The Fall of the Khmer Rouge
|Map of IndoChina|
In 1975 a brutal regime of obsessed fanatics gained power in Cambodia and instituted through a combination of fanaticism and incompetence a reign of terror that killed c. 1.5 million Cambodians.1 In a previous posting I took apart what can only be described as a truly lame defence of the Khmer Rouge that in effect regurgitated much Khmer Rouge propaganda.2 Here I will concentrate on the foreign connection, being that Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge with a military invasion.
The literature about the Khmer Rouge and their rule of Cambodia is fairly extensive and so is study of its Stalinist / Maoist roots. What tends to be neglected is the roots of Khmer Rouge ideology in extreme nationalism and what can only be described as racism. In fact what can be clearly described as the Fascistic aspects of Khmer Rouge ideology and practice are ripe for greater analysis.3 Perhaps at a future date I may touch on those issues but for now I will give an overview of the process by which the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by Vietnam.
The background to the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge with Cambodia being drawn into the Vietnam war and then torn apart by a vicious civil war. Further the effects of the sustained and brutal bombing of the Cambodian countryside by the Americans will not be told here.4 Suffice they rendered Cambodia a basket case by 1975. After which the Khmer Rouge managed to burn the basket.
The attitude of the Khmer Rouge leadership is absolutely crucial for understanding what happened next in terms of its relationships with its neighbours. All of whom the Khmer Rouge leadership alienated to one degree or the other.5
It is important to remember that the Khmer Rouge leadership was afflicted, (definitely the right word!), with what can only be called severe political paranoia.6 One of the aspects of that paranoia was severe paranoia regarding the aims of Vietnam.7
Now fear regarding the aims of Cambodia’s neighbours was not entirely groundless. After all from the period of Angkor to the late 19th century both Thailand and Vietnam had been expanding at the expense of Cambodia taking over important and rich areas. This was done to such an extent that the survival of the country by the mid-19th century was in question.8
Thus the Khmer rouge leadership was not being totally insane when they suspected the motives of the Vietnamese.9 None of this justifies however what happened next.
During the actual war, which spread like wildfire all over Cambodia after Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. For years the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had been using the remote thinly populated border regions as sanctuaries for their war in the south. The Cambodian government of Prince Sihanouk had more or less winked at this, (It really didn’t have much choice.), and tried to keep the presence of troops has limited and far away from populated areas of Cambodia as possible. The Vietnamese and China in return gave very little support to the Khmer Rouge, which was at best a minor nuisance to the government of Prince Sihanouk.10
All that changed in 1970 with the coup overthrowing Sihanouk and the American invasion of Cambodia in an effort to destroy or disrupt the Vietcong and North Vietnamese bases in the border regions of Cambodia. Although for at least a year before Americans had been, bombing (secretly), the areas within Cambodia. This escalation increased violence and disorder massively. The North Vietnamese and China through their support behind the Khmer Rouge and helped to create a so called coalition of forces dedicated to the overthrow of Lon Nol. So did Sihanouk.11
The resulting massive American bombing and the horrors of a particularly violent civil war now ensued.12
During all of this the leadership of the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia increased. They slowly got rid of anyone they deemed of pro-Vietnamese sympathies or royalist sympathies. Their suspicion of the Vietnamese only increased has the war continued. The effects of this grinding brutal war on their psyches was probably considerable.
So when in the spring of 1975 they finally won the civil war. They were very suspicious of the Vietnamese. Relations with Vietnam started to go sour almost at once. Of course the violence and dislocation created by their massive emptying of the cities and their brutal efforts to remodel society didn’t help.13 In fact the disruption their efforts to change their society caused resulted in a paranoid hunt for alleged “subversives”. 14
As I said right from the beginning of the Khmer Rouge their leadership was suspicious of the Vietnamese and after the war was over and the Khmer rouge was victorious, they “encouraged” the Vietnamese to leave by attacking them. The result was that the Vietnamese left a few months earlier than planned.15
Relations continued to be bad. The Khmer Rouge government considered that the borders with its neighbours to be historically unfair to Cambodia and in need of revision. Especially the border with Vietnam. They refused to accept has legitimate the borders created during the colonial times and instead based their claims on the idea that areas that had been occupied by former Cambodian regimes, more especially the empire of Angkor, were legitimately to be claimed by them.16
Thus the Khmer Rouge:
…approached the question as the sole aggrieved party, and expected a certain recompense for their historical losses and their willingness to cease contesting them. They offered not negotiations in a regular sense, but unilateral resolutions of outstanding problems that provided such recompense in a minor way. They demanded that the Vietnamese either accept or reject their proposals and not try to tinker with them.17
Not surprisingly the Vietnamese did not want opened up the whole issue of “historical” claims, which in the context of South East Asia would bring on endless war has each state made its claims based on history in a maximal manner. Instead Vietnam wanted more or less acceptance of the colonial boundaries with local negotiations to settle outstanding local disputes over territory.18
The new Khmer Rouge government soon got into tangles with other governments in the region, such as Laos and Thailand. But it was with Vietnam that the tension remained high.
Basically as the internal situation within Cambodia deteriorated, largely due to the inept and brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge government, the search for scapegoats began. Tensions over policies within the Khmer Rouge government spilled over into violent purges that spread chaos and demoralization.
As the paranoia of the regime increased it indulged in a widespread search for “subversives” within. Thus “traitors” were murdered or starved to death en mass, the excuse being they were “foreign agents”. Thus the Vietnamese minority within Cambodia was genocidally decimated (at least ½ was killed.), along with many others.19 Tens of Thousands of Cambodians fled to Vietnam.
At the same time has the regime spiraled out of control tensions with Vietnam increased as the regime, ever more out of touch with reality, sought to reinforce itself with a successful border war with Vietnam, who it accused of wanting to dominate all of South East Asia.20
Thus as Cambodia approached economic collapse tensions with Vietnam were deliberately escalated by the Cambodians.
In January 1977 The Khmer Rouge attacked Vietnamese settlements near the border. They over the next few months devastated hundreds of Vietnamese villages and destroyed several towns and generated 100s of thousands of refugees within Vietnam. They also carried numerous disgusting atrocities including massacring many thousands of civilians.21
The Khmer Rouge:
…probably saw themselves attempting to break the deadlock by suggesting that they were willing to make it costly…for the Vietnamese to rely upon their superior military strength to maintain the status quo,…[these] Cambodian military initiatives were part of a negotiation strategy. The Cambodians were not making any new territorial claims nor were they trying to permanently occupy any of the targets of their attacks. Rather, they still believed themselves to be responding in kind to what they saw as long standing de facto Vietnamese aggression against Cambodian territory.22
To call the above “logic” anything but both stupid and suicidal is being kind. Under International Law such violent armed incursions justified a violent, armed response.
At first Vietnam did not respond to this provocation, hoping for a peaceful settlement making offers to negotiate. But in September 1977, after a vicious attack left hundreds of civilians dead, the Vietnamese invaded and then having, they thought, made their point withdrew. The Khmer Rouge claimed victory and refused to negotiate when again the Vietnamese offered to talk. The Khmer Rouge in December 1977 broke off diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese.
When in February 1978 The Vietnamese proposed that hostilities cease and each side withdraw all their military forces 5 kilometers from the border. The Khmer Rouge refused to discuss the terms.23
The Cambodians refused to talk unless the Vietnamese agreed to talk about broad revisions of the border and to discuss Cambodia’s “rightful” claims to large slices of territory.24
Faced with Cambodian intransigence the border situation only got worst. With the Vietnamese supporting Cambodian efforts to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. At the same time the leadership of Vietnam decided that they quite definitely could not live with the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia. If necessary they decided to invade.25
As the situation deteriorated both sides looked for diplomatic support and meanwhile the economic situation in Cambodia continued to deteriorate. Finally in December of 1978 the Vietnamese launched a full on invasion that with remarkable, if deceptive ease, overran most of Cambodia. The country’s military being bad shape due to the economic chaos produced by c. 3 and 1/2 years of Khmer Rouge leadership. Later the Khmer Rouge with other allies and support from other states, (China, USA), concerned with Vietnamese expansion would fight a moderately successful guerilla war before finally being tossed on the garbage heap of history along with other nightmares of history.26
It is interesting to record that the Khmer Rouge government was not destroyed because it’s suicidal and brutal internal policies so moved the world that an invasion was mounted to overthrow them but because they foolishly irritated a neighbouring, powerful state with the power and will to use it’s military to get rid of a threat.
So sadly it is likely that the Khmer Rouge would have continued in power for quite some time if not for its stupid foreign policy. Given how loath states are to interfere in the “internal” affairs of other states. By screwing around with Vietnam and constantly exasperating the Vietnamese the Khmer Rouge called down their doom upon themselves.
As the Jim Croce song goes:
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape!
1. See Kiernan, Ben, The Pol Pot Regime, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1996, pp. 456-460, Vickery, Michael, Cambodia: 1975-1982, South End Press, Boston MA, 1984, pp. 184-188, gives a figure of c. 750,000. This figure seems to be far too low. For other materials on Cambodia see Kiernan, Ben & Boua, Chanthou, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942-1981, Zed Press, London, 1982, Jackson, Karl D., Editor, Cambodia 1975 – 1978, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1989.
3. See Chirot, David, Modern Tyrants, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994, pp. 209-230, see also Jackson, Karl D., The ideology of Total Revolution, pp. 37-78, in Jackson.
4. See Shawcross, William, Sideshow, Pocket Books, New york, 1979, pp. 209-219, 264-273, 280-299, Kiernan, Ben, How Pol Pot Came to Power, Verso Books, London, 1985, pp. 349-357, and with Owen Taylor, Bombs Over Cambodia, The Walrus, October 2006 Here.
5. Evans, Grant, and Rowley, Kelvin, Red Brotherhood at War, Verso Books, London, 1984, pp. 81-113, Kiernan, 1996, pp. 357-385.
6. Footnote 3 and Kiernan, pp. 348-356, Evans et al, pp. 92-102.
7. Evans et al, pp. 88-92.
8. Shawcross, pp. 40-42.
9. Leslie Fielding, Before the Killing Fields, I, P. Tauris & Co., New York, 2008, p. 233.
10. Shawcross, pp. 46-62, Ben, 1985, pp. 249-296.
11. Kiernan, 1985, pp. 297-308, Shawcross, pp. 112-149.
12. IBID, Kiernan, pp. 297-393.
13. Kiernan, 1996, pp. 313-356, Evans et al, pp. 81-113, Kiernan, 1982, pp. 318-362.
14. Kiernan, 1996, pp. 102-156, Quinn, Kenneth M., Explaining the Terror, pp. 215-240, and The Pattern and Scope of Violence, pp. 179-208, in Jackson.
15. Evans et al, pp. 81-83.
16, IBID, pp. 83-85,
17. Heder, Stephen R., The Kampuchean-Vietnamese Conflict, in Elliott, David W.P., The Third Indochina Conflict, Boulder, 1981, p. 25, quoted in Evans et al, p. 84.
18. Evans et al, pp. 84-85.
19. Kiernan, 1996, pp. 251-309.
20. Evans et al, pp. 83-84.
21. IBID, pp. 104-105, 107.
22. Heder, p. 32, quoted in Evans et al, p. 105.
23. Evans et al, pp. 106-107, Kiernan, 1996, 357-366.
24. Evans et al, p. 107.
25. IBID, pp. 107-109.
26. IBID, pp. 201-229.