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Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer: កម្ពុជាប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ, Kâmpŭchéa Prâcheathippadey), was the name of the Khmer Rouge-controlled state that, between 1976 and 1979, ruled the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. It was founded when the Khmer Rouge forces defeated the Khmer Republic of Lon Nol. After losing control of most of Cambodian territory to Vietnamese occupation, it survived as a rump state supported by the West and China. In June 1982, the Khmer Rouge formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea with two non-communist guerilla factions, which retained international recognition.[1] The state was renamed Cambodia in 1990 in the run up to the UN-sponsored Paris Peace Agreement conference of 1991.

The Khmer Rouge were heavily influenced by Maoism,[2] the French Communist Party and the writings of Marx and Lenin,[3] as well as ideas of Khmer racial superiority.[4] This resulted in the drive to create both an ethnically pure and classless Khmer society,[4][5] which made the Khmer Rouge regime reminiscent of both Communism and National Socialism, or fascism, according to some scholars.[5][6] Others reject the notion that the regime was fascist on the basis that the Khmer Rouge lacked protection for private property.[7] The governing body was referred to as "Angkar Loeu" (Khmer language: អង្គការ លើ upper organization).[8] The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) leadership referred to themselves as "Angkar Padevat" during this period.[9] Its constitution defined it as a "State of the people, workers, peasants, and all other Kampuchean labourers"[10]

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, cities were emptied, organized religion was abolished, and private property, money and markets were eliminated.[11] An unprecedented genocide campaign ensued that led to annihilation of about 25% of the country's population, with much of the killing being motivated by Khmer Rouge ideology which urged "disproportionate revenge" against rich and powerful oppressors.[12][13][14] Victims included such class enemies as rich capitalists, professionals, intellectuals, police and government employees (including most of Lon Nol's leadership),[15] along with ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cham.[5] The genocide was essentially stopped only in 1979 by invasion of Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation and People's Army of Vietnam troops, following which the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was installed. The PRK had a pro-Soviet government, which started to recreate the totally devastated country. This process was significantly hampered by defeated Khmer Rouge forces, which regrouped along the border with Thailand and retained the structure of the Democratic Kampuchea state in the regions they controlled. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the People's Republic of China, the Khmer Rouge's strongest supporter,[16] and most Western nations continued to recognize Democratic Kampuchea as the legitimate government of the country.


Flag of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), the political arm of the Khmer Rouge.[16]

In 1970, Premier Lon Nol and the National Assembly deposed Norodom Sihanouk as the head of state. Sihanouk, opposing the new government, entered into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge against them. Taking advantage of Vietnamese occupation of eastern Cambodia, massive U.S. carpet bombing ranging across the country, and Sihanouk's reputation, the Khmer Rouge were able to present themselves as a peace-oriented party in a coalition that represented the majority of the people.

With large popular support in the countryside, they were able to take the capital Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. They continued to use Sihanouk as a figurehead for the government until 2 April 1976 when Sihanouk resigned as head of state. Sihanouk remained under comfortable, but insecure, house arrest in Phnom Penh, until late in the war with Vietnam he departed for the United States where he made Democratic Kampuchea's case before the Security Council. He eventually relocated to China.

In January 1976 the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) promulgated the “Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea”. The Constitution provided for a “Kampuchean People's Representative Assembly” (“KPRA”) to be elected by secret ballot in direct general elections and a State Praesidium to be selected and appointed every five years by the KPRA. The KPRA met only once in April 1976. The members of the KPRA, however, were never elected; the Central Committee of CPK appointed the chairman and other high officials both to it and to the State Praesidium. Plans for elections of members were discussed, but the 250 members of the KPRA were in fact appointed by the upper echelon of CPK.

Actually all power belonged to the Standing Committee of CPK, the membership of which was comprised by the Secretary and Prime Minister Pol Pot, his Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea and seven others. Its daily work was conducted from Office 870 in Phnom Penh. Office 870 and the Standing Committee were known also as the “Centre”, the “Organization,” or “Angkar”.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed the legal and judicial structures of the Khmer Republic. There were no courts, judges, laws or trials in Democratic Kampuchea. The “people’s courts” stipulated in Article 9 of the Constitution were never established. The old legal structures were replaced by re-education, interrogation and security centres where former Khmer Republic officials and supporters, as well as others, were detained and executed.[17]

Immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, spreading rumours that American soldiers were planning to bomb the city. The roads out of the city were clogged with evacuees. Phnom Penh —the population of which, numbering 2.5 million people, included as many as 1.5 million wartime refugees living with relatives or in urban center—was soon nearly empty. Similar evacuations occurred at Battambang, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, and in other towns.

The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and "parasitism" of city life would be completely uprooted. Communalization was implemented by putting men, women and children to work in the fields, which disrupted family life. The regime claimed to have “liberated” women through this process, and according to Zal Karkaria, "appeared to have implemented Engels's doctrine in its purest form: women produced, therefore they had been freed."[16] On the surface, society in Democratic Kampuchea was strictly egalitarian. This was not the case in practice, however. Members and candidate members of the CPK, local-level leaders of poor peasant background who collaborated with the Angkar, and members of the armed forces had a higher standard of living than the rest of the population.[citation needed]

Ironically, considering the intensity of their revolutionary ideology, the Khmer Rouge leadership practiced nepotism to a level that nearly matched that of the Sihanouk-era elite. Family ties were important, both because of the culture and because of the leadership's intense secretiveness and distrust of outsiders, especially of pro-Vietnamese communists. Greed was also a motive. Different ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Industry, were controlled and exploited by powerful Khmer Rouge families. Administering the diplomatic corps was regarded as an especially profitable fiefdom.

The Khmer Rouge regime was one of the most brutal in recorded history, especially considering how briefly it ruled the country. Based on an analysis of mass grave sites, the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University estimated that the Khmer Rouge executed over 1.38 million people.[18][19] If deaths from disease and starvation are counted, as many as 2.5 million people died as a result of Khmer Rouge rule.[20] This included most of the country's minority populations. For instance, the country's ethnic Vietnamese population was almost completely wiped out; nearly all ethnic Vietnamese who didn't flee immediately after the takeover were exterminated. One prison held 17,000 people at one time or another, of which only seven survived.

Immediately following the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, there were skirmishes between their troops and Vietnamese forces. A number of incidents occurred in May 1975. The following month, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary visited Hanoi. They proposed a friendship treaty between the two countries, an idea that met with a cool reception from Vietnam's leaders.

Faced with growing Khmer Rouge belligerence, the Vietnamese leadership decided in early 1978 to support internal resistance to the Pol Pot regime, with the result that the Eastern Zone became a focus of insurrection. War hysteria reached bizarre levels within Democratic Kampuchea. In May 1978, on the eve of So Phim's Eastern Zone uprising, Radio Phnom Penh declared that if each Cambodian soldier killed thirty Vietnamese, only 2 million troops would be needed to eliminate the entire Vietnamese population of 50 million. It appears that the leadership in Phnom Penh was seized with immense territorial ambitions, i.e., to recover the Mekong Delta region, which they regarded as Khmer territory.

Massacres of ethnic Vietnamese and of their sympathizers by the Khmer Rouge intensified in the Eastern Zone after the May revolt. In November, Vorn Vet led an unsuccessful coup d'état. There were now tens of thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese exiles in Vietnamese territory. On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced the formation of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). This was a heterogeneous group of communist and non-communist exiles who shared an antipathy to the Pol Pot regime and a near total dependence on Vietnamese backing and protection. The KNUFNS provided the semblance, if not the reality, of legitimacy for Vietnam's invasion of Democratic Kampuchea and for its subsequent establishment of a satellite regime in Phnom Penh.

In the meantime, as 1978 wore on, Cambodian bellicosity in the border areas surpassed Hanoi's threshold of tolerance. Vietnamese policy makers opted for a military solution and, on December 22, Vietnam launched its offensive with the intent of overthrowing 'Democratic Kampuchea'. An invasion force of 120,000, consisting of combined armor and infantry units with strong artillery support, drove west into the level countryside of Cambodia's southeastern provinces. After a seventeen-day blitzkrieg, Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese on January 7, 1979.[21] The new administration was supported by a substantial Vietnamese military force and civilian advisory effort. As events in the 1980s progressed, the main preoccupations of the new regime were survival, restoring the economy, and combating the Khmer Rouge insurgency by military and political means.

Armed Forces of Democratic Kampuchea[]

Aircraft roundel of the RAK, 1975 to 1979.

The 68,000-member Khmer Rouge-dominated CPNLAF (Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces) force, which completed its conquest of Cambodia in April 1975,[22] was renamed the RAK (Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea). This name dated back to the peasant uprising that broke out in the Samlot district of Batdambang Province in 1967.

Under its long-time commander and then Minister of Defense Son Sen, the RAK had 230 battalions in 35 to 40 regiments and in 12 to 14 brigades. The command structure in units was based on three-person committees in which the political commissar ranked higher than the military commander and his deputy.

Cambodia was divided into zones and special sectors by the RAK, the boundaries of which changed slightly over the years. Within these areas, the RAK's first task upon "liberation," as a calculated policy, was the peremptory execution of former Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK) officers and of their families, without trial or fanfare.

The next priority was to consolidate into a national army the separate forces that were operating more or less autonomously in the various zones. The Khmer Rouge units were commanded by zonal secretaries who were simultaneously party and military officers, some of whom were said to have manifested "warlord characteristics". Troops from one zone frequently were sent to another zone to enforce discipline. These efforts to discipline zonal secretaries and their dissident or ideologically impure cadres gave rise to the purges that were to decimate RAK ranks, to undermine the morale of the victorious army, and to generate the seeds of rebellion.[23]

Foreign relations[]

The orientation of the Khmer Rouge was highly xenophobic, emphasizing an idealized, isolated, and self-sufficient version of Cambodian society. Democratic Kampuchea maintained embassies in only three countries: the People's Republic of China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Vietnam. (Relations with the latter soured and were suspended in 1977.)[24] One of the few foreign policy priorities for the regime was recognition by the United Nations, which was ultimately successful.[25]

Administrative divisions[]

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge government did away with all former Cambodian traditional administrative divisions. Instead of provinces, Democratic Kampuchea was divided into geographic zones, derived from divisions established by the Khmer Rouge when they fought against the ill-fated Khmer Republic led by General Lon Nol.[26] There were seven zones: The Northwest, the North, the Northeast, the East, the Southwest, the West and the Center, plus two "Special Regions": The Kratie Special Region no 505 and (before mid-1977) the Siemreap Special Region no 106.[27] The regions were subdivided into smaller areas or damban. These were known by numbers, which were assigned without a seemingly coherent pattern.

Villages were also subdivided into 'groups' (krom) of 15–20 households who were led by a group leader (Meh Krom). This practice continued after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. It is no longer part of the official administrative system and is now unevenly applied.

See also[]


  2. Jackson, Karl D. Cambodia, 1975–1978: Rendezvous with Death. Princeton University Press. p. 219. ISBN 0-691-02541-X. 
  3. Ervin Staub. The roots of evil: the origins of genocide and other group violence. Cambridge University Press, 1989. p. 202
  4. 4.0 4.1 David Chandler & Ben Kiernan, ed (1983). Revolution and its Aftermath. New Haven. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Helen Fein. Revolutionary and Antirevolutionary Genocides: A Comparison of State Murders in Democratic Kampuchea, 1975 to 1979, and in Indonesia, 1965 to 1966. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 796–823
  6. Becker, Elizabeth. 1986. When the War Was Over. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, p.136.
  7. Cyprian Blamires, Paul Jackson. World fascism: a historical encyclopedia, Volume 1 ABC-CLIO, 2006. ISBN 1-57607-940-6 p. 363: "In the final analysis, several typical features of fascist regimes - such as qualified protection of private property, state toleration of a national religion, and an express rejection of Marxism-Leninism in all its variants - were not in evidence during Democratic Kampuchea, and the regime cannot, as such, be considered fascist."
  8. "Cambodia Since April 1975". Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  9. "A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979)". Archived from the original on 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  10. "Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea". Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  11. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8014-3965-5 p. 127.
  12. Locard, Henri, State Violence in Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) and Retribution (1979-2004), European Review of History, Vol. 12, No. 1, March 2005, pp.121–143.
  13. Nicholas A. Robins, Adam Jones. Genocides by the oppressed: subaltern genocide in theory and practice. Indiana University Press, 2009. p. 98
  14. Alexander Laban Hinton. A Head for an Eye: Revenge in the Cambodian Genocide. American Ethnologist, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), pp. 352–377
  15. Nicholas A. Robins, Adam Jones. Genocides by the oppressed: subaltern genocide in theory and practice. Indiana University Press, 2009. p. 97
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Zal Karkaria. Failure Through Neglect: The Women’s Policies of the Khmer Rouge in Comparative Perspective. Concordia University Department of History.
  17. Judgement of the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
  18. Documentation Center of Cambodia
  19. Yale Cambodian Genocide Program
  20. Bruce Sharp, Counting Hell: The Death Toll of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia,, 2008.
  21. “”. "A video on Vietnamese invasion". Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  22. a video of a 1975 Khmer Rouge parade is available here
  23. Becker, Elizabeth (1986). When the War Was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-41787-8. 
  24. Martin, M.A. Cambodia: A Shattered Society. University of California, 1994. p 204.
  25. Martin 1994, p. 204.
  26. Tyner, James A. (2008). The Killing of Cambodia: Geopolitics, Genocide, and the Unmaking of Space. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-7096-4. 
  27. Vickery, Michael (1984). Cambodia : 1975–1982. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-189-3. 

Further reading[]

  • Beang, Pivoine, and Wynne Cougill. Vanished Stories from Cambodia's New People Under Democratic Kampuchea. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2006. ISBN 99950-60-07-8
  • Dy, Khamboly. A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979). Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2007. ISBN 99950-60-04-3 Foreword
  • Etcheson, Craig. The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea. Westview special studies on South and Southeast Asia. Boulder, Colo: Westview, 1984. ISBN 0-86531-650-3
  • Pescali, Piergiorgio. Indocina. Emil, Bologna, 2010. ISBN 978-88-96026-42-7
  • Daniel Bultmann: Irrigating a Socialist Utopia: Disciplinary Space and Population Control under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, Transcience, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2012), pp. 40–52 (Text-Link)

External links[]

Coordinates: 12°15′N 105°36′E / 12.25°N 105.6°E / 12.25; 105.6

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