Discussing difficult history
Cambodian Rock Band begins in the 1970s, when a totalitarian regime used immense violence to enforce Khmer Rouge rule. Almost every Cambodian, even those in the Khmer Rouge, lost loved ones, witnessed violence firsthand, and made sacrifices to survive. While learning about this part of Cambodian history, we invite you to take a critical look at these events and the complex individual choices that led to them. Consider external factors, including cultural climate, international conflict, hierarchies of power, and preserving oneself or one’s family.
“This play probably fundamentally asks three basic questions: What would you do to survive? What would you do for your family for survival? What happens to your dreams and your hopes [when] in one day, the government shifts and everything changes overnight?”
- Director Chay Yew
U.S. and the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, Cambodia remained neutral. Norodom Sihanouk said that this neutrality was not for ideological reasons, but instead to balance the hostility in neighboring countries. His stance was challenged by Cambodian citizens and foreign militaries alike. Many criticized Sihanouk’s failure to handle Vietnamese troops who had established bases in Cambodia. President Nixon ordered bombings in the country to target North Vietnam’s suspected supply routes. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initially discouraged the plan, but became increasingly supportive of Nixon’s strategy. In 1968 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, began an insurgency in Cambodia. After Sihanouk was exiled, the Cambodian Civil War continued between the Khmer Rouge and the US-backed Khmer National Armed Forces. The US military’s bombings escalated, both destabilizing Cambodia and garnering support for the Khmer Rouge’s nationalist ideals. Pol Pot envisioned a revolutionary new Cambodia, achieved by eliminating Western cultural influence and adopting a communist system centered on rice growing. American troops evacuated the country on April 12th, 1975, enabling Khmer Rouge troops to take over Phnom Penh the next day. Many Cambodians initially believed that the Khmer Rouge had liberated them from the Vietnam War’s collateral damage, but were unaware of the party’s true intentions.
Map of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Photo: Don't Think I've Forgotten
Atrocities of the regime
All Cambodians were ordered to evacuate Phnom Penh and move to rural areas. Very few had been able to leave the country before airports were shut down. To take Cambodia back to “Year Zero,” Khmer Rouge leadership closed schools and hospitals, eliminated currency, and banned religion, thereby imposing a lifestyle most familiar to the rural poor on all Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge targeted and executed artists, musicians, and intellectuals, whose professions were tied to foreign influence and ideals incompatible with the new regime. Cambodians were forced to work long hours in the rice fields under grueling conditions, facing violent punishment for infractions from failing to meet a quota to being caught singing. From 1975 to 1979, hundreds of thousands of people were executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers in fields and prisons, while many others died from disease, starvation, and exhausting labor conditions. Though estimates vary, the consensus is that approximately 2 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge.
Ted-Ed: The Khmer Rouge Murders
How the USA Brought Pol Pot to Power
Survivors tell their Stories
Those who lived under the Khmer Rouge and its defeat have provided firsthand accounts of their experiences, allowing people around the world to learn about a period of history from which much evidence was destroyed. Learn more about these stories in the following videos and articles.
Never Give Up – Sithea San
Everyone Has a Story – Arn Chorn-Pond
President Nixon detailing his military plan in a news broadcast. Photo: Corbis/Getty Images
How did the US military’s actions in Southeast Asia during the late 1970s align with its stated goals of protecting freedom and democracy worldwide?