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Democratic Kampuchea (in Khmer, កម្ពុជា ប្រជាផិបតេយ្យ ) was the official name of Cambodia under the government of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party from 1975 until 1979. The period saw the deaths of over a million Cambodians as a combined result of political executions, starvation, and overwork.
The Khmer Rouge, a militant political faction, rode a tide of opposition to US bombings around the Ho Chi Minh trail. Presenting themselves as a peace-oriented party that could stand up to western imperialists, they took the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975. They initially claimed loyalty to King Norodom Sihanouk, who had supported them against General Lon Nol.
One of the Khmer Rouge's first acts was to move most of the urban population into the countryside. They told the residents that they would move only about "two or three kilometers" outside the city and would return in "two or three days." Other witnesses report being told that the evacuation was because of the threat of an American bombing and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. The roads out of the city were clogged with evacuees. Phnom Penh—the population of which, numbering 2.5 million people, included as many as 1.5 million wartime refugees living with relatives or in shantytowns around the urban center—was soon nearly empty. Similar evacuations occurred at Battambang, Kampong Cham, Siemreap, Kampong Thom, and throughout the country's other towns and cities.
Even Phnom Penh's hospitals were emptied of their patients. The Khmer Rouge provided transportation for some of the aged and the disabled, and they set up stockpiles of food outside the city for the refugees; however, the supplies were inadequate to sustain the hundreds of thousands of people on the road. Even seriously injured hospital patients, many without any means of conveyance, were summarily forced to leave regardless of their condition. According to Khieu Samphan, the removal of Phnom Penh's population resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. The foreign community, about 800 persons, was quarantined in the French embassy compound, and by the end of the month the foreigners were taken by truck to the Thai border. Khmer women who were married to foreigners were allowed to accompany their husbands, but Khmer men were not permitted to leave with their foreign wives.
Aside from the alleged threat of United States air strikes, the Khmer Rouge justified the evacuations in terms of the impossibility of transporting sufficient food to feed an urban population of between 2 and 3 million people. Lack of adequate transportation meant that, instead of bringing food to the people (tons of it lay in storehouses in the port city of Kampong Saom, according to Father Ponchaud), the people had to be brought to (and had to grow) the food. Western historians claim that the motives were political, based on deep-rooted resentment of the cities. The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and parasitism of city life would be completely uprooted. In addition, Pol Pot wanted to break up the "enemy spy organizations" that allegedly were based in the urban areas. Finally, it seems that Pol Pot and his hard-line associates on the KCP Political Bureau used the forced evacuations to gain control of the city's population and to weaken the position of their factional rivals within the communist party.
The regime seized and executed as many Khmer Republic civil servants, police, and military officers as it could find. Evacuees who had been associated with the Lon Nol government had to feign peasant or working-class backgrounds to avoid execution. One refugee wrote that she and her family, who came from the middle or upper middle class, dyed their city clothes black (like those of peasants) to help them escape detection. In one incident, soon after the fall of Phnom Penh, more than 300 former military officers were told to put on their dress uniforms in order to "meet Sihanouk." Instead, they were taken to a jungle clearing in Battambang Province and were machine-gunned or clubbed to death. The wives and the children of people with government backgrounds were also killed, apparently to eliminate people who might harbor feelings of revenge toward the regime.
According to refugee accounts, the rate of killing had decreased by the summer of 1975. Some civil servants and educated people were sent to "re-education centers" and, if they showed "genuine" contrition, were put in forced labor battalions. There were new killings, however, in late 1975 and in early 1976. Many of the victims were educated people, such as schoolteachers. The peasants overseeing the evacuees in the countryside ("new people" (in Khmer, ន឵ក់) also employed harsh measures. In order to save ammunition, they used simple weapons like pickaxes and ax handles to carry out sentences. People were executed for not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food for their own use, wearing jewelry, having sexual relations, grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or expressing religious sentiments. Sick people were often eliminated. The killings often occurred without any kind of trial, and they continued, uninterrupted, until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. People who displeased the Angkar Loeu (higher committee), or its local representatives, customarily received a kosang (formal warning) to mend their ways. More than two warnings resulted in being given an "invitation," which meant certain death. In 1977 and 1978 the violence reached a climax as the revolutionaries turned against each other in bloody purges.
Estimates of the number of people who perished under the Khmer Rouge vary tremendously, even within the present Cambodian government. A figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million; the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project (http://www.yale.edu/cgp/) estimated 1.7 million; Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million ; and the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively. In 1962 the year of the last census taken before Cambodia was engulfed by war, the population of the country was cited at 5.7 million. Ten years later, in 1972, the population was estimated to have reached 7.1 million. Using Pol Pot's rather modest figure of 800,000 deaths, about 11 percent of the population would have died from unnatural causes between 1975 and 1978. By contrast, Amnesty International's figure would yield a death rate of almost 20 percent of the population; Father Ponchaud's, of approximately 32 percent. The revolution was easily, in proportion to the size of the country's population, the bloodiest in modern Asian history.
As is evident from the accounts of refugees, the greatest causes of death were hunger, disease, and exposure. Many city people could not survive the rigors of life in the countryside, the forced marches, and the hard physical labor. Many fell victim to malaria. Others died in the fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1978 and in 1979. Nonetheless, executions accounted for hundreds of thousands of victims and perhaps for as many as 1 million. Western journalists have been shown "killing fields" containing as many as 16,000 bodies.
Society under the Angkar
The social transformation wrought by the Khmer Rouge, first, in the areas that they occupied during the war with Lon Nol and, then, in varying degrees, throughout the country, was far more radical than anything attempted by the Russian, Chinese, or Vietnamese revolutions. According to Pol Pot, five classes existed in pre-revolutionary Cambodia: peasants, workers, bourgeoisie, capitalists, and feudalists. Post-revolutionary society, as defined by the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea, consisted of workers, peasants, and "all other Kampuchean working people." No allowance was made for a transitional stage such as China's "New Democracy" in which "patriotic" landlord or bourgeois elements were permitted to play a role in socialist construction. Sihanouk writes that in 1975 he, Khieu Samphan, and Khieu Thirith went to visit Zhou Enlai, who was gravely ill. Zhou warned them not to attempt to achieve communism in a single step, as China had attempted in the late 1950s with the Great Leap Forward. Khieu Samphan and Khieu Thirith "just smiled an incredulous and superior smile." Khieu Samphan and Son Sen later boasted to Sihanouk that "we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps."
Although conditions varied from region to region, a situation that was, in part, a reflection of factional divisions that still existed within the KCP during the 1970s, the testimony of refugees reveals that the most salient social division was between the politically suspect "new people," those driven out of the towns after the communist victory, and the more reliable "old people", the poor and lower middle-class peasants who had remained in the countryside. Despite the ideological commitment to radical equality, KCP members and the armed forces constituted a clearly recognizable elite. The working class was a negligible factor because of the evacuation of the urban areas and the idling of most of the country's few factories. The one important working class group in pre-revolutionary Cambodia—laborers on large rubber plantations—traditionally had consisted mostly of Vietnamese emigrants and thus was politically suspect.
The number of people, including refugees, living in the urban areas, on the eve of the communist victory probably was somewhat more than 3 million, in a wartime population that has been estimated between 5.7 and 7.3 million. As mentioned, despite their rural origins, the refugees were considered "new people"-- that is, people unsympathetic to Democratic Kampuchea. Some doubtless passed as "old people" after returning to their native villages, but the Khmer Rouge seem to have been extremely vigilant in recording and keeping track of the movements of families and of individuals. The lowest unit of social control, the krom (group), consisted of ten to fifteen nuclear families whose activities were closely supervised by a three-person committee. The committee chairman was selected by the KCP. This grass roots leadership was required to note the social origin of each family under its jurisdiction and to report it to persons higher up in the Angkar hierarchy. The number of "new people" may initially have been as high as 2.5 million.
The "new people" were treated as slave laborers. They were constantly moved, were forced to do the hardest physical labor, and worked in the most inhospitable, fever-ridden parts of the country, such as forests, upland areas, and swamps. "New people" were segregated from "old people," enjoyed little or no privacy, and received the smallest rice rations. When the country experienced food shortages in 1977, the "new people" suffered the most. The medical care available to them was primitive or nonexistent. Families often were separated because people were divided into work brigades according to age and sex and sent to different parts of the country. "New people" were subjected to unending political indoctrination and could be executed without trial.
The situation of the "old people" under Khmer Rouge rule was more ambiguous. Refugee interviews reveal cases in which villagers were treated as harshly as the "new people," enduring forced labor, indoctrination, the separation of children from parents, and executions; however, they were generally allowed to remain in their native villages. Because of their age-old resentment of the urban and rural elites, many of the poorest peasants probably were sympathetic to Khmer Rouge goals. In the early 1980s, visiting Western journalists found that the issue of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge was an extremely sensitive subject that officials of the People's Republic of Kampuchea had little inclination to discuss.
On the basis of interviews with refugees from different parts of the country as well as other sources, Michael Vickery, author of Cambodia 1975-1982, has argued that there was a wide regional variation in the severity of policies adopted by local Khmer Rouge authorities. Ideology had something to do with the differences, but the availability of food, the level of local development, and the personal qualities of cadres also were important factors. The greatest number of deaths occurred in undeveloped districts, where "new people" were sent to clear land. While conditions were hellish in some localities, they apparently were tolerable in others. Vickery describes the Eastern Zone, which was dominated by pro-Vietnamese cadres, as one in which the extreme policies of the Pol Pot leadership were not adopted (at least until 1978, when the Eastern leadership was liquidated in a bloody purge). Executions were few, "old people" and "new people" were treated largely the same, and food was made available to the entire population. Although the Southwestern Zone was one original center of power of the Khmer Rouge, and cadres administered it with strict discipline, random executions were relatively rare, and "new people" were not persecuted if they had a cooperative attitude. In the Western Zone and in the Northwestern Zone, conditions were harsh. Starvation was widespread in the latter zone because cadres sent rice to Phnom Penh rather than distributed it to the local population. In the Northern Zone and in the Central Zone, there seem to have been more executions than there were victims of starvation. Little reliable information emerged on conditions in the Northeastern Zone, one of the most isolated parts of Cambodia.
On the surface, society in Democratic Kampuchea was strictly egalitarian. The Khmer language, like many in Southeast Asia, has a complex system of usages to define speakers' rank and social status. These usages were abandoned. People were encouraged to call each other "friend, or "comrade" (in Khmer, មិត្ដ mitt), and to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation. Language was transformed in other ways. The Khmer Rouge invented new terms. People were told they must "forge" (lot dam) a new revolutionary character, that they were the "instruments" (opokar) of the Angkar, and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times (cchoeu sttak aram, or "memory sickness") could result in their receiving Angkar's "invitation."
As in other revolutionary states, however, some people were "more equal" than others. Members and candidate members of the KCP, local-level leaders of poor peasant background who collaborated with the Angkar, and members of the armed forces had a higher standard of living than the rest of the population. Refugees agree that, even during times of severe food shortage, members of the grass-roots elite had adequate, if not luxurious, supplies of food. One refugee wrote that "pretty new bamboo houses" were built for Khmer Rouge cadres along the river in Phnom Penh. According to Craig Etcheson, an authority on Democratic Kampuchea, members of the revolutionary army lived in self-contained colonies, and they had a "distinctive warrior-caste ethos." Armed forces units personally loyal to Pol Pot, known as the "Unconditional Divisions," were a privileged group within the military.
Given the severity of their revolutionary ideology, it is surprising that the highest ranks of the Khmer Rouge leadership exhibited a talent for cronyism that matched that of the Sihanouk-era elite. Pol Pot's wife, Khieu Ponnary, was head of the Association of Democratic Khmer Women and her younger sister, Khieu Thirith, served as minister of social action. These two women are considered among the half-dozen most powerful personalities in Democratic Kampuchea. Son Sen's wife, Yun Yat, served as minister for culture, education and learning. Several of Pol Pot's nephews and nieces were given jobs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of Ieng Sary's daughters was appointed head of the Calmette Hospital although she had not graduated from secondary school. A niece of Ieng Sary was given a job as English translator for Radio Phnom Penh although her fluency in the language was extremely limited. Family ties were important, both because of the culture and because of the leadership's intense secretiveness and distrust of outsiders, especially of pro-Vietnamese communists. Greed was also a motive. Different ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Industry, were controlled and exploited by powerful Khmer Rouge families. Administering the diplomatic corps was regarded as an especially profitable fiefdom.
Religious and Minority Communities
Article 20 of the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea guaranteed religious freedom, but it also declared that "all reactionary religions that are detrimental to Democratic Kampuchea and the Kampuchean People are strictly forbidden." About 85 percent of the population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. Before 1975 the Khmer Rouge tolerated the activities of the community of Buddhist monks, or sangha, in the liberated areas in order to win popular support. This changed abruptly after the fall of Phnom Penh. The country's 40,000 to 60,000 Buddhist monks, regarded by the regime as social parasites, were defrocked and forced into labor brigades. Many monks were executed; temples and pagodas were destroyed or turned into storehouses or jails. Images of the Buddha were defaced and dumped into rivers and lakes. People who were discovered praying or expressing religious sentiments in other ways were often killed. The Christian and Muslim communities also were persecuted. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was completely razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as an abomination. Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim leaders were executed.
The Khmer Rouge's treatment of minorities seems to have varied from group to group. The Vietnamese endured the greatest suffering. Tens of thousands were murdered in regime-organized massacres. Most of the survivors fled to Vietnam. The Cham, a Muslim minority who are the descendants of migrants from the old state of Champa, were forced to adopt the Khmer language and customs. Their communities, which traditionally had existed apart from Khmer villages, were broken up. Forty thousand Cham were killed in two districts of Kampong Cham Province alone. Thai minorities living near the Thai border also were persecuted.
Despite the fact that Chinese and Sino-Khmers had dominated the Cambodian economy for centuries and could be considered exploiters of the peasantry, the Khmer Rouge apparently did not single them out for harsh treatment. The war drove most rural Chinese into the cities, and after the forced evacuations they and their urban compatriots were regarded as "new people." They shared the same hardships as Khmers, however. Phnom Penh's close relationship with China was probably a factor in the regime's reluctance to persecute them openly.
In the late 1980s, little was known of Khmer Rouge policies toward the tribal peoples of the northeast, the Khmer Loeu. Pol Pot established an insurgent base in the tribal areas of Rotanokiri Province in the early 1960s, and he may have had a substantial Khmer Loeu following. Predominately animist peoples with few ties to the Buddhist culture of the lowland Khmers, the Khmer Loeu had resented Sihanouk's attempts to "civilize" them. Cambodia expert Serge Thion notes that marriage to a tribal person was considered "final proof of unconditional loyalty to the party." Khieu Samphan may have been married to a tribal woman.
Education and Health
Like the radical exponents of the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge regarded traditional education with unalloyed hostility. After the fall of Phnom Penh, they executed thousands of teachers. Those who had been educators prior to 1975 survived by hiding their identities. Aside from teaching basic mathematical skills and literacy, the major goal of the new educational system was to instill revolutionary values in the young. For a regime at war with most of Cambodia's traditional values, this meant that it was necessary to create a gap between the values of the young and the values of the nonrevolutionary old.
In a manner reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, the regime recruited children to spy on adults. The pliancy of the younger generation made them, in the Angkar's words, the "dictatorial instrument of the party." In 1962 the communists had created a special secret organization, the Alliance of Democratic Khmer Youth, that, in the early 1970s, changed its name to the Alliance of Communist Youth of Kampuchea. Pol Pot considered Alliance alumni as his most loyal and reliable supporters, and used them to gain control of the central and of the regional KCP apparatus. The powerful Khieu Thirith, minister of social action, was responsible for directing the youth movement.
Hardened young cadres, many little more than twelve years of age, were enthusiastic accomplices in some of the regime's worst atrocities. Sihanouk, who was kept under virtual house arrest in Phnom Penh between 1976 and 1978, wrote in War and Hope that his youthful guards, having been separated from their families and given a thorough indoctrination, were encouraged to play cruel games involving the torture of animals. Having lost parents, siblings, and friends in the war and lacking the Buddhist values of their elders, the Khmer Rouge youth also lacked the inhibitions that would have dampened their zeal for revolutionary terror.
Health facilities in the years 1975 to 1978 were abysmally poor. Many physicians either were executed or were prohibited from practicing. It appears that the party and the armed forces elite had access to Western medicine and to a system of hospitals that offered reasonable treatment but ordinary people, especially "new people," were expected to use traditional plant and herbal remedies that usually were ineffective. Some bartered their rice rations and personal possessions to obtain aspirin and other simple drugs.
In its general contours, Democratic Kampuchea's economic policy was similar to, and possibly inspired by, China's radical Great Leap Forward that carried out immediate collectivization of the Chinese countryside in 1958. During the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge established "mutual assistance groups" in the areas they occupied. After 1973 these were organized into "low-level cooperatives" in which land and agricultural implements were lent by peasants to the community but remained their private property. "High-level cooperatives," in which private property was abolished and the harvest became the collective property of the peasants, appeared in 1974. "Communities," introduced in early 1976, were a more advanced form of high-level cooperative in which communal dining was instituted. State-owned farms also were established.
Far more than had the Chinese communists, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly pursued the ideal of economic self-sufficiency, in their case the version that Khieu Samphan had outlined in his 1959 doctoral dissertation. Extreme measures were taken. Currency was abolished, and domestic trade or commerce could be conducted only through barter. Rice, measured in tins, became the most important medium of exchange, although people also bartered gold, jewelry, and other personal possessions. Foreign trade was almost completely halted, though there was a limited revival in late 1976 and early 1977. Mainland China was the most important trading partner, but commerce amounting to a few million dollars was also conducted with France, with Britain, and with the United States through a Hong Kong intermediary.
From the Khmer Rouge perspective, the country was free of foreign economic domination for the first time in its 2,000-year history. By mobilizing the people into work brigades organized in a military fashion, the Khmer Rouge hoped to unleash the masses' productive forces. There was an "Angkorian" component to economic policy. That ancient kingdom had grown rich and powerful because it controlled extensive irrigation systems that produced surpluses of rice. Agriculture in modern Cambodia depended, for the most part, on seasonal rains. By building a nationwide system of irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs, the leadership believed it would be possible to produce rice on a year-round basis. It was the "new people" who suffered and sacrificed the most to complete these ambitious projects.
Although the Khmer Rouge implemented an "agriculture first" policy in order to achieve self-sufficiency, they were not, as some observers have argued, "back-to-nature" primitivists. Although the 1970-75 war and the evacuation of the cities had destroyed or idled most industry, small contingents of workers were allowed to return to the urban areas to reopen some plants. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Cambodian communists had great faith in the inventive power and the technical aptitude of the masses, and they constantly published reports of peasants' adapting old mechanical parts to new uses. Much as the Chinese had attempted unsuccessfully to build a new steel industry based on backyard furnaces during the Great Leap Forward, the Khmer Rouge sought to move industry to the countryside. Significantly, the seal of Democratic Kampuchea displayed not only sheaves of rice and irrigation sluices, but also a factory with smokestacks.
Politics under the Khmer Rouge
By the April 1975 communist victory, Pol Pot and his close associates occupied the most important positions in the KCP and in the state hierarchies. He had been KCP general secretary since February 1963. His associates functioned as the party's Political Bureau, and they controlled a majority of the seats on the Central Committee. Khieu Thirith's management of youth groups meant that Pol Pot had ample reserves of zealous young cadres, "the nucleus and wick of the struggle," committed to imposing the party center's will throughout the country. But his domination of the revolutionary movement was not complete. In different areas of the country, especially in the Eastern Zone, pro-Vietnamese and veteran Khmer Issarak commanders were jealous of their independence. They questioned, and at times openly defied, his policies of revolutionary terror and hostility toward Vietnam. The highest ranks of the party were not free of dissension.
Like Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and in the 1930s, Pol Pot initiated a purge of his opponents, both imagined and real. In terms of the number of people liquidated in relation to the total population, the Khmer Rouge terror was far bloodier than Stalin's. Through the 1970s, and especially after mid-1975, the party was shaken by factional struggles. There were even armed attempts to topple Pol Pot. The resultant purges reached a crest in 1977 and 1978 when hundreds of thousands of people, including some of the most important KCP leaders, were executed.
Establishing the Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea
The communists had exercised real power behind the facade, since its establishment in 1970, of the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea. It remained formally in control of the country until the proclamation of the Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea on January 5, 1976. Three months later, on April 2, Sihanouk resigned as head of state. Sihanouk remained under comfortable, but insecure, house arrest in Phnom Penh, until he departed for China on the last flight before Vietnamese forces captured the city on January 7, 1979.
Khieu Samphan described the 1976 Constitution as "not the result of any research on foreign documents, nor...the fruit of any research by scholars. In fact the people--workers, peasants, and Revolutionary Army--wrote the Constitution with their own hands." It was a brief document of sixteen chapters and twenty-one articles that defined the character of the state; the goals of economic, social and cultural policies; and the basic tenets of foreign policy. The "rights and duties of the individual" were briefly defined in Article 12. They included none of what are commonly regarded as guarantees of political human rights except the statement that "men and women are equal in every respect." The document declared, however, that "all workers" and "all peasants" were "masters" of their factories and fields. An assertion that "there is absolutely no unemployment in Democratic Kampuchea" rings true in light of the regime's massive use of forced labor.
The Constitution defined Democratic Kampuchea's foreign policy principles in Article 21, the document's longest, in terms of "independence, peace, neutrality, and nonalignment." It pledged the country's support to anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World. In light of the regime's aggressive attacks against Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao territory during 1977 and 1978, the promise to "maintain close and friendly relations with all countries sharing a common border" bore little resemblance to reality.
Governmental institutions were outlined very briefly in the Constitution. The legislature, the Kampuchean People's Representative Assembly (KPRA), contained 250 members "representing workers, peasants, and other working people and the Kampuchean Revolutionary army." One hundred and fifty KPRA seats were allocated for peasant representatives; fifty, for the armed forces; and fifty, for worker and other representatives. The legislature was to be popularly elected for a five-year term. Its first and only election was held on March 20, 1976. "New people" apparently were not allowed to participate.
The executive branch of government also was chosen by the KPRA. It consisted of a state presidium "responsible for representing the state of Democratic Kampuchea inside and outside the country." It served for a five-year term, and its president was head of state. Khieu Samphan was the first and only person to serve in this office, which he assumed after Sihanouk's resignation. The judicial system was composed of "people's courts," the judges for which were appointed by the KPRA, as was the executive branch.
The Constitution did not mention regional or local government institutions. After assuming power, the Khmer Rouge abolished the old provinces (khet) and replaced them with seven zones; the Northern Zone, Northeastern Zone, Northwestern Zone, Central Zone, Eastern Zone, Western Zone, and Southwestern Zone. There were also two other regional-level units: the Kracheh Special Region Number 505 and, until 1977, the Siemreab Special Region Number 106. The zones were divided into damban (regions) that were given numbers. Number One, appropriately, encompassed the Samlot region of the Northwestern Zone (including Battambang Province), where the insurrection against Sihanouk had erupted in early 1967. With this exception, the damban appear to have been numbered arbitrarily.
The damban were divided into srok (districts), khum (subdistricts), and phum (villages), the latter usually containing several hundred people. This pattern was roughly similar to that which existed under Sihanouk and the Khmer Republic, but inhabitants of the villages were organized into krom (groups) composed of ten to fifteen families. On each level, administration was directed by a three-person committee (kanak, or kena). KCP members occupied committee posts at the higher levels. Subdistrict and village committees were often staffed by local poor peasants, and, very rarely, by "new people." Cooperatives (sahakor), similar in jurisdictional area to the khum, assumed local government responsibilities in some areas.
The Fall of Democratic Kampuchea
Immediately following the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, there were skirmishes between their troops and Vietnamese forces. A number of incidents occurred in May 1975. The Cambodians launched attacks on the Vietnamese islands of Phu Quoc and Tho Chu and intruded into Vietnamese border provinces. In late May, at about the same time that the United States launched an air strike against the oil refinery at Kampong Saom, following the Mayaguez incident, Vietnamese forces seized the Cambodian island of Poulo Wai. The following month, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary visited Hanoi. They proposed a friendship treaty between the two countries, an idea that met with a cool reception from Vietnam's leaders. Although the Vietnamese evacuated Poulo Wai in August, incidents continued along Cambodian's northeastern border. At the instigation of the Phnom Penh regime, thousands of Vietnamese also were driven out of Cambodia.
Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam improved in 1976, in part because of Pol Pot's preoccupation with intraparty challenges. In May Cambodian and Vietnamese representatives met in Phnom Penh in order to establish a commission to resolve border disagreements. The Vietnamese, however, refused to recognize the Br Line--the colonial-era demarcation of maritime borders between the two countries--and the negotiations broke down. In late September, however, a few days before Pol Pot was forced to resign as prime minister, air links were established between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.
With Pol Pot back in the forefront of the regime in 1977, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Incidents escalated along all of Cambodia's borders. Khmer Rouge forces attacked villages in the border areas of Thailand near Aranyaprathet. Brutal murders of Thai villagers, including women and children, were the first widely reported concrete evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities. There were also incidents along the Laotian border. At approximately the same time, villages in Vietnam's border areas underwent renewed attacks. In turn, Vietnam launched air strikes against Cambodia. In September, border fighting resulted in as many as 1,000 Vietnamese civilian casualties. The following month, the Vietnamese counter-attacked in a campaign involving a force of 20,000 personnel. Vietnamese defense minister General Vo Nguyen Giap underestimated the tenacity of the Khmer Rouge, however, and was obliged to commit an additional 58,000 reinforcements in December. On January 6, 1978, Giap's forces began an orderly withdrawal from Cambodian territory. The Vietnamese apparently believed they had "taught a lesson" to the Cambodians, but Pol Pot proclaimed this a "victory" even greater than that of April 17, 1975.
Faced with growing Khmer Rouge belligerence, the Vietnamese leadership decided in early 1978 to support internal resistance to the Pol Pot regime, with the result that the Eastern Zone became a focus of insurrection. War hysteria reached bizarre levels within Democratic Kampuchea. In May 1978, on the eve of So Phim's Eastern Zone uprising, Radio Phnom Penh declared that if each Cambodian soldier killed thirty Vietnamese, only 2 million troops would be needed to eliminate the entire Vietnamese population of 50 million. It appears that the leadership in Phnom Penh was seized with immense territorial ambitions, i.e., to recover the Mekong Delta region, which they regarded as Khmer territory.
Massacres of ethnic Vietnamese and of their sympathizers by the Khmer Rouge intensified in the Eastern Zone after the May revolt. In November, Vorn Vet led an unsuccessful coup d' tat. There were now tens of thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese exiles on Vietnamese territory. On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced the formation of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). This was a heterogeneous group of communist and noncommunist exiles who shared an antipathy to the Pol Pot regime and a virtually total dependence on Vietnamese backing and protection. The KNUFNS provided the semblance, if not the reality, of legitimacy for Vietnam's invasion of Democratic Kampuchea and for its subsequent establishment of a satellite regime in Phnom Penh.
In the meantime, as 1978 wore on, Cambodian bellicosity in the border areas surpassed Hanoi's threshold of tolerance. Vietnamese policy makers opted for a military solution and, on December 22, Vietnam launched its offensive with the intent of overthrowing Democratic Kampuchea. An invasion force of 120,000, consisting of combined armor and infantry units with strong artillery support, drove west into the level countryside of Cambodia's southeastern provinces. After a seventeen-day blitzkrieg, Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese on January 7, 1979. From new redoubts in the mountain and jungle fastness of Cambodia's periphery, Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders regrouped their units, issued a new call to arms, and reignited a stubborn insurgency against the regime in power as they had done in the late 1960s. For the moment, however, the Vietnamese invasion had accomplished its purpose of deposing an unlamented and particularly loathsome dictatorship. A new administration under the mentorship of Hanoi was quickly established, and it set about competing, both domestically and internationally, with the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. Peace still eluded the war-ravaged nation, however, and although the insurgency set in motion by the Khmer Rouge proved unable to topple the new Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh, it did nonetheless keep the country in a permanent state of insecurity. The fledgling Khmer administration, weak and lacking in manpower and in resources, was propped up by a substantial Vietnamese military force and civilian advisory effort. As events in the 1980s progressed, the main preoccupations of the new regime were survival, restoring the economy, and combating the Khmer Rouge insurgency by military and by political means. The fostering of activity to meet these imperatives and the building of institutions are described in subsequent articles in the History of Cambodia series.
- Michael Vickery: Cambodia 1975-1982 University of Washington Press; June 2000 ISBN 9747100819