January 7, 1979 – Vietnamese forces captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, overthrowing the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who had been responsible for the deaths of over 2 million Cambodians.
From the late 1800s until 1954, Cambodia was a French Colony. When it gained its independence from France in 1954, Cambodia became a monarchy, ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
In 1962, a shadowy figure named Pol Pot became the leader of the Cambodian Communist Party, which had as its main objective the overthrow of the government of Prince Sihanouk. In the jungles of Cambodia, Pol Pot formed a rebel army known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) and waged a guerrilla war against Sihanouk’s government.
At the same time as Pol Pot was waging an unsuccessful campaign against Sihanouk, the U.S. was becoming more and more mired in the Vietnam War, waging an unprecedented bombing campaign in Southeast Asia. North Vietnamese forces began using Cambodia, which shared a border with Vietnam, as a way of avoiding this bombing campaign, which naturally made Cambodia a target.
In 1969, the U.S. began bombing eastern Cambodia in an attempt to hit North Vietnamese bases there and disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. This bombing campaign, done without Sihanouk’s permission, killed an estimated 150,000 Cambodian peasants. When Sihanouk protested, the U.S. supported a military coup by one of Sihanouk’s generals, who removed Sihanouk from office. The bombings were then allowed to continue.
As the U.S. continued to bomb Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of peasants fled eastern Cambodia and settled in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. The military coup, continued bombing and mass uprooting of the population caused severe economic and political turmoil in the country, creating a surge of popular support for Pol Pot.
By 1975, the Vietnam War had ended and the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam. At the same time, the U.S. also withdrew its military support for Cambodia’s government, which collapsed. On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh and seized control of Cambodia, which Pol Pot renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.
Once in power, Pol Pot declared that Cambodian society needed to be “purified.” Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favor of his own extreme form of peasant Communism.
Consequently, the Khmer Rouge government expelled all foreigners, closed foreign embassies, and refused all foreign economic or medical assistance. Speaking foreign languages was made illegal. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles were confiscated, and mail and telephone usage were severely restricted. Having or using money was forbidden. All businesses were forcibly closed, all religious practices were banned, and schools, medical clinics and hospitals were shuttered. Cambodia was completely sealed off from the outside world.
Pol Pot’s next move was to then have all of Cambodia’s cities forcibly evacuated. At Phnom Penh, two million inhabitants were forced by armed Khmer Rouge soldiers to march on foot into the countryside to work on farms. As many as 20,000 died along the way. Millions of Cambodians accustomed to city life were now forced into slave labor in Pol Pot’s “killing fields,” where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease.
Workdays in these fields began around 4 a.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., with just two rest periods allowed during the 18 hour day, all under the armed supervision of young Khmer Rouge soldiers eager to kill anyone for the slightest infraction. The work week was nine days long, with only the tenth day a day of rest. Starving people were forbidden to eat the fruits and rice they were harvesting. After the rice crop was harvested, Khmer Rouge trucks would arrive and confiscate the entire crop. Workers were told, “Whether you live or die is not of great significance.”
Unsupervised gatherings of more than two persons were forbidden. Children were taken from their parents and placed in government run “communals,” where they were indoctrinated in Khmer Rouge philosophy. They were later married in collective ceremonies involving hundreds of often unwilling couples.
Throughout Cambodia, Pol Pot sought to eliminate anyone connected to the “old society” – the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Ex-soldiers were killed along with their wives and children. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot was shot or bludgeoned with an ax. “What is rotten must be removed,” one Khmer Rouge slogan proclaimed.
Many former schools were used as jails and torture centers. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered, “Bullets are not to be wasted,” and so Khmer Rouge soldiers forced Cambodians to dig their own mass graves and then beat them to death with iron bars and hoes, or simply bury them alive. These mass graves are often referred to as The Killing Fields.
In the four years of Pol Pot’s reign of terror, an estimated 2 million Cambodians – 1/4 of the entire population – perished. Finally, in 1978, Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot, whom they viewed as a threat. On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese army captured Phnom Penh, ending Pol Pot’s control, and installed a puppet government more to their liking. Pol Pot fled to Thailand, eventually ending up in China, where he was given asylum.
In April 1998, 73-year-old Pol Pot died of an apparent heart attack following his arrest, before he could be brought to trial by an international tribunal for his crimes.