International Explainers: The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide


Last month, one of the major headlines in the international news was the announcement that two leading members of the Khmer Rouge, the former ruling organization of Cambodia (formerly Kampuchea), have been prosecuted for crimes of genocide.

The infamous skull map that was on display in the former S-21 prison camp at Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. | Credit: Donovan Govan. [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
This landmark ruling, the first of its kind pertaining to Cambodian war crimes, suggests that the international legal community has finally expanded its (admittedly concise) definition of the act of genocide, which could finally allow survivors of the ‘killing fields’ to receive much-needed closure.

But who was the Khmer Rouge, and what events took place to culminate in the Cambodian Genocide?

The Khmer Rouge was the Cambodian equivalent of the Communist party within the country and was led by a man called Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar). Cambodian communism strictly followed Marxist-Leninist lines and was supported by the North Vietnamese Army during the late 1960s and early 1970s until the Khmer Rouge was able to seize power from the Khmer Republic. Pol Pot and his deputies aimed to transform the country into an Ultra-Maoist agrarian republic. Consequently, the period referred to as the ‘Democratic Republic of Kampuchea’ began, as the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated Phnom Penh and other major Cambodian cities, driving their residents into agricultural communes where forced labour was carried out. A process of collectivisation, not dissimilar to that enforced in Stalinist Russia, was begun as Khmer Rouge authorities seized up to three times the produce that had previously been sought from communes.

Emblem of Democratic Republic of Kampuchea | Elena in General [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The result was a catastrophic loss of life as millions of Cambodians perished in the ‘killing fields‘ from starvation, violence and illness. Estimates for the final death toll range between 21-24% of the population, encompassing not only native Cambodians but Vietnamese, Chinese and ethnic Cham Muslims. Because the regime did not seem to discriminate predominantly towards any particular race or ethnicity, the legal definition of genocide has contended for years. Whilst the invading Vietnamese forces who put an end to the slaughter in 1979 certainly regarded the killings as such, the international community was not as incensed as it was in the case of Rwanda or the Holocaust, and only recently was a criminal tribunal for Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge established. The film The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffe in 1984, represents one of the few mass media portrayals of the genocide in Cambodia, which has been overshadowed in Europe by the events of the Second World War as well as in the USSR.

Pol Pot, whilst sentenced to death in absentia by a Phnom Penh court and on the verge of being transferred into custody for trial by international tribunal, died in 1998 before he could ever be prosecuted for Crimes Against Humanity. Today in Cambodia, the genocide is marked by a National Day of Remembrance (formerly ‘Of Hatred‘) held every year on the 20th May, seen to mark the initial mass killings in the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. Additionally, a new genocide memorial centre – the Sleuk Rith Institute (“the power of the leaves“) – is in development, with plans unveiled in 2014.

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Edge writer with an axe to grind on the student experience. Admirer of cute doggies.

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