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Ugly History: The Khmer Rouge murders - Timothy Williams


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From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Party of Kampuchea ruled Cambodia with an iron fist, perpetrating a genocide that killed one fourth of the country’s population. Roughly one million people were executed as suspected political enemies or due to their ethnicities, and another million died of starvation, disease, or overwork. How did this happen? Timothy Williams details the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

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Three years, eight months and twenty days – a number everyone in Cambodia knows and hates. This was the duration that the Khmer Rouge held power in the Southeast Asian country in the late 1970s in a regime known as Democratic Kampuchea. Anyone living in the country suffered in some ways, with almost all losing family members as two million of the previous population of seven million were left dead. Most people suffered hunger, overwork and fear for their lives. But the regime was particularly bad for ethnic minorities, who were targeted for extermination or particularly harsh treatment. But those from the towns were also discriminated against by this peasant revolution, but even by those who were born and grew up in the countryside suffered in many ways, too.

With civil wars preceding and following the regime, the Khmer Rouge regime is just one phase of violence in a longer succession of violent events. However, the history of Khmer Rouge regime itself has many facets and a complex history. Bophana’s Khmer Rouge app allows you to discover more about this violent regime and its cruel rule of the country in the 1970s.

Several decades have passed since the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian people have come a long way in rebuilding the country and its society. While Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1998 called for ‘or a hole to be dug in which to bury the past, he soon dismissed this position and much has been done to deal with the legacy of the violent past in Cambodia. For example, a hybrid UN-Cambodian tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was created to try senior leaders and those most responsible for the crimes committed during Democratic Kampuchea, sentencing three leaders. One of the most interesting sides to the tribunal was not just its attempt to bring justice to millions of victims, but that the tribunal included a mechanism to allow for the participation of victims as civil parties. These victims were granted special rights exercised through their lawyers.

While there were flaws in the system, this contributed positively to victims’ sense of justice, as a nation-wide survey in 2018 demonstrated. Some of the civil parties were even former Khmer Rouge, highlighting their self-perception as victims who also suffered at the hand of the regime.

Beyond their participation, civil parties were also granted collective and moral reparations that have included testimonial therapy, memorial spaces, and cultural projects such as a traditionally choreographed dance performance called ‘Phka Sla Krom Ângkar’ that deals with forced marriage under Democratic Kampuchea.

Beyond judicial processes and cultural programs, memory is cultivated at key sites. The most prominent memorial site is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where parts of their archives have recently been digitized, making thousands of documents, pictures, biographies and other material freely available. The cultural institute Meta House has also compiled dozens of video testimonies of survivors talking about their memories of the regime, allowing us all an insight into people’s experiences during this terrible time.Today, the country’s government is becoming increasingly autocratic, reducing civil and political freedoms. Nonetheless, Cambodian civil society organizations, activists and citizens around the country continue to deal with the past and build a better future for the country.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Timothy Williams
  • Director Héloïse Dorsan Rachet
  • Narrator Safia Elhillo
  • Music Salil Bhayani, cAMP Studio
  • Sound Designer Nirana Singh, cAMP Studio
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Soraya Field Fiorio
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam

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