Cambodia’s Past Blurring into the Present

Just a few days ago, “First They Killed My Father” began streaming on Netflix. The movie, based on the book with the same name, follows the story of a girl who is forced to become a child solider while her family is sent to labor camps under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The other famous film about this time in Cambodian history is “The Killing Fields,” that tells the true story of a journalist and his interpreter. While the genocide in Cambodia that occurred from 1975 to 1979 under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge may be generally known, the legacy of that time that stretches into the present is much less so.

To understand the lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge on present-day Cambodia, it would be wise to place their rule within it’s own context.

As a French Protectorate and Independence

In 1867, Cambodia officially became a protectorate of France. France had established colonies in present-day Vietnam and was looking to expand. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Siam (modern-day Thailand), and King Norodum requested protectorate status, which allowed the monarchy to continue, but significantly reduced its power. Generally, most Cambodians lacked access to education, however elites were afforded French education. In the 1940s minor independence movements began to formulate, however World War II significantly stymied them as the Allied and Axis powers negotiated European colonies in Asia. Ultimately, they remained a French colony after the end of the war.

However, a with a brief time of independence declared by King Sihanouk in 1945, support for independence spread among the citizens. The main independence group was the guerrilla Khmer Issarak movement, though Sihanouk spent 1946 to 1953 negotiating for independence from the French. In the ’40s, a provisional government was established and new constitution created. However Sihanouk suspended it and traveled to France to demand independence, which was ultimately granted on 3 July 1953.

The First Kingdom of Cambodia and 1970 Coup

While Sihanouk had declared independence, there were a number of anti-royalist communists who were a part of the Khmer Issarak. King Sihanouk abdicated the throne in favor of his father and took on the title of prince so that he could engage more with politics. He formed a political party that was strongly anti-communist that won handily in the elections. This dominance, coupled with corruption, forced opposition underground. Ever a pragmatist though, Sihanouk invited leftists into party to balance out some of the far-right aspects – leftists that later became leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

During this time, the Cold War and war in Vietnam happening and Sihanouk decided on a policy of nonalignment. However, friendly ties with China were fostered as a way to fend off encroachments from the historical enemies, Thailand and Vietnam.The prince also courted aid from the US, however that relationship soured with mutual distrust and ultimately dissolved in 1965.

Simultaneously, Vietnamese communists encouraged and helped to form the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party as an extension of their pre-war communist organizing. Not much is definitively known about the group’s growth, however, because of purges. However, Pol Pot and other future Khmer Rouge leaders gained control of the party in 1960 after the returned from Paris where they received university education. There, they studied Marx and wrote theses about what Cambodia needed to do to become self-reliant.

Resentment from the right-wing factions of Sihanouk’s party began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with him because of his tolerance of leftist and communist activities, particularly because they were being fomented by the Vietnamese. In 1970, while Sihanouk was traveling in Europe, protests broke out in Phnom Penh against the Vietnamese. With this unrest, the party leadership staged a coup.

With the right-wing in power, the Khmer Rouge called for Vietnamese invasion, which initiated the Cambodian Civil War. Sihanouk, in exile, aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge and the people of the country fought out their loyalty to him, not because of their belief in communist ideals. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge had de facto control of the county. Lon Nol, the prime minister and right-wing party head ultimately fled the country in 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge seized power.

The Rise and Rule of the Khmer Rouge

Much of the Khmer Rouge’s ideology had its roots in Khmer nationalism and extreme xenophobia. Those who were not ethnically Khmer were explicitly targeted through ethnic cleansing. After living in agrarian communities in the hills of Cambodia, Pol Pot became enamored with that type of society, considering it to be a truly communist one.

With that in mind, schools, hospitals, factories and banks were all closed. Money was abolished and all religions were outlawed. Citizens who lived in cities were forcibly evacuated to farming labor camps. The lack of agricultural knowledge led to widespread famine that, in combination with the unforgiving labor and inter-party paranoia led to the death of millions of Cambodians. Those who were considered educated by Pol Pot were executed in the effort to make a classless society.

Schools and hospitals were turned into prisons, that were then filled with people who were suspected to undermining or sabotaging the Khmer Rouge. Most famous among these is Tuol Sleng, a secondary school that is now a museum that has been preserved as it was when the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979.

Increased suspicion of impending force from Vietnam led Pol Pot to invade preemptively and massacred a village. This led to Vietnamese forced taking Phnom Penh, with the help of Khmer Rouge defectors. The Khmer Rouge retreated and hid in the hills and mountains for nearly two decades, though membership dwindled through the years.. It was upon Pol Pot’s death in 1998 that the party truly began to dissolve.

After the Khmer Rouge to Today

After the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge defectors that assisted them worked to establish what has eventually become the modern Cambodia government. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, was a military commander in the Khmer Rouge. He often likens the opposition party’s positions to Khmer Rouge’s policies.

Recently, crackdowns on the opposition have greatly increased. The head of the opposition party was arrested and jailed on suspicion of treason for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government with help from the United States. This has also lead to government hostilities towards any American connected institutions, including a US-funded election monitoring organization and the radio channel Voice of America. According to analysts this is likely because of upcoming elections that may bring and end to the 30-year rule of Hun Sen and his government that has been stacked with other former members of the Khmer Rouge.

That is not to say that all members of the Khmer Rouge have been able to live with impunity. Since 2007, the UN has funded a genocide tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Three of the top Khmer Rouge members have been sentenced to life in prison, though the trials are still ongoing.


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