An attempt by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulted in the deaths of 25 percent of the country's population from starvation, overwork and executions.
Pol Pot was born in 1925 (as Saloth Sar) into a farming family in central Cambodia, which was then part of French Indochina. In 1949, at age 20, he traveled to Paris on a scholarship to study radio electronics but became absorbed in Marxism and neglected his studies. He lost his scholarship and returned to Cambodia in 1953 and joined the underground Communist movement. The following year, Cambodia achieved full independence from France and was then ruled by a royal monarchy.
By 1962, Pol Pot had become leader of the Cambodian Communist Party and was forced to flee into the jungle to escape the wrath of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of Cambodia. In the jungle, Pol Pot formed an armed resistance movement that became known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) and waged a guerrilla war against Sihanouk's government.
In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted, not by Pol Pot, but due to a U.S.-backed right-wing military coup. An embittered Sihanouk retaliated by joining with Pol Pot, his former enemy, in opposing Cambodia's new military government. That same year, the U.S. invaded Cambodia to expel the North Vietnamese from their border encampments, but instead drove them deeper into Cambodia where they allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge.
From 1969 until 1973, the U.S. intermittently bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. As a result, peasants fled the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and settled in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh.
All of these events resulted in economic and military destabilization in Cambodia and a surge of popular support for Pol Pot.
By 1975, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam. Cambodia's government, plagued by corruption and incompetence, also lost its American military support. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army, consisting of teenage peasant guerrillas, marched into Phnom Penh and on April 17 effectively seized control of Cambodia.
Once in power, Pol Pot began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia inspired in part by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution which he had witnessed first-hand during a visit to Communist China.
Mao's "Great Leap Forward" economic program included forced evacuations of Chinese cities and the purging of "class enemies." Pol Pot would now attempt his own "Super Great Leap Forward" in Cambodia, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.
He began by declaring, "This is Year Zero," and that society was about to be "purified." Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favor of an extreme form of peasant Communism.
All foreigners were thus expelled, embassies closed, and any foreign economic or medical assistance was refused. The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shuttered, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world.
All of Cambodia's cities were then forcibly evacuated. At Phnom Penh, two million inhabitants were evacuated on foot into the countryside at gunpoint. As many as 20,000 died along the way.
Millions of Cambodians accustomed to city life were now forced into slave labor in Pol Pot's "killing fields" where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease, on a diet of one tin of rice (180 grams) per person every two days.
Workdays in the fields began around 4 a.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., with only two rest periods allowed during the 18 hour day, all under the armed supervision of young Khmer Rouge soldiers eager to kill anyone for the slightest infraction. Starving people were forbidden to eat the fruits and rice they were harvesting. After the rice crop was harvested, Khmer Rouge trucks would arrive and confiscate the entire crop.
Ten to fifteen families lived together with a chairman at the head of each group. All work decisions were made by the armed supervisors with no participation from the workers who were told, "Whether you live or die is not of great significance." Every tenth day was a day of rest. There were also three days off during the Khmer New Year festival.
Throughout Cambodia, deadly purges were conducted to eliminate remnants of the "old society" - the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Ex-soldiers were killed along with their wives and children. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot, including eventually many Khmer Rouge leaders, was shot or bludgeoned with an ax. "What is rotten must be removed," a Khmer Rouge slogan proclaimed.
In the villages, unsupervised gatherings of more than two persons were forbidden. Young people were taken from their parents and placed in communals. They were later married in collective ceremonies involving hundreds of often-unwilling couples.
Up to 20,000 persons were tortured into giving false confessions at Tuol Sleng, a school in Phnom Penh which had been converted into a jail. Elsewhere, suspects were often shot on the spot before any questioning.
Ethnic groups were attacked including the three largest minorities; the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims, along with twenty other smaller groups. Fifty percent of the estimated 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 perished. Khmer Rouge also forced Muslims to eat pork and shot those who refused.
On December 25, 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia seeking to end Khmer Rouge border attacks. On January 7, 1979, Phnom Penh fell and Pol Pot was deposed. The Vietnamese then installed a puppet government consisting of Khmer Rouge defectors.
Pol Pot retreated into Thailand with the remnants of his Khmer Rouge army and began a guerrilla war against a succession of Cambodian governments lasting over the next 17 years. After a series of internal power struggles in the 1990s, he finally lost control of the Khmer Rouge. In April 1998, 73-year-old Pol Pot died of an apparent heart attack following his arrest, before he could be brought to trial by an international tribunal for the events of 1975-79.
Remembering the Killing Fields
NEW YORK, April, 2000
(CBS) Twenty-five years ago, two weeks before the fall of Saigon, the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, beginning the period known as "the Killing Fields."
Despite the popular book and movie by that title, what really happened during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule is not widely known.
Few Americans realize that close to two million people died, that none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice and that the United States helped bring about the crisis that lead to the Khmer Rouge takeover.
What that means is that the lessons of the Killing Fields, unlike the lessons of earlier tragedies like the Nazi Holocaust, have yet to be understood.
OFFICIAL NAME: Royal Kingdom of Cambodia or
POPULATION: 11.6 million
INFANT MORTALITY: 1 in 10
ETHNICITY: 95 percent Khmer, 5 percent Vietnamese, 1 percent Chinese
LITERACY: 35 percent
INDEPENDENCE: Nov. 9, 1953
GDP PER CAPITA: $700
LAND MINES: 4 million-6 million remain. Only 212 square miles of the country had been verified mine-free by 1998.
(Source: CIA, State Dept., Reuters)
Cambodians themselves are having a hard time using those lessons. For the country’s school children, the history of the three-year period is usually glossed over.
"Kids can't really accept what happened and are sort of inclined not to believe it, that we could treat each other that way," says Susan Cook, director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, which is working to document who died and how. "Schools aren't making a concerted effort."
"The problem is how to teach it in a politically-correct manor that is not going to look bad," says Mark Levy, a former reporter for the English-language Cambodia Daily.
As the United Nations and the current Cambodian government discuss whether to try Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, more attention is being given to what actually happened during the Khmer Rouge years.
"It's different from many other genocidal events," observes Adam Fifield, author of A Blessing Over Ashes, a new book about a Killing Fields refugee coming of age in America and Cambodia. "It was genocide driven not by racial or religious hatred but by an ideology that had been incubated so fervently that it became insanity."
The madness began as soon as the city fell on April 17. Shortly after their victory, the Khmer Rouge forced the evacuation of 2 million people from the city to the countryside, on foot. The wounded were forced out of hospitals to make the trek; some of them were wheeled out on hospital beds.
What happened next, and until 1978, was a shock to nearly everyone.
"I expected that there would be some killing," says Vicchyka Shelto. She was among the first Cambodian refugees to reach the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp, after a daring escape from Phnom Penh on April 17 in the plane of her then-husband, a Cambodian air force officer. "But I didn't know that the Cambodian people would suffer genocide. That's the kind of thing I did not expect."
That’s because little was known of the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a Paris-educated communist named Saloth Sar, who went by the nom de guerre “Pol Pot.” According to Cook, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge "thought they could reorganize a society to bring it backwards in time to a state of agrarian purity."
The Khmer Rouge, or “KR,” attempted to completely transform Cambodia overnight, by organizing the country into farming cooperatives, demanding total devotion to the state and wiping out any remnants of the old regime.
Cambodia’s Troubled Past
1953…King Norodom Sihanouk declares independence from France.
1965…Cambodia breaks diplomatic ties with U.S.
1969-1973…U.S bombs suspected communist Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia.
1970…U.S.-backed General Lon Nol overthrows Sihanouk and becomes president. Chasing Vietnamese troops, U.S. invades Cambodia.
1975…Khmer Rouge (KR) captures Phnom Penh.
1975-78…Under the rule of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, between one and three million die by summary execution, starvation or disease.
1978…Vietnam invades Cambodia. KR flees to countryside.
1982-1989…A coalition army of KR troops and forces loyal to King Sihanouk fight with Vietnamese for control of Cambodia.
1990…UN peace plan accepted by four fighting factions.
1993…First elections held. KR continues to fight for control of northern territory.
1997…Second Prime Minister Hun Sen seizes power in what critics call a coup.
1998…Pol Pot dies. Hun Sen’s party wins national elections. Major defections by KR members.
1999…Int’l community and Cambodian government discuss launching a tribunal into KR atrocities.
(Sources: Lonely Planet, Human Rights Watch.)
That meant shutting off all contact to the outside world, eliminating loyalty to friends or family, emptying the cities, eliminating the Buddhist religion, and creating a fearsome central authority, the "Angka" or "organization," that punished any deviation with torture and death.
If a person knew a foreign language, had worked for the French or Americans, or dared to express feelings of love to your husband or wife, he or she was a target.
Sayon Soeun, who works for the Cambodian Mutual Aid Association in Lowell, Mass., was separated from his mother in one of the KR labor camps and never saw her again.
"My real name and real age I don't know," he says. Whatever his age, he did hard labor in the camps and trained to be a soldier. He watched soldiers slit people's throats for alleged transgressions.
"I witnessed that every day of my life in my childhood while training to hate people, to hate my family," said Soeun.
The estimates of dead have ranged from a low of 100,000 to a high of 3 million. The Yale program has arrived at a number of 1.7 million, which is supported by other studies.
While the genocide targeted minority ethnic and religious groups like the Vietnamese, Chinese and the Chams, a Muslim people, the Killing Fields was also unique in that it was largely an act of “auto-genocide.” Cambodians did the killing and the dying.
"That's why Cambodians will tell you that their genocide is worse than any other genocide in mankind, because they did it to themselves,” says Levy.
The scars of the Khmer rouge regime linger in Cambodia and in the victims who emigrated to the U.S. At Khmer Health Advocates in Hartford, Conn., Cambodians get help dealing with the demons.
"There's a high rate of depression, of post traumatic stress disorder," said Mary Scully, a nurse in the program. People in the 45-55 age group are particularly susceptible: it's like they've aged prematurely, often developing ailments like diabetes ten years younger than most people.
The physical problems are interwoven with psychological traumas: when stomach ailments prevent Killing Fields survivors from eating, they get hunger pains. Those pains remind them of life in the camps, and they are unable to sleep.
Underneath the suffering is a thirst for answers.
"In twenty years I've probably heard two people who wanted revenge. People mostly wanted answers: 'Why did they do this to me?' 'Why did they kill so many people?'" says Scully. "The 'whys' are as big art of it."
Some hope an international war crimes tribunal can help answer some of those questions.
Cambodia and the United Nations have been unable to agree on who should control such a trial— Cambodian courts or international judges—but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reported progress when they discussed the potential for a trial last week.
However, the truth could be uncomfortable for a lot of people outside Cambodia. A lawyer for Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge military leader who could be tried for war crimes, has threatened to subpoena Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and three former United Nations secretary generals to answer questions about their countries' support for the KR insurgency.
After the Vietnamese invaded and threw out the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. government supported the non-communist partners in a coalition army of which the Khmer Rouge was part. And world powers allowed the Khmer Rouge's delegate to occupy Cambodia's United Nations seat even after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown. Because Vietnam was America's enemy, critics say, the Khmer Rouge were treated as friends.
"There's a lot of embarrassment to go around," says Sydney Schanberg, who covered the Cambodian civil war for The New York Times. “We haven't learned that the truth is the cleansing thing."
The truth is that U.S bombing of Cambodia killed many thousands, long before the Khmer Rouge had a chance to.
"The first phase of the genocide, from 1969 to 1975, was pretty brutal," said Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor and longtime critic of the role of U.S. policy in the Cambodian tragedy. "By mid-1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over, most of the country was pretty much a wreck."
Undeniably though, what Pol Pot's legions did was different: the obliteration of a culture and death of perhaps million souls.
"That is true evil,"says Schanberg, but adds, "we didn't commit it but we, all the great powers, provided the engine that helped create it."
As for Cambodia itself in April, 2000, it's not clear how or whether the anniversary will be officially remembered. The country itself is still wounded from the war. Phnom Penh bears scars of battle, the countryside is littered with land mines, and the Khmer Rouge slaughter of a generation of educated people has left a nation mired in poverty
"None of the many Cambodians I have spoken to in the past few weeks has even mentioned it," reports Rich Garella, an author working in Cambodia on a book about the country's contemporary politics. "It almost coincides with the New Year on April 13 this year, so that might be mitigating it."