Interpretations of what happened in Cambodia during the years 1975-9 vary greatly. The Democratic Kampuchea (DK) or Khmer Rouge regime which took power on April 17, 1975 after,in some place, 25 years of grueling and often violent struggle has been taken by conservatives to embody all of the evils associated with Marxism-Leninism and socialism. DK represented Marxism and socialism in its purest form and in its purest form these doctrines lead to what happened in Cambodia: starvation, tyranny and genocide. DK was a literal example of George Orwell's anti-communist fable "Animal Farm". These commentators e.g Barron and Paul in The Reader's Digest have relied on poor evidence and in many instances resorted to outright falsification to confirm their conclusions.
A Word About Evidence
Studying the 1975-9 period in Cambodian history is difficult because of the lack of evidence. Most of the evidence is limited to oral accounts from refugees and survivors of the regime. The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) or Khmer Rouge prided itself on secrecy. An example is the Lon Nol regime pilot Pech Kim Luong who in 1973 defected and bombed Lon Nol army compounds on his way to refuge in a CPK zone. He later became Pol Pot's personal pilot and ferried him around the country. Luong stated that he heard Saloth Sar's speech at anniversary ceremonies on April 19, 1976, that Saloth Sar was fat and probably the most important man in Cambodia but Pol Pot was not that important. Luong did not know that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot. The CPK held no press conferences, issued no press releases and produced few public documents which in any case are cryptic. The regime kept few and poor statistics and there are few internal planning documents. Photos of top cadre are rare. Perhaps fittingly, the only meticulously kept documents were the over 10,000 confessionals found by the Vietnamese at the notorious Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh. Recently, historians David Chandler and Ben Kiernan have begun the painstaking task of trying to reconstruct Cambodian reality from these documents. Further, the CPK allowed no foreigners to enter and pass through the country without the strictest guidance. This applied to their erstwhile sponsors the People's Republic of China as well.
Language exacerbates the problem since all languages except Khmer were banned by the CPK as artifacts of imperialism. Few scholars are fluent in Khmer and can thus conduct primary research. Not until 1981 were foreign scholars and journalists allowed into Cambodia to conduct research.
The first controversial point is the extent to which the massive carpet bombing of Cambodia by the USA in 1970-3 contributed to the formation, support and eventual brutality of the CPK. Consensus has it that around 500,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Cambodia in 1973. Many peasants resorted to living in holes in the ground only emerging at night to tend to their crops. The peasantry had traditionally associated urban and foreign with theft, exploitation, corruption and condescension. These bombings intensified the hatred the peasantry already had for things foreign and urban.(Vickery p7). The bombing intensified the hard line within the CPK which was influenced by cultural revolution Maoism. The CPK with their ideology exploited the traditional rural-urban divide in Cambodia. The CPK gave the peasants an object with which to focus the anger and frustration the bombings had caused. It would only be natural therefore that when given the opportunity, the peasantry would exact revenge on whom it deemed responsible for its suffering. Given the bombings and the brutal treatment of the Khmer under colonialism, the peasantry had plenty to be angry at.
Beginning in late 1974, when CPK cadre took over former air bases they literally tore the planes apart with their bare hands. The CPK used the traditional Maoist technique of surrounding the city from the country cutting off the supply routes and starving out the main urban areas. The CPK lay siege to Phnom Penh for nearly three years before finally overrunning the city in April 1975. After their victory the CPK administered collective punishment on those it deemed responsible for the destruction of Cambodia. The former bourgeoise, republic soldiers government officials (especially of the Lon Nol regime) and anyone suspected of having ties to foreigners especially Vietnamese and Americans were punished collectively often resulting in death.
The violence and the virulence of the CPK surprised even the most hardened of political analysts. Between 750,000 and 2 million people perished during 1975-9 from either starvation, disease or execution. Brutal violence was not new in Cambodia and this aspect of DK represented a continuity with Cambodia's past. Vickery p 17
"Patterns of extreme violence against people defined as enemies, however arbitrarily, have very long roots in Cambodia. As a scholar specializing in 19th century Cambodia has expressed it "it is difficult to overstress the atmosphere of physical danger and the currents of insecurity and random violence that run through the chronicles and, obviously through so much of Cambodian life in this period. The chronicles are filled with references to public executions, ambushes, torture, village-burnings, and forced emmigrations." Although fighting was localized and forces small, "invaders and defenders destroyed the villages they fought for and the landscapes they moved across.""Prisoners were tortured and killed as a matter of course."
"Sudden arbitrary violence was still part of the experience of many Cambodians in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's. A woman acquaintance told me how her father a Battambang Issarek leader a the of which Bun Chan Mol was writing, used to keep his prisoners locked up beneath the house without food or water and then execute them on his own firing range a few hundred yards beyond the backyard.
"Thus for the rural 80-90 percent of the Cambodian people arbitrary justice, sudden violent death, political oppression, exploitive use of religion and anti-religious reaction, both violent and quiescent, were common facts of life long before the war and revolution of the 1970's. The creations of Pol Pot-ism were all there in embryo." Vickery p 17
There has been much-heated debate on just how many people died of what causes. Ben Kiernan, in his latest detailed and thorough work, estimates that 1,461,000 people perished between 1975 and 1979. It is difficult to tell who died from what since the CPK used mass graves for all deaths. The mass murder program was a form of ethnic cleansing as 100% of Vietnamese, 40% of Laotians, and 20% of the Muslim population were exterminated by the CPK. These people were thought to be traitors to the revolution who would only betray Cambodia to its foreign enemies. There can be no doubt that the DK was on a genocidal trajectory.
The kingdom of Cambodia had traditionally been an agrarian economy where some 90% of the population lived off of subsistence farming, mostly rice; the staple of the Asian diet. Cambodia is the last trace of the once grand Khmer empire which spanned parts of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. The Khmer empire built one of the largest pre-colonial complexes in the world known as Angkor Wat. The Khmer trace the beginnings of their state to the 3rd century A.D. The economy has been called a "hydraulic economy' because of the vast system of canals and irrigation that lead into the Mekong delta. Foreign trade was controlled by ethnic Chinese and cattle trading, weaving and commercial fishing were controlled by Malays. The Khmer were on the verge of extinction by the 15th century as it became the de facto colony of Siam and Vietnam. Colonial Period (1863-1953)
Cambodia as an independent nation was saved by the French as well- defined borders were created and the French ruled over Laos and Vietnam as well calling the grand area "Cochinchina or Indochina." Under colonial administration, the economy began to diversify into tobacco, sugar, cotton, sesame, indigo and marijuana remaining low productivity and geared towards subsistence and the domestic economy. Most of the French economic focus was on S.Vietnam. By 1945, Cambodia had only two high schools, a skeletal road network and no modern industry other than one large rubber plantation.
With French and Belgian capital in the 1930's came rubber tapping and rubber plantations created solely for export. The plantations relied on imported Vietnamese labor because of the low productivity of the Khmer. The plantations quickly came to dominate the economy. Sihanoukism (1953-70)
If ever there was a golden age of modern Cambodia, it was during the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk. The economy remained non-industrial; fishing, agriculture, spices and rubber. Rice and rubber were exported to France and luxuries were imported from same. Cambodia was granted independence at the Geneva conference in 1953, a year before the defeat at Dien Bien Phu would signal the beginning of the end for French colonialism.
Sihanouk placed a heavy emphasis on education, the results of which were ambigious, as we shall see. Infrastructure such as a port at Kampong Som to ease the traffic on Mekong and a tripling of the amount of roads occurred under Sihanouk. The Sihanouk regime was influenced by the "developmentist" rhetoric of the Bandung era of the 50's and 60's. He even joined the Non-aligned nations and maintained a position of neutrality during the U.S. invasion of Vietnam which would later collapse with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.
By 1968, industrialization had made headway under Sihanouk counting for 12% of economic activity in Cambodia with 28 state owned factories, 29 joint ventures and 3,700 small and meduim enterprises. Further, the amount of people living in urban areas accounted for 11% of the population by 1963. Cambodia was self-sufficient in rice production from 1957 until 1966. Cambodia even began exporting rice from Battambang province. The expansion in rice productivity was brought on by the increased acreage under cultivation by small landholders. The amount of cultivated land increased from 2,508 square miles to 6,398 from 1913 to 1965 while rural population density increased by 41% during the same time span.
The trade balance was always negative during the Sihanouk years due to luxury imports. This suggests that the regime should have put high tariffs to curb luxury consumption and give incentives for saving but this the regime did not do.
Part 2: Politics of the Sihanouk Years, Growth of Cambodian Communist Party, the coup, the Lon Nol years, The Khmer Rouge come to power, The Political Economy of Democratic Kampuchea, The Fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Part 3: Politics and History of the People's Republic of Cambodia, post 1989-- towards democracy and capitalism. Bibliography.