In 1975 the movement, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the Cambodian government, establishing
Democratic Kampuchea. The new government carried out a radical program of evacuating cities, closing schools and factories, and herding the population into collective farms. Intellectuals and skilled workers were assassinated, many Cham-Malays were killed, ethnic Vietnamese were deported or killed, and a total of perhaps as many as 1.5 million died, inclusive of starvation and forced marches. In 1979, after increasing tensions with Vietnam, Vietnamese troops invaded, aiding a rival Communist faction to depose the Khmer Rouge government. The Khmer Rouge, however, continued to field an army of c.30,000 near the Thai border and retained UN recognition as the official Cambodian government.
In 1982 the Khmer Rouge formed a coalition with former premier Norodom Sihanouk and non-Communist leader Son Sann. Khieu Samphan officially succeeded Pol Pot as head of the Khmer Rouge in 1985, but Pol Pot was believed to remain the real leader. All Cambodian factions signed (1991) a treaty calling for UN-supervised elections and disarming 70% of all forces. In 1992 the United Nations assumed the government's administrative functions, while the Khmer Rouge withdrew from the peace process and resumed fighting. The following year the Khmer Rouge rejected the results of the UN-run elections that brought a coalition government to Cambodia.
The guerrilla force lost about half to three quarters of its strength (3,000–4,000 soldiers) in a mass defection in 1996, and factional fighting within the Khmer Rouge in 1997 led to Pol Pot's ouster, trial, and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. The group continued to disintegrate, and factional fighting resumed in 1998. Pol Pot died in April, Khieu Samphan surrendered in Dec., 1998, and by 1999 most members had defected, surrendered, or been captured.
A tribunal consisting of both Cambodian and international judges was established in 2006 to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, but the question of trial procedures and other issues delayed the filing of any charges until mid-2007. The first trial, of the former prison chief known as Duch, began in 2009; he was convicted in 2010. Other former leaders, including Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, once foreign minister, were indicted later in 2010, and tried beginning in 2011. Ieng Sary died (2013) before the trial was completed; Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, party deputy secretary under Pol Pot, were convicted of crimes against humanity in 2014 and genocide in 2018. Additional indictments have been resisted by the government of Hun Sen, who was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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