The radical left-wing movement known as the Khmer Rouge had its organizational beginnings in France in the late 1940's and early 1950's. The individuals who were to become the central leadership of the Khmer Rouge came primarily from landowning families that were able to send them to study in France. In France, they became involved in radical Cambodian political groups and joined the French Communist Party.
Several of the young leftists finished doctoral degrees. The only one who did not finish with a university degree was Saloth Sar, later to be known as Pol Pot, who became the leader of the Khmer Rouge. After returning to Cambodia, the leftist students worked to organize a communist movement.
Although it initially took up arms against Sihanouk, much of the eventual success of the Khmer Rouge was due to an alliance with the prince. In the late 1960's Sihanouk had allowed the United States to engage in bombing the Cambodian countryside in order to drive out Vietnamese communist forces who were using Cambodia as a sanctuary and a base to attack South Vietnam.
The prince's cooperation was limited, however, and the Americans acquiesced when the Cambodian military, under General Lon Nol, staged a coup, establishing the Khmer Republic. The coup caused Sihanouk to flee to the Khmer Rouge and to urge his supporters to take up arms against the new Cambodian government.
With Lon Nol in power, there were no limits on U. S. bombing. Eager to force the North Vietnamese to come to an agreement that would enable American troops to withdraw from a highly unpopular war, the Americans dropped an estimated 539,129 tons of bombs on the small country. This was about three and a half times the bombs dropped on Japan during all of World War II. Social disruption, together with the political appeal of Sihanouk, greatly increased the power of the Khmer Rouge.
Although the Khmer Rouge leaders were highly educated people dedicated to sophisticated, if extreme, ideological principles, most ordinary Khmer Rouge soldiers were young men or even children drawn from the peasantry. The only education of these ordinary soldiers was dedication to the goals of the party, and they carried with them the experience of constant, uncompromising warfare and bitterness against a society seen as utterly unjust. Therefore, wherever the Khmer Rouge took power, the radical ideas of the leadership were often carried out by ruthless, frequently illiterate adolescents.
In 1973 the United States began to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Without U. S. support, the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all crumbled before communist opposition movements. On April 17,1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and immediately began to execute all officials of the Khmer Republic. It also forced all citizens of Phnom Penh to evacuate the city. Khmer Rouge spokesmen justified this measure by pointing out that there was insufficient food for all the city-dwellers. However, they also were motivated by the desire to destroy bases of opposition and by the goal of creating a perfectly equal nation of peasants.
Estimations of the numbers of people who died from executions, starvation, or disease while the Khmer Rouge was in power usually range from one to three million. Efforts to calculate just how many people had died continued long after the Khmer Rouge period. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, an organization dedicated to collecting information about Khmer Rouge atrocities reported in the fall of 2002 that it had located 19,440 anonymous mass graves in the country dating from the late 1970's.
There were several reasons for this horrible death rate. First, the attempt to turn the country into a self-sufficient agricultural economy was a disastrous plan initiated by French-trained radical economic theorists with no knowledge of agricultural production. Also, the attempt to establish a classless, peasant-based society led the Khmer Rouge to see all nonpeasants as class enemies.
Moreover, policies were carried out by battle-hardened, ruthless youths who had become accustomed to killing as the way to achieve goals. Finally, the Khmer Rouge, like other forces in Cambodian society, was divided into factions. In order to keep power, Pol Pot and the other leaders of newly renamed Democratic Kampuchea felt it necessary to identify and eliminate those who were opposed to them.
Chief among the internal enemies of the central leadership of Democratic Kampuchea were the members of the Khmer Rouge who continued to be pro-Vietnamese. The tactical alliance with the Vietnamese communists ended when the Americans left. The Khmer Rouge wanted to restore Cambodia to the greatness of the Angkorian period and establish a classless society. Therefore, they wanted to retake parts of Thailand and Vietnam that had formerly belonged to Cambodia.
Vietnam, in particular, was seen as the traditional enemy. Some pro-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge fled to Vietnam, and Democratic Kampuchea began to launch attacks across the border into Vietnam. In response, on December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. Two weeks later, Phnom Penh fell once again, this time to Vietnamese forces.