Cambodia and Vietnam: Different endings to US war

By Allen Myers

Thirty years ago, at the end of December 1978, Vietnamese troops and rebel Cambodian forces crossed into Cambodia and in a few weeks overthrew a regime whose savagery rivalled that of Nazi Germany. The military conflict surprised most of the world, because the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge (KR) had, until 1975, appeared to be allies in resisting the US attempt to replace defeated French imperialism as the ruler of Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However, largely unseen by the rest of the world, there had long been crucial political differences between the two parties.

“Khmer Rouge” was not the real name of the guerrilla movement that seized power in Cambodia in April 1975. The name was invented in the 1960s by Cambodia’s then ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and attached to peasant rebels led by the country’s small Communist Party. In the areas it controlled and later when it ruled the country, the KR was known simply as “angkar” — “the organisation”.

The Cambodian CP itself had almost no base in the small Cambodian working class. It was led primarily by intellectuals who had studied in France in the 1950s and early 1960s, where they learned a superficial and Stalinist-Maoist version of Marxism. By the late ’60s, the party had become dominated by a small group around Pol Pot.

The KR’s support and influence were small until outside events gave it a boost. Sihanouk had tried to keep Cambodia from being involved in the war being waged by the United States against Vietnam, but in 1970 he was overthrown in a military coup backed by the CIA. Sihanouk then formed an alliance with the KR and broadcast a call for Cambodians to join the struggle to overthrow the new US-backed regime of General Lon Nol. Tens of thousands of Cambodians, especially in rural areas, answered Sihanouk’s call, from nationalist, royalist and/or social or economic motives. Hundreds of thousands more rural Cambodians were driven either into the cities (mainly the capital, Phnom Penh) or into the KR by massive US bombing of the countryside.

US defeat

In April 1975, US imperialism’s house of cards collapsed almost simultaneously in Vietnam and Cambodia. On April 17 the KR seized Phnom Penh, two weeks before the Vietnamese liberation forces entered Saigon. As in Saigon, the anti-US fighters were initially welcomed by the population of Phnom Penh, who looked forward to an end to war and foreign domination. But events turned out very differently in the two countries.

The Vietnamese Communists sought to reunify their country — not only in a formal sense, but more importantly to mobilise as much of the population as possible in a united effort to rebuild the economy and society. The KR, by contrast, treated the entire population, especially the urban population, as conquered enemies. Even small children were murdered because their parents were employed by the Lon Nol regime.

To forestall any possibility of organised opposition, angkar immediately forced the entire population of Phnom Penh and other cities to evacuate to the countryside; even patients in hospital beds were trundled down roads by their families. Arriving in villages, they were forced into slave labour on vast irrigation projects which the KR leaders envisioned as multiplying rice production and providing the material base for a leap into “communism”. But nearly all of these projects were badly planned, poorly executed and impractical; rice production fell drastically instead of increasing.

Soon, local KR officials who reported the bad news accurately to the central leaders were being arrested and accused of “sabotage”. This ensured that the central KR leaders were given false reports of rice surpluses, which they then exported, mostly to China to pay for weapons, leaving the Cambodian people on starvation rations. Despite hunger, people were forced to work long hours in the fields, even at night when there was moonlight. Anyone even suspected of questioning the orders of angkar was likely to be hauled off to prison and tortured into confessing imagined crimes, or simply executed on the spot. Knowing words of a foreign language or even wearing glasses was a death sentence.

It will never be known precisely how many people died from execution, hunger and overwork during the KR period, but the most commonly accepted figure among scholars who have studied the period is 1.7 million people — out of a 1975 population of 7 to 8 million.

The US war had created the conditions in which the KR came to power. But those conditions did not at all dictate the murderous policies of angkar. This is shown conclusively by the much different course of events in Vietnam, which had been subjected to similarly destructive aggression for even longer than Cambodia.

The Vietnamese CP was firmly based among the country’s working people, both in the countryside and the cities. It had studied and understood the country’s economic and social conditions, and had no illusions about jumping over stages of economic development. Above all, the Vietnamese leaders recognised that social progress relies on the mass mobilisation of working people through trade unions, women’s organisations, student unions, cooperatives and so on. So while Cambodians were sinking into ever deeper misery, Vietnam was able to begin overcoming the legacy of imperialist domination and decades of war.

Military aggression

Not content with enslaving the Cambodia in the name of “communism”, the KR leaders also dreamed of reviving the Angkorian empire of a thousand years earlier, which ruled over large parts of what today are Thailand and Vietnam. This involved launching military attacks into southern Vietnam in which hundreds of unarmed villagers were massacred.

For several years, the Vietnamese government sought in vain to establish peaceful relations with the KR regime. But the KR leaders were intent on war. They declared to the Cambodian people that, to defeat the Vietnamese “enemy”, it was “only” necessary for each Cambodian soldier to kill 30 Vietnamese soldiers. Behind this seeming insanity clearly lay the assumption that China would support the KR militarily in such a conflict.

Despite the angkar leaders’ attempts to exercise total control, the guerrilla movement that defeated the Lon Nol regime was not completely monolithic. It included socialists and anti-imperialist militants who were appalled by Pol Pot’s criminal policies and sought ways to resist them. In May 1978 in eastern Cambodia there was a rebellion that Pol Pot suppressed militarily. Hundreds of thousands of villagers were then deported from the east to other areas, where they were persecuted as suspected rebels or “Vietnamese minds in Khmer bodies”. According to some estimates, up to half of these deportees died.

But some of these leaders and thousands of their supporters were able to escape to Vietnam. In early December 1978, they formed the Cambodian National Salvation Front. The Vietnamese government had in the meantime concluded that the KR would never abandon their military plans. The Vietnamese government would also have been alarmed at a major new airport being built with Chinese assistance north of Phnom Penh. It was nearing completion and would have given the Chinese air force a major base only a few minutes’ flying time from Ho Chi Minh City.

Together, the Vietnamese army and the National Salvation Front struck back at the KR on December 25. On January 7, they liberated Phnom Penh. Pol Pot and his fellow criminals fled to the Cambodia-Thailand border, driving ahead of them as many ordinary Cambodians as they could. From sanctuaries in Thailand and with military and political assistance from China and from the US and other imperialist governments, they were able to mount military attacks for another two decades, delaying recovery from the destruction they had caused.

Vietnam was forced to pay a heavy price for liberating the Cambodian nation from the KR’s savagery. From 1979 until its last troops returned home in 1989, Vietnam lost some 50,000 soldiers fighting the KR. Its “occupation” of Cambodia was used by imperialist governments as a pretext for economic sanctions that hampered Vietnam’s postwar reconstruction. While Western politicians and media commentators cited the mass murders of the KR regime as alleged proof of the “evils of communism”, Western governments, led by Washington, backed the KR’s retention of Cambodia’s seat at the UN until 1993.

Today in Phnom Penh five surviving KR leaders are awaiting trial in a special Cambodian court that includes international judges and prosecutors. Sadly, the court has no power to put on trial those in the West whose crimes helped the KR into power and who protected the KR for 20 years after 1979.