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Background on Cambodia

Background on Cambodia


From 1975 to 1979,  Cambodia witnessed the most violent and deadly years in its history. Under the repressive rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) also known as the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people experienced one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th century.  Estimates of the death toll range from 1.5 to 2.2 million people out of a total population of 7 million.  The Khmer Rouge committed human rights abuses on an almost unprecedented scale. Families were torn apart so that everyone, including young children, could be forced into labor camps. People were forced to toil in the fields from early morning until late at night with insufficient food to eat. Many of them died of starvation and malnutrition. Almost every Cambodian lost a member of his or her family, and many were also left homeless, disabled and traumatized or had to flee their home country.

Pre-Khmer Rouge Period

Cambodia, today a country of more than 14 million people in Southeast Asia, has a long and rich history, which dates back to the Stone Age. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, Cambodia witnessed the rise and fall of the mighty Khmer Empire with Angkor as its center of power. During that period, widespread conversion to Theravada Buddhism - a religion that the majority of Cambodians practice today - took place. The centuries that followed are sometimes described as the dark ages in Cambodia’s history due to the wars with neighboring Ayutthaya Kingdom (centering on what we know today as Thailand) and Vietnam. Yet, it was also the time when some of the great masterpieces of Khmer literature including Chbap and Raemker were written. From 1887 until 1953 Cambodia was under  French rule as a part of the French Indochina. The Khmer Rouge regime, which adopted the radical ideas of the communist movement, emerged from the struggle against French colonization.

When Cambodia gained its independence from France, Prince Norodom Sihanouk assumed the role of Head of State. He remained in this position until displaced by a coup organized by Marshal Lon Nol, with support from pro-American associates in 1970. Lon Nol and his allies, however, did not stay in power for long as the majority of Cambodian people refused to support Lon Nol’s American-backed Khmer Republic. The Khmer Rouge  took advantage of this sentiment and, by allying itself with Prince Sihanouk, motivated thousands of people to join the regime. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge defeated Lon Nol’s forces and took over the rule of Cambodia.

Rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979)

Khmer Rouge is the name by which the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) became known in the 1960s. The regime ruled Cambodia, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, from April 17, 1975 until January 6, 1979. Inspired by radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist ideas and with the help of repression and terror, the Khmer Rouge fomented revolution to turn Cambodia into “a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation.”


In order to achieve its goals, the regime forced people out of the cities to the countryside, took away their private property, destroyed everything from schools and universities to churches and traditional Khmer culture. Agricultural work, which was supposed to result in unrealistically high quantities of rice, vegetables and other products, became one of the highest national priorities.  This demand for high agricultural output, which had to be fulfilled under extremely poor working and living conditions, had devastating effects on the Cambodian population.

Hundreds of thousands of people died from overwork and lack of food. As only “pure” people were qualified to be part of the revolution, people who did not belong to that category, such as the supporters of the former Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic and civilians who were opposed to the regime, were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and executed. As the regime did not value education, intellectuals were considered its enemies and became subject to persecution. Ethnic minorities in general and Vietnamese and the Cham in particular were popular targets of the regime. Buddhists were also singled out for persecution with many monks being disrobed, tortured and executed.

As the capacity of the Cambodian population diminished and the purges within the CPK became more extensive, the Khmer Rouge started to lose its power. The Khmer Rouge regime completely fell after Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and took control of its capital city Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The fall of the Khmer Rouge was followed by a civil war, which continued until the late 1990s when the political and military structures of the Khmer Rouge were finally dismantled.

 The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

As part of the transitional justice effort to hold senior Khmer Rouge leaders accountable, the Cambodian Government and the United Nations (UN) formed the ECCC, a Cambodian national court. A 'hyrbid' national-international tribunal, the ECCC applies Cambodian and international law and features Cambodian as well as international judges and counsel. The international element was included to assist Cambodia’s legal system in handling these cases, which involve crimes of international nature. The ECCC’s jurisdiction covers serious human rights violations, including genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and offences under the Cambodian Criminal Code of 1956 which include murder, torture and religious persecution committed between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979.

» Read more on the structure of the ECCC.

Case No. 001: "Duch,"  Notorious Torturer of Tuol Sleng

Kaing Guek Eav (alias “Duch”) was the first Khmer Rouge leader brought to justice by the ECCC in the Case No. 001. As a former head of the notorious Tuol Sleng security center or “S-21,” in which more than 15,000 prisoners were executed or died from torture and/or poor detention conditions, Kaing Guek Eav was indicted and tried for serious human rights violations including crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.


Unlike the  four Khmer Rouge leaders indicted by the ECCC in Case No. 002, Kaing Guek Eav confessed to his charges and made a public apology to the victims’ relatives. Yet he also argued that he was acting under duress: he was following orders and trying to protect his own life. During the 77 days of trial, 9 expert witnesses, 17 fact witnesses, 7 character witnesses and 22 Civil Parties were heard before the Trial Chamber. The proceedings were followed by more than 31,000 people at the court building.

On July 26, 2010, the ECCC found Kaing Guek Eav guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and sentenced him to 35 years of imprisonment – less than the maximum life sentence.  The 35 year sentence amounted to only 19 years in prison because the Court found that Kaing Guek Eav could get credit for time served in detention.  The verdict prompted appeals from both the Co-Prosecutors, who stated that the sentence was inadequate, and the Defendant, who maintains he was just following superior orders and was merely a witness to the events of 1975-1979. 

On February 3, 2011, the Supreme Court Chamber issued a decision partially confirming the judgment but overturning the Trial Chamber sentence.   The Supreme Court Chamber decision stated that the Trial Chamber had erred in law by attaching insufficient weight to the gravity of the crimes committed by Comrade Duch and did not adequately consider the aggravating circumstances in the case.  In addition, the decision erred by providing too much weight to the mitigating circumstances in the case.  As a result, the Supreme Court Chamber imposed the maximum sentence of life imprisonment on Comrade Duch.  The appeals decision also granted the appeal of 10 civil party applicants that had previously been rejected by the Trial Chamber and affirmed the Trial Chambers decision to compile and post all statements of apology and acknowledgement of responsibility made by Duch during the ECCC proceedings.  The statements of apology are available here.   Duch is currently serving out his life sentence in Kandal prison in Cambodia.

Case No. 002: Senior Khmer Rouge Officials

The second case before the ECCC began in November 2011 and is currently against two senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime: Nuon Chea (former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and second in command under Pol Pot) and Khieu Samphan (former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea).  Both individuals are accused of designing and implementing Khmer Rouge policies that resulted in approximately two million innocent deaths. 

» Read more about Case 002 here.