The communist party of Kampuchea, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge was the political group led by Pol Pot. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia it was the governing party of Democratic Kampuchea. It is associated with the excesses of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide.
It was officially founded in 1951 and renamed in the Party of Democratic Kampuchea in 1982.
Precursor to the Communist Party of Kampuchea
The Indochina Communist Party was formed in 1930 as a successor to the original Vietnamese Communist Party. In 1951 it was decided to split the Indochinese Party into separate parties representing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The initial party was called the Khmer Peoples Revolutionary Party (KPPR). The current ruling party of Cambodia, the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) trace their lineage to this date. In 2020 Cambodia is littered with billboards celebrating 69 years of the party.
It is here that history becomes very muddy and has resulted in a retconning by both the CPP and the Khmer Rouge. The original party was aligned and heavily influenced by the Vietnamese. This led the later Khmer Rouge leadership, who were much more China orientated to state 1960 as their founding.
According to the Khmer Rouge the failure of the Vietnamese to securee anything for their Cambodian comrades at the 1954 Geneva Conference marked a betrayal to Cambodian communists and necessitated the need for a new communist movement.
Following the majority of Cambodian communists moving into exile in Vietnam a legal party was formed to compete in Cambodian elections, namely the Krom Pracheachon.
Krom Pracheachon acted as the legal face for communists in Cambodia. It participated in the 1955 and 1958 elections, but due to harassment and its refusal to join the party of King Sihanouk they were driven underground.
The Paris Students Group
The Paris Students group consisted of what would later become the core leadership of the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot and Ieng Sery were to join the French Communist Party in 1951, which was to be the start of their odyssey that would lead to such devastation in Cambodia.
The Workers Party of Kampuchea
During the 1950’s and after the Paris group had returned to live candesinly in Cambodia the party was basically split into two factions, rural and urban. In 1960 a meeting was held. Much about this meeting has been clouded in mystery and rewrites by both pro and anti Vietnamese factions. What we do know is that the party was renamed into the Workers Party of Kampuchea.
At the part congress Tou Samouth was named party secretary, with Nuon Chea his deputy. Pot Pot and Ieng Sery were elected to central committee.
In 1963 Tou Samouth was killed by the Cambodian government, with Pol Pot elected to replace him as General-Secretary. It was under his leadership that the Khmer Rouge would begin their revolt.
In 1965, only 10 years before they took power it is estimated that the Workers Party of Kampuchea had only 100 members.
Insurgency in Rural Cambodia
In 1963 the Khmer Rouge, or WPK started their insurgency in rural Cambodia. At this point they were aligned with the Vietnamese against the common enemy of the USA and had some minor successes in “liberating” areas.
With that being said they did not enjoy nearly as much success as their Vietnamese brothers and it was the United States that would ironically lead them to power.
The Coup of 1970 and the Communist party of Kampuchea
In 1970 Sihanouk was removed from power in a CIA sponsored coup. Army strongman Lon Nol took power.
In 1971 the party renamed itself to the Communist Party of Kampuchea and after negations brokered by Beijing the communist and the Royalists made a united front against the Lon Nol regime, known by its French acronym GRUNK.
This alliance led to the popular front taking over most of Cambodia by 1973, aided by two major factors. Firstly American carpet bombing of Cambodia and secondly that most peasants thought they were fighting for their king, not communism.
The Khmer Rouge in Power
In 1975 the government of Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. King Sihanouk was to stay as nominal head of state for a short time, but the country was firmly ruled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
The ruling central committee, which had hardly changed since its inception consisted of the following members.
The Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge’s Central Committee (Party Center) during its period of power consisted of the following:
- Brother number 1 Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) — General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, 1963–1981; Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, 1976–1979
- Brother number 2 Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot) — Deputy General Secretary of the Communist Party, President of the Kampuchean People’s Representative Assembly
- Brother number 3 Ieng Sary — Deputy Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea; Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1975–1979
- Brother number 4 Khieu Samphan — President of the State Presidium (head of state) of Democratic Kampuchea
- Brother number 5 Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) — Leader of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea; last Khmer Rouge leader, Southwest Regional Secretary
- Brother number 8 Ke Pauk — Regional Secretary of the Northern Zone
- Son Sen — Deputy Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, Minister of Defense
- Yun Yat — Minister of Education, 1975–1977; Minister of Information (replaced Hu Nim in 1977)
What followed was one of the most tyrannical regimes ever to grace the planet, with up to 1/4 of the country dying as result.
The government was overthrown in 1979 following an invasion by Vietnamese forces and their Cambodian allies. This fallowed the brief Cambodia – Vietnam War.
The Khmer Rouge then moved from being the party of government to the a communist insurgency again. In 1982 they changed their name to the Party of Democratic Kampuchea, who on the face of it at least espoused Democratic Socialism. They were once again aligned with the royalist forces of King Sihanouk as part of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.
The party were to again change their name in 1992 to the Cambodian National Unity Party, with the theory being to take part in the elections of 1993. This was never to happen and the Khmer Rouge were to continue in some way shape, or firm until 1999 and the capture of Ya Mok.