The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide

By Olivia, Melody, Damien

Historical Context

Cambodia’s history is a long and turbulent one that is mired by frequent invasions, civil wars, civilising missions, and an overall sense of subordination. The acceptance of France aid came out of years of civil war following the death of King Ang Duong in 1860, which was fought between brothers for years until Norodom was finally crowned. Cambodia, thus, became an ‘independent’ French protectorate for many reasons, particularly for the protection they could afford them against encroaching empires. However, the French presence also followed and reinforced a policy to squash revolutionary movements and form political ideals by keeping the Khmers from developing a sense of national identity that could bring about desires for independence from France. The penal code of 1924 punished anyone who criticized the French or Cambodian administrations, and the French also repressed freedom of speech, assembly, and religion (Broadhurst, 2015).

Even after Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 and was able to hold general elections, this legacy of repression continued well into the 1950s onwards and became an important part of Sihanouk’s, and later Lon Nol’s, policies. As early as the first elections, Sihanouk ensured his rule by abdicating the throne in favour of his father in order to found the Sangkum Reastr Niyum movement, which achieved total victory through less than legal means, and soon became the only party left in the country. Right-wing politicians dominated the political scene and corruption was rampant, eventually becoming so powerful that Sihanouk himself would no longer be able to control it, and was soon ousted by his own people in a bloodless coup on 18 March 1970. Targeted actions against Vietnamese Cambodians became increasingly frequent in the 1970s onwards, including not discriminatory decisions by the administration and the justice system, as well as an increasing number of exactions which soon turned into genocidal massacres (Broadhurst, 2015. Etcheson, 1984.).

The new Khmer Republic was especially corrupt, but its associations with the US, a country who continued to bomb Cambodia even after pleas for them to stop, undermined its popularity and lead many to turn to the Khmer Rouge, whose idealistic socialist approach might be an improvement. The Khmer Rouge were able to launch an offensive against the Lon Nol government which fell after the withdrawal of US aid in the face of mounting discontent in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge quickly took to working on the restructuring of Cambodian society, which included the persecution and physical elimination of those elements that were perceived as enemies of the new sovereign state, forced labour, inhumane living conditions, executions, and the purging of the Khmer Rouge themselves became an important part of the regime. By the end of their rule in 1979 with the Vietnamese occupation, between 1.5 to 1.7 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (Williams, 2005. Broadhurst, 2015.).

Legal Arguments and International Law

To better understand the unique situation of displaced Cambodians it is important to contextualize them in the geopolitical struggle of the Cold War, and as such their legal status was influenced not only by competition between the US and Soviet Union, but also in a more localized contestation of regional hegemony between Thailand and Vietnam. Additionally, these refugees were caught in a legal grey area due both to politics and the lack of recognition for the 1951 and 1967 UN treaties on the status of refugees on the part of Thailand. In light of this, refugees were politicized and thus in the geopolitical struggles became to be known as “Refugee Warriors”.

            The Khmer Rouge embarked on a radical program of de-urbanization that overthrew the established order, reset the calendar to Year Zero, and gave rise to the classification of urban Cambodians as New People, who were to be resettled in large numbers in the countryside (Gatrell, 213. Teeda Butt Mam, 13). The new regime instituted a number of drives and policies to achieve these aims, as well as the dehumanization of the “New People” through slogans such as, “to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss” (Teeda Butt Mam). In the meantime, anti-Khmer forces began to assemble at the Vietnamese border, and in 1978 Vietnam intervened capturing Phnom Penh by 1979. The Vietnamese invasion and impending famine displaced thousands as a diverse group that included civilians, Khmer Rouge, and other guerrilla factions, sought refuge at the Thai border. Estimates of the number of refugees range from 160 000 to over 300 000 living in camps in Thailand (Robinson, 23-24). The effects of the establishment of the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) were felt throughout the region. It incentivized both the US and Thailand utilize the camps to support a broader anti-Vietnamese movement in the region. This brought both states in contact with the Khmer Rouge, which was justified that the Khmer Rouge are preferable to Vietnamese ambitions; the US was still fighting the Vietnamese war through refugee camps well into the 80s (Gatrell, 214). This resulted in the formation of “Refugee Warriors”, where Thailand kept Cambodians at the border where they could be “fed as refugees, and furnished as warriors” at minimal expense to the Thai population and treasury in the hopes of overthrowing the PRK (Robinson, 26).

           In response to the PRK, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (a coalition between the Khmer Rouge, royalists, and anti-PRK factions) was formed in Malaysia in 1982. The CGDK, despite having little to no actual control in Cambodia, was recognized via the UN instead of the PRK. Furthermore, Thailand to this day non-signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Thus, viewing the refugees as “economic migrants” allowed Thailand to further legitimise the CGDK and emphasizing the narrative that displaced Cambodians had a recognized state to which they belonged. In this convoluted environment, the UNHCR and the UN Border Relief Organization were intended to serve the CGDK, however, Thailand’s refusal to recognize the Cambodians as refugees greatly limited their jurisdiction and mandates (Robinson, 28-29). Thus, the camps were administered by mixture of UN agencies, NGOs, USAID, and various Thai Paramilitary units such as Task Force 80, the last of which was accused of numerous human rights violations, while managing a number of refugee camps (French, 78). Task Force 80 was part of a larger Thai paramilitary force that fought against the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). Eventually, Thailand and China reached an understanding to withdraw Chinese support for the CPT in exchange for increased Thai actions against Vietnamese influence. The end result is that the refugees clustered around the border were left in a legally grey area, seen as potential pawns in the larger Cold War setting, the Chinese-Vietnamese struggle, and the Thai-Vietnamese regional competition.

Humanitarian Solutions/ Practice / Activism

With the invasion of Vietnamese troops leading to the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, Cambodian people seeking refuge fled to the Thai border (Gatrell 204). The Thai government however, did not recognise these displaced people as refugees. Instead the Thai government classified refugees as ‘economic migrants’ and did not allow access to interior Thailand (Gatrell 214). In 1979, Thai troops removed refugees and pushed them back into Cambodia (Gatrell 214). The UNHCR established refugee camps at the Thailand border that would eventually house 160,000 refugees (Gatrell 214). Other aid agencies including the UN provided assistance such as education, food, shelter, legal assistance, and health/nutrition (UNHCR 247-9). The UN during this time presented films which advertised repatriation and the opportunities of returning home. These films however, minimised the threats that faced repatriates, such as land mines (Gatrell 216). Agencies were also responsible for giving refugees money in order to return home. These initiatives did not account for the unsuitable land in Cambodia due to the events that caused the displacement in the beginning. Ethnic issues also disrupted refugees’ abilities to return home, as Chinese Cambodians were treated even worse than Khmer or Vietnamese Cambodians (Smith, Ly, Khourn, Proukaki 118). 

            Relief was a political action. The US administration and other agencies used pro-Thai rhetoric in order to create an anti-Vietnam influence (Gatrell 215). For the US, Thai refugee camps were important in order to find communists (Gatrell 215). The United States also gave money to the Thai government in order to overlook the abuses refugees faced within camps (Gatrell 214). Humanitarian aid within the crisis of the Cambodian genocide was both positive and negative. Although necessary aid was given, the political problems of the time often overshadowed and caused neglect toward refugee issues. The effects of the Cold War and the political upheavals happening across Asia often caused Cambodian refugees to not be recognized as important or more than a political tools. 


Broadhurst, Roderic, Thierry Bouhours, and Brigitte Bouhours. Violence and the Civilising Process in Cambodia. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Etcheson, Craig. “Gestation: 1930-1960,” in Etcheson, The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, New York: Routledge, 1984, pp. 39-54.

French, Lindsay Cole. “Enduring Holocaust, surviving history: Displaced Cambodians on the Thai-Cambodian border, 1989-1991.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1994.

Gatrell, Peter. “‘Villages of Discipline’ Revolutionary Change and Refugees in South-East Asia.” In The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2013.

McLellan, Janet. Cambodian Refugees in Ontario: Resettlement, Religion, and Identity. University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Robinson, C. “Report. Refugee Warriors at the Thai-Cambodian Border.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 19, no. 1 (January 2000): 23–37.

Smith, Rhona, Ly, Ratana, Khourn, Chantevy, and Proukaki, Elena Katselli. “Forced Displacement, Dispossession and Property: Cambodia.” In Armed Conflict and Forcible Displacement: Individual Rights Under International Law, 170–190. 1st ed. Routledge, 2018.

Teeda Mam Butt. “Worms from our skin.” In Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields : Memoirs by Survivors. Edited by Kim DePaul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

UNHCR. “Cambodia/Thailand Repatriation and Reintegration Operation” UNHCR Global Report 1999.

 Williams, Sarah. “Genocide: The Cambodian Experience,” International Criminal Law Review, 5 (2005), 447-462

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