Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Postwar Era

Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Postwar Era

Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide since World War II: The Cambodian Genocide


As the news and scope of the Holocaust came to public light following World War II, and especially in the 1960s, it seemed that the world would never again engage in such barbaric and inhumane treatment. Surely, the death of 6 million Jews had taught humanity that we must never again engage in genocide. And yet, tragically, the moral lessons of the Holocaust all-too-soon faded. The promise of “Never again!” transformed into a crude reality, “Not again!”, as genocide unfolded in the Pacific, Asia, Europe, and Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century.


Learning Objectives

  • Identify the importance of the Cambodian Genocide.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Cambodia: country in Southeast Asia between Vietnam and Thailand

Cambodian Genocide: 1975 – 1979 event in which large portions of the middle and upper classes, as well as minorities, were exterminated in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge

Ethnic cleansing: forced removal of a population from an area, usually violently

Genocide: term created by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, and taken from Greek and Latin roots, to mean literally the “killing of people”

Khmer Rouge: communist party in Cambodia from 1975 – 1979 that was responsible for the Cambodian Genocide

Killing fields: sites throughout Cambodia in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot: Communist leader of Cambodia from 1963 – 1981


Ethnic Cleansing vs Genocide: Background


Nearly eighty years have passed since the end of World War II when the world first learned of the Holocaust. Since then, multiple cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing have occurred around the world.

The term genocide is relatively young. After much effort, Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944. Genocide literally translates to the “killing of people.” In particular, the term implies a deliberate, centralized attempt to systematically destroy an entire race, ethnic group, or group of people. The Holocaust is the most commonly agreed-upon genocide in history. Nations and governments are often skeptical of applying the word “genocide” to other events, such as the Armenian Genocide, because it implies that a government was deliberately involved in the planning and murder of a group of people. For this reason, many genocides are still contested.


Raphael Lemkin, Polish-American lawyer who coined the term, “genocide” in 1944.


Closely tied to genocide is the concept of ethnic cleansing. In contrast to genocide, which is intent on the systematic destruction of a specific group of people, ethnic cleaning is a term used to describe the forced removal of a group of people from a specific area to make the area homogenous. Under international law, ethnic cleansing constitutes a war crime because the targeted groups are often subjected to brutal treatment, poor living conditions, physical abuse, and destruction of property.


Cambodian Genocide


During the Cold War, Chinese leader Mao Zedong supported communist leaders throughout the world. In the 1970s, he strongly supported neighboring leader, Pol Pot, who came to power in Cambodia with his political party: the Khmer Rouge. The goal of the new, communist government was the creation of an entirely self-sufficient agrarian society. To achieve this, the Khmer Rouge launched a campaign of eradication. Men, women, and children of the middle and upper classes were targeted. Among the groups targeted were individuals connected to the previous government, intellectuals, monks, and professional people such as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and journalists. Racial and religious minorities were also targeted. All of these groups were considered “subversive” by the Khmer Rouge and a potential threat to their communist state.

Victims were arrested, and frequently summarily killed. Most famously, the Khmer Rouge took their victims to the killing fields where mass murders unfolded. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, often by pickax or machete to conserve ammunition. Across the country, dozens of sites have been discovered where these mass murders occurred. Based on the findings, historians estimate that 1.5 – 2 million people were systematically murdered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 – 1979. The killings finally ceased in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge.


Series of photos
Victims of the Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge was famous for taking photos of their victims. Today, many of the photos hang in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia.


The Cambodian Genocide remains one of the most definitive examples of genocide since the Holocaust. It was a four-year campaign to not only systematically eradicate specific groups of people but also can be considered a classicide in which there were attempts to destroy the educated and professional, middle and upper classes.

1 of 4