Cambodia Since April 1975

I. Introduction

In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge came to power, establishing a radical Maoist regime, Democratic Kampuchea, whose political and social policies devastated Cambodia. In the twenty-three years that have lapsed since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia has endured foreign invasion, civil war, and isolation from the rest of the world. The country has never rebuilt her infrastructure, provided security to her population, or escaped repeated cycles of violence. With the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, it seemed that relief might be in sight, but the period until the 1998 elections was marred by political infighting, distrust, and continued instability. Since 1998, with the death of Pol Pot and the apparent destruction of the movement he led, there is renewed hope that this disastrous era may finally have ended. This essay covers the period from 1975 through the end of 2001, and concludes with some speculation about the chances for future stability.

Prior to 1970, the Cambodian underground communist movement led by Pol Pot was weak and did not pose any threat to Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government. Sihanouk had dominated Cambodian politics since he was crowned King by the French in 1941, maneuvered for independence from France, and abdicated the crown to become chief of state in 1955 (see Osborne 1994). Sihanouk’s good relations with North Vietnam compounded by his suppression of internal political dissent held the Cambodian communist forces in check. Moreover, the communist movement could not win over the support of the masses because of the prince’s popularity. However, by the late 1960s the country faced serious economic difficulties brought on by a combination of factors, including Sihanouk’s rejection of American aid, corruption, and the fact that by 1966 more than a quarter of Cambodia’s rice crop was being sold across the border into war-torn Vietnam. This cut deeply into government revenues that were dependent on export taxes on rice (Chandler 1991:122). The national education program that Sihanouk established after independence in 1954 meant that there was a growing educated populace with unrealistic expectations of social mobility. Antagonism towards the Sihanouk regime increased in the 1960s among the urban elite, students and intellectuals, and the prince was overthrown in 1970 by his own Prime-Minister and senior military officials in a coup d’etat. While the United States denies orchestrating the coup, General Lon Nol was immediately awash in US funding. The knowledge that US support would be forthcoming was undoubtedly an important motivating factor for the men who directed the coup.

In 1970, the US and South Vietnamese armed forces launched heavy military air and ground campaigns against North Vietnamese soldiers inside Cambodia. Their goal was to capture the headquarters of the Vietnamese communist movement, which was based inside Cambodian territory, but which was never found by the invading forces. The military offensive pushed the North Vietnamese soldiers deeper into Cambodian territory. By the end of 1973, the total bombs dropped on Cambodia reached 539,129 tons, three times more explosives than were dropped on Japan during World War II (Ablin and Hood 1988:xxvii). While in exile, with the encouragement and support of China and North Vietnam, Sihanouk formed a united front with the Cambodian communists to fight against the United States-backed government in Phnom Penh. These developments created great opportunities for the Khmer Rouge. With support from North Vietnam and China, coupled with anger over US bombardment, and appeals from Sihanouk to join their cause, the Khmer Rouge were able to build their armed forces from around 800 soldiers in 1970 to a well-organized and well-disciplined force of 40,000 soldiers in 1973 (Ablin and Hood 1988:xxvi). By this time the Khmer Rouge controlled most of Cambodian countryside; over the next two years they advanced and finally took control of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

Read a background essay on Cambodian society

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