The Cambodian Killing Fields:  On April 17th, 1975, Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, took power in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, beginning the period known as "the Killing Fields."

The Khmer Rouge forced city dwellers into the countryside and to labor camps. During their rule, the estimates of dead due to starvation, torture or execution have ranged from 100,000 to 3 million.  A figure of  2 million is generally commonly supported.  2 million Cambodians represented approximately 30% of the Cambodian population during that time.

The Khmer Rouge banned all institutions, including stores, banks, hospitals, schools and religion.  Many were forced to work 12 - 14 hours a day, every day.  Family life was adversely affected with children being separated from their parents, and reduced availability of food.  There were indiscriminate killings by the Khmer Rouge.

Few people outside Cambodia realize that so many people died, and that none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice and that the United States helped bring about the crisis that lead to the Khmer Rouge takeover.

As the United Nations and the current Cambodian government discuss whether to try Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, more attention is being given to what actually happened during the Khmer Rouge years.

The doings were due to the little known of the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a Paris-educated communist named Saloth Sar, who went by the nom de guerre “Pol Pot”.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to completely transform Cambodia by organizing the country into farming cooperatives, demanding total devotion to the state and wiping out any remnants of the old regime.  That meant shutting off all contact to the outside world, eliminating loyalty to friends or family, emptying the cities, eliminating the Buddhist religion, and creating a fearsome central authority, the "Angka" or "organzation," that punished any deviation with torture and death.  If a person knew a foreign language, had worked for the French or Americans, or dared to express feelings of love to your husband or wife, he or she was a target. 

While the genocide targeted minority ethnic and religious groups like the Vietnamese, Chinese and the Chams, a Muslim people, the Killing Fields was also unique in that it was largely an act of “auto-genocide.” Cambodians did the killing and the dying.

Cambodia’s Troubled Past

1953   King Norodom Sihanouk declares independence from France.

1965  Cambodia breaks diplomatic ties with U.S.

1969-1973  U.S bombs suspected communist Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia.


1970  U.S.-backed General Lon Nol overthrows Sihanouk and becomes president. Chasing Vietnamese troops, U.S. invades Cambodia.


1975  Khmer Rouge (KR) captures Phnom Penh.

1975-78  Under the rule of KR leader Pol Pot, between one and three million die by summary execution, starvation or disease.

1978  Vietnam invades Cambodia. KR flees to countryside.

1982-1989  A coalition army of KR troops and forces loyal to King Sihanouk fight with Vietnamese for control of Cambodia.

1989  Vietnamese withdraw.

1990  UN peace plan accepted by four fighting factions.

1993  First elections held. KR continues to fight for control of northern territory.

1997  Second Prime Minister Hun Sen seizes power in what critics call a coup.

1998  Pol Pot dies. Hun Sen’s party wins national electons. Major defections by KR members.

1999  Int’l community and Cambodian government discuss launching a tribunal into KR atrocities.

(Sources: Lonely Planet, Human Rights Watch.)