Cambodia’s Path to Genocide

In the six decades since Independence, Cambodians have suffered under three governments – the dictatorial rule of Sihanouk, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the twenty five year rule of current Prime Minister Hun Sen.  During this time, Cambodians have suffered unimaginable horrors because of the absence of true democracy and the lack of protection against the rule of dangerous elites.   

Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of between one and a half and three million people. No other country in history has lost such a large proportion of its population at the hands of its own leaders. A sizeable minority – perhaps 500,000 people – were deliberately murdered; the rest died of illness, starvation or overwork. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was reduced to a slave state, its entire population stripped of their individuality and humanity and forced to serve the messianic vision of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership.

The Cambodia genocide need not have happened. The rise to power of the Khmer Rouge was not inspired by the Cambodian people, but resulted instead from decades of political oppression, war and the intervention of foreign states. Three critical factors in particular paved the road to genocide.

Sihanouk Refuses to Share Power

At the heart of Phnom Penh lies the Royal Palace – the centre-point of Cambodia’s recent history. Following the end of World War 2, as the era of European colonization came to an end, Cambodia’s young King Sihanouk managed to successfully negotiate independence from the former colonial power, France. On November 9, 1953, Sihanouk took the salute at the march past of French and Khmer troops, bringing almost a quarter century of French rule to a close. Rather than working to establish a modern democratic state, however, Sihanouk took extreme measures to stay in power. He abdicated his throne, established a new political party, and initiated a campaign of violence and intimidation against political opponents. As a result of Sihanouk’s actions, Cambodia effectively became a single party state under his ruthless autocratic control. It has effectively remained so until this very day.

Sihanouk joins Coalition with Khmer Rouge

A second factor that contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge was the Vietnam War. In 1965, the US government began B-52 bombing raids along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. As the war in neighboring Vietnam escalated, the number of Vietnamese communist soldiers seeking sanctuary within Cambodia multiplied, from 6,000 in 1968 to around 30,000 in 1969. The U.S. bombings and the presence of such huge numbers of Vietnamese forces had a profoundly destabilising effect, including protests around the country demanding an end to the Vietnamese presence. The ultimate effect was a coup in 1970 which overthrew Sihanouk.

The coup changed everything. The new government of Lon Nol was openly anti-Vietnamese and pro-U.S.. The response from China and Vietnam was immediate. China brokered an alliance between Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, and the Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge. In 1970, the Khmer Rouge were a paltry force of around 3,000 members, and were outnumbered by twenty to one by the Vietnamese communists on Cambodian soil. Sihanouk’s decision to comply with China’s plan to forge an alliance with the Khmer Rouge acted as an enormous recruitment drive for Pol Pot’s fledgling organization. Years later, many Khmer Rouge soldiers would remember joining the organization to fight not for communism, but for their king. Backed by the military and financial might of China and Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge rose within five years from insignificance to take over the entire country.

The U.S. Bombing of Cambodia

Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 led to Cambodia being dragged into Great Power conflict, with China and Vietnam backing the opposition forces of the Khmer Rouge, and the U.S. backing Lon Nol’s anti-Vietnamese government. That year, Vietnamese communist forces came within fifteen miles of Phnom Penh, before being driven back. In response, President Nixon authorised U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to enter Cambodia. In the months that followed, 70,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops swept through southern and eastern Cambodia. Once these incursions had ended, the U.S. resumed the B-52 bombing campaign of Cambodian territory.

The consequences of the U.S. actions were catastrophic. The Vietnamese communists had now been driven throughout Cambodia, as far as the northern and western borders with Vietnam. Communist victory within Cambodia was assured. The violence also forced hundreds of thousands of villagers fleeing to the cities for refuge. The population of Phnom Penh grew from only 650,000 in 1970 to around two and a half million in 1975.

In total, the U.S. dropped three times more bombs on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan in World War Two, including the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost half of this reign of death was dropped in a six month period in 1973, as Nixon and Kissinger flexed their military muscle on last time before the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. U.S. bombs left half a million Cambodian people dead.

When Lon Nol’s government finally fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, the path to genocide was complete.

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