Cambodia: a Nation in Turmoil

April 5, 1985

Report Outline
Years of Upheaval
Historical Influences
Finding a Solution
Special Focus

Years of Upheaval

Recovering from Khmer Rouge Terror

“When elephants fight,” an ancient Asian saying has it, “the grass gets trampled.” Nowhere has that adage been more true in recent years than in the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. The country's troubles began in earnest in 1970 when Cambodian communist troops, known as the Khmer Rouge, stepped up their war to gain control of the country from the newly installed, U.S.-backed Cambodian government led by Gen. Lon Nol. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died in that civil war as well as in the American bombing of Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge triumph came a decade ago, two years after U.S. troops had left Indochina and just two weeks before the South Vietnamese government surrendered to North Vietnam. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and set up a communist regime with Pol Pot at its head. That government proceeded to put Cambodia through a hell as brutal and terrifying as any of history's great atrocities. Millions were forcibly removed from the cities and sent to do forced manual labor in rural villages. Schools, libraries and banks were burned. Soldiers, government workers, scientists, doctors, other professionals and their families were systematically murdered.

The Khmer Rouge's holocaust against its own people, in which it is believed as many as two million died, ended when Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978. The Vietnamese took over the country in January, installing a puppet government headed by Heng Samrin, a defector from the Khmer Rouge army. Cambodians initially greeted their Vietnamese “liberators” with relief. But tens of thousands soon perished due to a famine, caused primarily because the invasion prevented the planting of the annual rice crop. “All told, these calamities killed somewhere between two and three million Cambodians from 1970 to 1980, which was between 20 and 35 percent of the pre-war population,” said Cambodian expert Stephen J. Morris.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Diplomacy and Diplomats
Regional Political Affairs: East Asia and the Pacific