Cambodia was a French protectorate under the nominal control of a king from 1863 until 1953, when France granted Cambodia its independence. At the same time, Communist forces known as the Viet Minh were engaged in an independence struggle against France in neighboring Vietnam; the Viet Minh, which had recruited an army of Cambodian allies in common cause against French colonialism, defeated France in 1954. Although Cambodian guerrilla forces and the Viet Minh controlled much of Cambodia by 1954, the Geneva Conference, which marked the end of the war in 1954, left Cambodia in the hands of its monarch, Norodom Sihanouk.

As political factionalism grew in Cambodia, Nordom Sihanouk began to crack down on his opponents, including Communists. The Communists fell into two groups: Vietnamese-trained veterans of the independence struggle, including former Buddhist monks and their peasant followers; and younger urban radicals such as Pol Pot. While the former were major targets of Sihanouk’s repression, Pol Pot and his followers were left largely untouched because of their privileged backgrounds and French education. This group gradually assumed leadership of the Communist movement. After Pol Pot became secretary general of the Workers’ Party of Kâmpŭchéa (later renamed the Communist Party of Kâmpŭchéa, or CPK) in 1963, the party made a concerted effort to seize control of Cambodia.

By 1966, the American escalation of the war in neighboring Vietnam began to have a destabilizing effect on Cambodia. North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces, made up of Vietnamese Communist guerrillas, established logistical bases and supply routes in Cambodia. While King Norodom Sihanouk attempted to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War, his political repression increasingly drove veterans of Cambodia’s anti-French struggle back into dissidence, where Pol Pot’s CPK drew them into its plans for rebellion. The CPK launched a revolt against Sihanouk in 1967. Norodom Sihanouk termed the rebels Khmer Rouge (French for "Red Khmers"), so-called after Cambodia’s predominant ethnic group, the Khmers. Communist insurgency campaigns continued until the Khmer Rouge took control of the government in 1975.

In 1969, embroiled in Vietnam, the United States began a secret B-52 bombardment of Cambodia in an effort to knock out strongholds of the North Vietnamese and NLF. A year later Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol. The Vietnam War spilled across the border, and the conflict tore Cambodia apart for five years. During the secret bombing American planes dropped 490,000 metric tons (540,000 tons) of bombs, killing about 100,000 Khmer peasants by August 1973, when the bombardment ended (see Secret Bombing of Cambodia). Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge, aided by Norodom Sihanouk and the North Vietnamese, who did not want a pro-U.S. Cambodian government, battled Lon Nol’s government for control of Cambodia.

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