The Killing Fields – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

17 Nov

I’m sure if you asked many people what “The Killing Fields” were, they’d tell you that it was a movie.

And so it was. A movie about a true event. An event that was as horrific as it was true. An event that rocked the world and which changed and destroyed a country forever. An event which saw two million people butchered, tortured, starved, beaten, shot and bludgeoned to death for no other reason than the desire to create a better world. Truly, the story of the Killing Fields, the story of Pol Pot, the story of the Khmer Rouge, the story of the Cambodian Genocide, is “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions” in its absolute essence.

Cambodia in the 1970s

For 90 years, from 1863 to 1953, Cambodia was part of the extensive French colonies around Southeast Asia. Along with the majority of Vietnam and Laos, it made up a collection of colonies then called “French Indochina”.

In the years after the Second World War’s ending in 1945, many colonised countries demanded independence from their European masters. India, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam were chief among these who wanted independence from Britain and France respectively. British transitions of power and decolonisation happened relatively peacefully, with little incident. The French, however, wanted desperately to hold onto their colonies in Indochina. This sparked the fierce French colonial wars of the 1950s. In time, this collection of conflicts would be called the First and Second Indochinese Wars.

Today, they’re just called the Vietnam War.

In 1954, Cambodia successfully won its official independence from France. However, fighting in nearby Vietnam meant that Cambodia was far from being a stable country. With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnam War came to its eventual end. But in neighbouring Cambodia, things were going from bad to worse.

The Vietnam War had significant effects on Cambodia and there were shortages of food, water and almost everything else required to sustain human life in any comfort. Enter the Khmer Rouge.

In English, ‘Khmer Rouge’ literally means ‘Red Cambodians’, from the Cambodian Khmer word ‘Khmer’, which means ‘Cambodian’, and the French word ‘Rouge’, which means ‘red’. Red being traditionally associated with communism, this was therefore effectively the Communist Party of Cambodia.

Wanting to improve Cambodia and make it self-sufficient, the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, fought a vicious, five-year war (from 1970-1975), against the Khmer Republic, the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (until 1975, also called ‘South Vietnam’).

The Cambodian Civil War, as it was called, ended in 1975 with a Khmer Rouge victory in the capital of Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge Reforms

The Khmer Rouge wanted to make Cambodia a new country. It wanted to make it self-sufficient. It wanted to make it powerful. It wanted to start over.


The Khmer Rouge started by ordering all Cambodian civilians out of the cities. Phnom Penh to start with, but eventually, other population-centers as well. What would follow would be four years of torture, genocide, mass-murder, execution and starvation.

The Khmer Rouge managed to empty the city of Phnom Penh by spreading a false rumor that there was going to be an American air-raid on the capital. As there were insufficient air-raid shelters in Phnom Penh, the population would be safer if they relocated to specially-constructed ‘camps’ outside in the countryside.

This was false, of course. There was no air-raid. And once the population had been relocated to the countryside, it was easy for Khmer Rouge soldiers to pick and separate people and send them to the camps. From here, the Khmer Rouge would start a new country, called the ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

Of course, there was absolutely nothing ‘democratic’ about this new country.

Once Cambodians reached the camps, they were separated from each other, because of the desire of the Khmer Rouge to build a new country. An agricultural country where people grew their own food. Where foreign influences did not exist. A country that was Cambodia for the Cambodians. Anyone who had any links to anything that wasn’t Cambodian, or which was capitalist in nature was duly disposed of.

Hundreds of doctors, lawyers, nurses, businessmen, diplomats, teachers, anyone who had anything at all to do with with the former Republic of Cambodia government, anyone who worked for a foreign government and anyone with a university degree was interrogated and then killed in any number of ways. Almost anyone in Cambodia who had any kind of education, from university down to elementary school, was killed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want all these smart, dangerous people screwing up their wonderful new vision for Cambodia.

Also on the kill-list were ethnic minorities. Monks. Vietnamese. Chinese. Any Western foreigners. Also, anyone wearing glasses. A person wearing eyeglasses was judged to be educated and intelligent (the only reason ANYONE would have eyeglasses is because they need them to READ, right?) And all classes of educated persons were executed, along with those bespectacled Cambodians who probably never read a word in their lives.

Also among the targeted groups were town-dwellers. Urbanites. City-slickers. They were stupid, ignorant, lazy people. The new Cambodia would be have an economy based on farming and agriculture. These city-dwellers had no idea how to farm or grow crops or dig ditches. So they too were executed because they would not be any use in the “New Cambodia”.

“Old” and “New” People

After the Khmer Rouge came to power, Cambodian people were split into two broad groups. ‘Old people’ and ‘new people’.

‘Old People’ referred to the old classes of people who had lived in Cambodia for centuries. Generally, this meant the Cambodian peasantry. The country folk who lived in small villages, who provided their own food, their own traditional folk-medicines, the people who worked the land and farmed and bred animals and who lived the perfect, peaceful, relaxing peasant existence. They had no need for an education. No need for wordly goods. No need to read or write, because everything they had was already provided for them by nature. There was total equality and nobody had more or less than anyone else.

This was the Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge dreamed of. A peasant agricultural society of peace, tranquility and equality for everyone.

But to get there, they had to first get rid of, or change, the ‘New People’.

The Cambodian ‘New People’ were all those who were city-dwellers. Who were professionals. Who were educated. Who were learned. Who earned money, who owned material goods, who challenged each other and strived to be the best. This was the complete opposite to what the Khmer Rouge wanted or liked. New People had to be destroyed. And they were, in their hundreds of thousands.

After being transplanted from the cities to the countryside, the ‘New People’ were immediately put to work. They had to farm. Grow crops. Harvest rice and grain. They had to dig-ditches, plough fields, they had to chop wood, tend to farm-animals and do all other kinds of things which these people had never before had to do, and which they had no idea how to do! And that was THEIR fault which THEY would be punished for, because the Khmer Rouge wasn’t going to teach them how to be farmers or peasants or labourers. If they weren’t smart enough to be stupid, they would pay the price. And they did.

Anyone who couldn’t work the twelve-hour working days on very little food and almost no sleep were taken away and killed. After digging their own graves, they were beaten and then buried. Whether or not they were actually dead was unimportant, and people could be (and were) buried alive, dying of suffocation. The Khmer Rouge cadres were under strict rules not to waste ammunition on anybody who was not considered important. To conserve what little ammunition they had (which they used to fight the Vietnamese), Khmer Rouge cadres killed their enemies using plastic bags, drowning, burying alive, beating and bludgeoning with clubs, axes, shovels, rifle-butts…anything at all. So long as it wasn’t a bullet.

The Killing Fields

So. What exactly were the infamous ‘Killing Fields’?

The term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined by Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor, Dith Pran, who moved to the United States in the 1980s. It referred to the various sites around rural Cambodia where a total of two million Cambodians were either killed, or to which they were taken to be buried after being killed elsewhere. Estimates of exactly how many people are buried in these vast, unmarked mass-graves varies from about 1,300,000, up to three million. The general consensus is that the actual number is about two million people.

Toul Sleng Prison

We’ve all heard of Alcatraz. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobbibor, Sing-Sing and other famous prisons or prison-camps around the world that have existed at various times in history.

But how many of us have heard of a place called…Toul Sleng?

Toul Sleng is Khmer for ‘Strychnine Hill’.

Strychnine is an extremely poisonous substance, used as often for saving people as well as killing them.

This ‘Strychnine Hill Prison’ was known by another name.

S-21. Security Prison #21.

And it was feared by all Cambodians.

S-21 was not actually a prison. In an earlier life, it was actually a highschool. The Chao Ponhea Yat Highschool. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power, the school-buildings were transformed into a prison-complex. Classrooms that once taught children and teenagers their languages, their histories, their sciences and mathematics, their geography and music, were turned into torture-chambers and cramped, tiny prison-cells or holding-cells. The entire school-campus was surrounded by barbed wire and electric-fences. The windows were all barred to prevent escapes and probably most interestingly, the prison’s commandant was Kang Kek Lew…a former maths-teacher. Who better to keep a track of the records of the estimated 17-20,000+ people that the prison ‘processed’ through the years?

Nobody was safe from Toul Sleng. Everyone from doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, students, ethnic minorities, Western foreigners, monks and almost anyone else with an education. In later years, the Toul Sleng Prison, perhaps ironically, was also used to house members of the Khmer Rouge party itself! Intense paranoia had spread in the Party in the later years of its existence as the rulers of Cambodia and hundreds of party-members were sent through Toul Sleng. Here, they were interrogated, photographed, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated and tortured again.

Medical facilities within Toul Sleng were almost non-existent. What medical help there was proved to be woefully undertrained and understaffed. The medics in the prison knew almost no medicine at all – after all, all the doctors and medical professors had been killed – and the ony purpose in having a medical staff in Toul Sleng was to keep people alive for longer so that they could be tortured for longer.

Conditions in the prison were shocking. There was almost no food and no water. Life was so terrible that committing suicide was infinitely better than trying to survive. Of the nearly twenty thousand people who went into Toul Sleng, only seven people (some say up to a dozen) ever came out.

Today, Toul Sleng is a genocide museum.

Pol Pot: Brother Number One

So. Who is this ‘Pol Pot’?

He was born Saloth Sar, on the 30th of November, 1925. He lived his middle-class existence in rural Cambodia. As a child, he was sent to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to study. After winning a scholarship there, he travelled to Paris, France. In France, he failed miserably at his university studies. How miserably? He flunked his exams three times in a row. It was while he was in France that he got exposed to the local communist parties and so began his interest in communism and what it could do for Cambodia, which in the 1950s and 60s, was struggling under French colonial rule.

Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in 1953 as a young university drop-out fired up with communist beliefs. Over the next twenty-plus years, he would establish the Khmer Rouge, give speeches, rally followers and start a revolution that would end with a communist victory in 1975. With Cambodia firmly under his control, he could start his new, glorious peasant society, starting from “Year Zero”. What Pol Pot wanted to do was nothing less than literally starting civilisation from scratch, all over again.

The End of an Era

So…what happened in Cambodia that caused the eventual end of the Khmer Rouge regime? Did it just self-destruct from poor handling, rampant idealism and internal paranoia? Or was there a people’s revolution? Or was Pol Pot killed by a foreign assassin?

None of those, actually.

The Khmer Rouge regime eventually collapsed because of outside forces. For centuries, there was always an intense animosity between Cambodia and its neighbour, Vietnam. During the early 1970s, South Vietnam fought a war with the United States against Cambodia, in an attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from gaining power. But in 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the fall of the South and the evacuation of American forces, leaving North Vietnam, in Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, victorious over their respective peoples. But almost at once, another war started.

North Vietnamese communists had an uneasy partnership with the Khmer Rouge and it was never one that was going to last. Pol Pot was paranoid about Vietnam and in the second half of the 1970s, he ordered an invasion by the Khmer Rouge, into border-villages in Vietnam.

Hardened by years of fighting and with buckets of combat experience, in 1978, the Vietnamese Army easily forced back the hodge-podge Khmer Rouge soldiers who were fighting with limited munitions and weaponry. In history, this conflict was called the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

In truth, the war had started the moment the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, but fullscale military operations didn’t begin until 1978. Angry with the Cambodian presence on their native soil, the Vietnamese Army fought back and went on the offensive, charging full tilt into Cambodia. The severely underpowered Cambodian Army was easily overwhelmed by the vastly superior and much more experienced Vietnamese forces. The People’s Republic of China attempted to mediate between the two countries, but Vietnam grew more and more uneasy and in late 1978, a fullscale Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was underway.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was not supported by the international community. Of course, this was before news about the Cambodian genocide started making it onto the international airwaves. As Vietnamese forces surged into Cambodia and uncovered evidence of horrendous crimes, opinions about the Vietnamese invasion began to change…although that didn’t stop China from invading Vietnam in 1979 to teach it a lesson about invading Cambodia.

What followed was a ten-year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, between 1979-1989. The Khmer Rouge were forced out of power and what members who weren’t captured or killed, fled into the countryside, and a new “People’s Republic of Cambodia” was established. The communist republic lasted from 1979 until 1993. In 1993, Cambodia became a democracy and is unique among all nations as being the only communist (or former communist) country to have re-established its monarchy. The Cambodian monarchy was restored in 1993 as part of the government reforms. The current ruler of Cambodia is Norodom Sihamoni.

The End of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge did not end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. Some were killed or arrested, but others merely fled into the jungles. It wasn’t until 1998, with Pol Pot’s death under house-arrest, that the Khmer Rouge was finally put out of action. Trials for war-crimes committed by members of the Khmer Rouge are still being held today. With a total population of about 8 million people, Pol Pot and his regime successfully killed roughly one quarter (that’s one person in every four), of his country’s entire population.

If you’re looking for more information about the Khmer Rouge and what happened during those years, look for the documentaries “Return to the Killing Fields“, “Pol Pot: Inside Evil”,  and “Pol Pot: Secret Killer“, three films which were my main sources for this grisly article. At the time of this posting, all three documentries (along with several others concentrating on the Khmer Rouge), may be found on YouTube.


Posted by on November 17, 2011 in History of Warfare


7 responses to “The Killing Fields – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

  1. Rich Travels

    January 5, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    haha! glad I found your blog, you happened to settle a little bet I had that Pol Pot killed people wearing glasses. Thanks!
    My Travel Adventure Stories


    • scheong

      January 5, 2012 at 5:17 PM

      The KR really did do that. To avoid death, a lot of people hid their glasses so that the KR wouldn’t find them.

  2. Amelia-Jane

    May 30, 2012 at 8:05 PM

    Brilliant information thank you so much it helped a heap when I did my SOSE assignment.

    • scheong

      May 30, 2012 at 8:36 PM

      Hi Amelia. Thank you! I’m glad that you found the article to be assistance.

  3. Phea So

    June 22, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    This website it’s so good to me.

  4. Andrew Moore

    August 10, 2015 at 6:55 AM

    Thanks. I was born in 1975 and remember my father watching “The Killing Fields” but it was much too complex for me to understand as a child.

    I just finished watching a backpacking tour, 26:30 minutes in, they mention Pol Pot:

    HK2NY Ep 2: Backpacking in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia


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