The fate of Cambodia shocked the world when the radical communist Khmer Rouge, under their leader Pol Pot, seized power in April 1975 after years of guerrilla warfare. The Khmer Rouge ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia (now under its Khmer name Kampuchea) on the communist model of Mao’s China – creating ‘Year Zero’. The population was made to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. The inhabitants of towns and cities were forced to leave. The ill, disabled, old and very young were driven out, regardless of their physical condition. No-one was spared the exodus. People who refused to leave were killed, so were those who did not leave fast enough and those who would not obey orders.
Also targeted were ethnic minority groups, victims of the Khmer Rouge’s racism. These included ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and also Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry. Religion was outlawed by the regime – half the Cham Muslim population was murdered, as were 8,000 Christians. Buddhism was eliminated from the country and by 1977 there were barely any functioning monasteries left in Cambodia.
All political and civil rights were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down, so were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field were murdered, together with their extended families. Religion was banned, so were music and radio sets. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying. One Khmer slogan ran ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’
Civilian deaths in this period, from execution, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated at well over two million.