Pnomh Penh

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War Pollution







An ancient Buddhist kingdom with strong Hindu influences dating from before Buddhism arrived. In the 7th century CE the influences came from Hindu Java. From the 9th to 14th centuries the Khmers controlled a large empire, symbolized by the remains still existing in Angkor Wat and other abandoned temples and cities. It stretched from near Bangkok to the borders of Vietnam.

The empire was squeezed from the west by the expanding Thais and from the east by the Vietnamese who finally conquered the country in 1841. There is a Khmer minority in southern Vietnam (Cochin China). Most Khmers regard this as a conquered part of Cambodia.

From 1863 it was a French Protectorate. It was ruled as part of French Indochina, with Vietnam and Laos. It was occupied by the Japanese during the second world war. Independence was briefly declared in 1945 following Japanese defeat but, as in Vietnam, the French returned.

Formal independence came in 1953. The French left Indochina in 1954 as a result of defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia became independent under its king, Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated the throne and became non-royal Head of State (his father, who had been hostile to the French, became ceremonial king).

Cambodia tried to be neutral in the Vietnamese civil war in which the Americans were supporting the South. However, the North Vietnamese used eastern Cambodia as a route to bring weapons and troops into the south. From 1969 until 1973 the Americans secretly bombed eastern Cambodia - the Ho Chi Minh trail - with an intensity never met with before and for a long period. This led to demoralization of the people living there and an epidemic of mental disturbance.

In 1970 the Americans brought about a coup against Sihanouk and installed a government friendly to themselves under General Lon Nol. This government of the Khmer Republic then assisted the Americans in the war in Vietnam. The opposition to the Lon Nol regime was led by Pol Pot who headed a movement known in French as the Khmers Rouges (Red Khmers).

When the Americans left Indochina in 1975 the Khmers Rouges took over Cambodia and renamed it Kampuchea. They were revealed as a new type of political organization. They could not be classified as any previously described variety of Communist. Their policy was to abandon all types of modern technology (except weapons) and reduce Khmer culture to that of peasants working as serfs controlled by what they called Angkar Loeu, the High Organization. People with any level of education (e.g. spectacle wearers) were sought out and killed. On 17 April 1975 the cities were emptied and the people marched into the countryside to grow rice. It is unknown how many millions were killed but later bones were found in mass graves. They had some support from China, presumably as a counterweight to the Soviet Union's influence and domination of Vietnam.

In 1978 the Pol Pot regime began to attack the Vietnamese on the frontier and showed signs of trying to restore the Khmer state to a control over parts of Vietnam. The Vietnamese invaded and in 1979 drove the Pol Pot regime into exile in Thailand. (This was to some extent a proxy war between the Soviet Union and China).

They installed a new government composed of the few educated people remaining alive which gradually revived some of the forms of modern life, but with no help from the outside world (UN etc.) because the United States and other powers continued to recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate government.

In 1989 the Vietnamese were persuaded to withdraw their troops and the Khmers Rouges and other opposition forces began to capture towns and land in the west, from their bases in Thailand. It has been said that they had received training from western governments (perhaps at arms length), including Britain and America. Their main support probably came from China and Thailand.

In 1990 a peace conference agreed to form a government of national unity in which the Pol Pot forces would be represented. It is believed by some commentators that Pol Pot's aims remained the same as when he was in power.

The Pol Pot regime may have been the worst and Cambodia may have suffered the most brutal experience of all the horrors of the 20th century. It seems likely that of all the mass murders, massacres, and genocidal incidents the Pol Pot regime has perpetrated the worst and that the Cambodians have lost the largest proportion of their people and suffered the most complete destructions of culture. If it is true that western governments had been assisting in the return of this regime, for no obvious reason (Cambodia has no oil or other resources desired by the industrial world) other than to oppose the Soviet influence in Vietnam this would seem to be a cynical and criminal act unparalleled in recent times.

Paris Treaty
An agreement was signed in October 1991 intended to bring the civil war to an end. However, it was unclear whether the resulting regime, again headed by Sihanouk, would prevent Pol Pot regaining power.

As the weakened Soviet Union withdrew its support from Vietnam there was perhaps less need for the western powers to support their opponents. Vietnam appears to be so desperate to receive western aid and investment itself that it has no ability to resist this outcome.

The signs were that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge still wanted to rule the whole country. They obstructed the peace process and preparations for elections. They refused to disarm. If they had regained power locals feared they would resume their murderous activities, perhaps with UN legitimacy.

Independence regained
The UN force left in November 1993 after a government had been elected. Even then it was thought that the Khmer Rouge might attempt to regain power. By May 1994 the KR were still fighting the government forces.

In the late 1990s the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered and relative peace ensued - replacing the civil war with ordinary gangsterism.

Pol Pot himself died and some of his associates were put on trial.




Minority langs.







After the Vietnamese left there was a government, formed by a party now known as the People's Revolutionary Party, headed by Hun Sen as Prime Minister. This is the government left behind by the Vietnamese. It was reported to be both dictatorial and corrupt. Many of the members of this government became part of the coalition with the royalists set up after the UN operation.

The UN regime UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia) prepared the ruined country for elections in May 1993, and then withdrew in November 1993.

Some personalities in Cambodian politics are:

The late Norodom Sihanouk, the former ruler (then again the King)

Prince Norodom Ranariddh the co-Prime Minister (royalist)

Hun Sen, a current co-Prime Minister (former Communist)

Heng Samrin the former President

Khieu Samphan President of Pol Pot's regime.

The late Pol Pot, (real name Saloth Sar) the former leader of the Khmer Rouge regime. He is believed to have been descended from a family connected with the former Royal Court: that is, like Lenin, he was a member of the minor aristocracy. He traveled to France where he was a student. Some of his ideas may have been picked up from the milieu of Marxist student politics characteristic of some parts of Paris. (Luckily most such people never get a chance to make others suffer the realization of such ideas).

The Pol Pot regime seems to represent the most brutal political regime experienced so far during the 20th century. Except for Genghis Khan (who was the medieval equivalent of a nuclear war) there seem to be no parallels.

If in the future, Communism, Nazism and Fascism come to be classified as varieties of the same thing, Pol Pot's movement may be seen as the ultimate. Like Nazism it was xenophobic and racist, the hatred being directed at the Vietnamese, as enemies of the Khmer. However, like some anti colonial movements in Africa it was hostile to all forms of modern education. (Like the Simba in Zaire in the late 1960s the Khmers Rouges killed people with spectacles, on the grounds that wearing them was evidence of literacy.)

It had some of the characteristics of a religious cult (such as the People's Church in Jonestown, Guyana where in 1978 a whole commune of Americans committed suicide on the orders of the leader, Jim Jones). The movement had a list of "enemies" who included: the educated; supporters of Vietnam; and supporters of the former regime and culture. The response was always to kill anyone labeled as "enemy".

By comparison the Nazis were only a mild version. In recent years Pol Pot is believed to have stated that only about a million "Patriots" were fit to survive, and it must be presumed that if he had managed to gain power again he would have tried to kill all the others. By "Patriots" he seems to have meant his own fanatical followers. In some ways his ideas were like those of Robespierre and St Just in the French Revolution, which he undoubtedly studied when he was in Paris. His evacuation of the cities sounds as though it was modelled on the treatment of Lyon during the period of the Committee of Public Safety headed by Robespierre. Lyon was punished for being "anti-revolutionary" by being destroyed.

The Khmers Rouges received help from the Chinese government as part of their anti-Vietnamese policy (and perhaps the Chinese don't have any moral scruples either - their own regime kills large numbers of people). They also seem to have received help from the Americans and their allies, again as part of an anti-Vietnamese policy. There are plausible reports that these troops had training from British military aid teams. They also seem to have support from Thailand whose businessmen are making money out of the Khmer forests.

The few observers who went there in the 1990s gained the impression that the post-Vietnamese government, which introduced the market and abandoned communism, was popular (though corrupt) but that ordinary people were terrified that Pol Pot would return. Younger people, who didn't remember the Pol Pot years tended to believe Pol Pot's propaganda, so that there was some support for the Khmer Rouge.

The Paris agreement signed in October 1991 after a UN sponsored conference set up a UN administration, a provisional government and new elections. However, Pol Pot or his close associates were members of the interim administration, presided over by Sihanouk. (They have since withdrawn). Is this any different from Hitler being a member of a German government in 1955? Sihanouk is one of the world's most slippery politicians. Presumably he believed he can control Pol Pot, but Von Papen believed he could control Hitler in 1933.

By August 1992 the signs were that the Khmer Rouge were violating the agreement and were refusing to give up their arms. Incidents of fighting were reported, believed to be attacks by the Khmer Rouge attempting to enlarge the territory they occupy. The Khmers Rouges threaten to resume the civil war, despite the UN military presence. The Khmer Rouge refused to recognize the result.

Cambodia may be a model for future UN administrations for countries with no government, such as Somalia, Angola, Liberia, Bosnia. If so, it is not encouraging. (But the East Timor transition was successful)

The constitutional assembly resulted in the restoration of Norodom Sihanouk as king (though he was believed to be suffering from cancer). The king is supposed to be constitutional and rule with the consent of parliament. Prince Norodom Sihamoni was selected by the Crown Council when Sihanouk abdicated Oct 2004. The government consists of a joint Royalist and former communist administration with two joint prime ministers, one Prince Ranariddh who is likely to be king when Sihanouk dies; the other is Hun Sen who is believed to be the more influential. Is he still a Communist?

The question then was would the Khmer Rouge attempt to take over? They had a large force in the west of the country and effectively occupied territory in which the government's writ did not run. Thus the UN effort may have failed to prevent renewed civil war, currently (Dec 1995) at a low level.

There were then rumors about whether or not Pol Pot was dead and during 1996 that he had died and that the Khmer Rouge were breaking up as a result. By 1997 the Khmer Rouge seemed to have broken into factions. Pol Pot was reported to be on the run. His death was announced and his body put on view in 16 April 1998.

Hun Sen staged a coup against his royalist fellow prime minister in July 1997.

Elections were held and seemed more or less fair though still corrupt and influenced by gangsterism and killing of opposition candidates.

Prince Norodom Sihamoni was selected as king by the Crown Council when Sihanouk abdicated Oct 2004 and died later. Does the king have any power? Probably not.

Interesting reading

Haing S. Ngor - Survival in the Killing Fields

Une odyssée cambodgienne


The Killing Fields [1984]

The Killing Fields - Schreiendes Land (Arthaus Premium Edition - 2 DVDs)

La Déchirure







A country where the economy was completely destroyed. During the Pol Pot period all modern machinery (other than weapons, of course) was abandoned. The only activity was to be the growing of rice with hand tools. Money was abolished and all trading, but as nothing was made other than rice it wasn't needed. People were kept in a state of starvation. The whole country resembled a concentration camp.

Since the Vietnamese invasion some aspects of a modern economy have been reintroduced and trading and some crafts have resumed. However as almost all the skilled workers were killed during the Pol Pot period it has been difficult to restart the machinery. As all official outside aid was forbidden as a result of United States influence on the UN, for several years the only aid came from charities.

The government stated that it had abandoned communism and wished to promote a market economy. Paradoxically it was in the Khmer Rouge controlled area that Thai interests were clearcutting the forests and building roads. Thus the most xenophobic group sold the resources to foreign interests.

What has replaced communism is very corrupt capitalism, in which land is confiscated not by the state but by big businessmen.







Considerable destruction during the American bombardment, the Khmer Rouge rule and the present civil war.

Thai business interests are clearcutting the forests in Pol Pot's area of the country.

Mines and bomblets released, mostly by the US and Pol Pot, during the Vietnam war are still found in large numbers, preventing farming and causing injuries.






Human Rights

The worst abuse of human rights is genocide, which is what Pol Pot's activities amounted to.

Still not good.

Climate effects

Cambodia is likely to become wetter from an intensification of monsoon rainfall. This may make rice farming more difficult.

Cambodia Comment

Last revised 12/07/09

South East Asia


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