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On April 17 1975 the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital Pnom Penh and evacuated that and all other cities in Cambodia. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, The Communist Party of Kampuchea, had a vision of introducing a communist society with no private property. no religion and a society that was self sufficient. Offer of aid was turned down, closed the country and put people to work, mainly growing rice and irrigation work. People had to work day and night, often without enough food or time to sleep. The population was organized into cooperatives, much ike the peoples communes in China under Mao Tse-Tung. Young men and women were organized into work brigades. People could be ordered around the country. Money was abolished. It was a revolutionary dream and a desktop revolution that had developed in the minds of a small group of revolutionaries that saw themselves as pioneers of communism. They had a vision and nothing should block its way. They boasted about having gone further tan any other revolution. The price was high - scholars still debate how many died these years. One scholar, Ben Kiernan, has made a thorough investigation and has taken into consideration the victims of the US bombings. He has calculated the death toll and has arrived at the figure of 1,7 million people that died during Democratic Kampuchea.

"If you have rice you have everything"

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It has sometimes been claimed that Cambodia under the period of Angkor harvested 2 crops a year. Regardless of if this is true or not it was vision that Pol Pot and the other leaders set up as a goal. The goal was also the harvest 3 tons per hectare against the normal one ton.

This was to be accomplished by a gigantic irrigation system that would be built mainly by hand , without machines. The rice would then be exported and the surplus would finance an industrialization of Cambodia. Everything done should be subordinate to this goal. In reality the rice production fell och the rice produced disappeared from the cooperatives , sometimes to the Khmer Rouge cadre who ate better that the rest of the population, and sometimes to Kampong Som (Sihanouklville) . There it was being exported to China to pay for aid that the Khmer Rouge in spite if their propaganda received ( oil, weapons, experts)

Some of the irrigation constructions still remain and are used today - one is in the photo to the left. How many lives did it cost to build?

The cities were emptied

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The leaders have given many reasons for emptying all the Cambodian cities. The decision was made in February 1975. The main reason was that the leaders were afraid that they could not control and rule the population in the cities. There was also within the Khmer Rouge a hostile attitude towards the city people and intellectuals. There was a saying that "the rice is grown on the countryside and goes to the city" There was also an influence from the cultural revolution in China where the intellectuals sometimes were labelled as "the 9th scum". A few trusted people lived in the cities and a few worked in some factories. Other than that the cities were empty ghost towns. The picture to the right was taken in Pnom Penh in August 1978.

Personal freedom abolished

The whole population lived in villages that were administered together as so called cooperatives. The leaders of the cooperative (often 3 persons) got orders from above about what to dig and what to produce. Sometimes people lived i families sometimes they were separated, but young men and women were almost always living separately. Forced marriages were common, sometimes in big collective ceremonies where hundreds of couples were declared man and wife. The meals were eaten in collective dining halls. The picture below is from the cooperative Ang Tassom in August 1978.

20 Communal eating

You could not travel freely. If you found food, for instance fruit or vegetables, and ate it, you could be severely punished, sometimes executed. Those suspected of the smallest misdemeanor could disappear , most often to be killed on site. Sometimes people were taken to different prisons and the most well known is Tuol Sleng, a torture center in Pnom Penh. There was no legal system with courts, When I asked (on visit 1978) I was told that courts were unnecessary. Freedom of religion was abolished - the buddist monks were disrobed and assigned work in the rice fields. The pagodas were used as storage when they weren´t destroyed. The Cham people, who are muslims, were forbidden to practice their religion and forced to eat pork. Many were killed.

The fights against Vietnam and the fall of the Khmer Rouge

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The fights between Vietnam and Cambodia that started in 1977 went on in 1978. The background goes further back . Historically here has been contradictions between the countries- The Khmer Rouge were also convinced that the Vietnamese wanted to control their revolution -a fear not without foundation. Vietnam kept insisting that Cambodia, Laos and VIetnam should have special relations, regardless of what the Cambodians wanted. Already at the signing of the Geneva accords 1954 the Cambodians felt betrayed. During the first years of fighting the Lon Nol side the Khmer Rouge got support from Vietnam. With time, almost all Cambodian communists seen as close to Vietnam had been maneuvered away from power. Many were killed. Vietnam was increasingly being seen as an enemy.
During spring of 1978 the Khmer Rouge continued to attack Vietnamese villages across the border. In Vietnam there were now Cambodian refugees. Amongst them there were defecting Khmer Rouge cadre. Vietnam decided to overthrow Pol Pot and supported actively a Cambodian resistance, It was totally dependent on Vietnam. In december 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and quickly crushed all resistance. January 5 the Khmer Rouge abandoned Pnom Penh and January 7 the Vietnamese conquered an empty city. A few weeks later practically all of Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge continued their resistance against the Vietnamese and later the Hun Sen government in Pnom Penh. as late as 1999 the last Khmer Rouge troops laid down their weapons. The photo shows Vietnamese troops taking Pnom Penh.

How many died under the Khmer Rouge

Many figures have circulated to describe the death toll under Democratic Kampuchea. The scholars don´t totally agree, among other thing because one is divided on the issue of how many inhabitants there were oin Cambodia 1970. Another issue has been that it has been claimed that the numbers of deaths are exaggarated and do not take into account those of died of the US bombings. The number of deaths of those bombings are most often said to be between 600-800000 dead.
Most calculations end up in a death toll under the Khmer Rouge if 1,5-1,7 million dead. The most detailed study has been made by there scholar Ben Kiernan. He has interviewed people of different backgrounds and from their stories calculated the death tolls in the following way.

Estimated death toll in Cambodia 1975-1978


Population 1975

Number of dead

The New people
The people were divided into two groups: The new people who lived under Nol and the "Old People" or "Base people" who lived under the Khmer Rouge for a long time

Khmer city population




Khmer rural population




Chinese population (all urban)




Vietnamese population (urban)




Laotisk population (urban)




Total for "The New People"




Base people

Khmer rural




Khmer Krom (khmer from southern Vietnam)




Cham (muslim minority,rural




Vietnamese (rural)




Thai (urban)




Minorities in the Mountain Areas




Total Base People




Total for the population of Cambodia






Back after 30 years

Cambodia 1978 - a journey with blinders on

Tuol Sleng and the Killing fields

The Trial agains the Khmer Rouge

The History

Cambodia November 2008 (Swedish captions)

Book Living Hell



  • The Khmer Rouge take over and empties the cities of its population. The country closes down,
  • The people are divided into the "old people" who lived a long time in the so called liberated zones and "the new peopel" that came from the citties, The "new people" are treated more bruitally and gets less food and is made to work very hard.
  • Almost all soldiers and officers from the defeated Lon Nol army are being executed if their background is revealed.
  • Many city dwellers and people with an education are executed.
  • Sihanouk returns in the fall and is soon placed under house arrest in the royal palace
  • A new constitution is put in force and the country is named Democratic Kampuchea. Sihanouk resigned and the kingdom is abolished. Khieu Samphan is appointed president, The new herald show the Khmer Rouge vision of irrigation and industralisation in the future.

Democratic_Kampuchea vapen

  • Collective dining halls are introduced all over the country.
  • This year the organisation ruling Cambodia is made public as the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Formerly it was only known as Angkar (The Organisation). Its leader is Pol Pot
  • Pol Pot

Pol Pot


  • A 4-year plan is set in motion to achieve a rice crop of 3 tons per hectare and 6 tons with 2 crops a year (a figure the country never has been close). The goal was never achieved but rice was exported anyway although people were starving.


Hu Nim

  • The purges and the persecutions now reached the inner circles: for instance the minister of interior Hu Nim who had been a top leader since the 60´s. He was tortured and executed in Tuol Sleng.
  • In the end of 1977 the first fights broke out against Vietnam. Communists with alleged links to Vietnam had already been persecuted and killed. Ordinary Vietnamese were being expelled to Vietnam or killed. The Khmer Rouge attacked villages in Vietnam and Vietnam retaliated.


  • The persecutions and purges of dissidents and imaginary opponents continued. More and more Khmer Rouge cadre were arrested and had to be replaced. All failures were being blamed on "agents" that one could find everywhere.
  • The fights against Vietnam got more intense.
  • At the same time Cambodia opened up a bit to the world: the first foreign delegation were taken on 1 or 2 week tours. They were all, until late December, friendship associations or maoist groups. I (Gunnar Bergström) took part in such a visit in August 1978
  • The purges continued and Pol Pot was especially suspicious of people from the East Zone. There were big purges and mass executions and more were being planned.
  • The leader of the East Zone So Phim commited suicide when he realized he was target for arrest himself.

so phim pol pot
So Phim (to the right of Pol Pot)

  • At the end of 1978 the first non maoist journalist group is allowed into the country. This attempt to swing the opinion comes to late. Vietnam invades Cambodia at the end of December.
  • 1979
  • January 5 the leaders of the Khmer Rouge flee Pnom Penh. Sihanouk is put on a plane to Beijing.
  • Januari 7 Vietnam captures Pnom Penh.