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Origins of the Khmer Rouge

While Sihanouk was beloved by many Cambodians, his often authoritarian rule gave rise to underground opposition. In 1960, a small group of Cambodians, led by Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot) and Nuon Chea, secretly formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. This movement would become known as the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmers.”

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Inspired by the teachings of Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge came to espouse a radical agrarian ideology based on strict one-party rule, rejection of urban and Western ideas, and abolition of private property. Increasing food production through collective farming, they believed, would ensure economic security for Cambodia’s overwhelmingly poor village population.

They also stressed self-reliance and intense nationalism—Cambodia was said to be in danger of extinction at the hands of its historical enemies Vietnam and Thailand (formerly Siam) and their Cold War allies. Under the Khmer Rouge, the group’s leaders believed, the Cambodian people would regain the international heft and stature they had created for themselves during the Khmer Empire.  

Initially small in number, the group operated quietly in the capital Phnom Penh until 1963 when the leaders and their growing band of supporters fled to the countryside. From there they launched an armed insurgency aimed at gaining control of the state from Sihanouk. In the early years, however, the Khmer Rouge had few victories.