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Anne Frank: Lessons in human rights and dignity

Chapter 31

Remembering the deaths of 1.7-million Cambodians


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000

[Photo: AP]
Skulls from some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign of terror are displayed in Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, on April 17, 1975. Two weeks later, Saigon fell in Vietnam and U.S. troops on the ground pulled out. During the next four years 1.7-million people were destroyed in a genocide in Cambodia. That number translates to one out of every five Cambodians.

Little attention has been given to the connection between U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the tragedy of the genocide in Cambodia. The Vietnam War was not confined to Vietnam but had serious and devastating effects on all of Southeast Asia as part of a larger Cold War struggle.

A history of struggle

[Photo: AP]
A Khmer Rouge rebel frisks a civilian in downtown Phnom Penh hours after the rebel forces led by Pol Pot took control of the Cambodian capital April 17, 1975.
Cambodia is a primarily agricultural country of 10.4-million people located at the southern section of the Indochinese Peninsula in southeast Asia.

Different peoples settled in the area, but the largest ethnic group, the Khmer, arrived in the country thousands of years ago. The first organized state in what is now Cambodia was Funan, which emerged in the first century A.D.

The history of the region includes many influences such as Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as struggles and invasions involving neighboring countries, including Thailand and Vietnam. From the 9th through the 15th centuries, Angkor was the political and cultural capital of Cambodia. The architecture of Angkor Wat, a complex of temples and royal buildings, is considered one of the world's greatest architectural achievements. "If our people can build Angkor Wat, they can do anything," Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tyrant, once said, before the Khmer Rouge destroyed most of the country's cultural institutions, including temples, and killed Buddhist monks, teachers, writers and other intellectual leaders. (From Cultures of the World Cambodia, Sean Sheehan, Times Ed. 1996).

In the modern period, the French colonization of Indochina included Cambodia. After World War II (1939-1945), many peoples throughout the world whose countries had been colonized by British, French, Dutch and others struggled to win their independence. Cambodia, which for a time had been under Japanese control during the war, struggled for independence. The French government had colonized Indochina (including Cambodia's neighbors Vietnam, Thailand (originally Siam) and Laos), and in 1954 Cambodia finally won its freedom.

As with many new nations, Cambodia found itself struggling to remain independent. Under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the new nation had to withstand internal factions and corruption as well as keep itself from being engulfed by skirmishes with its neighbors and the the United States, China and the USSR. With the increase in U.S. armed intervention in Vietnam, U.S. and Vietnamese armies crossed Cambodia's borders and threatened its independence.

The Vietnam War and Cambodia

This year's Newspaper in Education series

Anne Frank: Lessons in human rights and dignity
Introduction, previous chapters and Web Links

In order to destroy sanctuaries where Vietnamese had fled for safety, the United States, under President Nixon, began a secret bombing of Cambodia from 1970-1973 that finally was stopped by Congress. It is estimated that some 150,000 Cambodians were killed by more than 500,000 tons of U.S. bombs.

In 1974, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol, a U.S. supported general. As the Vietnam battle spilled into Cambodia, different leaders and factions fought against the new government and civil war continued.

It is against this terrible background of civil and regional war that an opposition party of revolutionaries lead by Pol Pot (alias Saloth Sar, who was formerly a schoolteacher) and called the Communist Party of Kampuchea took power. Using propaganda against the U.S. bombings and supporters of the actions, and promising to end chaos and civil war, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) purged more moderate and pro-Vietnamese communists, then declared a new government called Democratic Kampuchea.

Khmer Rouge ideology was a mixture of racism, anti-Westernism, elements of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as "concern for national racial grandiosity." In their view, Cambodia "would recover its pre-Buddhist glory by rebuilding the powerful economy of the medieval Angkor kingdom, and regain "lost territory from Vietnam and Thailand.' " Secrecy and violence were considered necessary tactics by the party to keep control. (From The Cambodian Genocide by Ben Kiernan, in Century of Genocide, ed. Totten, Parsons and Charny, Garland Press, 1998)

Questions for discussion

What do you know about land mines? It is estimated that there are 7-million land mines planted throughout Cambodia. Each month about 300 people step on mines and are injured or killed. Do you think there should be a ban on countries producing and using land mines? Research the recent international debate on land mines. Why did the United States government argue against the ban? What do you think?

Next: Under cover of revolution

Dr. Joyce Apsel lectures nationally on Anne Frank, genocide and human rights. She teaches at New York University. Please address questions or comments about this series to: Floridian, Anne Frank and Human Rights, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail

On exhibit

"Anne Frank: A History for Today," an international touring exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, 55 Fifth St. S. The exhibit, which traces Anne Frank's life and times through family photographs and diary passages as well as examines prejudice and violence today, is made available through the Anne Frank Center USA. Exhibit sponsors include the Eckerd Family Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Paul W. Martin, Jr., the Sembler Family and the state of Florida.

Resources about the Cambodian culture, history and genocide:

  • Appropriate for middle school and older audiences
  • Cambodia in Pictures: Visual Geography Series, (Lerner Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1996). Introductory history including excellent photos and maps
  • Cambodia, Miriam Greenblatt, (Childrens Press Chicago, 1995)
  • The Land and People of Cambodia, David Chandler (HarperCollins 1991)
  • Faces: People, Places and Cultures Cambodia, (
  • Where the River Runs A Portrait of a Refugee Family, Nancy Price Graff (Little Brown 1993). Interesting, detailed account of a Cambodian refugee family adjusting to life in the United States while holding on to its ethnic heritage. This "modern pilgrim" story traces the complexity of becoming American and includes sample of questions immigrants and refugees must answer before they become U.S. citizens.

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