The Khmer Rouge: Genocide in the Name of Utopia

How is history used to support ideology? Is violence by a government against its own civilian population ever justified? Why are certain events given priority over others in history books?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Evidence for genocide in Cambodia.
Evidence for genocide in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge was formed in 1968 as a revolutionary Communist party in Cambodia. It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

The four-year period cost approximately 2 million lives through the combined result of political executions, disease, starvation, and forced labor. Due to the large numbers, the deaths during the rule of the Khmer Rouge are commonly known as the Cambodian Holocaust or Cambodian genocide. The Khmer Rouge took power at the end of the Cambodian Civil War and were only toppled after the invasion of Cambodia by the neighboring Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.

Pol Pot and the Revolution

Pol Pot in an undated propaganda photo.
Pol Pot in an undated propaganda photo.

Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, was a Cambodian revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1997.

Saloth Sar was born on 19 May 1925, the eighth of nine children and the second of three sons to Pen Saloth and Sok Nem. The family was living in the small fishing village of Prek Sbauv, Kampong Thom Province when Cambodia was still a French colony. Pen Saloth was a rice farmer who owned 12 hectares of land and several buffaloes; the family was considered moderately wealthy by the standards of the day. Although Pen Saloth’s family was of SinoKhmer descent and Saloth Sar was named accordingly due to his fair complexion (“Sar” means white in Khmer), the family had already assimilated themselves with mainstream Khmer society by the time Sar was born.

In 1935, Saloth Sar left Prek Sbauv to attend the École Miche, a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. He lived with his cousin, a woman called Meak, a member of the Royal Ballet.In 1926, she bore King Monivong’s son, HRH Prince Sisowath Kusarak. She was given the official title Khun Preah Moneang Bopha Norleak Meak. Saloth Sar stayed with Meak’s household until 1942. His sister Roeung was a concubine of King Monivong, so through the two women, he often had cause to visit the royal palace.  In 1947, he gained admission to the exclusive Lycée Sisowath, but was unsuccessful in his studies.

As a student in Phnom Penh and later in Paris, Saloth was exposed to anti-colonial, revolutionary, and socialist ideas.  He became increasingly radical, outraged by French colonialism, the poverty of his nation compared to France itself, and wealth inequality within Cambodia even after French granted the nation independence in the 1950s.

Saloth was a founding member of the Khmer Rouge, a party dedicated to socialist revolution in Cambodia.


A female Khmer Rouge fighter or 'mit naree' carries an AK-47 assault rifle, a weapon of Communist revolution the world over.
A female Khmer Rouge fighter or ‘mit naree’ carries an AK-47 assault rifle, a weapon of Communist revolution the world over.

The Khmer Rouge’s ideology combined elements of Marxism with an extreme version of Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. It combined an idealization of the Angkor Empire (802–1431), with an existential fear for the existence of the Cambodian state, which had historically been liquidated under Vietnamese and Siamese intervention.The spillover of Vietnamese fighters from the Vietnam War further aggravated anti-Vietnamese feeling. The Khmer Rouge explicitly targeted the Chinese, Vietnamese, and even their partially Khmer offspring for extinction; although the Cham Muslims were treated unfavorably, they were encouraged to “mix flesh and blood”, to intermarry and assimilate. Some people with partial Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry were present in the Khmer Rouge leadership; they either were purged or participated in the ethnic cleansing campaigns.

The Khmer Rouge’s social policy focused on working towards a purely agrarian society. Pol Pot strongly influenced the propagation of this policy. He was reportedly impressed with how the mountain tribes of Cambodia lived, which the party interpreted as a form of primitive communism; as a result, those minorities received more lenient and sometimes even more favorable treatment than the urbanized “bourgeois” Chinese and Vietnamese. Pol Pot wanted to remove social institutions and to transform the society into an agrarian one. This was his way of “[creating] a complete Communist society without wasting time on the intermediate steps” as the Khmer Rouge said to China in 1975.

Control of the countryside

The Khmer Rouge advanced during 1973. After they reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Sar issued orders during the peak of the rainy season that the city be taken. The orders led to futile attacks and wasted lives within the Khmer Rouge army. By the middle of 1973, the Khmer Rouge under Sar controlled almost two-thirds of the country and half the population.

Internationally, Sar and the Khmer Rouge gained the recognition of 63 countries as the true government of Cambodia. A move was made at the UN to give the seat for Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge; they prevailed by three votes.

The Khmer Rouge took the capital Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, proclaiming this be Year Zero – all culture and traditions within society would be completely destroyed or discarded, and a new revolutionary culture would replace it.

Phnom Penh, January 1st, 1975 in the waning days of the civil war.
Phnom Penh, January 1st, 1975 in the waning days of the civil war.

Societal transformation

After taking power, the Khmer Rouge leadership renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. The Khmer Rouge forced around three million people from the cities to the countryside to take up work in agriculture. They forced many people out of their homes and ignored many basic human freedoms; they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, to whom they could talk, and many other aspects of their lives.

The evacuation of Cambodia's urban areas occurred on the pretext of a U.S. invasion that never came.
The evacuation of Cambodia’s urban areas occurred on the pretext of a U.S. invasion that never came.

The Khmer Rouge believed that parents were tainted with capitalism, so they separated children from their parents, indoctrinated them in communism, and taught them torture methods with animals. Children were a “dictatorial instrument of the party” and were given leadership in torture and executions.

Society was divided into two categories. These were the New People – intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors – and the Old People – those who already lived in the countryside.

The lowest unit of social control, the krom (group), consisted of ten to fifteen nuclear families whose activities were closely supervised by a three-person committee. The committee chairman was selected by the CPK. This grass roots leadership was required to note the social origin of each family under its jurisdiction and to report it to persons higher up in the party hierarchy.

The New People

Forced labor camp in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
Forced labor camp in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

New People were treated as forced laborers. They were constantly moved, were forced to do the hardest physical labor, and worked in the most inhospitable, fever-ridden parts of the country, such as forests, upland areas, and swamps. “New People were segregated from Old People, enjoyed little or no privacy, and received the smallest rice rations. When the country experienced food shortages in 1977, the New People suffered the most.

The medical care available to them was primitive or nonexistent. Families often were separated because people were divided into work brigades according to age and sex and sent to different parts of the country. New People were subjected to unending political indoctrination and could be executed without trial.

One of their mottos in reference to the New People was: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

The situation of the Old People under Khmer Rouge rule was more ambiguous. Refugee interviews reveal cases in which villagers were treated as harshly as the New People, enduring forced labor, indoctrination, the separation of children from parents, and executions; however, they were generally allowed to remain in their native villages.

Life Under the Khmer Rouge

Once in power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn all Cambodians into Old People through agricultural labor.

The evacuation of Phnom Penh, 1975.
The evacuation of Phnom Penh, 1975.

In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about “two or three kilometers” outside the city and would return in “two or three days”. Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the “threat of American bombing” and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would “take care of everything” until they returned. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people.These were not the first evacuations of civilian populations by the Khmer Rouge; similar evacuations of populations without possessions had been occurring on a smaller scale since the early 1970s.

The entire population was forced to become farmers in labor camps. Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them. Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries were seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. They did not believe in western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead; because of the famine, forced labor, and the lack of access to appropriate services there was a high number of human losses.

Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.

During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state. People who they perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses, would also be killed. People would also be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.

All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs.Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately. Almost all freedom to travel was abolished. Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy; instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune. All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with. Family members were often purposely relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.

Tuol Sleng

The faces of the New People, Tuol Sleng.
The faces of the New People, Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country,and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed. Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21” (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

Life in the prison

Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.

The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were ordered to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days.

The rules of Tuol Sleng.
The rules of Tuol Sleng.


The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison’s guards. They were sometimes forced to eat human faeces and drink human urine. The unhygienic living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, lice, rashes, ringworm and other ailments. The prison’s medical staff were untrained and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after they had been injured during interrogation. When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.

The Killing Fields

The judicial process of the Khmer Rouge regime, for minor or political crimes, began with a warning from the Angkar, the Khmer Rouge’s name for the government of Cambodia. People receiving more than two warnings were sent for “re-education,” which meant near-certain death. People were often encouraged to confess to Angkar their “pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes” (which usually included some kind of free-market activity; having had contact with a foreign source, such as a U.S. missionary, international relief or government agency; or contact with any foreigner or with the outside world at all), being told that Angkar would forgive them and “wipe the slate clean.” This meant being taken away to a place such as Choeung Ek for torture and/or execution.

Mass graves at Choeung Ek, 2014
Mass graves at Choeung Ek, 2014

The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees, and then were thrown into the pits along side their parents. The rationale was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.”

Some victims were required to dig their own graves; their weakness often meant that they were unable to dig very deep. The soldiers who carried out the executions were mostly young men or women from peasant families.

Human bones uncovered after heavy rain, Choeung Ek, 2014.
Human bones uncovered after heavy rain, Choeung Ek, 2014.

Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease. An additional 300,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980, largely as a result of the after-effects of Khmer Rouge policy.

Memorial Buddhist stupa at Choeung Ek, 2014.
Memorial Buddhist stupa at Choeung Ek, 2014.

This memorial Buddhist  stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in.


On April 18, 1978, Pol Pot, distrustful as always of the outside world and fearing an attack from neighboring Vietnam, ordered a pre-preemptive invasion. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages, mostly in the border town of Ba Chúc. Of the 3,157 civilians who had lived in Ba Chúc, only two survived the massacre. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.

By December 1978, due to several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Kampuchea, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed. On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members,invaded Cambodia and capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Despite a traditional Cambodian fear of Vietnamese domination, defecting Khmer Rouge activists assisted the Vietnamese, and, with Vietnam’s approval, became the core of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

The Khmer Rouge continued to control portions of Cambodia well into the 1990s.
The Khmer Rouge continued to control portions of Cambodia well into the 1990s.

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border into the 1990s. These Khmer Rouge bases were not self-sufficient and were funded by diamond and timber smuggling, by military assistance from China channeled by means of the Thai military, and by food smuggled from markets across the border in Thailand.

As described in PBS’s Frontline documentary series,

“Instead of becoming pariahs, the Khmer Rouge continued to play a significant role in Cambodian politics for the next two decades.The Khmer Rouge would likely not have survived without the support of its old patron China and a surprising new ally: the United States. Norodom Sihanouk, now in exile after briefly serving as head of state under the Khmer Rouge, formed a loose coalition with the guerillas to expel the Vietnamese from Cambodia. The United States gave the Sihanouk-Khmer Rouge coalition millions of dollars in aid while enforcing an economic embargo against the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government. The Carter administration helped the Khmer Rouge keep its seat at the United Nations, tacitly implying that they were still the country’s legitimate rulers.

The U.S. government’s refusal to recognize the new Cambodian government and its unwillingness to distance itself from the Khmer Rouge was motivated by several factors, primarily animosity toward its former foe, Vietnam, and Vietnam’s Soviet backers. Additionally, the United States did not want to sour its improving relations with the Khmer Rouge’s longtime patron, China. What started as a diplomatic decision to manipulate the Sino-Soviet split and isolate and punish Vietnam became a moral blunder that ensured the survival of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.”

In 1996, following a peace agreement, their leader Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. Pol Pot died on the 15th of April, 1998, having never been put on trial.

The Bottom Line

  1. Discuss how the Khmer Rouge used the history of the ancient Khmer empire to support their ideology.  In what ways does this lend credibility to their own goals?  Does such selective use of history occur only in totalitarian states, or can it occur in free societies like the United States as well?
  2. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed as much as one third of the Cambodian population during their four years in power.  Proportionally speaking, this far more devastating than the Nazi Holocaust in Europe.  Why is the Cambodian genocide less known in the U.S.?  Consider factors like race, religion, wealth, and international politics in your answer.
  3. Using facts from this article, create a poster or infographic that educates people in your country about the Killing Fields.
  4. Cambodia is currently a popular tourist destination, with sites like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek featured on many traveler’s itineraries.  What draws people to the sites of such brutal acts?  Does this tourism enhance or cheapen the memory of the Cambodian genocide?  Would you visit these sites?
  5. The Khmer Rouge decided that the goal of a classless society was worth killing massive numbers of people to attain.  Is such violence by a government against its own civilian population ever justified?  What about by a government against the civilian population of another nation?    Is there a difference between targeting civilians in a military operation – say, with bombs or missiles – and the systematic execution of people in camps like Choeung Ek?
For Cambodians, life goes on – a herd of cows near the gate of Choeung Ek. (Choeung Ek, Cambodia, 2014.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in the lesson:

Scenes from Cambodia, 2014 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.