Cambodian History: A Brief Review


Back on April 16, 2016, in the aftermath of the Lowell City Council vote to revoke the invitation extended to General Hun Manet of the Cambodian Army (and the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen), I wrote the following post that gave a brief overview of Cambodian history. With internal Cambodian politics re-emerging this past week as a Lowell political issue when motions to establish sister city relationships between Lowell and Phnom Penh and Battambang were rejected, I thought reposting my 2016 essay might provide some context. Here’s what I wrote seven years ago:

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote by the Lowell City Council to renounce the upcoming visit to the city by Hun Manet, a general in the Cambodian Army and the son of that nation’s prime minister, a number of non-Cambodian residents have expressed their unfamiliarity with Cambodian history and politics. I’m certainly no expert, but over the past few years, I have tried to learn what I could, so I’ll share some of my impressions here.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, most Cambodians “consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th centuries.” The Angkor Empire “was greatly weakened” by and entered “a long period of decline” after attacks from the peoples who inhabit present day Thailand and Vietnam.

That dominance by neighbors persisted until the 1860s when the king of Cambodia agreed to a French protectorate and the country became part of French Indochina. During World War Two, the region was occupied by the Japanese. After the war, France returned to restore “French Indochina” to its empire. The French were mostly interested in Vietnam and its rich, natural resources and not Cambodia, so in 1953, France granted Cambodia its independence.

You can’t understand modern Cambodian history without also understanding Vietnam, so let’s take a brief detour to that country. Fredrik Logevall, in his Pulitzer Prize winning history, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, contends that once it became clear that the Allies would prevail in World War Two, Western European countries began maneuvering to restore their pre-war empires around the globe. American President Franklin Roosevelt opposed any kind of imperial restoration, especially in Southeast Asia. He favored granting Vietnam its independence once the Japanese withdrew.

Roosevelt died before the war ended, and post-war geopolitical realities forced his successor, Harry Truman, to focus almost exclusively on keeping the Soviets out of Western Europe. France was critical to this anti-Soviet alliance, but France refused to cooperate on the defense of Western Europe unless the United States, in particular, supported the restoration of its Asian Empire. Truman, who lacked Roosevelt’s anti-imperialist sentiments anyway, consented and France returned to Vietnam, armed, supplied, and financed by America.

By the time France’s military campaign to gain full control of Indochina ended in humiliating defeat, China had gone Communist and McCarthyism reigned in Washington. America felt compelled to prevent Vietnam from becoming a Communist state. Beginning with advisors and air support in the early 1960s, America’s military involvement in Vietnam grew until 1968 when more than 500,000 American troops were stationed there. However, no matter how many American troops were committed, there was little evidence of progress as the war ground on and American casualties mounted.

The apparent stalemate in Vietnam cost Lyndon Johnson a second term as president as the majority in this country lost enthusiasm for the war. Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson in 1968, gradually reduced US troop strength (while increasing the tonnage of bombs dropped) in a quest for “peace with honor.” After years of negotiations with North Vietnam, the final American combat troops withdrew in 1973, leaving the defense of the country up to the South Vietnamese military.

To the North Vietnamese, the treaty was only a temporary pause and when they resumed the offensive in 1975, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed and the American Congress refused the request of President Gerald Ford (Nixon had resigned because of Watergate) to resume American combat operations. In April 1975, Vietnam was reunited under Communist control.

Throughout America’s military involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, maintained a position of official neutrality. However, Sihanouk played a devious game behind the scenes, granting North Vietnam tacit permission to set up supply lines and bases within Cambodia to assist their efforts against the Americans in Vietnam. Then, when the Vietnamese lost favor with Sihanouk, the ruler collaborated with the Americans in secretly bombing the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.

In 1970, the Cambodian military led by General Lon Nol staged a coup and overthrew Sihanouk. Cambodian communists, with the support of Sihanouk and the Chinese, formed a broad coalition against the Lon Nol government and civil war waged within Cambodia. At about the same time that Vietnam fell to the Communists, the Lon Nol government collapsed and the Communist insurgents, led by Pol Pot and called the Khmer Rouge, took control of the country.

In his 2004 book, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Philip Short writes that Pol Pot maintained a radical view of Communism that went far beyond anything ever considered by China’s Mao Zedong. The Khmer Rouge attempted to impose a medieval agricultural regime by evacuating cities and eradicating all aspects of modernity. Hundreds of thousands from the educated middle class were tortured and killed and countless others died from starvation and exhaustion. From 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million people – 21% of the country’s population – lost their lives in what the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program identifies as “one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.”

To other countries, geopolitics was more important than genocide, and so despite the unthinkable tragedy occurring within the country, Cambodia continued as a pawn in regional and international conflict. Not content with slaughtering their own population, the Khmer Rouge frequently crossed into Vietnam, massacring Vietnamese villagers on both sides of the border. When Vietnam retaliated, Cambodia turned for support to China, Vietnam’s traditional adversary. In response to Chinese support to Cambodia, Vietnam turned to the Soviet Union for money and arms. This prompted America, now led by President Jimmy Carter, to encourage China and Cambodia, reasoning that if the Soviet Union had to deal with a conflict of proxies in Southeast Asia, it might ease its threatening moves in Western Europe.

Vietnam began organizing and training Cambodians exiled to Vietnam (including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who Short identifies as “a young Khmer Rouge military commander who had defected [to Vietnam] in 1978”). On Christmas Day 1978, the Vietnamese invasion commenced. The Cambodian military quickly collapsed and Vietnam soon controlled Phnom Penh and the countryside around it. The Khmer Rouge did not surrender, but fled to the difficult terrain near the border with Thailand.

A new regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, was established in Phnom Penh. Elections were held in 1981 and a pro-Vietnamese coalition government (which included Hun Sen) took over. The international community condemned Vietnam’s invasion and refused to recognize the new government. With Vietnamese troops still occupying the country, Hun Sen became Prime Minister in 1985.

The Khmer Rouge continued waging a guerilla war against the new government until a peace treaty was signed in Paris in 1991. Elections were held, the country was re-named Cambodia, and the international community officially recognized the new government.

In 1997, Hun Sen staged a coup and took full control of the government. Elections were held in 1998, and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a majority of seats in parliament, but there were widespread allegations of intimidation and voter fraud.

Hun Sen has remained at the head of government ever since. There have been frequent elections but always of questionable legitimacy.  A 2013 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report called the Cambodian elections “a flawed and poorly managed electoral process.” Besides flawed elections, the State Department cited as the three biggest human right problems in Cambodia, a politicized and ineffective judiciary; constraints on freedom of press and assembly; and abuse of prison detainees. The report did close by saying “in the recent election, all parties participated unimpeded, largely free of intimidation in contrast to previous national elections; but the voting process was fraught with irregularities.”

The 2013 election results and irregularities led to widespread protests in Phnom Penh which were met by a violent response from the police. In recent years, striking textile workers and small land owners protesting government policies have also been violently suppressed by the police.

Cambodia’s history since the end of World War Two has been tragic and complex. The passion on display by Cambodian residents of Lowell makes it clear that the wounds from that history will linger for generations. It is also clear that the grievances are not just part of history, but continue to exist today and will extend into the future. While an outsider can never fully comprehend the experience, feelings, and motives of the Cambodian people of Lowell, I think it incumbent on the rest of us, as good and caring neighbors, to better educate ourselves about the history of Cambodia, both past and present.