In 1968 the Khmer Rouge numbered only a few hundred comrades, so what made it possible for the most extreme element of the Cambodia left to come to power?
Norodom Sihanouk, now the beloved “King-Father of Cambodia,” right-wing leader Lon Nol, the North Vietnamese, Communist China, and Richard Nixon must all share in the blame.
In March 1945 Sihanouk declared Cambodia’s independence, but the French, with U.S. support, reclaimed its colonial possessions in Indochina. While Ho Chi Minh went to war with the French, Sihanouk remained staunchly anti-Communist and the French allowed him retain his throne.
Cambodia’s independence was granted in late 1953, and the French were forced to leave Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954.
While remaining officially anti-Communist and neutral during the Second Indochina War (our conflict), Sihanouk allowed the Vietnamese Communists to move supplies along on his side of the border and to use the port of Sihanoukville.
In March of 1970 Lon Nol, a right-wing army general deposed Sihanouk and condemned him to death in abstentia, but the Cambodian people rallied to their prince’s side. Lon Nol insisted the North Vietnamese leave their Cambodian bases, but their response was to support Pol Pot and send 40,000 troops to the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk allied himself with Pol Pot and, mainly as a result Sihanouk’s prestige, Khmer Rouge forces grew from 6,000 to 50,000. Just like the corrupt South Vietnamese generals on whom we lavished support, Lon Nol did not have a chance against disciplined Communist soldiers.
In 1969 President Richard Nixon ordered secret bombing attacks in Cambodia and Laos, and then launched an invasion of Cambodia on May 1, 1970. The first killing fields were Cambodian villages where, from 1969-1973, hundreds of thousands of people died by B-52 bombing raids.
Yale historian Ben Kiernan has done the most extensive surveys of the actions of the Pol Pot regime. Over 60 percent of those interviewed said that they turned to the Khmer Rouge because B-52s destroyed their villages.
After Pol Pot ordered several major cross border attacks, the Vietnamese finally lost their patience with the Khmer Rouge. Early in 1979 they launched an invasion of Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime crumbled within months. The Khmer Rouge were able to hold out for years in the jungles, primarily because of Chinese and North Korean aid.
Because President Ronald Reagan did not want to give any credit to the Vietnamese Communists, he opposed giving the Khmer Rouge’s UN seat to the new government. At the same time the U.S. gave aid to rebel forces who were opposed to the Vietnamese imposed government.
The indirect effect U.S. aid was to support the Khmer Rouge, who were in a coalition with the other rebels, and whose troops levels went back up to 35,000. The Vietnamese had to expend considerable effort to defeat Pol Pot’s forces, and he was finally forced over the border where the pro-American Thai government protected him.
In 1989 the Vietnamese withdrew all of its forces, and under UN auspices elections were held in 1993. Thirty years too late, the first Khmer Rouge official, simply known as “Duch,” is now being tried for crimes against humanity.
For the first time since the French Protectorate of 1863, the Cambodian people can pursue their own affairs without adverse external interference. They no longer have to fear a madmen such as Pol Pot or dread quarter-ton bombs dropping from 30,000 feet.
Nick Gier was co-president of the Student-Faculty Committee to End the War in Vietnam in 1965-66 at Oregon State University. He taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read or listen to all of his columns at www.NickGier.com