Cambodia – History

April 17th 1975.  That was the day that childhood stopped in Cambodia. It was the day that the Khmer Rouge entered the capital, Phnom Penh.

People cheered, yet they were unsure.  They wanted rid of the corrupt, incompetent US-supported Lon Nol regime. And yet they were already afraid of the Chinese-backed communists. 

They were right to be concerned, as in the next four years the Khmer Rouge committed Genocide on a vicious and unparalleled scale.

Map: Mick Yates

1950s – 1970s: Independence and US Involvement

Prince Sihanouk had led independence from France in 1953, and the country became a constitutional monarchy (The Kingdom of Cambodia). He abdicated the throne in 1955 to become an elected head of state. Yet real independence was hard to keep.

David Chandler noted that opinions on Sihanouk varied – from leading a golden age to unwittingly setting the agenda for ‘lackadaisical chaos’ in the Khmer Republic and the consequent horrors of the Khmer Rouge years (Chandler, 1983: 190).

In the early 1960s, Phnom Penh was something of a stylish haven in South East Asia, although a turning point came when Sihanouk broke away from US military aid in 1963.  Believing that communist victory in the region was inevitable, in 1964 he allowed China to ship military supplies to the Vietnamese via the port of Sihanoukville. And in 1966 he agreed with Zhou En-Lai of China to allow the Viet Cong to stage guerilla attacks against South Vietnam from Cambodian territory.

During most of that period, the French-educated Cambodian communists, led by Saloth Sar (later, Pol Pot) were camped in Vietnamese territory.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sihanouk was under severe pressure to build more normalized relationships with the USA, and in 1967 Jaqueline Kennedy visited the country. But Cambodia did not have the strength to expel the Vietnamese.

From 1965, and then escalated from March 1969, the US secretly started bombing eastern Cambodia in an effort to dislodge the Viet Cong. The bombing killed thousands of innocents and fermented ever more internal discontent with the Cambodian government. As bombing continued until halted by Congress in August 1973, estimates of the death toll range from 30,000 to 500,000.

© Map from Ben Kiernan & Taylor Owen. 2006. Bombs over Cambodia. The Walrus.

The tonnage of bombs dropped on Cambodia was more than that dropped by the Allies in WWII, making Cambodia probably the most bombed country in history. (Kiernan & Owen, 2006).

There is little doubt that this US bombing added impetus and legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of the country. By early 1970, communist insurgents occupied as much as a fifth of Cambodia. (Chandler, 1983: 202).

After President Richard Nixon made public the bombings on April 30, 1970, the consequent protests led to the deaths of four protesters at Kent State University, Ohio. This exacerbated protests against US involvement in South East Asia.

Sihanouk also miscalculated, when during his annual holiday visit to Europe in March 1970, he was overthrown in a coup led by Prime Minister Lon Nol. The Khmer Republic was declared. In response, Sihanouk led a government in exile in China, and took command of resistance forces allied to North Vietnam – largely the same communists his armies were fighting before the coup.

Lon Nol was recognized and supported by the US, although his regime became ever more unpopular and corrupt. His army massacred thousands of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, adding to the tragedy and forcing Vietnamese to flee the country He conducted two unsuccessful offensives against Vietnam, and after a stroke in 1971 increasingly lost control of events.

The combination of the acts and corruption of the Lon Nol Government and the US bombing drove the population towards the communist forces. The Khmer Rouge became larger and bolder – and well organised. The overall effect on the country’s infrastructure was devastating.

To quote Bruce Sharp, from Banyan Tree – history of Cambodia in the early 1970’s:

‘The country spiraled toward destruction, its people trapped between the two armies. Both sides sent children, barely in their teens, into combat. Lon Nol had already displayed his brutality in pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, killing thousands and sending 200,000 others into exile. The Khmer Rouge were rumoured to be even more savage; tales from villages captured by the communists spoke of old women being nailed to the walls of their houses and burned alive, of children being torn limb from limb’.

Lon Nol was forced to leave the country in 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

© Claude Juvenal/ AFP / Getty Images. 1975. Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh.

1975-1979: The Khmer Rouge

Within 24 hours of taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge emptied the refugee-swollen streets. They called the country Democratic Kampuchea, and declared Year Zero, attempting to take Cambodia back to a self-sufficient, agrarian society, a plan loosely based on the Chinese Cultural revolution. It was one of the most vicious attempts at transforming a society in history.

Anyone with an education was suspect of being against the revolution.  Anyone wearing glasses was suspect, as was anyone speaking a foreign language.  Doctors and teachers were special targets, as the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a self-sufficient, agrarian society. People were afraid to tell others of their background. They destroyed photographs and personal documents in an attempt to stay anonymous.

Phnom Penh became an empty city. DC-Cam (Documentation Center of Cambodia).

The people from the cities were dubbed the ‘New People’, and forced to work in the countryside under appalling conditions. There was no shortage of rice – it was just never properly distributed to the starving population.

Eventually the paranoia of the regime turned on itself.  Members of the Khmer Rouge fell from grace, and died.

The infamous Tuol Sleng school became S-21, a suburban torture and killing place in Phnom Penh. At its height, May 27th, 1978, meticulous records show that 582 inmates of this small school people died in a single day.  (Hawk, 1986).

Of 12,273 inmates of the prison – recent work by United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials suggest this should be 15,101 victims – 15 are believed to have survived, although not all have come forward.  They lived because they had some ‘useful skill’, like painting, for example, which is how Bou Meng survived.

No one knows for sure how many people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Estimates vary between 1.75 – 2.5 million dead. Mass graves from the DC-Cam mapping project suggest that 1.39 million victims were buried, presumably from executions. Including other deaths from starvation, work and disease, 2.12 million is the most likely total, 25% of an expected population of 8.39 million (Sharp, 2008).

© David Allen Harvey. Oct 1981. Exhumed Mass Grave. National Geographic.

What is known for sure is that the Country’s infrastructure and educated population was destroyed. People were buried in unmarked mass graves in the ‘Killing Fields’. The Khmer Rouge used blunt instruments and tools to kill, and some people were buried alive. Babies were dashed against trees. They did not want to waste bullets.

The most internationally well-known is Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh, where over around 9,000 people were buried. It is estimated that there are over 300 mass grave sites with around 20,000 grave pits containing from 6 to 70,000 bodies across the country (DC-Cam/Yale Genocide Centre).

1979-1989: Vietnamese Involvement

Because of xenophobic Khmer Rouge attacks on their territory, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978, and quickly controlled the country.  They entered Phnom Penh on 7th January 1979, today considered Victory over Genocide Day.

The People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established, with a government loyal to Vietnam. Heng Samrin was President, and Hun Sen, who had defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1977, was later named Prime Minister. Hun Sen is in that position today.

The Vietnamese were not to withdraw for a decade.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One, fled to the northern border near Thailand. Prince Sihanouk, who had been held in house arrest in Cambodia, survived the Khmer Rouge (although many of his family did not). He sided with them in opposition to the Vietnamese-backed government.  Thai Generals also supported the Khmer Rouge in their resistance against the Government, and did business with them into the 1990’s.

In March 1981, Sihanouk started the FUNCINPEC party (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia). With mediation from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, FUNCINPEC, KPNLF (Khmer People’s National Liberation Front) and the Khmer Rouge agreed to form a Coalition Government in exile. From June 1982. The UN gave Cambodia’s UN seat to this Sihanouk-fronted group.

In 1988, the Vietnamese announced their withdrawal, leaving a power vacuum.  This partly reflected Mikhail Gorbachev withdrawing military support from Vietnam in the mid 1980’s. Sihanouk brokered the Paris peace plan in 1991, although it was not until 1993 that free elections happened, supervised by UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia).

This led to Co-Prime Ministers, Hun Sen, leader of the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) and Prince Ranariddh, a son of Sihanouk, who was Secretary General of the opposition FUNCINPEC party.

To note Bruce Sharp again:

‘4.2 million of the 4.7 million registered voters went to the polls. The FUNCINPEC party, headed by Sihanouk’s son Norodom Ranariddh, won 58 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly; the Phnom Penh faction won 51 seats, Son Sann’s faction won 10 seats, and a right-wing party won the remaining seat. Initially, however, the Phnom Penh government contested the results, and it was not until June 21 that Hun Sen formally conceded that they had lost the election. However, fearing that the country would be ungovernable without some semblance of a consensus, Ranariddh and Hun Sen agreed to work together as co-prime ministers. The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, began stepping up their attacks against the fledgling government’.

1990’s: Internal Politics

Despite an internationally recognized electoral process, continued fighting between the Government and the Khmer Rouge held back internal reconstruction, foreign investment and tourism.

Two areas of the country, to the west and north of Siem Reap, remained under Khmer Rouge control. One of the world’s largest collections of mine fields also caused more death and fear.

Map: Mick Yates

The fighting between the two sides meant that shelling could sometimes be heard at historic Angkor Wat. In fact, our family heard some of those shells in the spring of 1994, our first visit to the country.

In 1995, Hun Sen jailed Ranariddh. Then, in 1997, supporters of Sam Rainsy (leader of his own opposition party), were killed in a grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Later that year Hun Sen overthrew Ranariddh after fighting between his party and FUNCINPEC.

In March 1998, Prince Ranariddh was convicted in absentia of illegal dealings with the Khmer Rouge, although his father Sihanouk later granted him a pardon.

Pol Pot had his long-time lieutenant Son Sen murdered in July 1997 as part of his struggle for control against Ta Mok. Son Sen was responsible for internal security during the Khmer Rouge years (including Tuol Sleng).  The murder led to yet more conflict in the Khmer Rouge, and to Pol Pot’s eventual trial at their hands. He later died (from a heart attack?) before he could be brought to international justice.

On Pol Pot’s death, Hun Sen moved to reconcile the country. In April 1998, the stronghold of Anlong Veng, close to the Thai border, and the neighboring areas finally came under Government control. This was the last area of the country to do so in an agreement which kept many Khmer Rouge leaders in place, but loyal to the national government.  Democratic elections allowed the CPP to form an effective government.

In March 1999, Ta Mok, the last Khmer Rouge warlord (he was also known as ‘the butcher’) was arrested at the Anlong Veng market. He died in custody in 2006, shortly before judges were sworn in for the ECCC (the Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia), created by the UN and the government of Cambodia. To date only 5 Khmer Rouge Leaders have been prosecuted, including Kang Kek Lew (Comrade Duch), who setup Tuol Sleng. Only 3 have been sentenced before dying.

Cambodia became a full member of ASEAN in April 1999. This followed years of being shunned – first, as a threatening communist domino, and later as an illegitimate government.

2000’s: The Schools Project

For decades, the average Cambodian had been hard pressed to figure out who was on their side, and who was against them. Right there is the tragedy of Cambodia. And it shows in the numbers.

In 1998, life expectancy in Cambodia was 48, and literacy was estimated at 65% – although some estimates in certain areas went down to 35%.  Infant mortality was 90 per 1000 births, and GDP per capita was only US$290 (1997).  The population was about 11.4 million, 78% of which was rural. School enrollment for children under 7 years old was 65%, lower in many northern districts.

It is against this history that in 1999 the Yates family began our involvement with building Primary Schools and teaching infrastructure.

And it is also against this background of war, social upheaval and Genocide that we are now telling the Unfinished Stories of our friends who surveyed those terrible times, for the first time.


Header artwork: Mick Yates, 2000. Cambodian Fields.


AYRES, David M. 2000. Anatomy of a Crisis. Education, Development and the State in Cambodia, 1953-1998. 2003 Edition. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

BECKER, Elizabeth. 1986. When the War was Over. 1998 Edition. New York: Public Affairs, Perseus.

BOHLANDER, Michael. 2016. The OCIJ S-21 Prisoner List and explanation of the applied methodology. UN Assistance to Khmer Rouge Trials. Available at: (accessed 18/06/2018).

BREWER, Kirstie. 2015. How two men survived a prison where 12,000 were killed. BBC Magazine. Available at: (accessed 25/06/2019).

BOU, Meng. 2010. A survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21. Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

CHANDA, Nayan. 1986.Brother Enemy: The War after the War. A History of Indochina since Saigon. Bangkok: Asia Books.

CHANDLER, David. 1983. A History of Cambodia. 1986 Edition. Boulder: Westview Press.

CHANDLER, David. 1992. Brother Number One: Biography of Pol Pot. 1999 Edition. Boulder: Westview.

CHANDLER, David. 1999. Voices from S-21. 2000 Edition. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

DC-CAM. 2007. A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979). Available at:–EN.pdf (accessed 18/06/2018).

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YALE GENOCIDE STUDIES PROGRAM. Cambodian Genocide Program Interactive Geographic Database. Available at: (accessed 08/18/2018).

We also received verbal insight on the UNTAC period from Paul Vehmeyer. He was the former First Secretary at the Netherlands Embassy, Bangkok (1992-1992). He was also former Second Secretary to the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to OECD, Paris (1990-1992), and was charged with ‘Cambodia’.  He was a member of  the UNTAC / UNDP-co-chaired monthly meetings.