Following World War 2, Cambodia’s Monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk successfully provided independence after the country’s 90 years of French colonial rule. But after assuming the throne, Sihanouk’s strict policy didn’t go well with the citizens. The communist rebels who first fought against the French were now determined to overthrow the new prince. Not just within the country, a war was going on even outside the borders. In Vietnam, several American troops were supporting the non-communist against the communists. The US asked for Cambodia’s support, but the prince decided to non-interference. Soon in 1970, the prince was overthrown by his own prime minister. The Prime Minister then allowed American troops to bomb areas of Cambodia where the communist Vietnamese were in hiding.
These attacks killed several Cambodian civilians along with the Vietnamese troops. To regain power, prince Sihanouk decided to join hands with his political enemy- Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge was the name that was popularly given to members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. This group’s agenda was to make Cambodia a classless society of rice farmers and sought to lead the country to self-sufficiency.
From 1975 to 1979, the communist party of Kampuchea ruled Cambodia. They perpetrated genocide that killed one-fourth of the country’s population.
Cambodians were already disappointed with Prime Minister and decided to join Khmer Rouge. Over five years of fighting half a million Cambodians died in battle. The rebels soon took over the capital Phnom Penh and then the whole nation in 1975. But what seems like an end to violence, was only the beginning of Asia’s biggest genocide.
During their initial years of formation, Khmer Rouge mostly lived in hilly regions. Pol Pot, their leader was influenced by the surrounding hill tribes, who were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money, and were “untainted” by Buddhism. Thus, when Khmer Rouge came to power, he sought to make the country an agrarian utopia nation.
Soon after conquering Cambodia, the group started executing everyone who was associated with the former government. Prince Sihanouk himself was put on house arrest. The Khmer Rouge soon started evacuating city residents to the countryside. They declared that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”. Pol Pot isolated all the Cambodians from the rest of the world. He emptied cities, abolished money, private property, and religion, and set up rural collectives. All civilians were forced to wear were the same clothes and adorn the same haircut.
Anyone who was educated enough to rebel or be a threat to regime, was killed. They mostly targeted Muslims Cham, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Laotian people killing anyone as a threat to the party. Outside these executions, people were forced to grow rice to fulfil the group’s demands. The workforce was expected to produce impossible amounts of rice and if the leaders fail to accomplish these demands, they were all executed. Thus, in order to fulfill the quota, many local leaders provided a very little share of produce to the workers and soon one million more died of starvation, diseases, and overwork.
Even the Khmer Rouge people who were enforcing the system were also not safe. These young people also feared for their lives and did atrocities simply based on those fears. They were also separated from their families, and many lost their loved ones to diseases and starvation. When the people failed to produce the expected supply, Khmer Rouge leaders thought that people were internally trying to sabotage the revolution and so they started arresting or executing anyone on mere doubts. This continued for four years until 1979 when Vietnamese troops entered the country and took control of it. This political turmoil started yet another civil war that continued till the 1990s.
The years that followed were not easy, as thousands of children became orphans and people had to start from the fresh to earn a livelihood. Justice was also delayed and till now only three people are jailed for the Cambodian genocide. The UN helped establish a tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, beginning work in 2009.