Lesson 1: The Khmer Rouge.
It seems pointless to tell you about Cambodia without first going into the country’s history, particularly in the last forty years or so. Some will chastise me, and will be quick to say that the country is more than the Khmer Rouge, more than this dark history. That’s true: I can’t and won’t dispute that. But this particular backstory is the reason why the country is what it is today. It is virtually impossible to speak of Cambodia and not touch on the issue. My stories won’t make sense.
Nicci and I realized this. That’s why, on our very first morning in Cambodia, we went to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, and later to the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. They was no way around it, and it framed the way we traveled, and how we saw the country, and I think that was the responsible way to go.
It’s so important, I’ve made the “Khmer Rouge” Cambodia Lesson #1.
Note that I’ve added nothing else. Not “The Khmer Rouge was horrible” or “The Khmer Rouge left a legacy of death and terror” or anything to that effect. This is because of Cambodia Lesson 2.
Lesson 2: Don’t pretend for a second that you understand what the fuck happened here.
You don’t. We can’t. Unless you lived through it (and very, very few people did live through it), it’s impossible to understand. This was something that I kept failing to realize, something that I tried to do time and again. A sort of pitiful little refrain of, “But I’m a world traveler. I’m different. I get it,” which is fucking absurd, because I don’t.
It’s not something you can get. You can simply learn the facts and try not to make an ass of yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do.
As with all my posts about history, let me offer a disclaimer: I’m an American. Please keep in mind that everything I write will be written through that lens – I will do my best to be unbiased (but no promises).
Also, I’m not a historical scholar, and I make a lot of mistakes. If you find evidence that refutes something I’ve said, or if I’m flat out wrong about something, I’ll ask that you kindly and respectfully let me know in the comments.
Cool? Okay. Let’s talk about the Khmer Rouge. Or, more specifically, how they came to power in the first place.
We should start with the Cambodian Civil War. (Note: Ideally, I should start with all of the Second Indochina War, but I have decided to wait until I write about Vietnam to tackle that).
Here’s the first thing you need to know: Cambodia was, and is, a Kingdom. It fell under French Colonial Rule for 90 years, from 1863 to 1953. It was also briefly occupied by Japan in World War II. By 1960, though, Cambodia had gained independence. Norodom Sihanouk was the Prince and head of state.
During this time, Vietnam was caught up in war – the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (which was Communist) was in conflict with the Republic of Vietnam, which was in the South. The North was supported by the Communist Bloc (mainly China and Russia) and the South was supported by a handful of countries, most notably the United States.
So – with war ranging just outside his country’s borders, Sihanouk did his best to maintain neutral relations with North Vietnam. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s top military official, Lon Nol, remained on friendly terms with the United States. He wasn’t cool with the Prince’s seemingly amicable relationship with North Vietnam.
In 1970, while Sihanouk was out of the country, a coup was staged, which placed Lon Nol in power. Some reports say that this was not actually Lon’s intent. He had simply wanted to get rid of North Vietnamese troops within Cambodia, and never wanted to oust the prince. But his deputy Prime Minister, a man named Sisowath Sirik Matak (who, in a Shakespearean twist, was also a member of the Cambodian royal family) was determined to depose his cousin, the Prince. One account said that he even held a tearful Lon Nol at gunpoint, and forced him to sign the necessary documents to begin a coup. (Some accounts also claimed that he intended for one of his sons to later take the throne.)
This resulted in the formation of the Khmer Republic, which was anti-Vietnamese and pro-American. Lon Nol would be the country’s first and only president. A few demonstrations took place in support of the King, but the Lon’s troops quickly quashed them; several hundred people were killed as a result.
The Prince was condemned to death in absentia – he was in exile in Beijing during this time, where he formed an exile-government (known as “GRUNK“) with his supporters as well as leaders of the Khmer Rouge – a Communist party.
The U.S. immediately recognized Lon Nol’s new, Anti-Vietnamese government. They rushed to aid the Khmer Republic, while the North Vietnamese Army rushed to aid Communist resistance groups. The Vietnam War was now being waged inside Cambodia’s borders.
U.S. assistance came in the form of financial aid, as well as an aerial bombing attack that was unleashed on Communist forces within the country. From 1969 to 1973, we dropped more than 500k pounds of bombs on Cambodia. It’s estimated that the U.S. is responsible for the death of 750,000 Cambodians during this time.
This leads me to …
Lesson 3: The U.S. did some fucked up shit in this part of the world.
(I don’t mean to disparage any U.S. soldiers who fought in the war. They served and suffered for our government. More than 200,000 died. I will elaborate more on this in my posts about Vietnam (because this post is supposed to be about the KR, after all). But the point is that the war didn’t end at the Vietnamese border. If you visit Cambodia, you will see countless people missing arms, or limbs, or both. You will see people with massive scarring and old injuries. These are a result, both directly and indirectly, of U.S. intervention.)
The Khmer Republic was now in place. But it would soon prove to be disastrous. Lon Nol would suffer a stroke shortly after taking power. He would make strange declarations (like that he wanted to rid the country of democratic ideals). His government was getting money from the U.S., but his troops were poorly trained. Corruption meant that very little of the aid the U.S. sent was getting into the hands of the people. Poverty and unemployment were rampant, and food was scarce. The country and the people had been ravaged by years of bombing.
By 1973, the U.S. and Vietnam had reached a cease-fire, and were no longer actively participating in the conflict in Cambodia. Though this cease-fire did not officially extend into Cambodia (as the country had supposedly never been a part of the war, a ridiculous technicality), Lon Nol and the Khmer Republic briefly abided by it.
The ever-growing Khmer Rouge, however, kept on fighting. They’d steadily grown stronger over the years, and had distanced themselves from the Prince. His supporters had been purged from the party, and there was no longer any trace of the GRUNK government that he had created while in exile.
The Khmer Rouge was now headed by two ruthless leaders: Pol Pot and Son Sen. Stories had already spread about the terror that they had laid across the countryside – dismantling villages, killing dissenters or anyone who questioned them. In this manner, their troops moved steadily towards the capital.
It seemed very likely that they would take over Phnom Penh and oust Lon Nol. In response to this threat, the U.S. launched one last aerial bombing operation that forced the Khmer Rouge troops to retreat. But it was a temporary fix.
By 1975, the Khmer Republic had virtually no leg to stand on. Their troops were overwhelmed and outnumbered. The Khmer Rouge had cut off all supplies to the capitol. In early April of that year, Lon Nol resigned and left the country. A week and a half later, the U.S. embassy was evacuated.
On April 17, 1975, The Khmer Rouge had taken control of the country.
That’s where I’m going to stop for today. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss what happened during the reign of Khmer Rouge, and how one-quarter of the population would be murdered over the four years that they were in power.