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The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) was the name of a leftist-communist organization in Cambodian politics, beginning in the 1950s. However in the 1970s the CPK came to be identified as the Khmer Rouge, known during the 1980s and 1990s as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. Under the leadership Pol Pot the CPK gained worldwide media attention for the death of between 900,000 and 2 million Cambodians. This is generally considered to have been genocide but the Khmer Rouge blamed U.S. bombing raids (see Cambodian genocide). Khmer Rouge means "Red Khmer" in French, Khmer being the name of the dominant ethnicity of Cambodia. The name Angka, in the Khmer language, was also associated with the CPK.
The Standing Committee of the Central Committee ("Party Center") comprised Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, Ke Pauk, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Yun Yat, and Ieng Thirith. The leadership of the CPK was largely unchanged since the 1960s until the mid-1990s. The leadership of the Khmer Rouge had mostly studied advanced degrees in France.
The Khmer Rouge army (the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea), aided by North Vietnam and supported by Norodom Sihanouk, began a revolution in response in 1970, quickly gaining control over most of the country. In April 1975 they finally overthrew Lon Nol, to establish Democratic Kampuchea.
The factors which led to the Khmer Rouge victory remain controversial especially in the United States, where the Cambodian situation forms part of a broader controversy over United States involvement in southeast Asia.
It is widely felt that the Khmer Rouge would not have risen to power if U.S. President Nixon had not conducted bombing of Cambodia and supported Lon Nol's coup in 1970. Others have argued that the rise of the Khmer Rouge was the result of the United States pullout from Vietnam and Congressional refusal to fund the Lon Nol government.
The ideology of the Khmer Rouge potently combined Stalinism, Maoism, and French anticolonialism. From Stalinism, the Khmer Rouge derived the principle that opponents to the regime could not be reformed and must be killed. From Maoism, the regime derived the a radical view that the entire society must be restructured to create agricultural communes. From French anticolonialism, the Khmer Rouge felt Cambodia must be isolated from the rest of the world.
The Khmer Rouge claimed that U.S. bombing raids of the countryside killed hundreds of thousands of peasants and caused massive overcrowding of the cities and lack of food. For example, the population of Phnom Penh increased by over 1 million during this time.
When the Communist Party of Kampuchea came to power they attempted to create a classless utopian society in which the new government carried out a radical program (Year Zero) of emptying the urban areas, closing schools and factories, abolishing banking and currency, outlawing all religions, ending all private property, and moving the population into collective farms. Unlike other communist regimes, there was no cult of personality, and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge maintained a low, almost anonymous profile. The Khmer Rouge justified such actions by claiming a country on the verge of mass starvation required evacuating the cities to the countryside so that people could grow their own food.
During that time, large segments of the population were targeted for murder, including intellectuals (which was defined very broadly, extending to 'people who wore eyeglasses'), anyone connected with the previous regime, ethnic Vietnamese or those suspected of having sympathies with them (including people in the eastern provinces). The exact numbers of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime is difficult to pinpoint. Depending on the source a reported 15% to 40% of the population died between 1975 and 1979 (1 to 3 million people). These killings were taken within a climate of what has been called extreme paranoia in which the regime is said to have imagined elaborate conspiracies involving the Americans, the Russians, and the Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge were also planning to regain land lost centuries ago to Vietnam. In 1978, after several years of border conflict, Vietnamese troops invaded in December, deposing the Khmer Rouge government within two weeks, by January 7, 1979. Ironically, the Vietnamese were helped by widespread defections of Khmer Rouge in eastern Cambodia who faced with the certainty of being executed on the imagined grounds of helping the Vietnamese should the regime remain, decided to help the Vietnamese overthrow the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, however, continued to control an area near the Thai border for many years. In 1985 Khieu Samphan officially succeeded Pol Pot as head of the Khmer Rouge.
All Cambodian political factions signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament. But in 1992 the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting and the following year they rejected the results of the elections. There was a mass defection in 1996 when around half the remaining soldiers (about 4,000) left. Factional fighting in 1997 led to Pol Pot's trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge itself. Pol Pot died in April 1998, and Khieu Samphan surrendered in December 1998. On December 29, 1998 the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the genocide of over 1 million of their countrymen in the 1970s. By 1999 most members had surrendered, or been captured.
Although it is believed by many human rights advocates that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were involved in crimes against humanity, trials of the leaders remain stalled and it is highly unlikely that any of them will be brought to justice. Young Cambodians remain largely ignorant of the atrocities committed less than a quarter of a century ago. Many observers believe that the slow progress of Khmer Rouge trials is in large part due to the fact that many members of the current government were former officials of the Khmer Rouge and may be implicated in crimes.