Communism and Southeast Asia endured a stormy relationship after World War II, as China exported its political philosophy throughout the region. Both Americans and French discovered in Korea and Vietnam respectively how hard it was to roll back this seemingly inexorable tide, and Cambodia became independent in 1953 when French Indochina collapsed under the assault of Ho Chi Mirth’s Viet Minh communist army.
This constitutional monarchy under Prince Sihanouk remained neutral during the Vietnam War, until Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 by an American-backed coup. Forced to seek refuge in Beijing, he became the figurehead for communist Khmer Rouge insurgents, whose cause was greatly aided when America bombed Cambodia in an attempt to suppress guerrilla activity. Cambodia’s civil war ended in 1975 when capital city Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
The new regime started destroying evidence of Western influence, emptying cities and force-marching the urban population into the countryside to engage in hopelessly inadequate agricultural projects. As starvation and disease set in, this policy alone would have created a significant humanitarian disaster. But the Khmer Rouge didn’t stop there.
Minorities were persecuted and killed in large numbers and the biters were bitten – high on the hit list were ethnic Chinese. Other targets included Cham Muslims and anyone who could remotely be described as ‘intellectual’, a term that included everyone wearing spectacles. The infamous Tuol Sleng Prison became a center for mass murder and there were rural sites – chillingly nicknamed the Killing Fields – where countless others were executed. As hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled into Thailand, the genocide intensified. By November 1978, when Vietnam invaded and put an end to Khmer Rouge excesses, at least 1.25 million Cambodians had died from starvation or genocide out of a population of 7.5 million. The total was probably much greater.
Death toll: Unknown. Estimates vary from 1.25 million to three million deaths directly caused by Khmer Rouge activities.
You should know: in 1979, following the Khmer Rouge’s defeat at the hands of Vietnamese forces, the movement’s de facto leader Pol Pot fled into the jungles on Cambodia’s border with Thailand where he maintained the pretense of leading a legitimate government. He died aged 69 in 1998 while under house arrest, having fallen out with a Khmer Rouge faction led by his rival Ta Mok. It is rumored that Pol Pot was poisoned.