Nineteen years ago last month, on 17 April 1975, Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Cambodian guerrilla armies known as the Khmer Rouge. The city had been besieged for months. Since 1970, when the civil war began, at least half a million Cambodians, or one in sixteen, had been killed. By April 1975, Phnom Penh was running out of food. The government had ceased to function. Its American allies, reduced to a handful of embassy personnel, had been evacuated by helicopter a few days before, leaving the Cambodians to their fate. City-dwellers cheered as the silent, heavily armed young soldiers began filtering into the city on the morning of April 17th. After five years of fighting, the inhabitants of Phnom Penh were on their last legs, but guardedly optimistic. Surely, they thought, peace would be better than war. Any regime would be better than the one in power. They felt certain that the Khmer Rouge, about whom they knew almost nothing, would work with them as fellow-Cambodians to reconstruct the country.footnote

They were cruelly mistaken. Within a week, Cambodia’s city-dwellers were driven at gunpoint into the countryside and ordered to take up agricultural tasks. Thousands of them died over the next few weeks. When they asked questions of the soldiers who accompanied them, they were told to obey the ‘revolutionary organization’ (angkar padevat), without further explanation. The ‘organization’ in fact was the clandestine Communist Party of Kampuchea (cpk), formed in the 1950s by the Vietnamese and led since 1963 by a reclusive former schoolteacher named Saloth Sar, known to the world since 1976 by his revolutionary pseudonym, Pol Pot.

Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot waged a brutal, uncompromising revolution in Cambodia, isolating the country from the outside world. Between April 1975 and the beginning of 1979, over a million Cambodians, or one in seven, died from malnutrition, overwork or untreated illnesses. At least a hundred thousand more were summarily executed for misdemeanours or for crimes against the state. In the first few months of the new regime, intellectuals, government officials and former soldiers disappeared in large numbers and were killed. After mid 1976, most of those put to death, after torture and interrogation, were Khmer Rouge soldiers and members of the Communist party itself.

Loss of life of this magnitude is almost impossible to comprehend. Some estimates of the revolution’s toll run as high as two million deaths, with as many as four hundred thousand executions. Whatever the figure, which will never be known, the deaths in Cambodia between 1975 and the beginning of 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power, were apocalyptic in scope.footnote1 When the extent of the horror became clear outside the country, what had happened in Cambodia captured much of the world’s imagination.

The parallel that sprang to many people’s minds was the Holocaust in the Second World War, a connection that was encouraged by the Vietnamese, who wanted to label the Khmer Rouge, their former protégés, as ‘fascists’. Because what had happened in Cambodia was so extreme, inept and primitive, and yet recognizably Communist in its party organization, social aims and centralized planning, the truth was a political embarrassment to Vietnam.