The Khmer Rouge, as soon as it took power on April 17, 1975, emptied Phnom Penh (of its approximately 2 million residents) as well as other cities and towns, and forced the people into the countryside. This overnight evacuation was motivated by the urgent need to rebuild the country's war-torn economy and by the Khmer Rouge peasantry's hostility toward the cities. According to a Khmer Rouge spokesman at the French embassy on May 10, the evacuation was necessary to "revolutionize" and to "purify" the urban residents and to annihilate Phnom Penh, which "Cambodian peasants regarded as a satellite of foreigners, first French, and then American, and which has been built with their sweat without bringing them anything in exchange." The only people who were not ordered to leave the city were those who operated essential public services, such as water and electricity. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Other Khmer Rouge leaders rationalized the evacuation as a matter of self-reliance. They told the Swedish ambassador in early 1976 that "they didn't have any transportation facilities to bring food to the people, and so the logical thing was to bring the people to the food, i.e., to evacuate them all and make them get out into the ricefields." Indeed, when the evacuees reached their destinations, they were immediately mobilized to clear land, to harvest rice crops, to dig and restore irrigation canals, and to build and repair dikes in preparation for the further expansion of agriculture. The rice crop in November 1976 was reported to be good in relation to earlier years. At the same time, plantations producing cotton, rubber, and bananas were established or rehabilitated. *

While the Khmer Rouge gave high priority to agriculture, it neglected industry. Pol Pot sought "to consolidate and perfect [existing] factories," rather than to build new ones. About 100 factories and workshops were put back into production; most of them (except a Chinese-built cement plant, a gunnysack factory, and textile mills in Phnom Penh and in Batdambang) were repair and handicraft shops revived to facilitate agricultural development. *

Cambodia's economic revolution was much more radical and ambitious than that in any other communist country. In fact, Khmer Rouge leader Premier Ieng Sary explained that Cambodia wanted "to create something that never was before in history. No model exists for what we are building. We are not imitating either the Chinese or the Vietnamese model." The state or cooperatives owned all land; there were no private plots as in China or in the Soviet Union. The constitution, adopted in December 1975 and proclaimed in January 1976, specifically stated that the means of production were the collective property of the state. *

The Cambodian economic system was unique in at least two respects. First, the government abolished private ownership of land. The Khmer Rouge believed that, under the new government, Cambodia should be a classless society of "perfect harmony" and that private ownership was "the source of egoist feelings and consequently social injustices." Second, Cambodia was a cashless nation; the government confiscated all republican era currency. Shops closed, and workers received their pay in the form of food rations, because there was no money in circulation. *

On August 12, 1975, fewer than four months after the Khmer Rouge had taken power, Khieu Samphan claimed that, within a year or two, Cambodia would have sufficient food supplies and would be able to export some of its products. To achieve this goal in record time, large communes comprising several villages replaced village cooperatives, which had formed in the areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge in 1973 and which had spread throughout the country by 1975. Unlike China and Vietnam, which had introduced collectivization gradually over several years, Cambodia imposed the system hastily and without preparation. *

The Khmer Rouge, in line with the slogan, "If we have dikes, we will have water; if we have water, we will have rice; if we have rice, we can have absolutely everything," organized the workers into three "forces." The first force comprised unmarried men (ages fifteen to forty) who were assigned to construct canals, dikes, and dams. The second force consisted of married men and women who were responsible for growing rice near villages. The third force was made up of people forty years of age and older who were assigned to less arduous tasks, such as weaving, basket-making, or watching over the children. Children under the age of fifteen grew vegetables or raised poultry. Everyone had to work between ten and twelve hours a day, and some worked even more, often under adverse, unhealthy conditions. *

On September 27, 1977, in a major speech celebrating the anniversary of the Kampuchean (or Khmer) Communist Party (KCP), Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot asserted that, "Our entire people, our entire revolutionary army and all our cadres live under a collective regime through a communal support system." He then listed the government's achievements in rebuilding the economy and concluded that, "Though not yet to the point of affluence, our people's standard of living has reached a level at which people are basically assured of all needs in all fields." *

Economic Policy During Khmer Rouge Rule

In its general contours, Democratic Kampuchea's economic policy was similar to, and possibly inspired by, China's radical Great Leap Forward that carried out immediate collectivization of the Chinese countryside in 1958. During the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge established "mutual assistance groups" in the areas they occupied. After 1973 these were organized into "low-level cooperatives" in which land and agricultural implements were lent by peasants to the community but remained their private property. "High-level cooperatives," in which private property was abolished and the harvest became the collective property of the peasants, appeared in 1974. "Communities," introduced in early 1976, were a more advanced form of high-level cooperative in which communal dining was instituted. State-owned farms also were established. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Far more than had the Chinese communists, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly pursued the ideal of economic self-sufficiency, in their case the version that Khieu Samphan had outlined in his 1959 doctoral dissertation. Extreme measures were taken. Currency was abolished, and domestic trade or commerce could be conducted only through barter. Rice, measured in tins, became the most important medium of exchange, although people also bartered gold, jewelry, and other personal possessions. Foreign trade was almost completely halted, though there was a limited revival in late 1976 and early 1977. China was the most important trading partner, but commerce amounting to a few million dollars was also conducted with France, with Britain, and with the United States through a Hong Kong intermediary. *

From the Khmer Rouge perspective, the country was free of foreign economic domination for the first time in its 2,000-year history. By mobilizing the people into work brigades organized in a military fashion, the Khmer Rouge hoped to unleash the masses' productive forces. There was an "Angkorian" component to economic policy. That ancient kingdom had grown rich and powerful because it controlled extensive irrigation systems that produced surpluses of rice. Agriculture in modern Cambodia depended, for the most part, on seasonal rains. By building a nationwide system of irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs, the leadership believed it would be possible to produce rice on a year-round basis. It was the "new people" who suffered and sacrificed the most to complete these ambitious projects. *

Although the Khmer Rouge implemented an "agriculture first" policy in order to achieve self-sufficiency, they were not, as some observers have argued, "back-to-nature" primitivists. Although the 1970-75 war and the evacuation of the cities had destroyed or idled most industry, small contingents of workers were allowed to return to the urban areas to reopen some plants. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Cambodian communists had great faith in the inventive power and the technical aptitude of the masses, and they constantly published reports of peasants' adapting old mechanical parts to new uses. Much as the Chinese had attempted unsuccessfully to build a new steel industry based on backyard furnaces during the Great Leap Forward, the Khmer Rouge sought to move industry to the countryside. Significantly, the seal of Democratic Kampuchea displayed not only sheaves of rice and irrigation sluices, but also a factory with smokestacks. *

First Hand Look at Khmer Rouge Economic Policy

Van Rith “ asserted that relying on heavy machinery was not an option because the people could not even drive cars or motorcycles, much less operate earthmoving vehicles. He said they would have wrecked such vehicles, incurring huge repair costs or thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per vehicle. Relying on machinery would have been a very dangerous path, Rith insisted, declaring that burrowing of money to purchase expensive machinery that no one knew how to operate was the reason for the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. Therefore, Pol Pot's policy of relying on national strength and rapid construction of water works to build the country quickly to preclude a Vietnamese invasion made sense, even though this policy entailed both good and bad aspects. Meanwhile, handicraft production continued, as did factory production, with veteran and new workers working alongside each other, Rith declared. [Source: Interview with Van Rith in Khpop commune, S'ang district, Kandal province, February 20, 2003 by Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia ]

“The idea of independence/self-reliance was that the people would feed themselves by farming the fields, relying on their age-old agricultural knowledge, then proceeding to export of paddy, which would be made possible in the first instance by construction of canals, dams and reservoirs, so that production would no longer be reliant upon the weather, but there would be no immediate need for science. This, according to Rith, was based on the same assumptions as Sangkum-era construction of dams in the late 1950s. Commerce funds were not used for the purchase of weapons. According to Rith, the story that export sales were used to finance the purchase of weapons, which in turn were used to kill people, is false. The supply of weapons was pursuant to separate agreements starting with GRUNK, which did not affect commercial transactions.

Rith said, the DK [Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge] leadership was wrong to think only about producing and exporting paddy, and not about more lucrative and easy-to-grow export crops for which there was an established foreign demand. For example, in S'ang, the previous production of peanuts, sesame, green beans, etc, was halted, leaving the people only to farm paddy, even though people had no experience in paddy production. Similarly, the people in Loek Daek district, highly skilled at fishing and making fish sauce, were forced to learn how to grow paddy. The overemphasis on paddy production thus led to starvation. Instead of producing high value items that were simple to grow and sell, everybody had to concentrate on paddy, which requires enormous experience and skill to grow but did not fetch a good price. At the same time, local trade relations allowing specialization, such as between S'ang district of Kandal province and Bati and Prey Kabbas districts of Takaev province, were abolished, creating further hardship. So the bad aspect of the regime was that although the people were supposed to have enough to eat, they did not.

Khmer Rouge and Money

When Pol Pot realized it was impossible to run an economy without money, he ordered Khmer Rouge currency to be printed up. This money was so worthless street vendors used it for making paper bags (it is now sold on the streets of Phnom Penh as souvenirs). Gold was the only really reliable means of exchange, much of it earned by siphoning off American aid during the Lon Nol government.

Van Rith reported: “After the money was printed in China, brought to Cambodia via Hanoi and was about to be put into circulation, it was explained in meetings that this was in fact no simple matter, requiring zone and sector cadre with banking skills and an understanding of counterfeiting. There was also concern that these cadre would take advantage of their control of money to make themselves rich by stuffing it in their pockets. So it was decided not to go ahead. The intention was originally there, but the policy was reversed. [Source: Interview with Van Rith in Khpop commune, S'ang district, Kandal province, February 20, 2003 by Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia **]

“In this regard, Rith said that although Democratic Kampuchea was supposed to have no rich and no poor, in fact there were super rich and super poor. The super rich emerged immediately after the war when some cadre accumulated material wealth, including by ripping off evacuees, something that happened to Rith's own older sibling, a schoolteacher, who was ultimately executed by an uneducated cadre. Such persons, Rith declared, could never have properly handled money.**

“Rith asserted that Koy Thuon was the ringleader of a traitorous plot involving money. According to Rith, Thuon was a link of Hâng Thun Hak, a Khmer Serei, and they conspired with Hing Kunthun, the director of the Khmer Commercial Bank, to get riels out of the country so that they could be spent once money was put back into circulation. Rith was told this by someone who said this plot was part of a larger plan by Koy Thuon and other North Zone elements to take power with Khmer Serei help. As evidence in support of this, Rith recalled that a false Front set up by Lon Nol had appeared at the Ministry of Information on 17 April 1975, maintaining that this implicated the North Zone forces that had seized the Ministry in such a plan. **

“Rith affirmed that Sar Keum Lamut in fact knew nothing about Democratic Kampuchea finances, the only person other than Rith who handled money being Ieng Sary. According to Rith, a Chinese official (La Mengqiang?) told him in April 1976 that Sary never deposited money in a Chinese bank or accounted for expenditures, but simply stuck cash in his pocket. Ieng Sary also gave him constant grief, opposing Rith's appointment as trade representative in Hong Kong because Sary wanted to appoint one of his own cronies. Sary continued to oppose him even though he was good at his job, getting results. **

Work Under the Khmer Rouge

The population was organized into work teams and communes with collectivized ownership, production and distribution. A typical worker was given one bowl or rice gruel to eat a day and forced to work for 18 hours digging canals and making dikes.

Seath Teng, who was separated from her family at age four, wrote in “Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields”, "We worked seven days a week...The only time we got off work was to see someone get killed, which served as an example to us." Youk Chang work spent three years at a cooperative. "I worked in the fields, planting and harvesting rice and digging irrigations works,” he said. “I was sick and hungry most of the time...We were forced to sleep outside in the fields.”

In 1976, we were assigned to work in a garment factory at Orussei in Phnom Penh. The factory was called Office K-9. My grandmother was assigned to work as a cook, while my grandfather was assigned to work as a blacksmith and sometimes as a mechanic. My aunt was assigned to sew clothes, and I was assigned to repair sewing machines in the Children’s Unit at Office K-9. We were not allowed to stay together as a family. Since I was living near my grandmother, every three nights I would ask my unit chief if I could spend the night with her. [Source: Sin Sinet, Documentation Center of Cambodia, ]

The 2.5 kilometer runway and airport in Kampong Chang , 60 kilometers from Phnom Penh, was built by Khmer Rouge forced labor. The laborers there worked from 4:00am to 9:00pm everyday, with only brief breaks for lunch and dinner. At night they slept in primitive huts with palm leaf roofs. One survivor said, “Their goal was to kill everyone. They gave us a little bit of porridge, enough to survive and work until the project was finished.”

An estimated 10,000 to 50,000 workers died during the construction of the airport. Most of them were Cambodian soldiers accused of being disloyal to the Khmer Rouge. Some starved to death. Some were dispatched with a whack to the neck or the head with a bamboo pole. Most of the killing took place when the airport was almost finished. In some cases, a ditch was dug with a bulldozer and workers were pushed in by the bulldozer and buried alive.

Kamping Pouy Bassin

Kamping Pouy Bassin (35 kilometers west of Battambang) was gigantic civil-engineering project was central to the Khmer Rouge’s plan to irrigate the countryside around Battambang. Tragically, the construction of the Kamping Puoy Reservoir resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Unlike the victims of S21 and Choeung Ek most of the deaths on the Kamping Puoy project were caused by malnutrition, disease, overwork or mistreatment. The deaths were in short, preventable.
A gripping, visceral and painfully honest account of life in Battambang under the Khmer Rouge was written by Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, actor and community worker who won an Oscar for the film The Killing Fields. His book “Survival in Cambodia's Killing Fields is perhaps the most eloquent account of day-to-day life during the Pol Pot period. It is laced with insights into the Khmer psyche and is ultimately a heartbreaking read.

Located between two mountains—Phnom Ku or Phnom Ta Ngen and Phnom Kamping Pouy—in Ta Nget Village, Ta Kream Srok commune, Kamping Pouy Bassin is six meters long and 1,900 meters wide. During the rainy season the basin can hold 110 million cubic meters of water, which is used primarily for agriculture. Kamping Pouy basin is vital to this area. It is now a popular picnic site for residents of Pailin and Battambang because of its fresh air. Lotus flowers grow in the water and nearby you can buy lotus seeds to eat (they are delicious and taste a bit like sweet, uncooked peas). Takream Commune in Banan District is the nearest settlement.

Evaluating the Economic Performance of the Khmer Rouge

Measuring the economic performance of the Khmer Rouge regime was impossible because statistics were not available, and no monetary transactions or bookkeeping were carried out. The economic life described by foreign diplomats, by Western visitors, and by Cambodian refugees in Thai camps ranged from spartan to dismal. Phnom Penh became a ghost town of only about 10,000 people. There were no shops, post offices, telephones, or telegraph services. Frequent shortages of water and of electricity occurred in all urban areas, and the government prohibited movement across provincial borders, except for that of trucks distributing rice and fuel. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Conditions in the cooperatives varied considerably from place to place. In some areas, cooperative members had permission to cultivate private plots of land and to keep livestock. In others, all property was held communally. Conditions were most primitive in the new economic zones, where city dwellers had been sent to farm virgin soil and where thousands of families lived in improvised barracks. *

Cambodia made progress in improving the country's irrigation network and in expanding its rice cultivation area. Phnom Penh radio claimed that a network of ditches, canals, and reservoirs had been constructed throughout the country "like giant checkerboards, a phenomenon unprecedented in the history of our Cambodia." Still, rice production and distribution were reported to be unsatisfactory. Rice harvests were poor in 1975 and 1978, when the worst floods in seventy years struck the Mekong Valley. Even after the better harvests of 1976 and 1977, however, rice distribution was unequal, and the government failed to reach the daily ration of 570 grams per person. (The daily ration of rice per person actually varied by region from 250 to 500 grams.) Party leaders, cadres, soldiers, and factory workers ate well, but children, the sick, and the elderly suffered from malnutrition and starvation. There also were reports that the government was stockpiling rice in preparation for war with Vietnam and exporting it to China in exchange for military supplies. This diverted rice could have been one explanation for the people's meager rice ration. *

At the end of 1978, when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, the ensuing turbulence completely disrupted the nation's economic activity, particularly in the countryside, which once again became a war theater traversed by a massive population movement. Agricultural production was again a major casualty, with the result that there was a severe food crisis in 1979. *

Khmer Rouge and Chinese Aid

According to Rith, one PRC delegation, led by Foreign Trade Minister Li Qiang, came to Cambodia in early 1976, signing two or three agreements, including a commercial agreement. The DK side requested a loan of 140 million Chinese yuan and $US 20 million. It was Rith's job to activate the spending of these funds, and on 4 April 1976 he went to China and Hong Kong for one week to discuss Cambodia's requirements with Chinese leaders and to explore the opening of an office in Hong Kong, where a Chinese company helped introduce him to businessmen. These funds were not aid, but loans, to be repaid, with the accounts held in a Chinese bank. The 140 million yuan were split between A and B accounts. The A funds were for purchase of Chinese goods, which were imported to Cambodia, with all the paperwork done by the Chinese. The B account was for crediting Cambodia for the purchase of initial exports: cut wood, coconuts, whatever could be gathered up and sent by boat to China. The first major import was raw materials for the Chakrei Ting cement factory, as cement production was considered essential to national reconstruction. Chinese technicians came pursuant to a technical cooperation agreement with China to get the factory up and running quickly. Other imports aimed at supporting agriculture. [Source: Interview with Van Rith in Khpop commune, S'ang district, Kandal province, February 20, 2003 by Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia **]

“Imports were done via paper transactions inside the Bank of China, orders being placed by ministries in Phnom Penh and the Cambodia paperwork being done by Rith. As for the US$20 million, the Cambodians proposed using it to purchase spares for western equipment, including tractors and vehicles, and the Chinese turned it over to Cambodia, with Rith going to Hong Kong to arrange for its use, although the Chinese introduced him to all the necessary businesses. Purchases were made via letters of credit, from the international market, from firms in the US, Australia, Japan and Africa. Rith set up the "Ren Fung (sp?)" company, buying to service the needs of the tire and other factories, while selling national produce, including rubber, on the Singapore market, using the procedures to buy engine oil. **

“As for the 140 million yuan, this money was used to purchase lathes and the latest Chinese rice milling equipment. Imported machinery was warehoused in riverfront buildings from Voat Onnalaom to the Chroy Changvar bridge and KM6, where much of it remained due to a lack of means for transport, as the boats built at Chroy Changvar were made of wood.

Labor Under the Khmer Rouge

The survivor Sum Rithy reported: “In 1976, Angkar pushed people to work even harder, yet the food rations were becoming smaller. As a result, I became absolutely exhausted, skinny and sick. However, Angkar commanded six of us to clear vines in a forest south of Angkor Wat. There I saw a huge pile of bones. In my village, Angkar divided labor according to age. The elderly men made ox-carts, baskets, rice mills, and ropes for tying cows and buffalos. The elderly women cut banana trees to make mats for drying rice and looked after children. The adults had to do various kind of cultivation. The youths worked in the mobile units. The children were assigned to tend buffalos, and to collect cow dung and water plants for making natural fertilizer. In addition, Angkar assigned the base people to observe the 17 April people. Anyone who did not follow Angkar would be accused of being the enemy. [Source: Sum Rithy, Documentation Center of Cambodia, ==]

“Angkar of the Super Great Leap Forward planned that the people of Kha-nat village would cultivate lowland, upland, and floating rice fields. They worked day and night, but they never had enough food, even in the harvest season. Some people had banana and papaya trees, water convolvulus, and various leaves and vegetables to mix with their watery porridge in order to temporarily sate their hunger. At night, I secretly planted yams and because of this I became sick. Later, Angkar ordered me to cut bamboo at Ralom Cheung Spien village in the northern region where the minority people lived. Then I was sent to plough in the lowland rice paddies. ==

Agriculture Under the Khmer Rouge

Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “Gentle wind from the Himalayas once again brought chilled air to the Angkorian plain as it has for ages. The endless, flat green rice fields surrendered to the constant chilled wind by turning a golden yellow. Rice stalks swayed gently left and right in the wind. Parakeets and other birds came by the school to feast in the golden fields. People and animals sought warmth in front of bonfires during the early morning hours. It didn’t take very long before the rice crop was ready for harvest. It was once again a time of plenty, a time for celebration, a time to renew the spirit and soul. But it was not meant to be. We were still under Angkar’s strict rule, unfortunately. There was still plenty of work to be done, just a little bit differently, under the new Angkar Leu (Khmer Rouge) management. We were still under the Khmer Rouge regime. [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia ~~ ]

“It was December 1978. Food was plentiful, but Angkar Leu only allotted a limited quantity for rations. We still consumed a rice gruel, but with no wild vegetables mixed in. Plain cooked rice never tasted so great, I thought. The primary focus now was to harvest the main rice crop as fast as possible. We often worked long hours, but the atmosphere was more at ease. Very few died, mostly from illness or disease. Angkar Leu was strict, but no one had been executed since the new administration was installed. It was a cause for celebration. Angkar Leu ordered us to work still harder, but there was a more gentle policy at work. The laborers, including what was left of the Mith Tmey people in Tapang, were rewarded for their hard work with time off and extra rations for completed work. What a big change! Not night and day, but still quite a change. ~~

“I put on some weight and seemed to be somewhat healthy, relatively speaking of course. I lost two lower back teeth and many others were rotten. Plain botled rice was still mighty tasty, I might add. We all worked close to home and helped out nearby villages. I spent more time in my own hut than I had in the past two years. I found myself taking advantage of the relaxing situation under Angkar Leu. My sugar palm tree, a little private enterprise on the side, produced more of the sweet liquid than I knew what to do with. I traded some for field crab and fish to supplement our “private meal” at night. It soon became sugar for a special dessert, which was unthinkable just a few months earlier under the old Angkar. Travel restrictions were still here, but also eased up slightly. With proper permission, I could travel to the next village for salt or Khmer fish paste. This is the life, I thought. Can’t really complain after years of no freedom and starvation, about a little “openness.” I was contented. ~~

“There were times when Angkar Leu donated small rations of special supplies for each family in town. I did not know where those supplies, such as vegetable oil, fabric for cloth, salt, bleached white sugar, and even kerosene, came from. All I knew was that every time the Chinese-made trucks that brought these little supply rations came in, they returned with a full load of our recently harvested rice. After a while, the trucks arrived more often empty, without supplies. Our rice supply soon dwindled and our favorite communal kitchen was back to serving watery rice gruel once more. People, especially the Mith Tmey, soon found themselves desperately hungry again. ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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