History Extended Essay: Ideology and Genocide in Pol Pot’s Cambodia

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Ideology
  • Communism
    Class Struggle
  • The Military
  • The Peasantry
    Paranoia & Purges
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Webography
  • Bibliography


Following an intense period of French colonialism and with the Vietnam War threatening to engulf the entire region, Southeast Asia was left vulnerable to the rise of increasingly volatile geo-political proclivities. Upon gaining independence from France in 1954, Prince Norodom Sihanouk assumed control of Cambodia who attempted to retain neutrality during the Vietnam War by tolerating the Viet Cong. However, Lon Nol and other nationalists became increasingly frustrated with Sinhanouk’s endeavours, leading to a coup d’etat in 1970. The leader of this coup would remain in power until Pol Pot’s seizure of power in 1975. However, instead of adhering to the country's former policy of ‘independence, sovereignty, peace, strict neutrality and territorial integrity’[footnoteRef:2], Lon Nol would embroil Cambodia in a bitter civil war that would chip away at the very core of its stability. [2: Keesing's Record of World Events. Made available by Stanford]

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In 1975 the United States withdrew from Vietnam, Pol Pot, seeing his opportunity, exploited the amalgamation of political and social instabilities and successfully seized control of Cambodia. Pol Pot, purportedly influenced by Maoism, attempted to establish an agrarian utopia in Cambodia, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (DK). The DK gave rise to what has subsequently been referred to as one of the most brutal examples of ‘genuine totalitarianism’ (Etcheson 157) in modern history. The Cambodian people were subjected to three years of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot under which an estimated one to two million Cambodians died (Kiernan 587). Such atrocities must be carefully analysed in order to explain the intent and and factors involved in the genocide of multiple social, political and ethnic groups. The task of analysing the cause of violence against such groups is contingent upon the evaluation of both ideological and socio-political factors.

However, the conditions that ultimately gave rise to the series of crimes committed by Pol Pot’s regime are continuously contested by historians. In the more than thirty years that have passed, fierce debates have encircled questions regarding the nature of genocide, the existence of a DK ideology, and the extent to which certain factors gave rise to the regime’s genocidal inclinations. This discourse on the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge have, in due course, blended historical and legal lines of discussion, in many instances directly comparing the acts of the Khmer Rouge to that of the Holocaust and other prominent cases of genocide. Nonetheless, this question of the reasons for the emergence of these heinous acts remains.


Upon their victory in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge sought to transform Cambodian society, seeking ways to attain national autonomy and fulfil notions of economic equality. In order to achieve these goals, they imposed various policies, including forced evacuation of the urban population to collectivised rural labor communes. Over time, different types of policies would be forced upon parts of the population, some of them with a stronger impact on minorities than on the ethnic Khmer majority. Khmer Rouge policies that were either specifically directed towards minorities and social groups or had significant effects on them can be divided into four categories: “imposition of uniformity, expulsion, extermination and other forms of discrimination” (Duong 4)


Despite the Khmer Rouge claiming ‘resolute adherence’ (Travers-Smith 4) to Marxism-Leninism in September 1976[footnoteRef:3], the CPK does not provide us with a case of a classic or traditional communist party. Instead the essence of the Khmer Rouge is deeply embroiled in two ideological extremes: nationalism and communism. Pol Pot studied in Paris where he was introduced to European Marxism and Stalinist communism and traveled to China during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of Mao, Pol Pot stated that in forming the DK, leaders such as Stalin, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen, and Mao should be emulated in order to ‘instill democracy in the hearts of the Khmer people’ (Chandler 38). In 1979, following the occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, the CPK was described as “a Maoist Party ‘plus muscle’’’ (Galway 78), and like the Chinese it drew the majority of its strength from the mobilisation of a strong peasantry. [3: Foreign Broadcast Information Service – Asia and Pacific Region (FBIS), IV, No.183, Communist Party Power in Kampuchea (Cambodia): Documents and Discussion p.5]

Class Struggle

The Khmer Rouge claimed that they were creating ‘Year Zero’ through their extreme reconstruction methods. They believed that Cambodia should return to an alleged ‘golden age’, an age in which land was cultivated by peasants and the country was ruled for and by the peasantry. Pol Pot’s policies echoed the words of Charu Mazmudar, ‘the annihilation of the class enemy is the higher form of class struggle’ (Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power 102). In the days following the Khmer Rouge’s rapid ascent to power, approximately 2 million residents of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, were forced to evacuate and walk to the countryside. The CPK specifically drew inspiration from Stalin in implementing “labour projects, political and class purges, and mass population deportations” (Kiernan, External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology). First, the regime reorganised, and often times destroyed, “many of Cambodia’s oldest and most enduring institutions: religion, the family, cities, natural villages, private property, land tenure, money, and the monarchy” (Jackson 192).

The CPK specifically drew inspiration from Stalin in implementing “labour projects, political and class purges, and mass population deportations”[footnoteRef:4]. [4: ibid p. 189.]


The CPK failed to resolutely adhere to traditional notions of communism, instead also demonstrating distinctly nationalist policies. Cambodian nationalism in its quintessence is centred around the former splendour of Angkor Wat and the alleged ethnic superiority of the Khmer. For the four years the CPK were in power, Cambodia experienced a combination of communal labour projects, class and political purges and mass population extradition. The DK’s genocidal actions were partly motivated by Pol Pot’s “irredentist ambitions[footnoteRef:5]” to reunite Cambodia with parts of Northeastern Thailand and Vietnam that had once been part of the Angkor empire. This aim of expansionism required the mobilisation of the nation’s population in such a way that they became “hardened purveyors of violence”[footnoteRef:6]. The vision of a lost, golden era had not always permeated Cambodian society. Many of these historical influences, along with the belief of Khmer superiority, were first introduced to the them during French colonial rule. The French claimed that the Cambodians had ‘Aryan’ blood which made them morally and ethnically superior to the ‘yellow’ Vietnamese and Chinese. Pol Pot manipulated the fear of Cambodia’s disappearance to justify the extreme nature of his regime, using French colonial myths as propaganda in order to portray Cambodia as a thriving civilisation under siege by the Vietnamese. An important source is the regime’s Black Paper which was a means of propaganda used to warn Khmers of the dangers of the Vietnamese. For example, in September 1978, a story was written about how the Vietnamese were given what would become Saigon when a Cambodian king married a Vietnamese princess. This story exemplified the seemingly immoral nature of the Vietnamese’ use of women, linking it to the French notion of a morally superior Khmer society.

Comment by Oona Wood: [5: Peou, Sorpong “Intervention & Change in Cambodia: towards Democracy?” Intervention & Change in Cambodia: towards Democracy? p. 149.] [6: Short, Philip “Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare” pg.4]

The Khmer Rouge sought to impose uniformity on the population by using “forced Khmerization,” requiring minorities to abandon aspects of their distinct culture and to become “Khmer.” To facilitate this imposition of uniformity, the Khmer Rouge implemented policies that banned aspects of cultures such as minority languages and all religion. According to journalist Elizabeth Becker, the Khmer Rouge sought to “revive the glory and honor of Cambodia and to ensure the perenniality of the reinvented Kampuchean race.” This explanation details the reasons why they forced minorities to assimilate into Khmer culture. Furthermore, Becker claims that “the decree banishing minorities was a license to harass and murder thousands of innocent victims.” In addition to imposing uniformity, the Khmer Rouge adopted a policy of expulsion, in which they forced people out of the country. This policy, initially directed at the ethnic Vietnamese, was a result of a hostile political relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the social stigma that had been projected onto the Vietnamese. Comment by Oona Wood:

Hence, “one could characterize Democratic Kampuchea as a product of ideological diffusion” (Kiernan, External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology) Historian David P Chandler argues “clear parallels, and probably inspirations, can be found in China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, in the Soviet collectivization of Ukraine twenty years before that, and in purges in both countries of ‘elements’ considered dangerous to revolutionary leaders”[footnoteRef:7]. Such diffusion of collective ideologies in Khmer Rouge Communism does not account for the sheer brutality of the regime. This occurred when Communist practice combined with indigenous features of the regime. These included “territorial expansionism; racial and other social discrimination and violence; rhetorical idealisation of the peasantry; repression of commerce and the cities in favour of autarchy. [7: Chandler, David P. ‘Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot’ ]

The Military

Following the spread of communism in the eastern hemisphere due to the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War, an international interest in the spread of communism throughout Indochina emerged, leading to widespread acceptance among US officials that as a result of these two events, should Indochina embrace communism, the rest of South East Asia would soon follow suit. Prince Sihanouk attempted to remain neutral regarding the war in Vietnam. However, as a result of his policies, Northern Vietnamese used the border and the Port of Sihanoukville to which the USA responded with targeted bombing of Cambodian cities.

In 1969, the US air war against Cambodia escalated drastically as part of Nixon’s Vietnamization policy. The goal was to wipe out Vietnamese communist forces located in Cambodia in order to protect the US-backed government of South Vietnam and US forces stationed there. At the beginning of the escalation, KR fighters numbered less than 10,000, but by 1973, the force had grown to over 200,000 troops and militia. The US-backed coup that removed Sihanouk from power in 1970 was another factor that dramatically strengthened the KR insurgency. Sihanouk’s overthrow and replacement by the right-wing Lon Nol sharpened the contrast between the opposing camps within Cambodia and fully embroiled the country in the Vietnam War.

Pol Pot’s insurgency was indigenous, yet as Kiernan argues, his “revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilization of Cambodia.” Previously apolitical peasants were motivated to join the revolution to avenge the deaths of their family members. As a 1973 Intelligence Information Cable from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations explained:

“Khmer insurgent (KI) [Khmer Rouge] cadre have begun an intensified proselyting campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents... in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organizations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda”.

The extent to which Vietnam and Cambodia were bombed during the Vietnam conflict is unparalleled. Cambodia in particular was targeted as a result of President Nixon’s effort to de-escalate troop levels in neighbouring Vietnam in favour of large scale ‘carpet bombing campaigns. Targeting Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge troops within Cambodia, a total of “2,756,941 tons were dropped in 230,561 sorties on 113,716 sites” by the Americans,“three times the total tonnage dropped on Japan, atom bombs included”. Historian Matthew Edwards argued, “at a psychological level the bombing so traumatized the population that it induced a form of mass psychosis that would last for much of the next decade” –an explanation not only for the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge and harsh civil war efforts but for the emergence of an “idiosyncratic, genocidal state: Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK)”. In conjunction with anti-American animosity, the Communist Khmer Rouge launched a propaganda campaign “which they exploited to the hilt”, targeting capitalist ideas within Phnom Penh whom the peasants already “bore a deep hostility to”. Comment by Oona Wood: be specific

The Peasantry

The DK identified ethnic Khmer peasants as “the true national class”, thus classifying urban workers and ethnic minorities as enemies of the CPK. At the time of the seizure of Phnom Penh , 76.5% of Cambodia’s population was based in the countryside. Local farming communities were dependent on arable land in order to sustain the livelihoods of their communities. However, the bombing of these communities by the United States Air Force between October 1964 and August 1973 terrorised local peasants and posed a risk to the agricultural economy in Cambodia through the destruction of irrigation systems, housing, roads and crops. As a result, those who had fled for fear of persecution under Sihanouk and Lon Nol established a base in rural Cambodia. Under such circumstances, rural communities became more susceptible to the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda who began operating across the countryside. Kiernan argues that the “revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilisation of Cambodia.” Previously apolitical peasants were motivated to join the revolution to avenge the deaths of their family members. As a 1973 Intelligence Information Cable from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations explained: “Khmer insurgent (KI) cadre have begun an intensified proselyting campaign among ethnic Cambodian residents… in an effort to recruit young men and women for KI military organisations. They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda”. While the CPK seemingly idealised the peasantry’s contribution to the revolution, it can be argued that the bombing of Cambodia by the Americans was merely a catalyst and the demolishment of 'all three pillars of Cambodian peasant life: the peasant farm, the family unit, and the Buddhist religion” destroyed peasants’ means of subsisting.

Paranoia & Purges

In the short time that the CPK controlled Cambodia, its leaders and citizens grappled with intense paranoia and fear of betrayal. According to witness accounts and historians, this was primarily due to CPK’s belief that the Center never truly controlled Cambodia and that it could seized by enemies of the regime at any time. Stephen J. Morris, a witness at the Cambodian Tribunal, extrapolated that “guilt and fear induced by massive bloodletting exacerbated the paranoid vision of the ruling elite” (Morris 14). Thus, the CPK’s ideology was not entirely responsible for the events that ensued and rather the emotions associated with other crimes committed by the regime exacerbated pre-existing genocidal tendencies. Pol Pot remained vigilant to potential power seizures throughout his political reign, spurring a hysterical yet methodical purging of the Cambodian population. The Center’s paranoia was not limited to the elite or Cambodian population as it also began to suspect ministers and zone directors of treason and acts of betrayal. These men were subsequently arrested and killed. Feeling embattled, “the party initiated class warfare in a desperate search for enemies and purged peasants and party alike for not coming from an extremely poor, hence proper, class, or for associating with an ill-defended enemy class bent on sabotaging the revolution”. Elizabeth Becker argues, they ruled “through violence and terror”. Although Becker’s assessment takes into consideration both internal and external factors behind the nature of the DK regime, she argues that “while the United States and Vietnam do share responsibility for much of Cambodia’s sorrows, ultimately Cambodians were the victims of their own leaders and their own traditions and history”.


Many of the first American journalists to cover Cambodia, fresh from the experience of Vietnam, argued that the United States was responsible, having destabilised the country and radicalised the Khmer Rouge. The US had begun bombing Cambodia secretly in 1969 to interdict supplies flowing down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the Viet Cong. The scale of US bombing was intense: Cambodia received more than three times the total tonnage of all bombs dropped on Japan from 1941 to 1945. New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg wrote that the Khmer Rouge “… would point… at the bombs falling from B-52s as something they had to oppose if they were going to have freedom. And it became a recruiting tool until they grew to a fierce, indefatigable guerrilla army.”

However, blaming the US attempts to eliminate the Khmer Rouge for the Khmer Rouge’s policy of genocide is, in many ways, problematic. Philip Short argued that “it would be wrong to suggest that the intensity of the bombing brutalized Cambodians and thereby contributed to the nature of the regime which Pol and his colleagues installed.” Vietnam suffered far worse bombings than Cambodia, but never developed the sort of pathological totalitarianism that developed in Cambodia. Second, it is clear from source material that has since become available that the decision to commit mass murder against much of Cambodia’s civilian population came from Pol Pot and his circle. Finally, fighting had raged off and on for twenty years before the bombing began, suggesting the violence of the Khmer Rouge predated the American intervention. As Short concludes, “the bombing may have helped create a climate conducive to extremism. But the ground war would have done that anyways.” The American bombing of Cambodia was tragic, shortsighted, and strategically inept, but ultimately, it was not the primary catalyst of the later, greater tragedy.

If we accept that ideology held a great degree of causal significance in the creation of the “terror state” of Democratic Kampuchea, then many more questions arise. For example, to what extent can the participation of individuals in the system be attributed to the influence of ideology, particularly as personal loyalty becomes more influential down the administrative scale? To what extent did the CPK’s ideology change as Democratic Kampuchea developed? Was the ideology of the CPK unique, and how does its implementation compare with the practices of regimes with other similar ideological principles? There are other questions that deserve further attention also, such as the extent of the role of different individuals in the Standing Committee in the development of policy and the suppression of dissent, or the extent to which the Cambodian case was an example of ‘the dynamic process of establishing a one-man dictatorship’ rather than a true oligarchy.

Despite the difficulties of researching these questions, the process of answering them and the conclusions that may be reached are important, not only for the historical record, but also because they can help tell us how and why dictatorial and authoritarian regimes emerge and develop. Indeed, the ongoing “Khmer Rouge Trials” in the UN Sponsored Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia may prove instructive in answering some of these questions. This is not least because of the focus the courtroom setting places on ascertaining the guilt or innocence of the accused individuals (who were all members of the CPK Standing Committee), but also thanks to the increased access the trials are offering to the internal documentation of the regime. However, it must be remembered that the aims and methods of law and history are different. Regardless of the progress of and results from the trials, the Cambodian revolution deserves scholarly and historical attention to help increase our understanding of how the apparatus of a “terror state” can develop and function. Recognition and examination of the significant role radical ideology plays in this is an essential facet for an understanding of these processes.


  1. Breen, John Harley. “How Do We Account for the Rise of the Khmer Rouge?” ResearchGate, Queen Mary University of London , Queen Mary University of London, Aug. 2012
  2. Chandler, David. “Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot” Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999
  3. Dobbins, James and Laurel E. Miller, Stephanie Pezard, Christopher S. Chivvis, Julie E. Taylor, Keith Crane, Calin Trenkov-Wermuth, and Tewodaj Mengistu. Overcoming Obstacles to Peace: Local Factors in Nation-Building. RAND Corporation, 2013. pp. 29–66.
  4. Galway, Matt. “Overturning the Basket : Nostalgia, Maoism, and the Roots of the Communist Party of Kampuchea's Ideology.” Strata, vol. 5, Sept. 2013, pp. 77–106.
  5. Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2002,
  6. Staub, Ervin. “The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators, and Heroic Helpers.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 17, no. 3, June 1993, pp. 315–341.


  1. Kiernan, Ben, “The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975- 79, and East Timor, 1975-80,” Critical Asian Studies Vol.35, No.4 (Kiernan, The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80) (2003) p.587
  2. (Kiernan, External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology)
  3. United Nations, “United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.” United Nations, United Nations,
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “What Is Genocide?” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,


  1. Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Avalon Publishing, 1999.
  2. Duong, Liai. 'Racial Discrimination in the Cambodian Genocide.' 2006. Yale University, Genocide Studies Program.
  3. Etcheson, Craig. The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea. Boulder: Westview Press, 1984.
  4. Galway, Matt. 'Overturning the Basket : Nostalgia, Maoism, and the Roots of the Communist Party of Kampuchea's Ideology.' Strata 5 (2013).
  5. Jackson, Karl D. Cambodia, 1975-1978 Rendezvous with Death. Princeton University Press, 1989.
  6. Kiernan, Ben. 'External and Indigenous Sources of Khmer Rouge Ideology.' Quinn-Judge, Sophie and Odd Arne Westad. The Third Indochina War: Conflict Between China, Vietnam and Cambodia, 1972-79. Routledge, 2006.
  7. —. How Pol Pot Came to Power. 2004.
  8. —. 'The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80.' Critical Asian Studies 35.4 (2003).
  9. Travers-Smith, Fionn. 'The Role of Ideology in a Terror State: Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1978.' 2010. University of Bristol. 22

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