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Historical background 1975 - 1998

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On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge troops seized control of the capital, Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of an attempt to transform Cambodian society into an agrarian utopia. Pol Pot’s first action was to force the population out of the cities and towns and into the countryside. He and his top leaders established a society based on agriculture and total collectivism. The Angkar or “Organization,” as the revolutionary movement named itself, was the sole governing power and the owner of all means of production and private property. Cambodia was renamed Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and was mostly sealed off from the outside world.[1]

Angkar’s polices were largely uniform across the country with some regional and individual variations.[2] Officially, class was abolished but in practice all Cambodians were labeled as either “Old or Base People” or “New People.” Old People were those who resided in areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge prior to 1975. New People were mostly city dwellers, including peasants in the cities at the time of the evacuation[3] who had been exposed to foreign influences and considered politically unreliable. Millions of Cambodians were forced into slave labor where they began dying from overwork, disease, and malnutrition.

To enforce their drastic changes, the Khmer Rouge created and maintained a climate of constant terror, violence, and secrecy. They also instituted a vast prison system across the country.[4] The most infamous prison was Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh where at least 12,000 thousand people died as a result of torture or execution. The regime marked large cohorts of the population for extermination: the educated urban elite, soldiers from previous regimes, Buddhist monks, Cambodians returning from overseas and ethnic populations such as Chams, Khmer of Vietnamese origin, and Khmer of Chinese origin. As the leaders’ obsession with potential infiltration and treason increased, the regime also conducted major purges among their own ranks, torturing and killing countless innocent victims.[5]

After several years of border skirmishes, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia on January 7, 1979, and overthrew Pol Pot and his regime. The Vietnamese installed a pro-Vietnamese government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), led by Heng Samrin. Cambodia entered a period of reconstruction hindered by a resistance movement at the Thai border and continuing isolation from the international community. In September 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew their troops.[6] In 1991, all factions (government and resistance, including the Khmer Rouge) signed the Paris Peace Agreement. The signing of this accord marked the beginning of the operations of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The mission led to the election in 1993 of two Co-Prime Ministers, Norodom Ranariddh (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia, FUNCINPEC) and Hun Sen (Cambodian People Party, CPP)[7] and repatriation of more than 350,000 Cambodians from Thai refugee camps.[8] However, it did not succeed in disarming the factions or rallying the Khmer Rouge who refused to participate in the elections. The Khmer Rouge continued guerilla-style resistance until 1998 when the revolutionary movement collapsed.

[1] David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983), 209–11; Evan Gottesman, Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge. Inside the Politics of Nation Building (New Haven: Yale University, 2003), 24–25.

[2] Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 211.

[3] Michael Vickery, Cambodia 1975– 1982 (Boston MA: South End Press, 1984), 81–82.

[4] Henri Locard, “The Khmer Rouge Prison System,” in Khmer Rouge History & Authors: From Stalin to Pol Pot – Towards a Description of the Pol Pot Regime (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: ADHOC and Center for Social Development, January 2007).

[5] Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 213; 218–19.

[6] Raoul M. Jennar, The Cambodian Constitutions (1953-1993) (Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus, 1995), 111.

[7] John D. Ciorciari, “History and Politics behind the Khmer Rouge Khmer Rouge trials”, in John D. Ciorciari and Anne Heindel, ed, “On Trial: The Khmer Rouge Khmer Rouge Accountability Process, Document Series no 14” (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2009), 43

[8] Raoul M. Jennar, Les Cles Du Cambodge (Excerpts), available at