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History, Democratic Kampuchea

Saloth Sar, Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot, National Salvation, diplomatic recognition

Immediately after occupying Cambodia’s towns, the Khmer Rouge ordered all city dwellers into the countryside to take up agricultural tasks. The move reflected both the Khmer Rouge’s contempt for urban dwellers, whom they saw as enemies, and their utopian vision of Cambodia as a nation of busy, productive peasants. The leader of the regime, who remained concealed from the public, was Saloth Sar, who used the pseudonym Pol Pot. The government, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea (DK), claimed to be seeking total independence from foreign powers but accepted economic and military aid from its major allies, China and North Korea.

Without identifying themselves as Communists, the Khmer Rouge quickly introduced a series of far-reaching and often painful socialist programs. The people given the most power in the new government were the largely illiterate rural Cambodians who had fought alongside the Khmer Rouge in the civil war. DK leaders severely restricted freedom of speech, movement, and association, and forbade all religious practices. The regime controlled all communications along with access to food and information. Former city dwellers, now called "new people," were particularly badly treated. The Khmer Rouge killed intellectuals, merchants, bureaucrats, members of religious groups, and any people suspected of disagreeing with the party. Millions of other Cambodians were forcibly relocated, deprived of food, tortured, or sent into forced labor.

The Khmer Rouge also attacked neighboring countries in an attempt to reclaim territories lost by Cambodia many centuries before. After fighting broke out with Vietnam (then united under the Communists) in 1977, DK’s ideology became openly racist. Ethnic minorities in Cambodia, including ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, were hunted down and expelled or massacred. Purges of party members accused of treason became widespread. People in eastern Cambodia, suspected of cooperating with Vietnam, suffered severely, and hundreds of thousands of them were killed. While in power, the Khmer Rouge murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million Cambodians—more than one-fifth of the country’s population.

The war with Vietnam went badly for Cambodia, and in the second half of 1978 the DK tried to open the country up to the wider world, inviting journalists to visit and extending diplomatic recognition to several nonsocialist countries. In December 1978 the Vietnamese launched a blitzkrieg assault on Cambodia, using more than 100,000 troops. A group of Cambodian Communist rebels, the Khmer National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), accompanied them. On January 7, 1979, the invading forces occupied Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge leaders had abandoned the day before. Pol Pot, his colleagues, and hundreds of thousands of followers sought refuge over the next few months along the Thai-Cambodian border. There they were protected by the Thai regime, which was hostile to Vietnam.

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