. All three targeted religious minorities and tried to use force of arms to expand into what they believed to be their historical heartlands (the Khmer Empire, Turkestan, and Lebensraum respectively), while all three regimes "idealized their ethnic peasantry as the true 'national' class, the ethnic soil from which the new state grew."[56]

Torture and medical experimentsEdit

The Khmer Rouge regime is also well known for having practiced torture and medical experiments. There are many accounts of torture in both the S-21 records and the documents of the trial. Tortures were not only meant to force the prisoner to confess, they were also used for amusement among the prison guards. They feared that they would become themselves prisoners of the same prison if they treated the prisoners well.[citation needed] Moreover, unlike other totalitarian regimes (such as Nazism) where soldiers and guards were adults and normally suffered from psychological stress when they had to carry out mass killings with rifles (which was one of the reasons that led to the adoption of gas chambers), prison guards of the Khmer Rouge regime were just youths and most of them could not even realize in full what they were doing.[citation needed]

The previous doctors were killed or sent to the countryside to work as farmers during the Khmer Rouge and the library of the Medical Faculty in Phnom Penh was set on fire. The regime then employed child medics, who were just teenagers with no or very little training in that job. They did not have any knowledge of Western medicine (which had been forbidden since it was considered a capitalist invention), and they had to practice their own medical experiments and make progress by themselves. They did not have Western medicines (since Cambodia, according to the Khmer Rouge, had to be self-sufficient) and all the medical experiments were systematically conducted without anesthetics.[57]

A medic who worked inside S-21 told that a 17-year-old girl had her throat slit and her abdomen pierced before being beaten and put into water for the whole night. This procedure was repeated many times and it was carried out without anesthetics.[58]

In a hospital of Kampong Cham province, child medics cut out the intestines of a living non-consenting person and they joined their ends in order to study the healing process. The patient died after three days due to the "operation".[57]

In the same hospital, other "physicians" trained by the Khmer Rouge opened the chest of a living person, just to see the heart beating. The operation resulted in the immediate death of the patient.[57]

Other testimonies, as well as the policy itself implemented by the Khmer Rouge, suggest that those were not just isolated cases.[59][60][61] They also performed drug testing, for instance by injecting coconut juice into a living person's body and studying the effects. Coconut juice-injection was often lethal.[57]

International reactionEdit

The book Cambodge année zéro ("Cambodia Year Zero") by François Ponchaud was released in 1977 and translated into English in 1978.[62] Ponchaud was one of the first authors to bring the Cambodian genocide to the world's attention.[63] Ponchaud has said that the genocide "was above all, the translation into action the particular vision of a man [sic]: A person who has been spoiled by a corrupt regime cannot be reformed, he must be physically eliminated from the brotherhood of the pure."[64] Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of a Communist Genocide in Cambodia by John Barron and Anthony Paul was published in 1977.[65] The book drew on accounts from refugees, and an abridged version published in Reader's Digest was widely read.[66]

In 1973, Kenneth M. Quinn of the United States embassy raised concerns over the atrocities being carried out by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Civil War. In a report, he stated that the Khmer Rouge had "much in common with those of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union." [67] Quinn has written of the Khmer Rouge: "[w]hat emerges as the explanation for the terror and violence that swept Cambodia during the 1970s is that a small group of alienated intellectuals, enraged by their perception of a totally corrupt society and imbued with a Maoist plan to create a pure socialist order in the shortest possible time, recruited extremely young, poor, and envious cadres, instructed them in harsh and brutal methods learned from Stalinist mentors, and used them to destroy physically the cultural underpinnings of the Khmer civilization and to impose a new society through purges, executions, and violence."[68]

During the genocide, China was the main international patron of the Khmer Rouge, supplying "more than 15,000 military advisers"[69] and most of its external aid.[70] As a result of Chinese and Western opposition to the Vietnamese invasion of 1978 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge continued to hold Cambodia's United Nations seat until 1982, after which the seat was filled by a Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.[71][72] Motivated by its opposition to Vietnam, China trained Khmer Rouge soldiers on its soil from 1979 to at least 1986, "stationed military advisers with Khmer Rouge troops as late as 1990,"[71] and "supplied at least $1 billion in military aid" during the 1980s.[73] After the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Thailand continued to allow the Khmer Rouge "to trade and move across the Thai border to sustain their activities... although international criticism, particularly from the United States and Australia... caused it to disavow passing any direct military support."[74] There are also allegations that the United States directly or indirectly supported the Khmer Rouge to weaken Vietnam's influence in Southeast Asia.[75][76][77]

Use of childrenEdit

The Khmer Rouge exploited thousands of desensitized, conscripted children in their early teens to commit mass murder and other atrocities during and after the genocide.[12] The indoctrinated children were taught to follow any order without hesitation.[12] The organization continued to use children extensively until at least 1998, often forcibly recruiting them.[78] During this period, the children were deployed mainly in unpaid support roles, such as ammunition-carriers, and also as combatants.[78] Many children had fled the Khmer Rouge without a means to feed themselves, and believed that joining the government forces would enable them to survive, although local commanders frequently denied them any pay.[78]

War crimes trialsEdit

The tribunal's main building with the court room

On 15 July 1979, following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, the new government of Cambodia passed "Decree Law No. 1." This allowed for the trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary for the crime of genocide. They were given an American defense lawyer, Hope Stevens,[79] and were tried in absentia and convicted of genocide.[80] In January 2001, the Cambodian National Assembly passed legislation to form a tribunal to try additional members of the Khmer Rouge regime.[81]

In 1999, Kang Kek Iew ("Comrade Duch") was interviewed by Nic Dunlop and Nate Thayer and admitted his guilt for crimes carried out in Tuol Sleng prison, where up to 17,000 political prisoners were executed. He expressed sorrow for his actions, stating that he was willing to stand trial and give evidence against his former comrades. During his trial in February and March 2009, Duch admitted that he was responsible for the crimes carried out at Tuol Sleng. On 26 July 2010, he was found guilty on charges of crimes against humanity, torture, and murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.[82] On 3 February 2012 his previous sentence was replaced with life imprisonment.[83]

Nuon Chea ("Brother Number Two") was arrested on 19 September 2007.[84] At the end of his 2013 trial he denied all charges, stating that he had not given orders "to mistreat or kill people to deprive them of food or commit any genocide." He was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He has expressed remorse and accepted moral responsibility for his crimes, stating "I would like to sincerely apologize to the public, the victims, the families, and all Cambodian people."[85]

After being located in an opulent Phnom Penh villa, Ieng Sary was arrested on 12 November 2007 and indicted for crimes against humanity, as was his wife Ieng Thirith, who had been an unofficial adviser to the regime.[86] On 17 November 2011, following evaluations from medical experts, Thirith was found to be unfit to stand trial due to a mental condition.[87] Sary died of heart failure in 2013 while his trial was in progress.[88]

Another senior Khmer Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, was arrested on 19 November 2007 and charged with crimes against humanity.[89] He was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment. At a hearing on 23 June 2017, Samphan stated a desire to bow to the memory of his guiltless victims, while also claiming that he suffered for those who fought for their ideal to have a brighter future.[90]


A few months before his death on 15 April 1998,[91] Pol Pot was interviewed by Nate Thayer. During the interview, he stated that he had a clear conscience and denied being responsible for the genocide. Pol Pot asserted that he "came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people." According to Alex Alvarez, Pol Pot "portrayed himself as a misunderstood and unfairly vilified figure".[92] In 2013, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen passed legislation that prohibits the denial of the Cambodian genocide and other war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. The legislation was passed despite comments by opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is the deputy president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. Sokha stated that exhibits at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum were fabricated and that the artifacts had been faked by the Vietnamese following their invasion in 1979. Sokha's party has claimed that his comments were taken out of context.[93]

In literature and mediaEdit

Filmmaker Rithy Panh, a survivor of the genocide, is "considered by many to be the cinematic voice of Cambodia." Panh has directed several documentaries on the genocide, including S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which has been noted by critics for "allow[ing] us to observe how memory and time may collapse to render the past as present and by doing so reveal the ordinary face of evil."[94] The genocide is portrayed in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields[95] and in Patricia McCormick's 2012 novel Never Fall Down.[96]

The genocide is also recounted by Loung Ung in her memoir First They Killed My Father (2000).[97][96] The book was adapted into a 2017 biographical film directed by Angelina Jolie. Set in 1975, the film depicts 5-year-old Ung who is forced to be trained as a child soldier while her siblings are sent to labor camps by the Khmer Rouge regime.[98]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Cambodia's previous military and political leadership, business leaders, journalists, students, doctors, lawyers, Buddhists, Chams, Chinese Cambodians, Christians, intellectuals, Thai Cambodians, Vietnamese Cambodians
  2. ^ Anti-Buddhism, anti-Cham sentiment, classism, anti-Christianity, anti-intellectualism, anti-Thai sentiment, anti-Vietnamese sentiment, Islamophobia, Khmer ultra-nationalism, Sinophobia, Marxism, Communism


  1. ^ a b Kiernan, Ben (2003). "The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia. The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80". Critical Asian Studies. 35 (4): 585–597. doi:10.1080/1467271032000147041.
  2. ^ COUNTING HELL by Bruce Sharp
  3. ^ Jackson, Karl D (1989). Cambodia, 1975–1978: Rendezvous with Death. Princeton University Press. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-691-02541-4.
  4. ^ Ervin Staub. The roots of evil: the origins of genocide and other group violence. Cambridge University Press, 1989. p. 202
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