The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot (from his nom de guerre ‘Politique potentielle’) didn’t blind-side Cambodia, but rose to power by slowly but surely gaining supporters. Here are the very quick ‘coles notes’ on the history of the civil war, and the context of the Khmer Rouge reign.
The Viet Nam War
Starting in the 1800’s, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all fell to French rule. In Vietnam, movements against the French began with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) party. Under Germany occupation during World War 2, France lost its foothold on Vietnam, which was taken over by Japan but released again after Japan’s surrender. Ho Chi Minh used this opportunity to take over Vietnam declaring it its own country, but France refused to recognize the country as its own republic. France drove Minh’s forces north and the Geneva Accords divided the country into a communist north Vietnam and a French backed south Vietnam.
America, dealing with the Cold War with Russia, opted to back South Vietnam fearing the Domino Theory that communism will spread from the north to the south and then the rest of Asia. Despite various interventions, puppet leaders, thousands of US troops in Vietnam, and Nixon’s bombing of Viet Cong sites in neutral Laos and Cambodia, the north stepped up its attacks and Saigon in the south fell to communism at the end of April 1975.
Meanwhile in Cambodia
Cambodia was dealing with its own resentment of French rule, and was being aided in its efforts by communist north Vietnam when pro-American Prime Minister Lon Nol ousted Cambodia’s anti-French Prince Sihanouk.
The Khmer Rouge, supporters of Cambodia’s Communist Party, were associated with Sihanouk, against both French rule and American involvement, and battled against Lon Nol’s forces in order to regain control of Cambodia. As the civil war went on, many who thought they were still supporting Sihanouk, and those who lost family members as a consequence of the US bombings, became Khmer Rouge supporters and even joined the revolution. Gaining more and more power, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge finally captured the capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and under Pol Pot’s reign, Cambodia fell into darkness.
The Khmer Rouge Ideology
Pol Pot strived to make Cambodia a self-sufficient community loyal only to the State. Ultimately under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge followed an ideology of extreme nationalism, fueled largely by anti-French, anti-American and even anti-Vietnamese sentiments, and worked to instill a primarily agrarian society, which closely resembled a form of communism they preferred over the bourgeois of the Chinese and Vietnamese nations.
The way to go about this was to rid the country of city dwellers and intellectuals – teachers, political figures, religious figures, professionals, people with glasses, or those who knew another language or had soft hands – as they were considered corrupted by western and capitalist ideals and therefore a threat to the new classless society he had envisioned. Any minority – Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai – was also considered a threat and disposed of. By retaining only children – the revolutionaries – and the poor peasants, whom he called the “old people,” Pol Pot aimed to create a Year Zero from which the country could start anew.
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An Eventual End
Pol Pot was paranoid, and by 1978 the Khmer Rouge regime was disintegrating from mismanagement and impossible expectations. They were overthrown and chased into the jungles by Vietnamese forces in 1979 but remained recognized by the United Nations as the country’s leaders. Pol Pot was eventually placed under house arrest in 1997 but managed to have a decent life until then, retaining power and spending time with his grandchildren. He died a year later having barely served his house arrest sentence.