New Internationalist

Simply… Cambodian History

Issue 242

new internationalist
issue 242 - April 1993

Simply... Cambodian history

photo by CLAUDE SAUVAGEOT 1 Magnificent beginnings
All roads in Cambodian history lead to Angkor Wat - and Pol Pot was particularly conscious of trying to emulate the independent greatness that the temple city symbolized. 'If our people were capable of building Angkor,' he said, 'we can do anything.' Completed around 1150 and devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu, it remains the largest religious building the world has ever known. Legend has it that it was built not by human hands but by Indra, the Lord of Heaven, who sailed down to earth for the purpose. Actually its creation was ordered by King Suryavarman II, one of a series of Khmer monarchs, culminating in the most powerful of all, Jayavarman VII, whose preoccupation was with building monuments at home and pursuing the conquest of surrounding countries. The magnificent buildings we now see are legacies of the insatiable demands for forced labour and military service that these kings laid upon their people - and which had their twentieth-century echo in the Khmer Rouge.

2 Under French 'protection'
The abandonment of Angkor in 1432 under pressure from the Thais was accompanied by a shift away from dependence on agriculture and towards maritime trade; as such Cambodia competed as an equal with other countries in the region. But by the eighteenth century the country had become a pawn in the games of its two more powerful neighbours: the north was under Thai control and Vietnam had expanded southwards to take possession of the Mekong Delta area around modern Saigon. This period of subjection to the whims of Thailand and Vietnam is essential to understanding the country's recent history. The squabbling was resolved by the intervention of France, which had imperialist ambitions for the whole of Indo-China and offered to protect Cambodian independence. This 'protection' had many similarities with that afforded by Al Capone in 1920s Chicago: it was a licence to extort wealth and guarantee power. Cambodia effectively became one of the five provinces of French Indo-China, providing fuel for France's industrialization and competition with the other `Great Powers`. Khmer resistance to French rule was less trenchant than in Vietnam - the establishment of the Indochina Communist Party by Ho Chi Minh in 1930, for example, produced an immediate response in Vietnam but not in Cambodia.

3 Faith and fire
Early Cambodia was largely Hindu in religion, though this was always mingled with a large measure of animism. There was a Mahayana Buddhist tradition too but when Buddhism eventually became established it was the Theravada strain (imported from Sri Lanka via Burma) which took hold.

The modern Cambodian sense of cultural and ethnic identity largely derives from this Buddhist faith and the sangha - the community of ordained monks - is among the nation's most cherished institutions. But the sangha has still not recovered from its near-total destruction in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, which turned temples into pigpens and forced monks to marry or join the army.

Before 1975 there were 62,000 monks; by 1979 fewer than 2,000 remained, mostly in Thai refugee camps. Khmer Rouge Education Minister YunYat observed in 1978: 'Under the old regime peasants believed in Buddhism, which the ruling class utilized as a propaganda instrument. With the development of revolutionary consciousness,the people stopped believing and the monks left the temples. The problem gradually becomes extinguished. Hence there is no problem.'

4 Descent to war
The French hold on Cambodia was weakened during the Second World War, when Indochina was threatened by Japan's all-conquering armies. With Japan's backing, the Thais seized Cambodia's north-western provinces in 1940, though it took until 1945 for the Japanese finally to take full control of Indo-China. Japanese defeat by the Allies meant that Cambodia briefly gained independence and when the French tried to resume control they had to contend with growing support for Ho Chi Minh's Indochina Communist Party. Traditional suspicion of the Vietnamese was set aside as Cambodian communists and nationalists alike joined theVietnamese in fighting the colonial power. In 1954 France was defeated at Dien Bien Phu and forced to withdraw from the whole of Indochina; Cambodia became independent under the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, who had been crowned in 1941.

5 Enter the US
As the US-Vietnam War escalated Cambodia tried to maintain a careful neutrality. Sihanouk broke off relations with the US, while continuing to crack down on domestic dissent. In 1967 Pol Pot's group of communists launched an insurgency against Sihanouk in the north-west and met with brutal repression. Two years later the US began bombing Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia and a more pliant regime in Phnom Penh became more of a priority for the Americans. A coup set up Lon Nol as President of the pro-US Khmer Republic: Sihanouk went into exile in China and the US-Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia. Lon Nol initially won support but became increasingly dictatorial and corrupt. By 1973 the US B-52 raids had reached their peak: in four years the bombing killed at least 50,000 civilians. Pol Pot's forces used the bombing as recruitment propaganda and an excuse for purging moderate socialists.

photo by CLAUDE SAUVAGEOT 6 The Holocaust
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces defeated Lon Nol's army and took Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. The cities were immediately evacuated and the country was cut off from the outside world. Surrendering officials and soldiers of the Lon Nol regime were murdered. All Cambodians were forced into unpaid agricultural labour. The evacuation to the north-west of hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers brought about mass starvation within a year. In 1977 a second wave of bloody purges convulsed Cambodia, as Pol Pot's group attempted to eliminate moderates and dissidents throughout society. Attacks were also launched across all three of Cambodia's borders, massacring civilians in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Further massive purges in 1978 sparked an uprising in the eastern zone; the rebels, led by Heng Samrin, were pushed over the Vietnamese border, where they called for help from Hanoi.

7 The quest for peace
photo by CLAUDE SAUVAGEOT In 1979 Vietnamese troops invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, installing Heng Samrin as President and Hun Sen as Foreign Minister. Despite the evidence which emerged of the genocide committed by Pol Pot's regime Western nations condemned the invasion and imposed a trade-and-aid embargo on both Vietnam and Cambodia (then called Kampuchea). The Khmer Rouge retained the country's UN seat with the support of China and the West, and the promise of US aid brought Sihanouk and another non-communist rebel, Son Sann, into a coalition-in-exile with the Khmer Rouge. In 1989 Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia and the rebels resumed their military offensive in earnest. The newly proclaimed State of Cambodia government under Hun Sen held them at bay but was forced by the continuing Western embargo and the complete withdrawal of Soviet aid to come to terms with the Khmer Rouge. Under the UN Paris Agreement of 1991 all parties agreed on a ceasefire and disarmament to be followed by free elections. But the Khmer Rouge have refused to disarm and have continued their offensive throughout the pre-election period, utterly disregarding the authority of the UN. Ordinary Cambodians are left, as they have been for two decades, praying for peace.

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