The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, this ultra-marxist party sought to create an self-sufficient agrarian utopian society by force, creating a terrible genocide in its wake. The goal of the party was to eliminate currency and put everyone on an 'equal playing field'. To accomplish this vision, the party abolished money, free markets, schooling, private property, religion, and strictly controlled leisure activities and exposure to foreign influences. While the rise of the party’s power began to develop in the late 60s and early 70s, the official start of the Khmer Rouge’s reign is when they succeeded in taking control of Phnom Penh. Within days of the takeover, the city’s 2 million occupants were being forcibly marched to the countryside to work on communal farms and marked the start of the social engineering ‘project’. Thousands of them died during the march from execution or starvation, and many more would die in the next 4 years to come.
During their rule from 1975-1979, many intellectuals were targeted as enemies of this new society. Those who were educators, attorneys, teachers, or leaders were often tortured and executed. Some people could be considered an enemy of the state for simply wearing glasses or speaking another language. Many people were sent to prisons, including the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese, the most notorious of which was the Tuol Sleng Prison where some 14,000 prisoners were tortured and killed. A Vietnamese invasion in 1979 eventually drove the Khmer Rouge from power, but did not succeed in completely eliminating their influence. They retained strongholds in the West, where they continued to vie for opportunities to wrest power again from the existing authorities. Their control started to wane however, and by 1999, all of its leaders had either defected to other parties, had been arrested for war crimes, or had died.
Initially, those who were affected by the atrocities did not share what had happened for fear of retribution. It was not until the release of a movie in 1984, called the Killing Fields, that the genocide received international attention which prompted the country’s victims to start speaking out about the atrocities and seeking justice. The Killing Fields is a well known site for execution, where Cambodian and foreign visitors may now go to pay their respects and witness the site of the massacres for themselves. A brief history, skeletal remains, and a long line of bracelets offered as a token of remembrance are all seen here. What remains of Tuol Sleng prison is also open for those who dare to visit and be reminded of the atrocities that occurred not so long ago.
The primary leader, Pol Pot, was tried for war crimes in 1979 and again in 1997 by his own party (the Khmer Rouge), though he never served his sentence before dying in 1998. Five other top leaders of the Khmer Rouge genocide have been recently charged before a UN Tribunal court, including Comrade Duch, the man overseeing Tuol Sleng prison, who was convicted in 2012 and sentenced on Aug. 7, 2014 and sentenced to life in prison nearly 30 years after the genocide had ended. Many claim this justice, while necessary, it is ‘too little too late’. Nearly 1.7 million people, nearly a fourth of the country’s population, were killed during those 4 years when the Khmer Rouge held control.
As the Cambodian people try to continue to heal from this recent horror, the nation is left grappling with nearly two generations of young men who have not been educated in anything other than how to fight a war. Many still to this day do not know what became of family members and whether they survived the genocide or not.