“Something terrible happened here. And I don’t know what it is,” Bill Herod remembers thinking in his first days in Phnom Penh in 1980. He was with Church World Service, one of a group of aid workers allowed into the country after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long nightmare of the Cambodian people. In 1980, Herod had just come from Vietnam. He had seen plenty of devastation, but this was something different, a higher order of magnitude.
In those first months, Westerners were only beginning to grasp the enormity of what the KR—as they’re always called in Cambodia—had done. In the city and the refugee camps on the Thai border, relief workers were piecing together accounts of starvation, brutal forced labor, and mass executions into some comprehension of the whole. Cambodians were stunned, largely affectless, many in a state of shock. Hospitals housed crazed, emaciated children who had been found wandering in the forests, abandoned and lost by parents fleeing KR camps as the Vietnamese approached.
Thirty years later, the extent and nature of the horror are no mysteries. Between April 1975, when the KR overthrew the despised Lon Nol regime, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded, the rulers of Democratic Kampuchea killed—by murder, starvation, and forced labor—1.7 to two million people, close to a quarter of the entire population. In the torment they wreaked on a small country in such a short time, the KR ranks as possibly the most savage Communist Party to curse the twentieth century.
In the name of revolutionary purity, the KR abolished private property, personal possessions, money, leisure, socializing, marriage (except in cadre-approved cases), religion, and all personal liberties. Democratic Kampuchea was a land of totalitarian rural communes. The day the KR took power, they evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh in twenty-four hours, including infirm hospital patients whom family members had to push out of town in their beds, some trailing intravenous tubing and bags. By nightfall, the capital was almost empty. In the countryside, people slaved and starved to grow rice that went to China and hauled buckets of earth to build dams without engineers or technicians. The purges of counterrevolutionary elements began on Day Two of the revolution (on the roads out of Phnom Penh) and never let up, culminating in a frenzy of executions within the party itself in 1978.
Under the Vietnamese, the country was a communist dictatorship, with the KR (supported by China and the United States and recognized by the UN as the legitimate government in a bizarre turn of cold war logic) waging war from the jungles. Only after 1989, with the Vietnamese withdrawal and negotiations in Paris, did peace of a sort begin to set in. In 1993, a UN transitional authority—with a tremendous infusion of troops, advisers, and money—sponsored ...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.