Cambodian Genocide

In 1975, a communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge conquered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The occupation set in motion a four-year campaign of genocide that would wipe out 2 million people – a quarter of the country’s population. Developed through a partnership between USC Shoah Foundation and the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the Cambodian Genocide Collection offers testimonies of survivors who escaped the killings from 1975 to 1979.

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About the Collection

In January 2017, the USC Shoah Foundation added to the VHA five testimonies of survivors of the Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia for just under 45 months (April 1975-January 1979) and left 1.6–3 million Cambodian civilians dead through starvation, torture, execution, medical experiments, untreated diseases, forced marches, forced labor, and other forms of violence. However, even after 1979, the Khmer Rouge remained active in remote regions of the country; thus, fatalities may be higher than documented. The five testimonies were recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation in the United States in 2009, 2011, and 2015. Three are in English and two in Khmer (with English subtitles). All five interviewees witnessed first-hand the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the capital city Phnom Penh in April 1975, the forced marches that followed, and forced labor in horrific conditions in the northwest of the country.

Brief Historical Background

The  Khmer  Rouge  ruled  a  totalitarian  state  in  which  citizens  had  essentially  no  rights  –  they abolished civil and political rights, private property, money, religious practices, minority languages, and foreign clothing. Citizens could be detained for the slightest offenses, and the government set up vast prisons where people were held, tortured, and executed. The most infamous of these prisons was known  as  “S-21,”  located  in  the  capital  city  of  Phnom  Penh,  where  accused  “traitors”  and  their  families  were  brought,  photographed,  tortured,  and  killed.  Of  the  roughly  17,000  men,  women,  and  children who were brought to S-21 there were only about a dozen survivors. There were mass graves throughout the country, areas that became known as “killing fields.” 

The Khmer Rouge based their policies on the idea that citizens of Cambodia had become corrupted by outside influences, especially Vietnam and the capitalist West. The Khmer Rouge referred  to  people  who supported their vision as “pure people,” and persecuted anyone they deemed “impure.” Within days of taking power, the regime killed thousands of military personnel and forcibly moved millions of  people  out  of  cities,  killing  anyone  who  refused  or  was  too  slow.  They  forced  citizens  into  what  they  called  reeducation  schools,  which  were  essentially  places  of  state  propaganda.  The  regime  forced  families  to  live  communally  with  other  people,  in  order  to  destroy  the  family  structure.  The  Khmer  Rouge  targeted  ethnic  minorities,  especially  Chinese,  Vietnamese,  and  Muslim  Cham,  of  whom an estimated 80% were killed. In addition, anyone who was believed to be an intellectual was killed: doctors, lawyers, teachers, even people who wore glasses or knew a foreign language became targets. Specially targeted were the inhabitants of the areas close to the Vietnamese border.

On  December  25,  1978  Vietnam  invaded  Cambodia.  The  Vietnamese  sought  to  remove  the  Khmer  Rouge  from  power.  At  first,  survivors  of  the  Khmer  Rouge  regime  considered  the  Vietnamese  to  be  liberators, but they were soon viewed as occupiers.

Aftermath

Vietnamese troops stayed in the country until 1989, with armed clashes between Vietnamese and Cambodians  going  on  throughout  the  1980s.  A  post-Pol  Pot  government  with  some  democratic  features, led by a reestablished monarchy, took over. Yet the Khmer Rouge did not disappear until much  later,  and  continued  to  hold  Cambodia's  seat  at  the  United  Nations  for  twelve  years.  On  October  23,  1991  the  Comprehensive  Cambodian  Peace  Agreement  (commonly  referred  to  as  the  “Paris  Peace  Accords”)  was  brokered  by  the  United  Nations,  ending  the  twelve  year  civil  war  in  Cambodia.  Cambodia  was  temporarily  governed  by  the  National  Council  and  the  United  Nations  Transit  Authority  of  Cambodia.  In  May  1993  the  first  free  elections  in  more  than  twenty  years  were held. In January 2001 the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to try leadership of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity. Trials began in 2009 but have led to  only  three  convictions,  including  that  of  Kaing  Guek  Eav,  the  commander  of  the  S21  prison,  who  was  sentenced  to  life  in  prison  for  crimes  against  humanity.  The  vast  majority  of  the  perpetrators suffered no consequences for their actions.

Sample Clips from the Collection

Phansy Peang on Losing Her Family to Genocide

100 Days to Inspire Respect

Phansy details how she was affected by losing both her parents and children during the Cambodian Genocide.

Theary Seng on Being a Cambodian Genocide Refugee

100 Days to Inspire Respect

Theary recounts a debate among her family about where to travel next as refugees of the Cambodian Genocide.