The Great Ancient Khmer Civilization

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Historical Overviewfor First They Killed My Father
Significant portions of the following historical overview were contributed by DC-Cam from

Khamboly Dy's "A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)”
The Great Ancient Khmer Civilization
The history of the Khmer people, their language, and their country, Cambodia, dates back 2,000 years. The apex of the Khmer civilization came during the Angkor Era between the 9th-14th centuries A.D. During this time, the Khmers maximized crop production by constructing a well-planned irrigation system, which supported large land areas under intensive cultivation. During the Middle Ages, the Khmers' rice production sustained a population of approximately one million people.
Because the Khmer economy was self-sustaining, energy and resources could be directed toward the development of the arts, culture, and architecture. The semi-divine Khmer kings expressed their power and authority through the construction of great temple compounds near the center of the Khmer civilization. Angkor Wat, the Hindu temple, was constructed in the first part of the 12th century under Suryavarman II, but by the second part of the 12th century, Angkor Thom, the new capital city, was built to honor the reign of Cambodia’s first Buddhist king.
A number of factors led to the decline of the Khmer civilization. The Khmer economy could not sustain the ambitious building projects envisioned by its rulers. Food production suffered, the population began to rebel, and constant fighting existed with Ciampa (current day Vietnam). Finally, the population embraced Buddhism, which rejected the divine right of kings. From the 14th-18th centuries, the Khmer civilization fell victim to successive invasions by the Siamese from the North and the Vietnamese from the South and East. Cambodia was under unrelenting siege.
In 1860, the Cambodian emperor requested that France establish a protected territory in Cambodia. At that time, Cambodia was sparsely populated, largely agricultural, and 80% Khmer. There was no educated middle class to speak of; literacy centered on Buddhism and was primarily expected of boys and men only. There was little development of Cambodia under French rule with one exception; the French focused on the Cambodian elite in the city of Phnom Penh, opening French schools and sowing the seeds for the first generation of a Cambodian middle class. In 1953, Cambodia’s King Sihanouk outmaneuvered his rivals and negotiated Cambodian independence from the French.
King Sihanouk's first tenure (1953–1970) was marked by his attempts to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War. Despite King Sihanouk's efforts, Cambodia became hostage to events in Vietnam. Sihanouk signed secret agreements with the North Vietnamese, allowing them to transport war materials on the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the eastern edge of Cambodia as long as Cambodian sovereignty was respected. The lives of Cambodians worsened; Sihanouk's domestic policies failed to address the suffering of his people. In 1970, the secret deals were uncovered and Sihanouk was removed from his political position.

The Rise of the Khmer Rouge: The Cambodian Communist Regime

The Cambodian communist movement emerged from the country's struggle against French colonization in the 1940s, and was influenced by the Vietnamese. Fueled by the first Indochina War in the 1950s, and during the next 20 years, the movement took roots and began to grow.
In March 1970, Lon Nol, a Cambodian politician who had previously served as prime minister, and his pro-American associates staged a successful coup to remove Sihanouk as head of state. At this time, the Khmer Rouge had gained members and was positioned to become a major player in the civil war due to its alliance with the former King, Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge army was led by Pol Pot, a man who was born in Cambodia and spent time in France to become a member of the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1953, he joined a communist movement and began his rise up the ranks of the Khmer Rouge to become one of the world's most infamous dictators.
Aided by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge began to defeat Lon Nol's forces on the battlefields. By the end of 1972, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia and turned the major responsibilities for the war over to the Khmer Rouge.
From January to August 1973, the Khmer government, with assistance from the US, dropped about half a million ton of bombs on Cambodia, mostly along the eastern border, which may have killed as many as 300,000 people. Many Cambodians who resented the bombings or had lost family members joined the Khmer Rouge's revolution.
By early 1973, about 85 percent of Cambodian territory was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and the Lon Nol army was barely able to continue fighting over the next two years (especially because the US had pulled out of the Vietnam War). April 17, 1975 ended five years of foreign interventions, bombardment, and civil war in Cambodia: on this date, Phnom Penh, a major city in Cambodia, fell to the communist forces. Lon Nol fled the country, and the Khmer Rouge took control of the central city of Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge's goals were to establish Khmer economic and political independence. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge wanted to free Cambodia from the controls of foreign countries such as China, Vietnam, and the U.S. They rejected traditional hierarchical Cambodian society and sought to establish a classless, agrarian society. Recalling back to the greatness of the Angkor Era, they believed that dedicating all human resources to the production of rice was an important first step to this independence. The Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975 and forced three million urban dwellers into the Cambodian countryside.
They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and the (then present-day) Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut down or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps, and storehouses for grain. There was no public or private transportation, no privately owned property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, had to wear black ‘costumes’ or outfits, which were established as the traditional revolutionary clothes.
During this time, everyone was deprived of his and her basic rights. People were not allowed to go outside their designated cooperative ‘camps’. The regime would not allow anyone to gather and hold discussions. If three or more people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies of the Khmer Rouge and arrested or executed.
Family relationships were also heavily criticized. People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor, or pity. The Khmer Rouge forced all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only Angkar Padevat, which was to be everyone's "mother and father."
The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. Soon after seizing power, they arrested and killed thousands of soldiers, military officers, and civil servants from the Khmer Republic regime led by Lon Nol, whom they did not regard as "pure." Over the next three years, they executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals; city residents; minority people such as the Cham, Vietnamese, and Chinese; and many of their own soldiers and party members, who were accused of being traitors. Many were held in prisons, where they were detained, interrogated, tortured, and executed. The most significant prison in Cambodia, known as S-21, held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation. Only about 12 survived. Under the terms of the Khmer Rouge's 1976 "Four-Year Plan," Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare throughout the country. This meant that people had to grow and harvest rice all 12 months of the year. In most regions, the Khmer Rouge forced people to work more than 12 hours a day without rest or adequate food.
The Effects of the Khmer Rouge
The results of the four-year Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia were devastating. Out of a population of eight million, about two million died from starvation, disease, and execution. Many Cambodians tried, often unsuccessfully, to hide their identities because the Khmer Rouge targeted groups of people such as non-ethnic Khmers, civil servants, and the educated. They outlawed Buddhism and other religious practices and separated families. In late 1978, the Khmer Rouge's experiment in radical agrarian collectivism failed, ending with the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians became refugees, seeking safe refuge from the persecution, and Cambodia continued to suffer from intermittent civil war from 1979-1991. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the U.S. alone welcomed approximately 150,000 Cambodian refugees between 1975-1988. Many, many more people spent years in refugee camps. In 1993, the U.S. refugee camps were closed and 370,000 Cambodians were sent back to their homeland.
The Khmer Rouge continued to exist until 1999 when all of its leaders had either sworn a new allegiance to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or died…but their horrific legacy remains.

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