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
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.
In fact, although the scale of horror was similar, likening the Khmer Rouge killings to the Holocaust was inexact. For one thing, a programmatic racist element was lacking. Sadly, Khmers killed fellow Khmers, rather than members of a despised minority. There was also no Nazi-style master plan on the part of Pol Pot and his associates to do away with one in seven of their fellow citizens. Instead, it was their demented economic programmes, ineptly put into practice, that smashed hundreds of thousands of unconnected people. When the programmes failed, the Khmer Rouge blamed the failure on political enemies—a constantly changing category—and killed them off.
The Cambodian revolution had its own distinctive character, as we shall see. It was also the last and most extreme in a long line of revolutions carried out by Communist parties. No historical parallels are exact, but comparisons between the Khmer Rouge and other Communist movements are more revealing, I think, than comparisons to flamboyant anti-Communist regimes like Nazi Germany. The closest parallels, indeed, are with the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s and with Mao Zedong’s China after the mid 1950s.