After taking power in Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied every city and town, marching the urban population into the countryside. Nearly everyone in Cambodia was herded into labor camps, where they were compelled to live in primitive conditions and work twelve hours a day at exhausting manual labor. Cambodia’s new rulers regarded city dwellers as ideologically suspect, terming them “new people,” sending many of them to their deaths. Those who showed signs of having had an education were murdered outright. Ethnic minorities such as the Cham and Vietnamese were systematically exterminated or driven away.
Crop yields were poor, and a large percentage of the nation’s rice production was earmarked for the export market. Little food remained for those who worked the land. The daily rice ration was just 250 to 500 grams, a grossly inadequate diet to sustain people working long hours at harsh labor. Vast numbers of people perished from malnutrition and hunger, and anyone who in desperation picked up stray grains of rice from the ground or picked wild berries could count on being executed. Truckloads of people routinely departed the camps, bound for execution sites. In all, there were around 150 execution centers in Cambodia, including the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, in which many thousands of people were tortured and killed.
Out of a total population of just under 8 million, it is estimated that 1.7 million people died under Khmer Rouge rule from execution, hunger and overwork. During its four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge achieved a record of barbarism rarely equaled in history.
Khmer Rouge leaders had a manic hatred for the Vietnamese and expended considerable effort in trying to whip up anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Claiming Southern Vietnam as their territory, the Khmer Rouge launched numerous cross-border raids, burning down villages and massacring their inhabitants. In all, around 30,000 Vietnamese civilians lost their lives in the attacks.
No nation could long countenance the murder of its citizens by marauders from a neighboring nation, nor was it easy to remain blind to the ongoing genocide in Cambodia. On December 25, 1978, following repeated refusals by the Khmer Rouge to negotiate, Vietnamese armed forces in conjunction with Cambodian rebel forces, struck back. Such was the level of hatred the population felt for their rulers that uprisings spread throughout the nation and it took only two weeks to drive the Khmer Rouge from power.
The campaign by Vietnamese armed forces and the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation was one of history’s great liberations. The United States and China did not see it that way, however. Both shared an antipathy for Vietnam’s alliance with the Soviet Union and sought a way to overturn the recent turn of events. U.S. Secretary of State Harold Brown denounced Vietnam for its “minor league hegemonism,” and China sent troops into northern Vietnam to fight a two-week war to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”
According to journalist Elizabeth Becker, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski “himself claims that he concocted the idea of persuading Thailand to cooperate fully with China in its efforts to rebuild the Khmer Rouge.” Brzezinski said, “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help the D.K. [Khmer Rouge government-in-exile of Democratic Kampuchea]. The question was how to help the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.” In fact, U.S. support went well beyond encouraging others to rebuild the Khmer Rouge.
In neighboring Thailand, the Khmer Rouge formed a large guerrilla army, while Cambodian politician Son Sann established an army that would be ultimately named the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF). Prince Norodom Sihanouk launched his private army, the Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste (ANS).
On the political front, in 1979 the United States and China wielded their influence and pushed through a vote in the UN General Assembly in favor of granting Cambodia’s UN seat to the ousted Khmer Rouge regime, and terminated a UN investigation into Khmer Rouge crimes. The following year, the United States again supported the Khmer Rouge in the UN as the “legitimate” representative of the Cambodian people. With U.S. backing, Cambodia would continue to be represented in the United Nations by a Khmer Rouge diplomat until 1993.
The Carter Administration urged international aid organizations to cut off assistance and aid to Vietnam for having swept Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot from power. Nearly all non-socialist nations responded by severing aid to both Vietnam and Cambodia. The United States and its allies held enough votes to ensure that the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank cut off loans to Cambodia and Vietnam. Although the United States would not grant licenses to non-governmental organizations to provide aid to alleviate hunger within Cambodia, Operation USA gave $7 million to Cambodian refugees living in areas under the control of the Khmer Rouge.
The anti-Cambodian policy would persist under the Reagan and Bush Administrations. In 1985, U.S. Secretary of State George Schulz visited Thailand and warned ASEAN diplomats to be careful in drafting peace proposals or the Vietnamese might accept them. Four years later, Bush Administration officials cautioned the Thai government that it would “pay a price” if it abandoned the Cambodian guerrilla movement in order to do business with the Cambodian government. Specifically, the Thai government was threatened with loss of trade privileges under the Generalized Special Preferences.
In 1989, after UNICEF reported that up to twenty percent of Cambodian children were suffering from malnutrition, the United Nations Development Program planned to send an assessment team to Phnom Penh. That endeavor was cancelled due to objections by the United States and Japan.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had an unshakeable fondness for the murderous Khmer Rouge and provided them with $100 million per year. “I do not understand why some people want to remove Pol Pot,” Deng remarked in 1984. “It is true that he made some mistakes in the past but now he is leading the fight against the Vietnamese aggressors.” Some mistakes? Surely, Deng was a master at understatement.
U.S. funding to the KPNLF and ANS armies allied with the Khmer Rouge was handled by a working group composed of representatives from the United States, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. CIA satellite intelligence was provided, as were weapons manufactured in Singapore and Taiwan, which the KPNLF and ANS were free to sell at a profit. Quite often, this meant that the arms found a home in the Khmer Rouge army. The Thai military handled distribution, and corrupt officers sold a portion of supplies to the highest bidder. In practice, this meant the Khmer Rouge, which had ample resources from its gem mining and logging operations, not to mention generous funding from abroad. Similarly, it was estimated that about 80 percent of Red Cross and UN food aid intended for Cambodian refugees was auctioned off.
U.S. military officials in Thailand and Okinawa destroyed documents to cover up the sale of munitions by Green Berets to the Thai military, which sold the arms on the black market. Former Green Beret Bob Finley, who discovered an arms cache of $1million during an audit, believed the arms were “without a doubt” being sold to the Khmer Rouge. Finley revealed that U.S. embassy officials were aware of the sales and where the arms were going, but launched a cover-up rather than attempt to put a stop to the practice. Finley was ordered by a superior officer to destroy the incriminating evidence he uncovered during his audit.
The first international conference to address the conflict in Cambodia took place in 1981. China and the United States pointedly excluded Cambodia from the conference, regarding the Cambodian government as having no right to a say in the future of its people. When ASEAN countries proposed disarming the Khmer Rouge, U.S. representatives pressured them into abandoning their position.
Cambodia and Vietnam continually pleaded for negotiations, only to be snubbed by the Reagan Administration. Vietnam offered to withdraw its forces in exchange for an end to assistance to the Khmer Rouge, while Cambodia suggested it would move its forces away from the Thai border if the Khmer Rouge would do the same. Both offers were nonstarters in the eyes of the Reagan Administration, and the United States backed UN resolutions demanding the unilateral removal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia. With Cambodia still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation wrought by Khmer Rouge rule, the U.S. position was a recipe for the return of Pol Pot to power.
The official U.S position was that its aid was being supplied only to non-Khmer Rouge forces. However, political analyst Michael Haas reports that a diplomatic source revealed to him that American officials pressured Thailand to aid both the Khmer Rouge (KR) forces and the non-KR armies. The reason was not difficult to fathom. The Khmer Rouge fielded by far the largest guerrilla army, numbering at its peak 40,000 soldiers, and it comprised the only effective fighting force opposed to the Cambodian government. The KPNLF and ANS were much smaller and generally ineffectual. Essentially, the only victories they scored were those conducted as joint operations with the Khmer Rouge. If the United States wanted to topple the Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge was the only force capable of doing so.
Open support for the Khmer Rouge gave an unseemly appearance, however. To provide a fig leaf of respectability, the Reagan Administration pressured Son Sann and Sihanouk to join the Khmer Rouge in forming the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Given the relative weakness of the KPNLF and ANS, this new organization was inevitably dominated by the Khmer Rouge. It was the CGDK that the United States would continue to back throughout the 1980’s as the representative of the Cambodian people in the United Nations.
By 1985, annual covert CIA support to Cambodian guerrilla factions had risen to $12 million, and Congress voted to send an additional $5 million per year in overt aid. The following year, the United States Agency for International Development was assigned responsibility for distributing much of the overt aid, and it trained the ANS and KPNLF in such subjects as landmine detection and printing. Under the McCollum Amendment, USAID also began airlifting excess U.S. non-lethal military supplies to Cambodian guerrilla forces in Thailand, reaching a peak of $13 million in 1989. Meanwhile, the British SAS began training Cambodian guerrillas based in Thailand.
Whatever aid did not ultimately end up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge benefited them indirectly. By 1990, the ANS, now renamed the Armée Nationale pour Khmer Independent (ANKI), had essentially become an offshoot of the Khmer Rouge. A CIA officer noted, “Whatever success they had, especially in 1990-91, was due almost entirely to the Khmer Rouge providing the real muscle. ANKI was mostly just window dressing for these operations.”
By 1989, Cambodia had recovered and built up its army to the point where Vietnam announced that it would be withdrawing its troops by September 30. In that context, France agreed to Prince Sihanouk’s proposal to convene a peace conference in Paris.
Prince Sihanouk was a not entirely independent actor. On the first day of the Paris Conference, Sihanouk said, “I am flexible, but the Khmer Rouge want me to be tough. So, I have to be tough.” At the conference, Sihanouk argued in favor of a quadripartite coalition government, in which the guerrilla forces which held very little territory would be granted three fourths of the power, while the Cambodian government would be reduced to a minor role. The Cambodian government’s delegation was taken aback at the hardening of Sihanouk’s position relative to prior talks. Sihanouk claimed that he was outvoted by his coalition partners, and many in his organization supported the Khmer Rouge position. Once, when Sihanouk mistakenly thought his microphone was turned off, he was heard asking Khmer Rouge representative Khieu Samphan for permission to make a statement.
The Cambodian government and Vietnamese delegations placed great importance on a measure ensuring the non-return of genocidal practices, as an essential element for free elections. The Chinese and Cambodian guerrilla army delegations insisted that the record of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power “did not fit the legal definition of genocide.” The United States, Great Britain, France and Japan agreed, and submitted an amendment to delete the reference to genocide from the proposed document.
Given that Prince Sihanouk’s delegation and Son Sann’s delegation adopted the hardline positions of the Khmer Rouge, no discernible progress could be made at the conference. Michael Haas attended the conference under a press pass and noted that the lines between the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk delegations were so blurred that Sihanoukists were answering the phone when he called the Khmer Rouge delegation.
While the Cambodian government and Vietnamese delegations made numerous concessions, Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge remained intransigent. U.S. diplomat David Lambertson talked to Le Mai, Vietnamese ambassador to Thailand, and urged him to pressure Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen into accepting a quadripartite agreement that would bring the Khmer Rouge into the government. Le pointed out that Cambodia was a sovereign country, and it would be up to the Cambodian parties to decide on their future.
Westerners close to the Cambodian government delegation passed a message to an American delegate that if the U.S. would propose to exclude the Khmer Rouge from an interim government, then Sihanouk and his non-KR partners would agree. The proposal had to be seen as coming from a superpower in order to override internal pressures within the resistance. The U.S. ignored the suggestion, and the conference ended with no agreement.
In his interview with one Western ambassador concerning the American role in the conference, Haas reports that the official “described the U.S. performance with a cascade of adjectives, including ‘low,’ ‘mean,’ and ‘nasty,’ over a period of more than a minute.” The American delegation expected all of the concessions to be made by the Cambodian government and Vietnamese, and none by their opponents. The United States had a single goal – to condemn Vietnam. It was the view of many non-Western delegates that the United States deliberately undermined the conference. According to one Western diplomat, the Khmer Rouge “got the U.S. and Western countries to block a Vietnamese attempt to isolate and contain them.”
One year after the collapse of the Paris Peace Conference, Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan traveled to Washington and met U.S. President Bush. There Chatichai urged Bush to apply pressure on China to reduce aid to Pol Pot. Bush refused, and answered that he supported a comprehensive solution that included the Khmer Rouge.
Following the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia, China continued to send arms to the Khmer Rouge and the flow of U.S. supplies to the KPNLF and ANKI continued unabated. Indeed, the level of aid increased. The Khmer Rouge coordinated tactical operations with the KPNLF and ANKI, relying upon CIA satellite photos of Cambodian government positions. It was the view of the United States that with Vietnamese forces out of the way, the government of Cambodia would soon fall. More aid would have to be sent to the guerrillas in order to hasten that result.
Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the United States imposed an economic embargo on Cambodia and prevailed upon Western European nations to cut off trade. In 1989, Eastern European nations that had been long-time trading partners with Cambodia were warned that they would not be permitted to join the IMF and World Bank unless they severed aid to Cambodia.
During the 1980s, United Nations Development Program funds that were earmarked for Cambodia were put on hold. UN aid went instead to Khmer Rouge camps in Thailand. In their study of Cambodian relief aid, Roger Brown and Linda Mason reported, “The U.S. Government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation on the border, insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed. When World Relief started to push its proposal for aid to the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. was supportive, though behind the scenes…the U.S. preferred that the Khmer Rouge operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally-known relief organization.”
In 1991, a second conference in Paris reached an agreement that would bring the non-KR resistance groups onto the Cambodian political scene, but it would take until 1999 to eliminate the Khmer Rouge as a fighting force. In the first national election following the peace agreement, the United States disregarded the provision that all nations would provide “a neutral political environment,” and funded the Khmer Rouge’s former partners to the tune of $5 million.
The Khmer Rouge as an organization is gone now. No longer can it sow death and destruction, nor can it be used any longer by outside powers to further their geopolitical goals. Against fierce opposition, the government of Cambodia managed to get the nation back on its feet. The buildup of the Khmer Rouge is one of the more striking examples of the cynicism of the imperial mindset, in which the lives of others are sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical interests. That philosophy remains very much alive today.
For Further Reading:
Michael Haas: Genocide by Proxy: Cambodian Pawn on a Superpower Chessboard. Praeger, 1991.
Michael Haas: Cambodia, Pol Pot, and the United States: The Faustian Pact. Praeger, 1991.
Michael Haas: Modern Cambodia’s Emergence from the Killing Fields: What Happened in the Critical Years? Publishing for Scholars, 2012.
Ben Kiernan: The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. Yale University Press, 1996.
Ben Kiernan, editor: Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia. Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1993.
E.V. Kobelev, editor: Kampuchea: From Tragedy to Rebirth. Progress Publishers, 1979.