The Khmer Rouge were a Marxist and communist organization in the country of Cambodia that ruled over the country in the 1970s and is widely considered to be responsible for the events of the Cambodian Genocide. The Cambodian Genocide is considered to be a significant example of genocide and crimes against humanity in the 20th century, alongside others, such as: Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Nanking Massacre, Holocaust, Rwanda Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide. A genocide is defined as a mass killing of a certain group of people based on their religion, ethnicity or cultural background. A crime against humanity is considered to be when a group of people are subjected to humiliation, suffering and death on a mass scale by another group. The Cambodian Genocide occurred in the country of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in the country are considered to be the actions and result of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, who was the leader of the Khmer Rouge.
The term ‘Khmer Rouge’ was the commonly used name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). In October of 1966, Pol Pot and other Cambodian party leaders established the CPK. Norodom Sihanouk, the Head of State of Cambodia at the time, began referring to the CPK as the ‘Khmer Rouge’ in reference to their communist or ‘red’ principles, which eventually led to the followers of the CPK being referred to as the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia when they launched an attack against the government forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which began the Cambodian Civil War. The Khmer Rouge were supported by the communists in North Vietnam and China, while the government of Cambodia (led by Norodom Sihanouk) were supported by the United States. Pol Pot played an important role in the conflict as he persuaded North Vietnam and others to support and supply the Khmer Rouge. For its part, the United States sought to protect its ally in South Vietnam and stop the spread of communism to Cambodia. This was related to the American policy of containment from the time frame of the Cold War, because at the time, the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Regardless, after five years of brutal fighting between both sides the Khmer Rouge claimed victory in 1975 and established the Democratic Kampuchea in Cambodia. The Democratic Kampuchea was the name of Cambodian from 1976 to 1979 under the control of Pol Pot and was based on Marxist principles of the Khmer Rouge. Since Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, he also became leader of Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. As leader of Cambodia, Pol Pot became known as ‘brother number one’. The major events of the Cambodian Genocide followed.
A key feature of any genocide is the focused and mass killing of different groups of people based on their religious or ethnic background. This was especially true in the Cambodian Genocide because the Khmer targeted different groups, including: ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Christians and Buddhists. As well, educated professionals and members of rival political parties were systematically removed from their positions and forced out of the city-centers. Essentially, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge focused their power against groups of people they did not deem to be ‘desirable’ to Cambodia or who had the intellectual ability to question the authority of the government. Many of the first deaths of the Cambodian Genocide were a result of the forced removals from the cities. For example, anyone that was unwilling to relocate was either forcibly removed or executed. Furthermore, many people died from exhaustion and starvation during the process.
However, anyone that survived the transportation to the countryside suffered due to the grueling work that was expected on the collective farms. In fact, the farms were little more than labor camps in which the workers experienced continual abuse, threat of death and exhausting work. Many more died there also from starvation and exhaustion. As time progressed, the survival of a person was determined by the ability to complete work in the labor camps. As a result, many people who could not keep up with the work demands of the Khmer were killed, including: young children, elderly and the sick. When starvation no longer resulted in the deaths of these ‘undesirable’ people, the Khmer Rouge resorted to a method that historians refer to as the ‘Killing Fields’.
In general, the term ‘Killing Fields’ refers to sites across Cambodia in which people were taken to be tortured, interrogated and executed for their alleged crimes against the state. Most of the estimated one million victims, were buried in mass graves. The most famous of these sites was called Security Prison 21 (S-21), which was a former high school just outside of the Cambodian capital. The high school was transformed into a detention center in 1975 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in which ‘enemies’ of the state were tortured and eventually executed.
In all, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 million to 3 million people died in the killing fields and as a result of the events of the Cambodian Genocide which occurred between 1975 and 1979. To date, over 23,000 mass graves have been discovered in Cambodia containing the majority of the reported victims.
The international community was slow to learn about the genocide and crimes against humanity occurring in the country due to the Khmer Rouge expelling foreigners and reporters. Regardless, news of the genocide leaked out and most foreign countries condemned the actions of the Khmer. However, the regime also enjoyed support from several communist nations including China who is said to have supplied them with money, military supplies and training for soldiers.
The reign of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide ultimately ended in 1979 when Vietnamese forces invaded the country and toppled the rule of Pol Pot. The Cambodian dictator fled and lived out much of his remaining years on the Cambodian border with Thailand where he would often move between the two countries. While the Khmer Rouge remained a force in the region throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it lost its power and ability to rule especially with the ‘retirement’ of Pol Pot in 1985.
In 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunals for the purpose of trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide. It was a national court established by the Cambodian government but supported by the United Nations with some international lawyers and judges. The full name for the tribunals was ‘Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’ or ECCC. In general, the perpetrators of the Cambodian Genocide were accused and made to stand trial for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. For example, one of the people tried at the tribunals was Kang Kek Iew. He was a former leader of the Khmer Rouge who was in charge of the prison camp system and oversaw the operation of the notorious S-21 camp. In July of 2010, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
A major issuing facing the tribunals carried out in the first part of the 21st century was the many of the former Khmer leaders were either dead or had fled the country to other parts of the world. For example, the Khmer Rouge leader responsible for the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot, evaded trial for his role. He lived out the remaining years of his life along the western border of Cambodia or in the country of Thailand. He died on April 15th, 1998 from heart failure. In an interview he gave late in his life, Pol Pot, claimed he had no regrets and denied his involvement in mass killings during the genocide.
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