Khmer Rouge: Regime Origins, Timeline, and Fall

A demonstration outside the UN headquarters in New York City against the genocide in Cambodia perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, circa 1975.
A demonstration outside the UN headquarters in New York City against the genocide in Cambodia perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, circa 1975. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Khmer Rouge was the name applied to a brutal autocratic communist regime led by Marxist dictator Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror now known as the Cambodian Genocide, as many as 2 million people died from execution, starvation, or disease as a result of Pol Pot’s attempt to create a loyal society of “pure” Cambodians.

Key Takeaways: The Khmer Rouge

  • The Khmer Rouge was a brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The regime was founded and led by the ruthless Marxist dictator Pol Pot.
  • The regime carried out the Cambodian Genocide, a social purification effort that resulted in the deaths of as many as 2 million people.
  • The Khmer Rouge was ousted in January 1979 and replaced by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which was subsequently replaced by the current Royal Government of Cambodia in 1993.

Origins of Communism in Cambodia

In 1930, French-trained Marxist Ho Chi Minh founded the Communist Party of Vietnam. Hoping to spread communism to neighboring Cambodia and Laos, he soon renamed the party the Indochinese Communist Party. However, communism did not begin to take hold in Cambodia until the people's simmering opposition to French colonization reached a boiling point.

In 1945, a group of Cambodian patriots known as the Khmer Issaraks launched a hit-and-run guerrilla rebellion against the French. After two years of frustration, the Khmer Issaraks sought the assistance of Vietnam’s powerful communist Viet Minh independence coalition. Seeing this as a chance to advance their communist agenda, the Viet Minh tried to take over the Khmer independence movement. The effort split the Cambodian rebels into two factions—the original Khmer Issaraks and the Khmer Viet Minh, controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party. The two communist factions soon merged to become the Khmer Rouge.

Rise to Power

Deposed Cambodian Premier Pol Pot interviewed by Japanese journalists in his guerrilla base near Thai-Cambodia border.
Deposed Cambodian Premier Pol Pot interviewed by Japanese journalists in his guerrilla base near Thai-Cambodia border. Getty Images

By 1952, the Khmer Rouge reportedly controlled more than half of Cambodia. With the support of the North Vietnamese army and the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Khmer Rouge army grew in size and strength during the Vietnam War. While it had opposed Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk during the 1950s, the Khmer Rouge, at the advice of the CPC, supported Prince Sihanouk in 1970 after he was ousted in a military coup d'etat led by General Lon Nol, who had established a new government that enjoyed the support of the United States.

Despite being targeted by the massive American covert “Operation Menu” carpet bombing campaign during 1969 and 1970, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War in 1975 and overthrew the American-friendly Lon Nol government. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and began its vicious program of purging all who opposed it. 

Khmer Rouge Ideology

Similar to that of its leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s political and social ideology was best described as an exotic, ever-shifting, mixture of Marxism and an extreme form of xenophobic nationalism. Cloaked in secrecy and constantly concerned with its public image, Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime has been characterized as ranging from pure Marxist social ideology, striving for a class-free social system, to decidedly anti-Marxist ideology championing a worldwide “peasant revolution” of the middle and lower classes.

In building the Khmer Rouge leadership, Pol Pot turned to people who, like him, had been trained in the totalitarian doctrine of the French Communist Party of the 1950s. Reflective of the communist doctrines of Mao Zedong, Pot’s Khmer Rouge looked to rural peasants rather than the urban working class as the basis for its support. Accordingly, Cambodian society under the Khmer Rouge was divided into the peasant “base people,” who were to be revered, and the urban “new people,” who were to be reeducated or “liquidated.”

Modeled after Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward initiative for Communist China, Pol Pot moved to devalue individualism in favor of communal living and economy. Pol Pot believed that communal agriculture was the key to building what he called “a complete communist society without wasting time on the intermediate steps.” Similarly, the Khmer Rouge ideology generally emphasized traditional “common knowledge” over science and technology in advancing its goals for agricultural production.

Khmer Rouge ideology was also characterized by its efforts to create feelings of extreme nationalism driven by a not unfounded fear for the very survival of the Cambodian state, which had fallen on multiple occasions during periods of French imperialism followed by Vietnam’s attempts to dominate Southeast Asia. Like the Khmer Republic before it, the Khmer Rouge made the Vietnamese, whom Pol Pot considered arrogant intellectuals, the main target of the regime’s extreme brand of nationalism.

Life Under the Khmer Rouge Regime

When he took power in 1975, Pol Pot declared it “Year Zero” in Cambodia and began systematically isolating the people from the rest of the world. By the end of 1975, the Khmer Rouge had forced as many as 2 million people from Phnom Penh and other cities into the countryside to live and work on agricultural communes. Thousands of people died of starvation, disease, and exposure during these mass evacuations.

Children learning about harvesting, Cambodia, time of Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979
Children learning about harvesting, Cambodia, time of Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979. Apic/Getty Images

Attempting to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge abolished money, capitalism, private property, formal education, religion, and traditional cultural practices. Schools, shops, churches, and government buildings were converted into prisons and crop storage facilities. Under its “Four-Year Plan,” the Khmer Rouge demanded that Cambodia’s yearly production of rice increase to at least 3 tons per hectare (100 acres.) Meeting the rice quota forced most people to perform backbreaking fieldwork 12 hours a day without rest or adequate food.

Children of Khmer Rouge guerrillas attend a make-shift school in western Cambodia, 1981
Children of Khmer Rouge guerrillas attend a make-shift school in western Cambodia, 1981. Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Under the increasingly repressive Khmer Rouge regime, the people were denied all basic civil rights and freedoms. Travel outside the communes was forbidden. Public gatherings and discussions were outlawed. If three people were seen talking together, they could be charged with sedition and jailed or executed. Family relationships were strongly discouraged. Public displays of affection, pity, or humor were forbidden. Khmer Rouge leaders, known as the Angkar Padevat, demanded that all Cambodians behave as if everyone was everyone else’s “mother and father.”

Cambodian Genocide

Human skulls from the victims of the "Killing Fields" of Choeng Ek, Cambodia.
Human skulls from the victims of the "Killing Fields" of Choeng Ek, Cambodia. Nomad Picturemakers/Corbis via Getty Images

Soon after taking power, the Khmer Rouge began implementing Pol Pot’s plan to purge Cambodia of “impure” people. They began by executing thousands of soldiers, military officers and civil servants leftover from Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic government. Over the next three years, they executed hundreds of thousands of city dwellers, intellectuals, ethnic minorities, and many of their own soldiers who either refused to live and work in the communes or were accused of being traitors. Many of these people were held and tortured in prisons before being executed. Of the 14,000 prisoners held in the notorious S-21 Tuol Sleng prison, only 12 survived.

Now known as the Cambodian Genocide, the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people, nearly 25% of Cambodia's 1975 population.

Human remains excavated from the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1983
Human remains excavated from the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1983. Alex Bowie/Getty Images

The lingering physical and psychological effects of the Cambodian Genocide, one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century, are considered one of the key causes of the poverty that plagues Cambodia today.

Fall of the Khmer Rouge

During 1977, border clashes between Cambodian and Vietnamese forces became more frequent and deadly. In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing the capital city of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Assisted by China and Thailand, Khmer Rouge leaders fled and reestablished their forces in Thai territory. Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, Vietnam helped the Salvation Front, a faction of Cambodian communists who had become dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge, establish a new government called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) led by Heng Samrin.

In 1993, the PRK was replaced by the Royal Government of Cambodia, a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. Though the Khmer Rouge continued to exist, all of its leaders had defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or had died by 1999. Pol Pot, who had been placed under house arrest in 1997, died in his sleep due to heart failure on April 15, 1998, at age 72.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Khmer Rouge History.” Cambodia Tribunal Monitor. https://www.cambodiatribunal.org/history/cambodian-history/khmer-rouge-history/.
  • Quackenbush, Casey. “40 Years After the Fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia Still Grapples With Pol Pot's Brutal Legacy.” Time Magazine, January 7, 2019, https://time.com/5486460/pol-pot-cambodia-1979/.
  • Kiernan, Ben. “The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79.” Yale University Press (2008). ISBN 978-0300142990.
  • Chandler, David. “A History of Cambodia.” Routledge, 2007, ISBN 978-1578566969.
  • “Cambodia: U.S. bombing, civil war, & Khmer Rouge.” World Peace Foundation. August 7, 2015, https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/cambodia-u-s-bombing-civil-war-khmer-rouge/.
  • Rowley, Kelvin. “Second Life, Second Death: The Khmer Rouge After 1978.” Swinburne University of Technology, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/46657/GS24.pdf.