Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge, Cambodian revolutionary movement, notorious for its policies of genocide. In 1963 Pol Pot, then a Communist teacher named Saloth Sar, founded the movement to oppose Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The prince at first attacked the Khmer Rouge, then allied with them with United Nations support after the coup d’état led by Lon Nol in 1970. American bombers decimated both the Khmer Rouge and the populace after the former refused to observe the 1973 ceasefire that ended United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge finally toppled Lon Nol in 1975, then forcibly evacuated all Cambodian cities within a week, dragooning citizens for peasant labour. Money and property were abolished; travel and education ceased. Pol Pot became prime minister in 1976 and, following dogmatic Maoism, collectivized Cambodian agriculture in a disastrous bid for increased rice yields. Between one and four million people died in what became known as the “killing fields”, at least 15 per cent of the population, the death toll increased by Khmer Rouge paranoia.

Escalating clashes led to a Vietnamese invasion in 1978-1979: the Khmer Rouge retreated to the border with Thailand. By 1989 Vietnam had withdrawn, but the Khmer Rouge went on fighting other Cambodian factions, specializing in mine warfare against civilians. UN peacekeeping efforts to co-opt them into the 1993 elections failed, not least because popular hatred for their leaders made it impossible to guarantee their safety. The Khmer Rouge continued fighting the elected government, retaining about 10 per cent of Cambodian territory. In December 1998 the last active Khmer Rouge unit surrendered to the Cambodian government, ending Khmer Rouge insurgency and effectively terminating the movement.

In 1999 negotiations were opened between UN and Cambodian officials to discuss the setting up of a tribunal to prosecute former leaders of the Khmer Rouge accused of genocide. A bill in favour of the proposal was passed by the Cambodian Senate in January 2001 and further discussions were held to formulate the draft legislation of the tribunal. An agreement was reached in which Cambodian and foreign prosecutors and judges were given joint responsibility for indicting defendants and reaching final verdicts; this was approved by the king in August 2001. Discussions concerning legal technicalities and requests for further revisions to the draft legislation continued between the UN and the Cambodian government, but were halted in February 2002 following disagreements over which side would control the proceedings and concerns that those prosecuted would not receive a fair trial. However, in January 2003, negotiations resumed and by March of the same year, an agreement had been reached. The outline agreement for the arrangements for the tribunal stated that the prosecution of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge would be handled jointly by Cambodia and the UN. The trials will be held in Phnom Penh and will be presided over by both Cambodian and foreign judges.

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