The kingdom of Cambodia traces its heritage to the realm of Angkor Wat, the twelfth-century center of a network of principalities, including many where ancient Khmer was spoken. Angkor's political reach was large, and the Hindu-influenced Angkor temple complexes are among the greatest in Southeast Asia. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, Khmerdominated political networkshich gradually adopted Buddhismhrank, becoming increasingly subordinate to Buddhist Siam (Thailand) and the Confucian Dai Nam (Vietnam). The Khmer court welcomed a mid-nineteenth-century French offer of protection against Siam and Dai Nam, although some princes rebelled unsuccessfully against French supremacy.
Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism: 1863 to 1953
The French dominated Cambodia together with Vietnam and Laos as part of their creation, French Indochina. Colonialism profoundly transformed Vietnam, generating rich landlords, landless peasants, industrial workers, and a vibrant intelligentsia, but left Cambodia more or less intact, with the small farms of peasants predominant and a tiny educated elite. The great changes in Vietnam made it fertile ground for the communist take-over of a strong nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s, whereas in Cambodia a milder cultural nationalism stimulated by two related French views of Cambodian history dominated the relatively scarce political activity. One depicted Khmer as inheritors of lost Angkorian greatness, recoverable with French help; the other portrayed them as a decadent race doomed to extinction at the hands of the superior Vietnamese, whom the French imported as bureaucrats and laborers to help administer Cambodia and work its plantations. The French also promoted the immigration of Chinese, who engaged in trade and became Cambodia's biggest ethnic minority, more numerous than Islamic Cham garden farmers and merchants and forest-dwelling upland peoples, whose presence predated French colonialism.
During the anticolonial upsurge that swept Southeast Asia after World War II, senior Khmer aristocrats and bureaucrats argued that Cambodia's splendor could be restored if the French handed power over to them, but were challenged by younger and lower-status Cambodians who believed progress required political reform or even armed revolution. They established the Democrat Party, which won elections allowed by the French, and launched rural Khmer Issarak (emancipated Khmer) insurgencies to drive out the French and topple King Norodom Sihanouk. Some Issarak accepted guidance from Vietnamese communists who entered Cambodia to fight the French there, in support of their own struggle in Vietnam. After Sihanouk dissolved the parliament, a few youthful Democrat Party activists joined the Vietnamese-led Issarak, including Pol Pot, who had become a Marxist while a student in France. Another recruitment route was followed by Nuon Chea, a Cambodian originally enrolled as a communist by the Vietnamese following university studies in Thailand. Both, however, resented the Vietnamese argumentchoing French colonial viewshat Cambodia was too backward to mount a revolution without Vietnamese direction.
Independence, Sihanouk, the Khmer Republic, and War: 1954 to 1975
Harboring such ill-feelings, Pol and Nuon emerged as leaders of the Cambodian communist movement (known as the Khmer Rouge) after the 1954 Geneva Agreements provided for the withdrawal of French and Vietnamese military forces, a ceasefire, and elections in which all political parties were allowed to run candidates. Sihanouk used elections as an opportunity to destroy the communist opposition, driving it underground and eventually back into armed insurrection. Under Sihanouk's autocratic regimehich lasted sixteen yearshe economy stagnated amidst corruption, generating rising discontent among an impoverished peasantry and a restless urban intelligentsia, some of whom joined the communist underground. Internationally, Sihanouk refused to align with the United States in its war against the communists in Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese to establish sanctuaries on Cambodian soil, thereby persuading them not to support the violent rebellion Pol and Nuon launched in 1968.
Although Sihanouk alleged his April 1970 overthrow by his army chief Lon Nol was a U.S. plot, it probably resulted from domestic factors, with Lon Nol initially enjoying urban support for abolishing the monarchy as an obstacle to progress, making Cambodia a Khmer republic. However, the coup precipitated cataclysmic changes. From exile Sihanouk called on Cambodians to rise up against Lon Nol as part of a front including Pol and Nuon's guerillas, to which the Vietnamese suddenly provided overwhelming support, attacking the Khmer Republic's army and recruiting peasants to form local revolutionary administrations. In May 1970 the United States invaded Cambodia, attacking Vietnamese sanctuaries, but withdrawing ground forceshile continuing bombingithout preventing the Vietnamese from conquering rural Cambodia, which Pol and Nuon demanded be turned over to their Communist Party of Kampuchea. The transfer was completed by 1973, after the Vietnamese withdrew most of their troops and as a final blitz of U.S. bombing devastated the countryside. Pol and Nuon meanwhile initiated forced collectivization of agriculture, brutal curtailment of Buddhism and Islam, the bloody deportation of the populations of captured towns, and escalating executions of supposed traitors, spies, and other enemies in the Party and general population, the victims often being opponents of their policies, which alienated many peasants. However, the military dictatorship Lon Nol had imposed was also unpopular, and his regime collapsed in the face of a Communist offensive as U.S. military aid ran out in April 1975.
Democratic Kampuchea: April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979
Pol and Nuon pursued even more extreme and homicidal policies once in complete power over what they called Democratic Kampuchea. Their ambition was to restore Cambodian glory by developing a form of communism that combined the most radical aspects of the Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions, applying their nationalist logic to survive. Cambodia had to advance free of foreignspecially Western and Vietnameseutelage; they also believed that the more rapidly Cambodian backwardness was overcome via true and autonomous communism, the more quickly genuine independence would be guaranteed. Their vision of communism called for the expulsion of the entire urban population into agricultural cooperatives; the deportation of Vietnamese to Vietnam; the abolition of markets, money, religion, and ethnic identities; the construction of railroads, steel mills, and hydroelectric dams amidst the rice fields; and the annihilation of anyone in the general population or within the Party who got in the way. They set out to vastly increase agricultural productivity and industrialize the country by transforming the whole population into proletarianized, atheistic peasants working in economic and eventual political equality to create an agricultural surplus to finance industry. However, their policies soon caused catastrophic agricultural and industrial regression, ever-worsening mass starvation, and increasingly vicious social division, and they directly ordered or empowered their subordinates to carry out killings to preempt and repress opposition to their vision and its results.
Various estimates suggest that during the less than four years of communist rule, between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians out of a population of 7 to 7.5 million died in excess of normal mortality, among whom one-third to one-half were executed, the remainder dying from famines and illnesses resulting from conditions created by the regime. Among the dead from all causes were one in seven of the country's rural Khmer, onequarter of urban Khmer, half of ethnic Chinese, more than a third of Islamic Cham, and 15 percent of upland minorities, while Vietnamese who refused deportation were totally wiped out. Also, by the end of the regime, around 20,000 communists and troops in the Party's armed forces were executed for purported treason, among an overlapping membership of 40,000 in the Party and strength of 60,000 combatants in the army.
Several hundreds of thousands of the executions were carefully planned murder campaigns targeting well-defined categories of victims for complete elimination, carried out under specific and direct orders from Pol and Nuon. Victims included Khmer Republic military personnel and civil servants and religious and intellectual elites, with many having been killed by communist troops during the evacuation of towns, and the remainder hunted down by local security forces in the countryside, who also exterminated Vietnamese. With regard to deaths from starvation and disease, although Pol and Nuon's long-term policy was to create a prosperous rural society, they knew in advance that the effort to do so would involve temporary difficulties, during which some people would die. They then ignored mounting evidence that such sacrifices were occurring for a much longer period of time than anticipated and claiming many more lives than envisaged, insisting that the population march ahead, regardless of the cost. Finally, they authored a policy that anyone who opposed or failed to carry out their agricultural policies could be declared an enemy by local Party bosses and executed, a delegation of discretionary authority that was widely used and abused.
Many of the starvation and execution victims were so-called new people, urban Khmer, Chinese, and Cham deported in 1975 to the countryside then dispersed among the veteran people, the mostly Khmer peasants living in communist cooperatives since 1973. Pol and Nuon's policy was that the new people were to be welcomed, well-treated, properly fed with equal rations, and politically reeducated by veteran people and cadres who ran the cooperatives, but until their transformation into proletarianized peasants like veteran people was achieved, they had no right to participate in the running of the cooperatives. Worse yet, although Pol and Nuon asserted the new people, as such, were not enemies, they also said that new people were more likely to harbor enemies and be susceptible to enemy subversion than veteran people.
In fact, most veteran people did not share weal and woeuch less foodith the deportees. Amidst widespread famine, new people starved in droves as some veteran people gloated, verbally and physically
Although veteran people were deeply implicated in the mass death of evacuees, they were not the mainstay of Pol and Nuon's communism because they became more unhappy about a regime that increasingly also made them work harder and harder for less and less food, and insisted they accept a more and more alien communist political culture, totally renouncing Buddhism and many Khmer traditions. If they resisted or criticized any of this, they, too, were vulnerable to execution locally, and more and more were killed as the food situation worsened and dissatisfaction intensified.
Nevertheless, the death toll among new and veteran Khmer was far short of the 50 percent and 35 percent fatalities suffered by Chinese and Cham, figures suggesting that these minorities may have been targeted for progressive extermination as such. This conclusion seems supported by survivor testimony about racist remarks made by local Party bosses, encouraged by an official Party analysis stigmatizing them as belongingike some Khmer groupso special class strata with upper-class connections, and by an official policy requiring minorities to give up their language and other ethnic particularities and meld into a Khmer-speaking worker-peasantry. However, in contrast to the virulent demonization of Vietnamese in Party texts, these contain no anti-Chinese or anti-Cham racialist discourse, and victim testimony is inconsistent. Although many Chinese and Cham have reported their communities were sooner or later targeted for complete extermination, others have said they were treated no worse than Khmer, if they practiced assimilation and followed Party orders. It appears thatefore 1978, at leasthinese and Cham were targeted not for extermination, but suffered disproportionately from starvation and execution, the severity of this discriminatory illtreatment depending on how local power-holders exercised their delegated powers. Chinese were mostly new people and many were upper-class, so they sometimes suffered doubly or triply. Originally, Cham were mostly rural veteran people, but after a few rebelled against renouncing Islam, almost all Cham were demoted to new-people status and dispersed throughout the country, like urban deportees. Both Chinese and Cham were killed for not speaking Khmer or for objecting to discrimination, the numbers again determined by on-the-spot decisions.
All of this points to variations and a paradox in killings by local cadres. Although some eliminated the Khmer Republic elite, Vietnamese, new people, Chinese, Cham, and dissident veteran people with gusto, others were not happy about all of the killing they were carrying out or about the regime they were protecting with murder. Moreover, at the same time that they starved to death and executed more people, there was an ever-growing malaise within the Party, reflecting the fact that many Party members who had been reformists before becoming revolutionaries retained liberal values. That even those who were dedicated communists had expected a milder form of communism; and that even those who had once shared Pol and Nuon's radical vision were disillusioned by the endless famine, epidemics, social strife, and escalating killings it was bringing about. Intra-Party dissidence was intensified by Pol and Nuon's policy of launching aggressive cross-border raids to force Vietnam to cede disputed territory to Cambodia. The Vietnamese counterattacked in 1977, routing Cambodian border units before withdrawing. Pol and Nuon blamed the defeats on traitors within the ranks, but the defenders realized that their policies were inviting military disaster by provoking the overwhelmingly superior Vietnamese forces.
Pol and Nuon reacted to the malaise with increasingly large-scale executions of dissident Party members falsely accused of being CIA, Soviet KGB, or Vietnamese communist spies plotting against the revolution. These purges were carried out under their direct supervision at the secret S21 (Tuol Sleng) security office, which tortured confessions from arrested cadres, forcing them to name scores or more of purported coconspirators, who were then arrested and compelled to confess, naming still others. A massive purge in mid-1978 precipitated armed resistance from some cadres in eastern Cambodia who managed to escape, taking refuge with local veteran people, some of whom helped them fight back, unsuccessfully. Defeated peasants were subjected to large-scale execution, mass demotion to new-people status, and immediate deportation to other parts of Cambodia. As a few surviving insurgent cadres fled to Vietnam, Pol and Nuon pushed S21 to purge every last dissident inside the Party, with arrested cadres naming almost all leading figures except Pol and Nuon as traitors by late 1978. Meanwhile, local killings of all suspect population categories escalated to new heights, with Cham particularly targeted. There is some evidence that this reflected a change in Pol and Nuon's policies toward exterminating them completely, although definitive proof remains elusive.
What is certain is that Pol and Nuon continued to order the grossly depleted army to attack Vietnam. Each battle that was lost precipitated more arrests and executions of the enemy agents in the ranks supposedly responsible for the inevitable defeats. When the Vietnamese finally responded with a full-fledged invasion at the end of 1978, the Democratic Kampuchea regime disintegrated, the population welcoming the Vietnamese as liberators, while Pol and Nuon fled with part of their forces to Cambodia's border with Thailand. Their murderous quest for glory, prosperity, and independence thus ended in infamy, penury, and foreign occupation.
Regime Changes and Accountability since 1979
In January 1979 the Vietnamese installed the People's Republic of Kampuchea regime, in which Communist Party of Kampuchea defectors played prominent roles, but which the Vietnamese dominated. Pol and Nuon's remaining forces were treated by China, the United States, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as still embodying Cambodian sovereignty. Therefore, Democratic Kampuchea retained its United Nations seat, and its army was supplied by China via Thailand to pursue guerrilla warfare against the Vietnamese and their clients, until the Paris Agreement of 1991. That internationally authored peace pact confirmed the withdrawal of Vietnamese and provided for United Nationsrganized elections, which continuing Democratic Kampuchea supporters, former clients of the Vietnamese, and other Cambodian political organizationsncluding one founded by deposed King Sihanouk and headed by his sonere allowed to contest. No provision to determine accountability for Democratic Kampuchea crimes was made, but the United States, which backed the accord, declared it would support an effort by an elected government to bring perpetrators to justice. However, although the Democratic Kampuchea remnants refused to participate in elections and resumed insurgency, the coalition government of the restored kingdom of Cambodia that emerged from the ballot did not pursue the matter of accountability. The coalition included Sihanouk's organization, which had won the election, and the Cambodian People's Party (successor to the People's Republic of Kampuchea), which had lost but obtained a 50 percent share of power by threatening violence against the winners and the United Nations. The People's Party dominated the country under the leadership of Hun Sen, a one-time junior Communist Party of Kampuchea member, who preferred to respond to the Democratic Kampuchea insurgency through armed suppression and amnesties for insurgents who surrendered. In 1997 he asked for United Nations help to establish an International Tribunal, but later reversed himself, demanding instead cosmetic international participation in a domestic court trial of selected senior Democratic Kampuchea figures, Pol Pot having died in 1998. The United Nations resisted this move, convinced that Hun Sen's control of the judiciary would pervert the course of justice. From 1999 the United States attempted to broker a compromise, which the United Nations believed would still not guarantee a fair trial, but after bitter negotiations, the United Nations finally agreed to participate in a mixed tribunal in 2003. This court's personal jurisdiction was effectively limited to surviving Democratic Kampuchea senior leaders, thus shielding subordinate cadres, including Hun Sen and others who had defected before the Vietnamese invasion of 1978, from scrutiny.
SEE ALSO Khmer Rouge; Photography of Victims; Pol Pot; Statistical Analysis
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