THE KHMER EMPIRE THRIVED FROM the ninth century to the fifteenth century. At its height, it stretched across Southeast Asia from present-day Thailand to Vietnam. Its trading networks reached as far as China. The empire's crown jewel was its capital, Angkor. In the twelfth century, it is estimated that Angkor may have been home to a population of 1 million. By comparison, Paris—one of the great cities in Europe at the time—had a population of perhaps 30,000. Angkor included a seventyfive-square-mile complex of more than one hundred elaborate Hindu temples. These temples were part of a vast network of dams and canals that captured water flowing from nearby hills, enabling the Khmer to enjoy an extra rice harvest each growing season. It was such vision and planning that helped sustain the empire for more than 500 years.
Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar in 1928) wanted to return twentieth-century Cambodians to the symbolic grandeur of their glorious past through an extremist agrarian revolution. The centerpiece of his revolution was a campaign aimed at ridding the country of those deemed not borisot (pure). These included the educated, those “tainted” by anything foreign (including knowledge of a foreign language), and a wide range of “heredity enemies,” especially the Vietnamese and other ethnic minorities (persons of Chinese, Thai, or Lao ancestry, as well as the Muslim Cham). To accomplish his genocidal vision, on April 17, 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge Communist Party overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Lon Nol. Pol Pot, “Brother Number One,” installed himself as prime minister of Cambodia, proclaiming the new state of Democratic Kampuchea. In that position, Pol Pot conceived and directed the genocide in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
Immediately after their seizure of power, the Khmer Rouge executed a ruthless evacuation of the 2 million inhabitants of the capital, Phnom Penh. Thousands died of exhaustion and starvation. In the next weeks, the remainder of the nation's cities were evacuated in a “forced rustification,”