Asia

Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime

  • 4 August 2014
  • From the section Asia
Human skulls are displayed at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial in Phnom Penh on 16 September, 2010
Up to two million people are believed to have died under the Khmer Rouge

In the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century.

The brutal regime, in power from 1975-1979, claimed the lives of up to two million people.

Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.

But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost.

Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.

Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a wave of killing
Millions of Cambodians were marched out of the capital city Phnom Penh and forced into the countryside

Communist philosophy

The Khmer Rouge had its origins in the 1960s, as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea - the name the Communists used for Cambodia.

Based in remote jungle and mountain areas in the north-east of the country, the group initially made little headway.

But after a right-wing military coup toppled head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, the Khmer Rouge entered into a political coalition with him and began to attract increasing support.

In a civil war that continued for nearly five years, it gradually increased its control in the countryside.

Khmer Rouge forces finally took over the capital, Phnom Penh, and therefore the nation as a whole in 1975.

The Khmer Rouge drew influence from China's ruling Communist Party

During his time in the remote north-east, Pol Pot had been influenced by the surrounding hill tribes, who were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money and were "untainted" by Buddhism.

When he came to power, he and his henchmen quickly set about transforming Cambodia - now re-named Kampuchea - into what they hoped would be an agrarian utopia.

Declaring that the nation would start again at "Year Zero", Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.

Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centres.

The most notorious of these centres was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, where as many as 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned during the regime's four years in power.

Hundreds of thousands of others died from disease, starvation or exhaustion as members of the Khmer Rouge - often just teenagers themselves - forced people to do back-breaking work.

S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, was their Khmer Rouge's main prison and torture centre
A special tribunal was established in 1997 to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge

Opening up

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations.

The higher echelons of the party retreated to remote areas of the country, where they remained active for a while but gradually became less and less powerful.

In the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, the full horrors of the regime became apparent.

Survivors told their stories to shocked audiences, and in the 1980s the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields brought the plight of the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention.

Pol Pot was denounced by his former comrades in a show trial in July 1997, and sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home.

But less than a year later he was dead - denying the millions of people who were affected by this brutal regime the chance to bring him to justice.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites