The Rise to Power of The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

Posted on
Jul 20, 2014
Posted in: Uncategorized

Lesson 1: The Khmer Rouge.

It seems pointless to tell you about Cambodia without first going into the country’s history, particularly in the last forty years or so. Some will chastise me, and will be quick to say that the country is more than the Khmer Rouge, more than this dark history. That’s true: I can’t and won’t dispute that. But this particular backstory is the reason why the country is what it is today. It is virtually impossible to speak of Cambodia and not touch on the issue. My stories won’t make sense.

Nicci and I realized this. That’s why, on our very first morning in Cambodia, we went to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, and later to the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. They was no way around it, and it framed the way we traveled, and how we saw the country, and I think that was the responsible way to go.

Some of the young victims of the Khmer Rouge.


It’s so important, I’ve made the “Khmer Rouge” Cambodia Lesson #1.

Note that I’ve added nothing else. Not “The Khmer Rouge was horrible” or “The Khmer Rouge left a legacy of death and terror” or anything to that effect. This is because of Cambodia Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Don’t pretend for a second that you understand what the fuck happened here.

You don’t. We can’t. Unless you lived through it (and very, very few people did live through it), it’s impossible to understand. This was something that I kept failing to realize, something that I tried to do time and again. A sort of pitiful little refrain of, “But I’m a world traveler. I’m different. I get it,” which is fucking absurd, because I don’t.

It’s not something you can get. You can simply learn the facts and try not to make an ass of yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do.

As with all my posts about history, let me offer a disclaimer: I’m an American. Please keep in mind that everything I write will be written through that lens – I will do my best to be unbiased (but no promises).

Also, I’m not a historical scholar, and I make a lot of mistakes. If you find evidence that refutes something I’ve said, or if I’m flat out wrong about something, I’ll ask that you kindly and respectfully let me know in the comments.

Cool? Okay. Let’s talk about the Khmer Rouge. Or, more specifically, how they came to power in the first place.

The prison at Tuol Sleng.


We should start with the Cambodian Civil War. (Note: Ideally, I should start with all of the Second Indochina War, but I have decided to wait until I write about Vietnam to tackle that).

Here’s the first thing you need to know: Cambodia was, and is, a Kingdom. It fell under French Colonial Rule for 90 years, from 1863 to 1953. It was also briefly occupied by Japan in World War II. By 1960, though, Cambodia had gained independence. Norodom Sihanouk was the Prince and head of state.

During this time, Vietnam was caught up in war – the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (which was Communist) was in conflict with the Republic of Vietnam, which was in the South. The North was supported by the Communist Bloc (mainly China and Russia) and the South was supported by a handful of countries, most notably the United States.

So – with war ranging just outside his country’s borders, Sihanouk did his best to maintain neutral relations with North Vietnam. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s top military official, Lon Nol, remained on friendly terms with the United States. He wasn’t cool with the Prince’s seemingly amicable relationship with North Vietnam.

In 1970, while Sihanouk was out of the country, a coup was staged, which placed Lon Nol in power. Some reports say that this was not actually Lon’s intent. He had simply wanted to get rid of North Vietnamese troops within Cambodia, and never wanted to oust the prince. But his deputy Prime Minister, a man named Sisowath Sirik Matak (who, in a Shakespearean twist, was also a member of the Cambodian royal family) was determined to depose his cousin, the Prince. One account said that he even held a tearful Lon Nol at gunpoint, and forced him to sign the necessary documents to begin a coup. (Some accounts also claimed that he intended for one of his sons to later take the throne.)

This resulted in the formation of the Khmer Republic, which was anti-Vietnamese and pro-American. Lon Nol would be the country’s first and only president. A few demonstrations took place in support of the King, but the Lon’s troops quickly quashed them; several hundred people were killed as a result.

The Prince was condemned to death in absentia – he was in exile in Beijing during this time, where he formed an exile-government (known as “GRUNK“) with his supporters as well as leaders of the Khmer Rouge – a Communist party.

The U.S. immediately recognized Lon Nol’s new, Anti-Vietnamese government. They rushed to aid the Khmer Republic, while the North Vietnamese Army rushed to aid Communist resistance groups. The Vietnam War was now being waged inside Cambodia’s borders.

U.S. assistance came in the form of financial aid,  as well as an aerial bombing attack that was unleashed on Communist forces within the country. From 1969 to 1973, we dropped more than 500k pounds of bombs on Cambodia. It’s estimated that the U.S. is responsible for the death of 750,000 Cambodians during this time.

This leads me to …

Lesson 3: The U.S. did some fucked up shit in this part of the world.

(I don’t mean to disparage any U.S. soldiers who fought in the war. They served and suffered for our government. More than 200,000 died. I will elaborate more on this in my posts about Vietnam (because this post is supposed to be about the KR, after all). But the point is that the war didn’t end at the Vietnamese border. If you visit Cambodia, you will see countless people missing arms, or limbs, or both. You will see people with massive scarring and old injuries. These are a result, both directly and indirectly, of U.S. intervention.)

The Khmer Republic was now in place. But it would soon prove to be disastrous. Lon Nol would suffer a stroke shortly after taking power. He would make strange declarations (like that he wanted to rid the country of democratic ideals). His government was getting money from the U.S., but his troops were poorly trained. Corruption meant that very little of the aid the U.S. sent was getting into the hands of the people. Poverty and unemployment were rampant, and food was scarce. The country and the people had been ravaged by years of bombing.

By 1973, the U.S. and Vietnam had reached a cease-fire, and were no longer actively participating in the conflict in Cambodia. Though this cease-fire did not officially extend into Cambodia (as the country had supposedly never been a part of the war, a ridiculous technicality), Lon Nol and the Khmer Republic briefly abided by it.

The ever-growing Khmer Rouge, however, kept on fighting. They’d steadily grown stronger over the years, and had distanced themselves from the Prince. His supporters had been purged from the party, and there was no longer any trace of the GRUNK government that he had created while in exile.

The Khmer Rouge was now headed by two ruthless leaders: Pol Pot and Son Sen. Stories had already spread about the terror that they had laid across the countryside – dismantling villages, killing dissenters or anyone who questioned them. In this manner, their troops moved steadily towards the capital.

It seemed very likely that they would take over Phnom Penh and oust Lon Nol. In response to this threat, the U.S. launched one last aerial bombing operation that forced the Khmer Rouge troops to retreat. But it was a temporary fix.

By 1975, the Khmer Republic had virtually no leg to stand on. Their troops were overwhelmed and outnumbered. The Khmer Rouge had cut off all supplies to the capitol. In early April of that year, Lon Nol resigned and left the country. A week and a half later, the U.S. embassy was evacuated.

On April 17, 1975, The Khmer Rouge had taken control of the country.

That’s where I’m going to stop for today. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss what happened during the reign of Khmer Rouge, and how one-quarter of the population would be murdered over the four years that they were in power.

Leave a Comment

  • Nguyen

    That’s pretty sad to see. i live in Vietnam and we’re heard these kinds of stories when I was a kid.

  • Bruce Cramer

    I grew up during that period of time and was, and am, a voracious reader of the newspaper and other publications. It broke my hear to read all of the news coming from that area of the world.

    • Everywhereist

      I was looking up old articles from U.S. newspapers – it amazes me how much the American government actually knew. We weren’t clueless. We just screwed up so royally in Vietnam that we weren’t going to get involved in Southeast Asia again.

  • Adilah

    I love that before telling your stories of Cambodia your gonna talk about the history first. I feel like so many travel bloggers travel to countries with significant history and then just post pretty pictures and talk about what they ate….I definitely feel like their needs to be a balance between the two. Cant wait to read your next post

  • It’s a hard thing to read, but I feel it’s important for us to see the world like this. In all it’s glory the world is so fucked up at times, and you’re right, we can’t possible “get it”. I can’t even begin to understand, I’m just reading and I don’t even know.

  • Cindy K

    I really love how you explore the history of a place. You can tell from all of your posts how important it is to you (Thinking of how much I learned about Ireland….)

    I also admire how your discoveries help the reader understand your thoughts on the overall visit and that particular place.

    My favorite line… “Lesson 3: The U.S. did some fucked up shit in this part of the world.” While I am an American who is happy to be an American, I can admit that as a country our influence and “help” has hurt or hindered more than it helped.

    Looking forward to the next posts….

    • Everywhereist

      Thanks so much, Cindy! Doing the research really helps me, too. I figure you can’t really appreciate a place unless you know what its people have been through.

  • Thanks so much for writing this. While I loved everything else about Cambodia, I found this part of history also most telling and important to retell – as my guide at the Tuol Sleng said – please take pictures and tell the world, because this must never happen again.
    Also, I am curious to read more and admire your stance on America’s part, because when I was telling stories of my trip I still could not come up with a satisfying solution why countries stood by. But as you said…sometimes we fuck up.

  • Of all the places I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Cambodia made the biggest impact on me, too. It made me question basic things about humans that I’d always assumed, like that people are innately good and make bad decisions sometimes. The things that happened under the Khmer Rouge weren’t bad decisions. they were evil.

    I highly recommend the books “First They Killed My Father,” which is a memoir of a young girl who lived through that time period, as well as “The Killing Fields,” the memoir by the actor. These books really give insight into the day-to-day goings on and the height of the Khmer Rouge.

    Although interestingly, it wasn’t as bad everywhere in the country. Many of the farmers I spoke to on my durian-centric travels said that there wasn’t much violence, although of course there was food shortage and many of their trees were either chopped down or the durians were hauled away to be eaten by Khmer Rouge officials. One farmer even said things were better under the Khmer Rouge, because at least they had medical care and everyone had food.

    So yeah – I think your summary of we really can’t understand what the fuck happened is pretty accurate.

  • Thanks for calling a spade a spade. Seriously.

    After I went to Cambodia, I read Cambodia’s Curse–realizing that every book has its biases, it’s a really interesting read (if you have time to burn on trains or planes!).

  • Delly

    An excellent novel about this period based on the author’s personal history – In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner.

  • Cambodia Lessons 2 & 3 are spot on. I’ve been traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam since the beginning of June and have reminded myself of lesson 2 repeatedly. Lesson 3 is impossible not to be hit with almost daily in this part of the world. I’m really looking forward to your future posts on these countries!

  • Beth

    I can’t wait to read more about the history and your take on it. Do you do the research before your trips or after you are back home? I imagine you learn a ton while there, but just curious how you approach visiting the countries.

  • It’s so interesting to know more about a country’s past and then travel there. My husband and I travelled to Cambodia and I fell in love with the place and the people. I just couldn’t understand how such loving and gentle people could be so inhuman towards their own countrymen. Our guide was a person whose family was separated by the terrors unleashed by the Khmer Rouge. His sister was with their uncle and aunt in a noter part of the country when the Khmer Rouge went on the rampage. She grew up there and he couldn’t even attend her marriage. He said that the Khmer Rouge were so despotic that they did things like killing people with spectacles because such people were considered to be bookish and hence intellectuals . It was so difficult for me to accept that the Cambodian people could be like that.

  • The U.S. also heavily bombed Laos because part of the Ho Chi Minh trail ended up there. One third of the ordnance we dropped didn’t explode and continues to kill and maim today. On a recent trip to Southeast Asia, we were “those people” who only visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. My only defense is that I did so knowing full well that my head was buried firmly in the sand. Having been alive and sentient during the 1970’s, “The Killing Fields” was current events for me and as an immigration lawyer, I’ve seen the psychological toll that the Khmer Rouge took on even those who survived physically more or less intact. The human capacity for evil is astounding——and so it goes —- on and on and on.

  • David

    I traveled to Cambodia three years ago, and consider myself a rather bookish traveler. So I really enjoyed your history overview in this post. I plan on returning to SE Asia in a few months for an extended period, and maybe start my own blog. Your blog will be one of my inspirations. Cambodia is one of my favorite places in the world, and as an American, I feel ashamed at some of my government’s past and present (and dare I say future) foreign exploits. The illegal bombing of Cambodia is one of those shameful events.
    Which brings me to a mistake I found at the end of lesson two, and it’s just a matter of transcribing words. You write that 500K pounds of bombs were dropped during the bombing campaign unleashed by the Americans. Your link to Wikipedia states that it is 500k tons. I’m sorry, but i’m a stickler for details.
    I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you.

  • wow! you have done a great job at explaining this. History does not enter or seem to stick in my head very well but I certainly am starting to grasp things with the way you wrote this… thank you. I look forward to the next articles!

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