The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, during which time its brutal regime was responsible for one of the worst genocides of the 20th Century.

From 1955 to 1970 the Kingdom of Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been king since 1941, but abdicated in 1955 in order to attempt to establish Cambodia as a constitutional monarchy. He formed a political party and subsequently became Prime Minister. In 1960, Sihanouk was elected as Head of State.

In 1963, left-wing opponents of Sihanouk (including Marxist leader Saloth Sar, who changed his name to Pol Pot) fled to the jungles and mountains of Cambodia and established the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Communists’ name for Cambodia). This party later became known as the Khmer Rouge.

In 1969, United States bombings of Cambodia began, largely in secret, aimed at Vietnamese communist base camps on Cambodian territory.

In 1970, a US-backed right-wing military coup led by General Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk. As a result, Sihanouk retaliated by forming a United Front with the Khmer Rouge, to oppose the Lon Nol regime. In the same year, US and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, without Lon Nol’s knowledge or approval and continued to attack communist bases.

From 1969 until 1973, the US intermittently bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. As a result, peasants fled the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and settled in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.

By 1975, the US had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam and Cambodia’s government, beset by corruption and incompetence, also lost its American military support. Seizing the opportunity to gain power, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh and on 17 April took control of Cambodia. Initially, Khmer Rouge troops were greeted by crowds waving makeshift white flags when they entered the capital, unaware that the following few years would lead to more deaths than the previous five years of war.

Under the pretense that the Americans were going to bomb the capital, the Khmer Rouge instigated a major evacuation. Families were given just minutes to prepare for what they were told would be a three-day journey. A similar scenario occurred in the majority of the country’s major cities and towns. Hospitals were emptied and doctors performing operations were ordered at gunpoint to abandon their patients. Anyone who refused to obey was generally executed. There were inadequate supplies of food and water for the refugees and, as a result, many succumbed to heat and exhaustion. Families were forced to leave the bodies of their loved ones at the roadside.

Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot declared that society was about to be “purified”. Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion and all foreign influences were eradicated in favour of an extreme form of peasant Communism. Anyone thought to be an intellectual was killed, to the extent that even people who wore glasses or had knowledge of a foreign language were condemned. Educated middle-classes were executed in special centres and hundreds of thousands of others died from disease, starvation or exhaustion as members of the Khmer Rouge forced people to do gruelling work. Since travel was forbidden without permission from the organisation (“Angkar”), the outside world became inaccessible to most, beyond a border lined with mines and armed guards.

Finally, in 1979, the Khmer Rouge government was overthrown by invading Vietnamese troops, but the Khmer Rouge regime left an aftermath of devastation, with no currency, no financial institutions, no postal system, no telephones, virtually no sanitation, clean water or electricity, no schools, a significantly reduced number of teachers and very few doctors.

In the 1980s, the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields brought the plight of the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention. Nevertheless, the Khmer Rouge still attracted support from the United States and other Asian nations because of its opposition to Vietnam.

Pot Pol’s regime had a lasting effect on Cambodia and it is now one of the poorest countries in the world. There is also a high incidence of mental illness and premature ageing amongst those citizens who suffered under the rule of one of the most evil men in history.

Extensive logging had a disastrous impact on Cambodia’s environment. The clearance of the rainforest that used to act as a sponge for monsoonal rain has resulted in extensive flooding and failed crops. Pot Pol’s fanatical emphasis on agriculture mean that attempts to diversify Cambodia’s economy have failed, because approximately 77% of Cambodian people are employed in subsistence farming. Therefore, when a disaster affects the agricultural industry in Cambodia, or crops fail, there are limited options available for its people.

The Year Zero Foundation aims to help the Cambodians create greater opportunities for themselves, firstly through provision of basic resources, with clean water as a priority and, secondly, through the distribution of food and medicine, as and when the situation desperately requires it. Finally, education and employment opportunities will be created, giving the people back a sense of pride, motivation and, above all, hope.


Cambodia: Long March from Phnom-Penh

Timeline of the Khmer Rouge’s Rise and Fall From Power

The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History