Until fairly recently, Cambodia has been synonymous with invasion, civil war, Cold War manipulation, and the terrible Khmer Rouge experience. It was the latter that has had the most profound impact on the country’s current geopolitical arc. From April 1975 until the regime’s undoing by a Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, one in four Cambodians, or some two million people, were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the most radical social experiment ever perpetrated on a civilian population.
Today, the Khmer Rouge has officially vanished, its last remnants being absorbed and amnestied by the Cambodian authorities in 1998 around the same time that its leader, Pol Pot, died of heart failure. Yet his legacy continues to affect Cambodia. Pol Pot’s regime spent more time thinking about how to seize power and coerce the population than about how to run a functioning country. He left the nation in shambles.
Cambodia’s rocky path has culminated today in a corrupt government co-operating a war crimes tribunal along with the United Nations, but which has opted to exempt some of its own former Khmer Rouge office-holders. Taking place against a backdrop of ongoing poverty, injustices, and strong-armed political players who are neglecting the needs of a vulnerable majority, the trials have a dubious record when compared to the successes of other war crimes tribunals that have taken place around the world.
The Khmer Rouge era crippled the country, and the atrocities that were committed are only now facing a semblance of justice.
The Massacre of Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge (meaning “Red Cambodians”) originated in the tumult of the post-independence period, at a time when the United States was fearful of the so-called communist “domino effect” in Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge was an outlawed communist militia during Norodom Sihanouk’s royalist government of the 50s and 60s. It was then that it came under the leadership of Pol Pot (the nom de guerre of Saloth Sar), a former schoolteacher and would-be radio electronics specialist. With Pol Pot in command, the Khmer Rouge bided their time with the support of their Vietnamese patrons.
In 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown by his army chief, Marshal Lon Nol, with tacit agreement from the United States. Washington masterminded an elaborate and covert bombing campaign to drive out the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong presence in Cambodia from 1969 until a Congressional ban in 1973. Authorized by U.S. President Richard Nixon, the B-52 bombings often went beyond targeting identified border sanctuaries. It destabilized the country’s delicate economy and social structure. Some members of the highly corrupt Lon Nol military government defected to the Khmer Rouge, and their ranks swelled with civilians demoralized by the bombing campaign.
U.S. bombing in Cambodia totaled 2,756,941 tons—far more than the estimated two million tons used by Allied forces during all of the Second World War (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The American journalist Sydney Schanberg witnessed these events first-hand:
“This was probably the moment that marked Cambodia’s transformation into a pawn of the Cold War, with the Chinese backing the Khmer Rouge, the Soviets backing Hanoi, and the Americans backing the Lon Nol regime—all of them turning the entire country into a surrogate Cold War battlefield.”
Little was known at this time about Pol Pot’s organization, operating in the jungles of Cambodia, but telling signs of their methods and brutality trickled out from refugee accounts. In a July 1974 dispatch, journalist Donald Kirk described the eyewitness statements of several refugees, including …
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