Throughout modern history, Cambodia has suffered from ethnic rivalry between the substantial Vietnamese minority and the Buddhist Khmer majority. With the country’s independence in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk took charge of the newly born state. A revolution led by General Lon Nol in 1970 temporarily dispelled the government who had suppressed the Communist and Vietnamese presence. The Cambodian communist party Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975 by positioning themselves as defenders of the peasant class and in opposition to the Vietnamese occupation of parts of Cambodia.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge extolled the virtues of the rural farming classes while objecting to capitalism. The Khmer Rouge regime moved much of Cambodia’s urban population to the countryside to work in agricultural labor camps where many people died from exhaustion, starvation and sickness. The Khmer Rouge leadership established a radical social reform process that aimed to create a purely agrarian-based Communist society.

Although the Khmer Rouge leaders were middle-to-upper class, they hoped to turn Cambodia into a classless society. They made a distinction between the pre-existing farming class known as “old people,” and the “new people,” composed of former city-dwellers. The “new people” were subject to extremely harsh treatment, living and working in the most laborious, unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The Khmer Rouge leadership also brutally and arbitrarily tortured and executed many people for sympathizing with suspected “enemy” groups like foreign governments, religious institutions and intellectuals. After tortuous interrogations, the accused and their families were often brought to the “Killing Fields,” where mass executions took place. One of the most infamous sites is Choeung Ek, where over nine- thousand people were executed with pickaxes and buried together in large graves. Of the thousands who entered the Tuol Sleng Prison, only twelve are known to have survived.

Following an invasion from the Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge lost power but remained as a fringe political group until 1996, when Pol Pot formally disbanded the group. From 1975-1979, an estimated 1.7 million people were killed out of a population of 8 million (21% of the country's population). Over half of the deaths are believed to be from executions, the rest from starvation and disease.

Economic troubles and political disputes delayed the establishment of a court to try the perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide. The Cambodian government finally approved a mix of local and United Nations judges to oversee the tribunal in 2006, three decades after the Khmer Rouge’s crimes took place.