Cambodian Civil War: Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

The Cambodian Civil War was a conflict from 1967-1975, primarily between the communist Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian government. The Khmer Rouge won the war, creating a communist revolutionary government that existed for less than four years.

Cambodia Under Sihanouk's Government

In the mid-1960s, Cambodia was led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk's passion was for music. He played the saxophone and clarinet in a band with other members of his royal family. Can you imagine your government leaders playing in a band together? Many Cambodians liked Sihanouk because he led their country to independence from France, but Sihanouk still had many enemies. One of those enemies was the Khmer Rouge, a communist group. With the help of Vietnamese communists, the Khmer Rouge wanted to replace Sihanouk with a communist government. They started a civil war in 1967 against Sihanouk and in 1970 Sihanouk was replaced by his former Prime Minister Lon Nol. Even though Lon Nol was supported by the United States, the Khmer Rouge gained strength against Lon Nol's new government, and won the civil war in 1975.

Map of Cambodia with Phnom Penh in the south and Battambang in the northwest.

The Civil War Begins: The 1967 Samlaut Uprising

The Cambodian Civil War has its beginnings in an April 1967 rebellion called the Samlaut Uprising. Many peasants in the Samlaut area of Cambodia rebelled against the government. The uprising spread throughout the region, as many peasants were unhappy with the government, which they blamed for corruption and inequality. Because Sihanouk was out of the country, Prime Minister Lon Nol oversaw repressing the uprising. Lon Nol killed many peasants involved, but some of the leaders of the uprising escaped into the forest and joined the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge were supported by other communist groups in the region, including Vietnamese communists.

First Attack on a Government Base: 1968

In 1968, Pol Pot became the leader of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot wanted to destroy the past, and to see Cambodia start again from 'Year Zero.' Pol Pot believed that the Khmer Rouge should create an agricultural society in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge staged their first raid on an army base in the Battambang area (near the Samlaut Uprising) in January 1968. Though the Khmer Rouge were repelled by government forces, they gained weapons that helped them in the war.

Cambodia is Bombed by the United States: 1969

At the same time, Cambodia's neighbor to the east, Vietnam, was in the middle of a civil war between North and South Vietnam. The United States supported the South Vietnamese government, and Cambodia supported the North Vietnamese communists. In 1969, the United States began bombing eastern Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese and their allies were based. Many Cambodians were upset by the bombings.

Coup of 1970

On March 18, 1970, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was removed from power by Lon Nol in the Cambodian coup of 1970. After taking power, Lon Nol ordered all North Vietnamese to leave Cambodia. Many Vietnamese were forced to leave, and many others were murdered by soldiers and ordinary Cambodians.

After the coup, Sihanouk allied with his former opponents, the communist Khmer Rouge, increasing the communists' popularity. The Khmer Rouge asked North Vietnam and other communists to help the Khmer Rouge gain power. The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists worked to 'liberate' swaths of territory in southern and eastern Cambodia from the Cambodian government.

Map of Cambodia in 1970. Gray: Controlled by Khmer Rouge/North Vietnam. White: Controlled by Cambodian government.
map 1970

The War Turns in Favor of the Khmer Rouge: 1972

In 1972, the Khmer Rouge became increasingly organized and powerful. In areas that the Khmer Rouge controlled, they made changes to the way society was organized. They said that Angka, or 'the organization,' was in charge. They collectivized agriculture so that individuals no longer owned the land or crops, Angka did. They were also very brutal rulers. Anyone who disagreed with the Khmer Rouge could be killed.

By early 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled nearly 85% of the land of Cambodia. Because the Khmer Rouge was so successful, most Vietnamese communists left Cambodia. Instead, the Khmer Rouge began depending more on military aid from China. Lon Nol was dependent upon United States military aid to keep the land that the government still held.

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