The Khamer history of Twentieth Century Cambodia
French colonialism The name Khmer Rouge (red Khmer – Khmer denoting somebody from Cambodia) was a label attached by Norodom Sihanouk to communist tendencies within Cambodia. In 1941, at the age of eighteen, Sihanouk became king of Cambodia, after the French colonial authorities overlooked a rival branch of the Cambodian royal family. France had gained effective control of Cambodia towards the end of the Ninetieth Century as it had done in Vietnam. Discontentment with French colonial rule in Cambodia, as in Vietnam, sparked indigenous political action. Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism In 1930 Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). At the time Ho was working as a Comintern agent and the formation of the ICP was an attempt by the USSR, largely at the behest of Ho himself, to instigate the organised dissemination of revolutionary ideas throughout Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). Many of the early revolutionaries were as much, if not more attracted to the cause, through a belief in nationalism and anti-colonialism rather than overtly communist rhetoric. The fact that the ICP was largely a Vietnamese initiative, under the tutelage of Moscow, was to eventually become a significant issue, as other fledging communist movements in both Cambodia and Laos, sought to establish their own identity, rather than take orders from their more experienced Vietnamese comrades. During World War Two it was nationalist Cambodian rebels that made more of an impact against French colonialism rather than the communist movement. In 1941 Japan took control of Cambodia via an agreement with the Vichy regime in France. The colonial system remained in place, administered by the French, with the Japanese using Cambodia as a strategic military base. A successful attack by Thai forces in the Northwest of Cambodia forced the Japanese to reach a peace agreement that allowed Thailand to remain in charge of the conquered Cambodian territory. The loss of Cambodian soil to a neighbouring country helped to galvanize Cambodian nationalist resistance under the leadership of Son Ngoc Thanh. In 1942 demonstrations against French rule began to spread. Thanh sought an alliance with the Japanese to overthrow the French but failed to win support. The French authorities reacted vigorously to quell the growing nationalist sentiment. It was at this stage that the ICP and Cambodian nationalists found common ground in trying to free Cambodia from French colonialism. In 1945 the Japanese changed tactics and staged their own coup against the French. Thanh returned from Japan, where he had been in hiding since the failed demonstrations of 1942, and assumed the position of Prime Minister. However, by October British, French, and Indian units had defeated the Japanese and arrested Thanh. France resumed its rule of Cambodia. The First Indochina war In 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared an independent Vietnam, starting the long road towards an independent communist state. The revolution was not as advanced in Cambodia. This era was nevertheless a crucial period in the formation of Cambodian communism. Anti-French groups started to organise their small membership and rebel against colonial rule. Two groups, the Khmer communists, under Vietnamese guidance, and the Khmer Issarak, nationalist Cambodians who were not communists, took up arms against the French. In Cambodia’s Capital, Phnom Penh, the Democratic Party was formed, espousing a non-violent rejection of French rule. During this period many young Cambodians became politicised. A significant minority of these Khmers won scholarships to study in France and it was ironically in Paris that they cemented their anti-colonial and Marxist ideology. Many of the future leaders of the Khmer Rouge were part of the Paris group, such as Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, Ho Youn, Ieng Sary, and Saloth Sar, later to be known as . In 1951 the first Cambodian communist party, the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), secretly formed. Pol Pot retrospectively altered this date to 1960 in an attempt to distort the truth about the leading role that the Vietnamese played in the development of communism in Cambodia. Ever eager to maintain control of communism in Indochina the Vietnamese did not regard the KPRP as a fully-fledged communist party in comparison with their own Vietnam Workers Party (VWP). The development of communism in Cambodia was soon undermined by the 1954 Geneva conference on Indochina. The conference ended the first Indochina War and under pressure from Sihanouk cemented Cambodia’s independence. Cambodia’s communist and nationalist movements were not represented at the conference at which the Vietnamese agreed to end the anti-colonial struggle in Cambodia. The dominance of Sihanouk In 1955 Sihanouk, buoyed by his successful crusade for independence, staged a coup d’etat. Abdicating from the throne Sihanouk formed his own political movement, the Sangkum, in order to contest the general elections, winning a resounding majority, which was largely the result of coercion. The KPRP responded by initiating a period of political construction as the terms of the Geneva agreement had left the movement decimated by sending approximately two thousand Khmer communist to Vietnam. In Phnom Penh party cells were created, infiltration was initiated into Sihanouk’s government, and a left-wing legal party, the Pracheachon Group, was established. Little real progress was made during 1954-1960 as Sihanouk repressed communist activity. Matters were not helped by high-level communist defections to the Cambodian government. By 1960 Cambodian communism needed a new strategy. In September, the First Party Congress was held in Phnom Penh. Tou Samouth was elected leader, Pol Pot was elected to the third most powerful position. The party’s name was changed to the Workers Party of Kampuchea (WPK). Despite the new orientation the party still followed Hanoi’s political line. In 1962 Tou Samouth mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by Pol Pot. By 1963 large parts of the communist movement had left Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities for the jungle. It was here, under Vietnamese guidance that the party slowly started to expand. It was also during this period that Pol Pot started to resent the manner in which the Vietnamese treated their “inferior” comrades. Some left-wing elements remained in Phnom Penh and were in fact incorporated into Sihanouk’s government. Characteristically Sihanouk turned upon them, forcing them to flee Phnom Penh as well. In 1967 in Northwest Cambodia, following a peasant disturbance and riots against an increased tax on rice, the so called Samlaut rebellion, the Khmer Rouge instigated a series of armed operations against the government, initiating an early phase of what was soon to escalate into a civil war. Civil War In March 1970, Cambodia’s Prime Minster and head of the army along with Sirik Matak, Sihanouk’s cousin, staged a coup d’etat. Dissatisfied with Sihanouk’s increasing accommodation of Vietnamese troops along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, Nol and Matak seized power and quickly formed an economically dependent relationship with the U.S., who were keen to back the anti-communist stance of the new Cambodian government. Sihanouk fled to Beijing, where under Chinese patronage, he formed a united front with the Vietnamese and Cambodian communist parties. Although Sihanouk was not a communist he was a patriot and saw an alliance with the communists as the only way to restore Cambodia’s independence. For the next five years Cambodia experienced a bloody and confusing civil war. Sihanouk quickly became a marginalized figure in Beijing, useful for establishing the communist credentials on the international stage, but with little real power. The Vietnamese Communists where the main force fighting against the Cambodian government up until the end of 1972, from which point Pol Pot, now firmly in control of the Khmer communist movement, started to drive the Vietnamese influence out of the party – even undertaking purges of Khmer cadre trained in Hanoi. The Khmer Rouge army expanded throughout the war, as did their control of territory as well. The corrupt and ineffective Cambodian army was no match for the well-drilled communist guerrillas, especially after the end of American air support in 1973. The Khmer Rouge, now formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), eventually emerged victorious on 17 April 1975. Democratic Kampuchea Pol Pot’s rule of Cambodia (Democratic Kampuchea as it was renamed) was both brutal and radical; Cambodia was turned into the totalitarian nightmare as envisioned by Orwell in his book 1984. The country was completely sealed off from the outside world and split into zones. All major towns were evacuated with the population forcibly moved to the countryside, to learn the peasant’s way of life. Institutions such as the family and religion were effectively banned. Money became worthless overnight. All citizens were required to obey the orders of Angkar (the organization). Individuality was forbidden, all that mattered was the collective revolutionary will. It was an extreme form of Maoist, nationalist, and xenophobic ideology. The later two were central elements to the regime, which espoused the glory of Cambodia’s history whilst playing upon the traditional antipathy the majority of Cambodians felt towards Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge believed that they would create communism in one great leap. By 1976 the obvious failure of this policy was not blamed upon themselves but rather on imaginary Vietnamese and American agents. In the next three years thousands were purged in an attempt to purify the revolution as thousands continuously died from malnutrition and famine. The first significant purges took place in the Northern zone, Northwestern zone, and finally the Eastern zone. Undoubtedly there were elements of the party that did not support Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was after all a combination of communist tendencies. Nevertheless the death toll far outweighed the actual number of Khmer’s who were actively plotting against the regime. The majority of party members who died were in fact loyal to the revolution but had fallen victim to Pol Pot’s paranoia. Some 20,000 victims were sent to an old school in a suburb of Phnom Penh, called Tuol Sleng (also referred to as S-21). This was the Khmer Rouge’s central prison camp. To be held in detention there meant almost certain death. To be accused was in reality to be found guilty. Prisoners were subjected to ritual torture and forced to sign false confessions, admitting to their betrayal of the revolution, before being taken away to be killed by a blow to the head with a spade, whilst bound and blindfolded on the edge of a pit. Anti-revolutionary elements within society were also exterminated. Soldiers and officials of Lon Nol’s regime were executed, as were ‘intellectuals’ – such as teachers, students, and doctors. These people were seen as part of the old society, all that mattered now was the formation of a new society based upon the ideal of the peasant. In 1978, the ever-increasing border clashes between the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese comrades escalated into a full-scale war. In December, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia; by January 1979 they had conquered Cambodia, forcing what remained of the Khmer Rouge to flee to the Thai-Cambodian border. Approximately 1.7 million people died under the Khmer Rouge’s rule. After the Khmer Rouge During the 1980’s Cambodia was effectively ruled from Hanoi. Vietnamese troops remained stationed in Cambodia. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge leader from the Eastern Zone, now led the new government having defected to the Vietnamese before the invasion of Cambodia. By way of demonstrating their disapproval of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia the U.N. allowed the Khmer Rouge to maintain Cambodia’s seat at the U.N, in spite of the increasing horror stories emerging from refugees and survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. In 1982 a tentative alliance was formed between the Khmer Rouge and other non-communist forces in order to fight the Vietnamese occupation. Towards the end of the decade progress was made towards ending the Vietnamese occupation as both Hun Sen and Sihanouk, who had been under house arrest in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, started to discuss a peaceful end to the conflict. In 1989 Vietnam finally withdrew its remaining troops from Cambodia paving the way, in 1990, for the formation of The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). By this time the U.N. had dropped its recognition of the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representative at the U.N. and in 1993 sponsored a general election. Despite losing the vote Hun Sen managed, via dubious means, to remain in power as he still does today. For their part the Khmer Rouge continued to fight a guerrilla war, refusing to participate in the elections. But by 1996 the movement was in decline, high-level defections to the Cambodian government and the ordering of purges weakened the party. In 1997 the remnants of the party turned on Pol Pot putting him on trial and imprisoning him. His “sentence” did not last long as on 15 April 1998 he died from a heart attack in his sleep. Pol Pot’s death signalled the end of the Khmer Rouge, though not to the suffering he and his fellow revolutionaries had caused. To this day few members of the Khmer Rouge have faced justice to answer for the heinous crimes they committed.