Cambodia - The Country

About a quarter of the Cambodian population fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, the country was forced into a kind of Stone Age communism. The regime left deep scars on almost every family. Despite international efforts to achieve transitional justice, only three men were actually convicted of crimes. Meanwhile, Cambodia is once again an authoritarian one-party state.


The Bloody Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia – officially the Kingdom of Cambodia – is a Buddhist country in Southeast Asia. Around 16 million people live here on an area of ca. 181,000 square kilometers.  More than 96 percent of the population are followers of Theravada-Buddhism.

The Kingdom of Cambodia is over a thousand years old. The world-famous temple ruins in Angkor, once the largest city in the world, still bear witness to its heyday from the 9th to the 15th century. Over time, however, large parts of the Khmer Empire were conquered by the neighboring states of Thailand and Vietnam. In the 19th century, Cambodia looked to France for protection. France remained a colonial power there until 1953.

After the country gained independence, it was ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk, who had been appointed by the French. But in 1970 he was overthrown by General Lon Nol, who was supported by the U.S. The king was accused of not opposing the Communist guerrillas in Vietnam, whose supply routes partly ran through Cambodian territory (“Ho Chi Minh Trail”). Sihanouk then allied himself with the Communists supported by China. This was followed by several years of civil war, which ended when the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital Phnom Penh in 1975. Sihanouk became head of state in “Democratic Kampuchea,” as the country was now called. He was deposed a year later and placed under house arrest.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, who was a former teacher, the Khmer Rouge set up a terror regime that cost the lives of somewhere between 1.7 and 2.2 million people. Unlike other Marxist parties, they wanted to establish communism as an egalitarian agrarian society. To achieve this, it deported the majority of the city inhabitants – the so-called “New People” – in week-long marches to the countryside, where they had to do forced labor while receiving minimal amounts of food. Tens of thousands of civil servants, monks and intellectuals were designated “enemies of the revolution” and sent to one of the 100 or so death camps, where they were tortured and executed. An estimated 25,000 Buddhist monks were killed. All foreigners, especially the Vietnamese, were persecuted, too, as were thousands of the country’s own functionaries. The rural population – the so-called "Old People" – was completely expropriated, which led to a drastic decline in agricultural production and a severe famine.

The Khmer Rouge was characterized by an ideological fanaticism that surpassed even Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. It dictated a “uniform diet,” which meant that the illegal possession of even small quantities of rice was considered a serious offense. Family disputes and punishing children were also forbidden, as was talking while working. People who wore glasses had to hide them to avoid persecution as “intellectuals.” Anyone who disagreed with an order was accused of “individualism” and often beaten to death. Money was abolished, schools and hospitals were closed, hundreds of temples were destroyed. Cambodians were also forced to wear black uniform clothing. The Communist Party, which went simply by the name “Angka” (organization), operated under strict secrecy – as did Pol Pot, who was known as “Brother No. 1.”

In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia – in an act that is today officially referred to as the liberation. They conquered Phnom Penh and installed a Vietnamese government that was not internationally recognized. Prince Sihanouk fled to China, where he was designated president-in-exile in 1982. The Khmer Rouge withdrew to the border area of Thailand, fighting the new government from there.

Phnom Penh was now ruled by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam. His foreign minister, Hun Sen, who had also fought at Pol Pot’s side before defecting to the Vietnamese, soon served as his strong man. He became prime minister in 1985 and remains so to this day.

In 1989 the Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia and Prince Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh. The United Nations negotiated a ceasefire agreement between all parties involved in the civil war and free elections were held in 1993. The victor and prime minister was a son of Sihanouk, who in accordance with the constitution became king. Hun Sen, who did not want to accept his defeat, appointed himself “second prime minister.” Through a coup d'état in 1997, he reestablished himself as sole ruler.

The Khmer Rouge began to disband during this period. Pol Pot was sentenced by his own people to life imprisonment and died under house arrest in 1998. Following long negotiations with the United Nations, in 2004 the Cambodian parliament decided to establish a criminal court to try the Khmer Rouge leaders who were still alive. In the end, however, Hun Sen intervened with the result that only three people were sentenced to life imprisonment.

For a time, Cambodia had several different parties and more or less free elections, but the country is now an autocratic one-party state. Since 2018, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has occupied all seats in parliament. Because both politics and society have been forced to acquiesce to the party and because of the high level of corruption, the Freedom House organization has classified the country as unfree.

Kingdom of Cambodia

Area:181,035 km²
Inhabitants:15.28 Mio. (2019)
Population growth:1.2 % jährlich
Population density:86 inhabitants per km²
Seat of government:Phnom Penh
Official language:Khmer
Political system:Parliamentary electoral monarchy
Head of state:King Norodom Sihamoni (since 2004)
Head of government:Minister President Hun Sen (since 1985)
Freedom status:25/100
GDP per capita:4,348 USD (adjusted for purchasing power, 2018)