Scholars still discuss whether the events in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 can be referred to as genocide, because the massive killings which occurred there under the Khmer Rouge rule did not specifically target a certain ethnical or religious group. However, most of them agree that the term (or its alternative: auto-genocide) should be used, given the tremendous number of casualties. In Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge rule, under Pol Pot, more than 1,700,000 people were murdered. And these are the official numbers. Unofficial reports account for as many as 2,300,000 casualties.
Political context and ideology
Between 1970 and 1975, Cambodia was the scene of a civil war between pro-West and nationalist parties. USA played a controversial role, supporting the rule of Lon Nol; the Khmer Rouge party fought against this and managed to take control over Phnom Penh. For the next four years, Cambodians witnessed major changes, which included: the elimination of any form of western technological presence; the enforcement of a communal way of life; the abolition of intellectuals and of those who opposed the regime; massive executions; etc. The idea behind this regime was to revive the authentic values of Cambodia, denying or leaving aside any foreign influences.
In addition, religion was another point the Khmer Rouge didn’t agree with. Christians, Buddhists, and Cambodian Muslims (aka Cham) were prosecuted and killed for their beliefs. Across the country, another rule was imposed: citizens were to be evaluated according to how reliable they were in relation to the new ideology. Trustworthiness was one of the most important pretexts for torture, imprisonment, and killings.
Timeline of the Cambodian Genocide
- 1975 – Year Zero, as it was called, marks the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime.
- 1975 – Tortures and executions all across the country. The social categories in focus are intellectuals, teachers, doctors, former military police members, lawyers, and anybody else opposing the regime. This is the year with the most casualties.
- 1976 – The country is renamed Democratic Kampuchea, to mark the beginning of a new era. The name is the old form of the contemporary form Cambodia.
- 1977 – The Cambodian-Vietnamese War begins.
- 1978 – Cambodia is invaded by Vietnam.
- 1979, January – The Khmer Rouge rule is over.
The incredible impact of this regime on the Cambodian society can’t be fully understood or described. At the beginning of 1979, even if still under Vietnamese occupation, some of the refugees started to return to their native lands. Cambodia’s loss in terms of valuable people and potential was enormous. In fact, the Pol Pot rule left the country without the ability to sustain itself. From 1979 to 1991, due to the continuation of fights and guerilla war, famine occurred on a regular basis. Left without proper infrastructure, local people were incapable to carry on.
After 1993, most of the killing fields have become museums or places of sad memory. The Killing Fields, near Phnom Penh, and Tuol Sleng are such places. From this perspective, the Cambodian society hasn’t yet recovered and it still has a long way to go.