Killing fields

Angkor Thom Angkor Wat Killing fields Markets Preah Vihear Tonle Sap

Killing Fields




former school in Phnom Pehn used as prison where
Cambodians were interrogated, tortured and murdered


Khmer Rouge, Communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The regime, which was headed by Cambodian guerrilla commander Pol Pot, came to power after years of guerrilla warfare. While in power the Khmer Rouge murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million Cambodians, or more than one-fifth of the country’s population.


the prison

Cambodia was a French protectorate under the nominal control of a king from 1863 until 1953, when France granted Cambodia its independence. At the same time, Communist forces known as the Viet Minh were engaged in an independence struggle against France in neighboring Vietnam; the Viet Minh, which had recruited an army of Cambodian allies in common cause against French colonialism, defeated France in 1954. Although Cambodian guerrilla forces and the Viet Minh controlled much of Cambodia by 1954, the Geneva Conference, which marked the end of the war in 1954, left Cambodia in the hands of its monarch, Norodom Sihanouk.


the cells

As political factionalism grew in Cambodia, Sihanouk began to crack down on his opponents, including Communists. The Communists fell into two groups: Vietnamese-trained veterans of the independence struggle, including former Buddhist monks and their peasant followers; and younger urban radicals such as Pol Pot. While the former were major targets of Sihanouk’s repression, Pol Pot and his followers were left largely untouched because of their privileged backgrounds and French education. This group gradually assumed leadership of the Communist movement. After Pol Pot became secretary general of the Workers’ Party of Kâmpŭchéa (later renamed the Communist Party of Kâmpŭchéa, or CPK) in 1963, the party made a concerted effort to seize control of Cambodia.


photos of some of those killed

By 1966, the American escalation of the war in neighboring Vietnam began to have a destabilizing effect on Cambodia. North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces, made up of Vietnamese Communist guerrillas, established logistical bases and supply routes in Cambodia. While Sihanouk attempted to keep his country out of the Vietnam War, his political repression increasingly drove veterans of Cambodia’s anti-French struggle back into dissidence, where Pol Pot’s CPK drew them into its plans for rebellion. The CPK launched a revolt against Sihanouk in 1967. Sihanouk termed the rebels Khmer Rouge (French for "Red Khmers"), so-called after Cambodia’s predominant ethnic group, the Khmers. Communist insurgency campaigns continued until the Khmer Rouge took control of the government in 1975.


skulls of some of those killed

In 1969, embroiled in Vietnam, the United States began a secret B-52 bombardment of Cambodia in an effort to knock out strongholds of the North Vietnamese and NLF. A year later Sihanouk was overthrown by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol. The Vietnam War spilled across the border, and the conflict tore Cambodia apart for five years. During the secret bombing American planes dropped 490,000 metric tons (540,000 tons) of bombs, killing about 100,000 Khmer peasants by August 1973, when the bombardment ended (see Secret Bombing of Cambodia). Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge, aided by Sihanouk and the North Vietnamese, who did not want a pro-U.S. Cambodian government, battled Lon Nol’s government for control of Cambodia.


killing field in the country

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge armies defeated the Lon Nol regime and took the capital, Phnom Penh, immediately dispersing almost all of its more than 2 million inhabitants to a life of hard agricultural labor in the countryside. Other cities and towns were also evacuated. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kâmpŭchéa (DK), and for the next four years the regime, headed by Pol Pot as prime minister and other members of the Standing Committee of the CPK Central Committee, terrorized the population. Almost 1.7 million Cambodians were killed, including members of minority and religious groups, people suspected of disagreeing with the party, intellectuals, merchants, and bureaucrats. 


mass grave which contained bodies of 100 women and children

Millions of other Cambodians were forcibly relocated, deprived of food, tortured, or sent into forced labor. Of about 425,000 Chinese Cambodians, only about half survived the Khmer Rouge regime. While most of about 450,000 Vietnamese Cambodians had been expelled by the Lon Nol regime, more were driven out by the Khmer Rouge; the rest were tracked down and murdered. Of about 250,000 Muslim Chams (an ethnic group inhabiting the rural areas of Cambodia) in 1975, 90,000 were massacred, and the survivors were dispersed. By 1979, 15 percent of the rural Khmer population and 25 percent of the urban Khmer population had perished. 


Memorial to those murdered in the "killing field"

The most horrific slaughter took place during the second half of 1978 in a purge of the Eastern Zone on the Vietnam border, where resistance to the Khmer Rouge was strong. At least 250,000 people were killed in the worst single massacre of the Khmer Rouge period. Religion in Cambodia was also affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Buddhism was completely suppressed from 1975 to 1979; many monks were defrocked and sent into forced labor, while others were killed. The Khmer Rouge also attacked the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos in an attempt to reclaim territories lost by Cambodia many centuries before.


shrine honoring those who died

When a faction of Khmer Communists rebelled in the Eastern Zone in May 1978, Pol Pot’s armies were unable to quickly crush them. Fighting continued until January 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion swept the Khmer Rouge from power. Vietnam installed surviving Khmer defectors at the head of a new government. The Khmer Rouge army retreated to the Thai-Cambodian border, and with the help of countries such as Thailand and China that opposed Vietnamese domination of Cambodia, waged a long guerrilla war to retake power. Throughout the 1980s the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kâmpŭchéa retained international recognition as Cambodia’s government, and occupied Cambodia’s seat in the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). However, the Khmer Rouge became increasingly marginal in Cambodian politics during the 1990s. In 1989 Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, and in 1991 Cambodia’s warring factions signed a peace treaty, which the Khmer Rouge later repudiated. After Cambodian elections were held in 1993, no foreign countries continued to recognize DK as Cambodia’s legal government.


skulls of the victims

The DK lost its UN seat as well as most of its sources of international aid. In 1996 Ieng Sary, one of the Khmer Rouge's top leaders, left the group with a few thousand soldiers and received amnesty from the Cambodian government. Changing its name to the National Solidarity Party in 1997, the Khmer Rouge denounced Pol Pot in a show trial and placed him under house arrest. Pol Pot died in April 1998, shortly before the Cambodian government asserted that its troops had captured the remaining Khmer Rouge forces. In May the government declared its intent to bring remaining Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for crimes against humanity.

Text by: Ben Kiernan for Microsoft Encarta

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