On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. As they rode along the streets atop military tanks, or marched on foot, civilians waved flags and cheered. Finally, thought many, Cambodia will have peace. Few could have predicted the terror soon to come.
Soon hereafter, the Khmer Rouge coerced Cambodians out of the capital city of Phnom Penh and provincial cities at gunpoint and into rural areas to undertake agricultural work. The Khmer Rouge implemented a radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist policy with the ideological goal of transforming Cambodia into a classless society, abolishing money and private property, traditional education, religion, and cultural practices. Schools, pagodas, mosques, stores and government buildings were turned into stables, granaries, torture centers, and prisons.
Under the Khmer Rouge’s “four-year plan,” Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; as a result, they were forced to work 12 to 16 hours per day without adequate food or medical care, conditions under which even those accustomed to agricultural work suffered greatly. Additionally, they were subject to extreme psychological abuse, enduring forced marriages and witnessing deaths of family members. During this “transformation,” nearly 2 million people died of starvation, disease, overwork, torture and execution in what became known as the “killing fields.” The Khmer Rouge maintained its hold in Cambodia for nearly four years, until January 1979, when they were overthrown by Vietnamese troops.
Throughout the 1980s, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees fled their home country, many initially landing in refugee camps before eventually resettling, primarily in the United States, France, and Australia.