What or who were the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge

Systematic terror

Tuol Sleng - this name stands for horror. For torture and murder. An excerpt from the Interrogation Manual for the S-21 Security Prison in Tuol Sleng:

"The purpose of torture is to get answers. We don't do this for fun. We have to hurt them so they can answer quickly. Another method is to break them down mentally, to take away their will."

Between 15,000 and 20,000 Cambodians died in S-21 or in the "killing fields" in a village a few kilometers from Tuol Sleng. They were tortured and murdered because, according to the Khmer Rouge, they were guilty of a crime, because they were "subversive elements" or simply "intellectuals", for example because they spoke a foreign language. Less than a dozen people survived the S-21.

When the Khmer Rouge fled the Vietnamese troops in January 1979, they left numerous documents in Tuol Sleng - including photos taken by the prison inmates. Overall, the documents show that torture and murder were systematic and that the commanders of Tuol Sleng were in constant contact with "Angkar".

This was the name of the dubious leadership of the Khmer Rouge, which the Cambodians did not know who was actually hiding behind it. The former resistance group of some Cambodians who had studied in Paris in the 1950s and discovered communism for themselves there had become members of a terrorist regime.

Civil war against the government

The history of the Khmer Rouge begins in the French capital, where some Cambodian students decided in the early 1950s to found their own communist party: the "United Khmer Students". After their return to Cambodia, they are in close contact with each other.

After student revolts in 1963, some members of the later leadership of the Khmer Rouge - Pol Pot (actually: Saloth Sar), Ieng Sary and Son Sen - flee from the government in the Cambodian jungle. There they begin to win over the locals for their communist ideas and to build up a guerrilla group.

Although Cambodia has been independent for almost ten years at this point, the situation of the population is poor and there is great anger against the country's rich and corrupt political elite. The Khmer Rouge see potential allies in the impoverished peasants.

With great military help from the communist North Vietnamese, who also train the Khmer Rouge fighters, the inexperienced guerrilla force succeeded in bringing large parts of Cambodia under their control at the end of the 1960s.

The North Vietnamese end their cooperation when they realize that the Khmer Rouge are a burden to them in their project - expelling the Americans from Cambodia - and that their political views are becoming too extreme for them.

From 1973 onwards, the Khmer Rouge fought against the government in Phnom Penh in the civil war and finally took the capital on April 17, 1975 - initially much to the delight of the Cambodian population, who are hoping for great improvements. But these expectations are brutally nullified within a very short time.

Forced labor in agriculture

The new government around Pol Pot, which acts largely in the background, immediately begins to completely transform society into a self-sufficient, radical communist peasant state and cynically calls the country "Democratic Cambodia". The ideology: needless equality of people.

3.5 million Cambodians are driven to the countryside like cattle from Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, who have found suitable victims among the poor peasants to do the "dirty work" - so that they do not pose a threat to the party and in agricultural production can be used. Soon the cities of the country will be deserted. Private property will be abolished, as will money and free trade.

All Cambodians who are not directly politically persecuted have to work under the strictest supervision in the rice and cotton fields as well as in road construction under inhumane conditions. Many starve and die of thirst, die of disease or are slain by the guards. This is how the "killing fields" are created: those who are killed are buried right next to the fields on which they worked.

After the alleged political opponents were initially killed by the Khmer Rouge, it is later also their own people, many of whom are suddenly seen as a threat to the system. Within just under four years, the Khmer Rouge murdered almost all members of the middle class and had the country's religious and cultural institutions - with the exception of Angkor - destroyed.

The guerrillas keep fighting

In addition to the radical communist idea, strong nationalism dominates the thinking of the Khmer Rouge. This leads them to start a war with Vietnam in 1978 over the Mekong Delta, which was once inhabited by Cambodians. The Vietnamese troops face little resistance, as Pol Pot's troops are already weak and emaciated at this point.

On January 7, 1979, Vietnam took the capital Phnom Penh and ended the reign of terror - but this did not ensure that the Khmer Rouge chapter was finally over. The members of the terror regime are fleeing the Vietnamese into the Cambodian jungle, Thailand and China.

It will be quiet around Pol Pot, but the guerrilla army of the Khmer Rouge terrorized the country until 1996 - with civil war to overthrow the government and with the murder of civilians and UN soldiers who have been working for peacekeeping since the early 1990s for reconstruction in the country.

Pol Pot dies on April 15, 1998 - without being tried. At the end of the same year, the last guerrilla units of the Khmer Rouge lay down their arms and the last members of the leadership team surrendered to government authorities.

The long way to the tribunal

The demands of the victims and refugees for an international tribunal were not heeded for a long time by Western countries. The Khmer Rouge was even allowed to keep its UN headquarters until the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991. Some members were pardoned by the then King Sihanouk (until 2004) so ‚Äč‚Äčthat high officials could live undisturbed in their villas until the beginning of the genocide tribunal.

After lengthy negotiations, the tribunal began in 2006. Scandals and difficulties followed, which almost brought the proceedings to failure on several occasions. It was not until November 2007 that the first accused was heard publicly: Duch, the head of the S-21, who is said to be jointly responsible for the torture and murder of a total of 16,000 prisoners.

On July 26, 2010, "Duch", whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was sentenced to 35 years in prison, of which he is only supposed to serve 19. After a revision procedure at the instigation of the public prosecutor, the sentence was increased to life imprisonment in February 2012.