Cambodia: The Rest of the Story

Cambodia, like Laos and Vietnam, was emerging from the hegemony of colonial France during the period of US adventure in Indochina. Declaring independence in 1949, domestic elites reestablished the monarchy in 1953. The Cambodians cremated their last king, Norodom Sihanouk, in 1960. His son, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Chief of State, succeeded him. Ninety percent of Cambodian peasants owned their land in what remains today a largely agrarian country. Sihanouk’s source of support was in the rural areas, where he was beloved by the majority of farmers. 

Sihanouk forged alliances with several countries, including state socialist China and non-aligned Indonesian. However, he alienated US elites and capitalists with his strident opposition to American presence in Vietnam. Two things concerned Sihanouk. The possibility of a wider war in Indochina – spreading out from Vietnam – threatened Cambodia’s peaceful existence and the monarchy. Secondly, Sihanouk believed in the principle that a people have the right to self determination. In his view, Vietnam’s transition under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh from capitalist colony to independent socialist country was a matter to be settled by the Vietnamese people. The United States had no moral right to intervene. 

The United States began deploying military forces to South Vietnam in 1954. US military presence in Vietnam would last until 1975. US advisors had been in Vietnam since 1950, assisting French colonial forces in training the South Vietnamese army, which was to defend the Western-backed capitalist state, the Republic of Vietnam, against the communist North, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson escalated US involvement by sending hundreds of thousands of US soldiers to Vietnam. That same year, Johnson ordered the bombing of Cambodia. From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties were flown over Cambodia, dropping 214 tons of bombs. Johnson ordered ground incursions into Cambodia by CIA and US Special Forces, as well. 

Meanwhile, a small group of communist guerrillas living in the forests of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, struggled to spark a revolutionary movement. They were at that time only a marginal group. The greater threat to Sihanouk’s rule grew from inside his own government. Military officers and political and economic elites, covertly organized by the US government, sowed discontent and instability among the population. They plotted to remove the king and form an open alliance with the United States. The US would generously reward cooperation in this endeavor. 

In March of 1969, the newly-elected US president, Richard Nixon, ordered extensive bombing of Cambodia by B-52s. The ostensive purpose of the bombing was to root out the Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army, which were operating inside Cambodia’s borders. The effect of the bombing was the destabilization of Cambodia society and increased popular support for the Khmer Rouge. 

In 1970, a US-backed military coup ousted Sihanouk. Lon Nol, prime minister under Sihanouk, became Cambodia’s new leader (Lon Nol had led the coup). With its man in power, the US poured money into Cambodia’s army, attracting thousands of young men to the anti-communist cause of Western imperialism. 

That summer, the US and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia, but failed in their mission to eliminate the Vietnamese communists operating there. Frustrated by the resistance, Nixon ordered the escalation of the bombing. “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in,” he said, “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?” With regime change and carpet bombing, the United States had transformed Cambodia, a formerly peaceful country, into a major field of battle in the Indochina war.

From exile in China, Sihanouk established relations with the Khmer Rouge, who had by this time grown considerably, thanks to US bombing and the behavior of Lon Nol’s reactionary regime. With the peasantry demanding Sihanouk’s return, the Khmer Rouge shrewdly enhanced their prestige in the countryside by dropping Sihanouk’s name and exploiting his cherished image. Sihanouk could not have known what the future would bring, and it’s difficult to see what other course of action he could have taken. Communists everywhere had successfully transformed former capitalist colonies into viable socialist societies. In contrast to the Americans, who were blowing the hell out of everything, the Khmer Rogue was the only viable option.

In response to the growing threat of the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol’s forces went on a rampage, killing and maiming scores of Cambodian civilians and instigating attacks on Vietnamese living and working in Cambodia. The US sent ground forces into Cambodia to assist the effort. When, in 1971, North Vietnam attacked Cambodia, the US ramped up bombing to protect Lon Nol’s regime. United States action antagonized the communists, who grew more determined to push against the US-backed government of Lon Nol. Seeing an opportunity to spread communism and gain the advantage in the war, North Vietnam stepped up to assist the Khmer Rogue.

It was obvious to any sane observer what was driving the peasant masses into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. In 1973 alone, the United States dropped a quarter of a million tons of bombs on Cambodia. Although the bombing raids were of little strategic consequence (since the Khmer Rouge had built bomb shelters and underground installations and were therefore relatively unaffected), scores of civilians were killed and maimed. In total, the United States flew 250,516 sorties, dropping 2,756,941 tons of bombs on 113,716 sites in Cambodia. The estimated numbers of civilians killed by US bombing is 600,000, or 10 percent of the population of the country (CIA). Yet, the toll was much greater on Cambodian society. The bombing internally displaced some two million Cambodians, hundreds of thousands of whom fled to Phnom Penh and other urban areas, where tens of thousands of them starved and died of disease. Furthermore, US bombing killed several hundred thousand draft animals, which dramatically reduced food production (the same thing occurred in Laos). What was Lon Nol doing to stop these atrocities? Hell, he was part of war against the Cambodia people.

In the summer of 1973, with the Khmer Rouge advancing on Phnom Penh and Nixon conducting a massive aerial bombardment of areas surrounding the capitol, Congress finally moved to stop the bombing, slashing funding for the war and calling for Nixon’s impeachment (this was before Watergate). With US military support restricted (though illegal covert action continued), the Lon Nol regime lost its principle source of material means with which to hold off the Khmer Rouge. Without the military option, the US government sought to secure the peasantry’s consent and lure them away from the Khmer Rouge by encouraging Lon Nol to step down and by bringing Sihanouk back to the country. But the die was cast. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975 and declared Democratic Kampuchea.

Ben Kiernan, who has examined the matter perhaps more closely than any other Western observer, writes in his book, The Pol Pot Regime (Yale University Press, 1996), that “Pol Pot’s revolution would not have won power without US economic and military destabilization of Cambodia.” In particular, US carpet bombing of Cambodia “was probably the most significant factor in Pol Pot’s rise.” The evidence supports Kiernan’s argument; there is a strong correlation between the areas targeted by US bombing and the recruitment of peasants by the Khmer Rouge.

The history of the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is not the stuff of popular American consciousness. The popular story begins in 1975, for this is a moment useful to bourgeois propagandists. Over the next three years, the Khmer Rouge attempted to transform Cambodia into a rural communist society. It depopulated the cities and organized urban dwellers into agricultural armies. The regime abolished religion and the education system, and expropriated all private property. The Khmer Rouge imprisoned and executed officials and intellectuals of Lon Nol’s regime. With urban dwellers unaccustomed to agricultural work, and with resentful peasants unwilling to help them, former residents of Phnom Penh and other cities did not thrive. There are claims that thousands died of starvation (although it’s hard to know how many of these actually died from US bombing and sweeps by US ground forces). Another claim is that the Khmer Rouge returned the traditional medical practices, which likely contributed to the spread of diseases, allegedly killing thousands more.

How many died? It’s unclear. Popular writers base most of their estimates on changes in population counts, which include deaths from all warfare, as well as refugees not in the country. (One must be careful not to attribute population reduction to mass murder.) The best estimates I have seen put the number of those executed at around one hundred thousand, another one hundred thousand dying in prison camps, and several thousands perishing in one way or another. Michael Vickery attributes to the Pol Pot years around 700,000 total deaths above the normal. The CIA, in a demographic study conducted in 1980, concluded that Pol Pot killed 50-100,000 people. The study attributes most deaths in this period to the Vietnamese invasion. However, there is reason to believe CIA’s estimate is in this case shaped by US political interests, as will be shown later on. I note the Vietnamese invasion directly and return to US political interests in the discussion that follows.

In 1979, with the Sino-Soviet split dividing communists, and the Khmer Rouge engaging in aggressions against Vietnam (such as attacks on the Phu Quoc and Tho Chu islands), Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge, establishing in its stead the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This arrangement lasted for a decade. Between 1989 and 1993, Cambodia was under UN transitional authority. Cambodia elites restored the monarchy in 1993.

I want to raise two issues with respect to this history: what it means and what has been left out. Observers have widely described the activities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as genocide. I believe it is inappropriate to characterize this moment as genocidal. Second, following the removal of the Khmer Rouge from power by Vietnam, the United States government, along with other Western governments, supported the Khmer Rouge, demanding the restoration of the political legitimacy and providing them with material support for counterrevolutionary action against Vietnam and beyond.

On the first matter, when I say that what happened in Cambodia was not genocide, I mean that what happened does not fit the definition of genocide. Genocide is the extermination or destruction of a people based on the perception that the target is physically or culturally different than other groups. What happened in Cambodia was the result of class warfare not racism. The peasants, seen as the true proletariat in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, were at war with those whose lives were bound to the urban system – that is, those whose fortunes rested with global capitalism. The Khmer Rouge saw capitalists, managers, and professionals as enemies of the people. The Khmer Rouge did not exterminate urban workers, but incorporated them into the agricultural army. Whatever you want to call this, it’s not genocide.

How do I feel about what the Khmer Rouge did? I am not in principle opposed to killing one’s oppressors. However, there has to be good reason for doing so. Is the oppressor physically acting to keep you from obtaining your freedom? Then you are entitled to use physical force to overcome that restraint. No moral system is adequate that asks oppressed people to refrain from using violence to achieve their freedom. Violent class struggle in Cambodia is not the sin to be condemned here. What about organizing agricultural armies? There is a rationale for this: Since US bombing had decimated the animal population, more manpower was necessary for sufficient food production. Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with making those who formerly lived off the labor of others to labor themselves. However incompetent the Khmer Rouge were as social engineers, there can be no moral objection to compelling people to earn their keep. As for political executions, I oppose the practice. This is the aspect of the Khmer Rouge that warrants condemnation. The class that seizes power has a moral duty to treat captured enemies with compassion. I understand revolutionary anger and I see the concern with future counterrevolutionary action, but there are ways short of execution to deal with this. Killing is justified only in the cases of self-defense and protection of the innocent. Torture is never justified.

On the issue of material and political support for the Khmer Rouge by the United States after the international community accused the revolutionaries of “atrocities,” this is a matter of public record. The US plan was for the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the Vietnamese-backed government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The US was concerned that, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese forces would be drawn into the Soviet sphere. National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski was instrumental in the early development and implementation of the plan. His own words indict him: “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help the DK.”

The Khmer Rouge used the refugee camps in Thailand (where they had fled during the Vietnamese invasion) as a base of operations. Prince Sihanouk and former prime minister Son Sann organized their own guerrilla armies in the camps. The camps were therefore home to not only the Khmer Rouge, but the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS) and Son Sann’s Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF). The US began supporting Sihanouk’s guerrillas in 1979 under the direction of Jimmy Carter.

In 1982, under Ronald Reagan, the US began providing both the ANS and the KPNLF with military aid. That year, the US, China, and ASEAN convinced Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge to form the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Hun Sen opposed the plan. The administration portrayed him as an obstructionist. Publicly the administration argued that Sihanouk insisted that the Khmer Rouge be part of the coalition to prevent civil war. Under cover of ANS and KPNLF support, however, the Reagan administration bankrolled the Khmer Rouge. Discovering the deceit in 1985, Congress forbade the use of funds to aid the Khmer Rouge. However, as in the case of illegally funding death squads in Central American, Reagan continued to support the Khmer Rouge, which had infiltrated the ranks of the ANS and KPNLF. Moreover, there is also direct evidence of CIA meetings between the US and Khmer Rouge.

According to John Pilger, the Reagan administration funneled millions of dollars and other material support to the Khmer Rouge from 1980 to 1986 in a variety of schemes. Reagan pressured the World Food Program to divert shipments destined for other refugee groups to the Khmer Rouge. Reagan and Bush channeled weapons to the Khmer Rouge through Singapore. Bush continued the practice despite a 1989 law forbidding it. When the UN Human Rights committee put on the agenda a draft resolution subjecting Khmer Rouge leaders to international war crimes tribunals, the US government intervened and had it removed. The Reagan administration even argued fore the United Nations to allow a Khmer Rouge delegate to sit in Cambodia’s seat, an argument the Soviet Union sharply criticized.

The arguments of the US Executive were remarkable. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Solomon, testifying at a September House hearing on Cambodia, argued, “Should the Khmer Rouge, responsible for genocidal violence of the 1970’s, be totally excluded from the political process with only a military option? Or, should it, less its top leadership, be given a limited stake in a transitional political coalition that would, under international supervision, face elections? We firmly believe that the chances are much better to get this problem under control if you have a structured political settlement than if you just leave a situation that is totally unstructured or constrained, where civil conflict is virtually a certainty.” Thomas Pickering, US ambassador to the United Nations, explained, “The United States Government remains unequivocally opposed to a return to power of the Khmer Rouge. We therefore support the resolution submitted by the ASEAN nations, with nearly eighty co-sponsors, calling for a comprehensive political settlement [that] is aimed at the elimination of the Khmer Rouge threat through the democratic process under stringent international safeguards.” James Baker, armed with officials called the “Baker Formula” argued for acceptable of “minimal participation” of the Khmer Rouge in the transitional Cambodia government because to exclude the Khmer Rouge was unacceptable to China, who could then not be relied upon to stop the fighting.

The Vietnamese left Cambodia in 1989, but the comprehensive peace hit bumps in the road. In 1992, the Khmer Rouge began again armed resistance. In 1993, they rejected the election results. However, over the next several years, the movement fell apart, as members and followers abandoned the party, and fractional infighting weakened its grip on the masses. In 1997, Pol Pot was convicted of crimes against the Cambodian people and imprisoned. He died the next year. Remaining leaders apologized for the killings. Many surrendered or disappeared into the population. The Khmer Rouge ceased to exist in 1999.

Most Americans have heard about the Khmer Rouge, the “killing fields of Cambodia.” The story is one of the most replayed stories in US popular media – the Khmer Rouge is a household name. Pol Pot, like Stalin has come to represent the horrors of communism. (Do you ever wonder why Hitler doesn’t represent the horrors of capitalism?) However, few Americans know about the lead up to the Khmer Rouge story. The reason for this is clear: it’s the wrong story to tell because it represents the horrors of imperialism. Leaving a key part of the story out, bourgeois propagandists are able to paint a lovely and tranquil portrait against which the bloody colors of communism are spattered. Even fewer Americans know about what happened after the Khmer Rouge was removed for power. After talking up the horror of the Khmer Rouge, a story about American presidents bankrolling genocidal maniacs is virtually impossible to tell. It sounds unbelievable. But it’s true.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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