In 1970, serious trouble boiled up again when the Prince Sihanouk was knocked off the throne by a Cambodian communist guerilla force called Khmer Rouge. This brutal, well-organised group was inevitably opposed to an American invasion of Eastern Cambodia, and rapidly gained control of the entire country by 1975. The ‘government’ was led by a man called Pol Pot, noticeably insane, who announced the dramatic transformation of his country into what he called ‘Democratic Kampuchea’. His aim was to move the masses out of urban areas into the countryside, where they could be usefully employed in tilling the soil, if they could find some, and could irrigate it if there was nearby water. To control the new agricultural population Pol Pot invented thousands of new ‘agricultural cooperatives’ managed by his specially trained uncivil servants, while at the same time just as many ‘bougeois elements’ (previous owners of land) were eliminated.
Pot’s plots were foiled by the now united Vietnam, however: following the defeat of the United States, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, foiling attempts at defence by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and forcing them to withdraw to the border with Thailand. There there simmered until 1989, when they invaded the western and southern provinces, though total divisions hardly numbered more than 30,000 men.
The situation remained unstable and historically inexplicable for several years. The Khmer Rouge, or what was left of it, refused to take part in democratic elections in 1993, and resorted to violence along the border with, and inside Thailand. There were internal rows inside the Khmer Rouge, and a splinter group emerged to join the elected Cambodian government. Pol Pot, the uncharismatic leader, was arrested and put on a show trial for western journalists in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment, though there existed proof that he was responsible for (possibly) millions of deaths. He died in prison in 1998. His immediate follower Khieu Samphan, who had led Khmer Rouge delegations at international conferences, at last pledged allegiance to the official government of Cambodia in 1998, after Pot’s death.
Pol Pot is alleged to have caused the death of at least 100,000 refugees in death camps controlled by the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border.