“The worst violator of human rights in the world” is the phrase President Jimmy Carter used to describe Cambodia's Kampuchea- Khmer Rouge regime. Though the regime lasted only four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge's military was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million citizens -- about 20 percent of the country's population. Many died in torture chambers, starved or were worked to death. Many more were killed in mass executions, or “purges.”
Pol Pot and Comrades Take Control
The dethroning of Prince Norodom Sihanouk during a military coup in 1970 caused political instability in Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge's communist leaders began to form ranks. They succeeded in taking the capital Phom Penh in 1975, followed by the rest of the country. Pol Pot changed Cambodia's name to Democratic Kampuchea and became its prime minister. Other prominent members of his party included head of state Khieu Samphan, ideologist Nuon Chea and prison overseer Comrade Duch.
Khmer Rouge Ideology vs. Reality
Like China and Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge regime's ideology was based on the creation of a Utopian society not corrupted by Western imperialist values. Their campaign to “purify” the country included the elimination of religion, private property, public education, money and family relations. They particularly targeted the country's educated and intellectual classes, going so far as to execute anyone wearing glasses. The majority of the population was taken to the countryside and put to work in rice fields, often performing 12 hours or more of forced labor under brutal circumstances every day. The slightest infraction could result in execution.
Death in the S-21 Prison
An estimated 15,000 Cambodians were killed in the dreaded S-21 prison. S-21 interrogators used torture to extract confessions. Torture methods included beatings, electrical shocks, removing fingernails, suffocation through water-boarding or with a plastic bag, being stung by insects and being forced to eat feces, according to a "Newsweek" report. Many prisoners were accused of siding with the Vietnamese or working for the KGB or CIA. American civilians Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were captured, tortured and forced to sign false confessions that they were CIA agents. They were burned alive days before the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.
UN War Crimes Trials
A UN-backed war crimes tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge regime members has experienced political turbulence, with two UN-appointed judges resigning in 2011 and 2012. Both judges, Siegfried Blunk and Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, claimed that local politics hampered their investigations. Current Prime Minister Hun Sen and many of his party members were members of the Khmer Rouge regime. Human Rights Watch and victims' associations have been critical of local and UN appointees, expressing the importance of serving justice to the regime that brutalized so many Cambodians. In 2010 the court sentenced prison chief Comrade Duch to life in prison. Khmer Rouge's ideologist Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan stood trial in 2013 where they pleaded not guilty to charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Khmer Rouge in Film
A few filmmakers have drawn international attention to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Among them are Roland Joffe's 1984 film “The Killing Fields” starring Sam Waterston as ''New York Times'' reporter Sydney Schanberg. Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2013 documentary film “The Missing Picture” about his experience growing up under the Khmer Rouge. In the 2009 documentary “Enemies of the People” by Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath, executioners are interviewed about the traumatizing impact the killings had on them. Thet Sambath also forged a relationship with aging Khmer Rouge minister Nuon Chea over several years, interviewing him about the brutal conduct of the Khmer Rouge regime.
- PBS: Pol Pot's Shadow
- BBC News: Cambodia's Brutal Khmer Rouge Regime
- Newsweek: Inside Pol Pot's School for Torture
- The Wall Street Journal: Testimony Ends in Khmer Rouge Trial
- Cambodia Tribunal Monitor: Khmer Rouge History
- Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Disarray
- New York Times: Enemies of the People
- Los Angeles Times: The Legacy of the 'Killing Fields' 30 years later
- BBC News: Cambodian Filmmaker Rithy Panh's Search for Catharsis
- BBC News: Judge Quits Cambodian UN-backed Khmer Rouge Trial
- Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images