Back To CourseAsian History for Kids
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Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1974, Pol Pot and his inner circle made plans to transform the country after the Khmer Rouge took power. Pol Pot believed that the Khmer Rouge needed to destroy the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and have all Cambodians live in rural areas and work in agriculture.
By January 1975, the Khmer Rouge had Phnom Penh surrounded. The Khmer Rouge cut off food supplies, and many people inside the city were sick and starving. On April 1, 1975, Lon Nol resigned and left Cambodia.
On April 17, the Khmer Rouge entered the city, and forced its inhabitants to leave their homes for the countryside to work in agriculture. Can you imagine what it would be like to be forced to leave your home and work in the countryside if you had only lived in the city for your entire life?
Anyone who was suspected of working for Lon Nol's government was killed. Others were killed if the Khmer Rouge thought they might cause trouble. For example, many people were killed simply for wearing glasses, because the Khmer Rouge believed they were intellectuals who might question the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia 'Democratic Kampuchea' and made Pol Pot Prime Minister. The next four years brought mass starvation and the murder of teachers, musicians, artists, or anyone else with an education, until the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by Vietnam in 1979.
The Cambodian Civil War began because people were unhappy with Sihanouk's government. The Khmer Rouge, helped by Vietnamese communists, put pressure on Sihanouk's government. Sihanouk was criticized by many people for allowing Vietnamese communists to take refuge in Cambodia, and not preventing the United States from bombing Cambodia. Though Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol in 1970, the fighting increased under him. Lon Nol was even more unpopular with the communists than Sihanouk because he tried to force Vietnamese people to leave Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, with the help of Vietnamese communists, gained land a little bit at a time, until they finally controlled the entire country in 1975. Once in power, the Khmer Rouge tried to turn Cambodia into an agricultural communist society.
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Back To CourseAsian History for Kids
1 chapters | 5 lessons