When thinking about genocide over the course of history, we tend to forget about the brutal killing of around 2 million that took place in Cambodia, under the leadership of Pol Pot.
Rising to power in 1975, Pol Pot, formerly known as Saloth Sar, was responsible for one of the deadliest regimes in human history. Pol Pot grew up in Cambodia, but spent a part of his life in France as a member of the French Communist Party. Upon his return to Cambodia, Pol Pot joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and found a way to climb the ranks of the organization, eventually becoming one of its leaders.
Cambodia was first granted independence from the French in 1953. While this split began a new period in Cambodia, it also birthed a movement known as the Khmer Issarak. This group was anti-colonialist and anti-french, and had an ally in the Viet Minh, the communist faction in Vietnam. Eventually, this initial group split up and proceeded to form a new movement, the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge was a Cambodian communist movement that first began its ascent to power in 1970. After Marshal Lon Nol and his troops overthrew the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, fighting broke out between the Khmer Republic government and the Khmer Rouge. Throughout the next five years Cambodia would be overwhelmed by attacks that were taking place due to the fighting between these groups.
After being involved with the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) in Vietnam, Sar returned to Cambodia with the goal of bringing the same socialistic fervor to his homeland. Under the helm of Sar, the CPK focused on creating a classless society in Cambodia, one without the influence of the West and technology.
Once the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia they re-identified themselves as Democratic Kampuchea. The demographic makeup of the Khmer Rouge soldiers was young, uneducated men. One of the first things the soldiers did upon taking over the city of Phnom Penh was order all citizens to head to the countryside - in order to begin the process of becoming a self-sufficient agrarian society. The soldiers were as brutal as to force hospitalized patients into the streets while they were still recovering.
The main goal for the Rouge was to wipe Cambodia’s historical slate clean and restart at year zero. Anything that held ties to the old society was to be destroyed. Old ideas were one of the first things to be gone. The Khmer Rouge believed in a combination of communist ideology and long held Cambodian tradition. The ultimate ideological goal of the Khmer Rouge was to distance Cambodia from the West or any other power that seeked to gain control over them, as well as getting rid of any ties to capitalism. This ideological purism created a lot of paranoia within the country. Citizens were afraid of being ratted out to officials because of the bad things that could happen to them and their families if they were found to have allegiance to the old society.
Living in Pol Pot’s Cambodia was grueling and degrading, oftentimes people were forced to work an entire day of heavy labor with little to no food. Families were separated, lives were destroyed, all in the pursuit of a “better” society. It is estimated that at least 2 million people died in Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot.
During his time in power, Pol Pot unveiled the “Four-Year Plan” that led to the starvation of countless Cambodians. The Four-Year Plan’s objective was to greatly expand the normal cultivation of rice into a much bigger operation, one that proved to be unsustainable.
Pol Pot was only in power for 4 years, but his influence on the country spanned decades. He was able to influence an entire population of people to abandon their long held beliefs and traditions and destroy the people and things they once valued. He created a political society where any suspected dissidents were brutally murdered.
Cambodia was turned into a killing field all in the pursuit of an idealized, utopian agrarian society that would be under the rule of one party.