The Cambodian Genocide: Summary, Facts & Statistics

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  • 0:00 Background for the Genocide
  • 2:27 The Killing Fields
  • 4:50 Was This Genocide?
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about the devastating Cambodian Genocide. You'll learn about the lead up and motivation, whether or not this event can be classified as genocide, and how it's being handled by international law.

Background for the Genocide

When you hear the word genocide, you probably think of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, there are many more that might come to mind. The last century has been a grim chapter in human history that has seen genocides occurring all over the world. One of the grisliest occurred in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, a murderous communist regime called the Khmer Rouge killed 21% of Cambodia's population. However, it may be controversial to call this horrible event a genocide.

Cambodia is in Southeast Asia, and home to the native Khmer people. After years as a French protectorate, in 1953, Cambodia regained its independence with Prince Norodom Sihanouk as its ruler. But two things made Cambodia's future unstable. First, Cambodia became independent in the midst of the Cold War, and the onset of the Vietnam War. Second, Prince Sihanouk ruled with an iron fist, and many despised and opposed him. By 1960, some of those opposed to his rule established the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and called themselves the Khmer Rouge. The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, and his goal was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia founded on communist principles.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge was boosted by the Vietnam War. As the U.S. stepped up its military campaign against the communist North Vietnamese, Prince Sihanouk broke relations with the U.S. Meanwhile, internal frustration with the prince led to civil war in Cambodia. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol, a pro-U.S. general. In response, Sihanouk encouraged Cambodians to rise up and overthrow Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge answered this call, and began conquering territory. Many Cambodians fled the marauding Khmer Rouge and sought refuge in the capital, Phnom Penh.

North Vietnamese forces were massing in Eastern Cambodia, so the U.S. began a bombing campaign. The bombs killed many Cambodians, and forced many more to flee the countryside for Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge began closing in on the capital city. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 as the victorious regime.

The Killing Fields

On their very first day in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge went into action. In order to create a farming utopia, they had to drive the population out of the cities and into the fields. Two million people were now living in the city, so soldiers with bullhorns and guns began forcing everyone out of the city. Houses, schools and hospitals were emptied as people were driven into the countryside. Thousands died in the mass exodus. All signs of culture or self-expression were outlawed and punished. The Khmer Rouge believed Cambodia had to start at Year Zero, and progress with no outside influences.

The Khmer Rouge began targeting certain groups for destruction. In the regime's eyes, two different kinds of people existed in Cambodia - old people and new people. 'Old people' were uneducated rural peasants, and 'new people,' were middle class city dwellers like doctors, lawyers, and journalists. New people were undesirable because they were influenced by foreign values, and did not live agrarian lives. Of new people, the regime said, 'To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.' Other groups targeted for extermination by the Khmer Rouge were ethnic minorities like Vietnamese nationals, and the Cham people who are Muslim. The regime also pursued any perceived political enemies.

In 1976, the regime announced a 4-Year Plan to transform the farming of rice, and collectivization of property. The 4-Year Plan was poorly planned, and led to famine. The new people were expressly targeted for the exhausting labor to create ineffective water systems and farm. Many were worked to death, but others were murdered in the fields by blows to the back of the head as the regime attempted to save bullets. However, most victims starved to death in the man-made famine. The mass death in the countryside gave rise to the name Killing Fields. Hundreds of mass graves filled with human remains have been found in Cambodia's Killing Fields. In 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge murdered approximately 1.7 million people. This amounts to a staggering 21% of Cambodia's population. The Khmer Rouge was finally removed from power in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

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