The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) ruled Cambodia from April 17, 1975 until January 1979. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge established the state of Democratic Kampuchea. Three decades after the fall of the regime that managed the torture and death of some two million Cambodians in pursuit of agrarian utopia, the recently-concluded trial of Khmer Rouge leaders found them guilty of mass murders. Here is a brief look at the rise and fall of this group.
The Cambodian communist movement emerged from the country’s struggle against French colonization in 1940s, and was influenced by the Vietnamese. In March 1970, Marshal Lon Nol, a Cambodian politician who had previously served as prime minister, and his pro-American associates, staged a successful coup to depose Prince Sihanouk as head of state. When Sihanouk was forced out of power, the new Prime Minister, General Nol, sent the army to fight the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge and Prince formed an alliance and the party, led by Pol Pot, was positioned to become a major player in the civil war. Fighting two enemies proved to be too much for Cambodia’s army. The Khmer Rouge began to defeat Lon Nol’s forces on the battlefields. By early 1973, about 85 per cent of Cambodian territory was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Until 1977, the Khmer Rouge’s top leadership (known as “Angkar Padevat”) worked in secret, with few outside of the party aware of their identities.
The Khmer Rouge arrested and killed thousands of members of the previous government and regimes, including soldiers, politicians and bureaucrats, who they considered to be not â€œpure peopleâ€.
The Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University estimates that 1.7 million (21 per cent of the population) lost their lives during Khmer Rouge rule.
The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. In the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, the full horrors of the regime became apparent. Pol Pot was denounced by his former comrades in a show trial in July 1997, and sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home. But less than a year later he was dead.
On 7 August 2014, Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal of crimes against humanity found the Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea, who had served as leader Pol Pot’s deputy, and Khieu Samphan, the Maoist regime’s head of state guilty of crimes against humanity. Both top leaders were jailed for life.
Judge Nil Nonn said the men were guilty of “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity”.