Cambodia Accord Follows 20 Years of Misery and Manipulation


Peace, if it really happens, has been a long time coming to Cambodia.

For more than 20 years before the signing of a peace agreement Wednesday in Paris, that unhappy country experienced an unbroken succession of violent upheavals that killed millions, uprooted millions more, and devastated Cambodia's land and spirit.

The Cambodians themselves, including the leaders of all four factions involved in the peace settlement, bear a heavy share of blame for the barbarism, death and misery their country has endured for so long. But so do the policies of other countries, including the United States.

From the beginning to the end of Cambodia's long ordeal (if present events do indeed represent the end), the United States and the other outside powers involved in the conflict invariably chose to pursue goals of their own, at a terrible cost in Cambodian lives, rather than acting in ways that might have stopped or slowed the bloodletting. The melancholy history of Cambodia since the 1960s is, among other things, a record of international cynicism and callousness.

The first violators of Cambodian neutrality were the Vietnamese Communists, who in the mid-1960s set up a string of base camps in eastern Cambodia to support their forces fighting in neighboring South Vietnam. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia's ruler and well aware of his country's military weakness, tolerated the Vietnamese intrusion as the necessary price for keeping Cambodia out of the war.

Some of Prince Sihanouk's subordinates, though, were less realistic. Encouraged, almost certainly, by the secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in the early months of the Nixon administration, the Cambodian generals first launched a series of military operations against the Vietnamese bases in late 1969, and then, in March 1970, overthrew Prince Sihanouk while the prince was traveling to Moscow and Beijing seeking help in protecting Cambodia's neutrality.

The new leadership, under the inept Gen. Lon Nol, naively vowed to expel the Vietnamese. The United States, which might have advised them that Cambodia's best chance for national survival lay in finding a way back to neutrality, chose instead -- for the narrowest tactical reasons -- to encourage the new government as it plunged into a war it had no hope of winning.

In the five-year war that followed, neither American military aid, eventually totaling about $1 billion, nor devastating American bombing could make up for the failures of a monumentally incompetent and corrupt Cambodian leadership.

The entire U.S. humanitarian aid program in the first three years of the war amounted to less than a dollar for every Cambodian uprooted by the conflict, and funds in the last two years were only marginally more generous.

Prince Sihanouk, meanwhile, out of injured pride and a thirst for vengeance, joined forces with his mortal enemies -- the Vietnamese and a Cambodian communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge, which had a few thousand guerrillas in remote rural regions of the country. Sihanouk loyalists also joined the resistance, as did Cambodians trained and armed by the Vietnamese.

During the next five years, the Khmer Rouge, led by a small group of far-leftist Cambodian intellectuals, ruthlessly purged pro-Sihanouk and pro-Vietnamese elements and eventually seized complete control of the resistance. Its top leader was a failed engineering student named Saloth Sar, who would become known to history under his pseudonym, Pol Pot.

By the time the Lon Nol government fell in 1975, one out of every ten Cambodians had died from war-related causes and about half the population had become refugees. But even worse suffering was to come. After defeating the decrepit government army, the Khmer Rouge undertook one of the most brutal and fanatical revolutions in history.

Setting out to build a new society by destroying every trace of the old, the revolutionaries drove millions of city residents out into the countryside ("man has to know that he is born from a grain of rice," one officer explained) and thereafter, as one observer wrote, turned Cambodia into "a great slave-labor camp, guarded by teen-aged soldiers in whom every human impulse seemed stifled except a primitive violence and an unfathomable contempt for weakness."

The Khmer Rouge murdered anyone who was associated with the former government, or with foreigners, or who had enough education to be considered an intellectual. (Wearing eyeglasses, some cases, was enough to mark someone for execution.)

They also killed people for not working hard enough, or for complaining, or for trying to practice banned religious or folk customs. Even weeping was considered criticism of the regime, and informers crept through villages in the night listening outside houses so they could denounce anyone they heard sobbing in the dark.

Though these facts were known, in broad outline if not in complete detail, no Western nation lifted a finger to stop the blood bath. International inaction made a mockery of the pledge, incessantly repeated ever since the Germans' destruction of European Jews in World War II, that the world should "never again" allow such a crime to occur. The Khmer Rouge might still be in power today if they had not provoked a war with their communist neighbor, Vietnam.

After invading Cambodia on Christmas day 1978, the Vietnamese quickly captured Phnom Penh and installed a new government. Hanoi claimed to have "liberated" Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge butchers, but, in fact, the leaders of the new government and its army were former Khmer Rouge leaders and commanders who had changed sides only a few months earlier.

After the invasion, some 20,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers continued to resist the Vietnamese from bases in western Cambodia, near Thailand. There they became the beneficiaries of Cold War politics and a curious international forgetfulness about the crimes they had committed while in power. Instead of murderers, they were now treated as the rightful defenders of Cambodia against Vietnamese aggression.

With American blessing, the Khmer Rouge government retained Cambodia's seat in the United Nations. None of the Western democracies recognized the pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh.

To keep the armed resistance alive, China supplied arms to the Khmer Rouge, Thailand offered military cooperation , and the United States became the largest donor to a relief program to provide food and supplies to the guerrillas as well as to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who congregated along the Thai border.

The United States also put heavy pressure on two much smaller and weaker resistance groups to join the Khmer Rouge. One of these groups was the Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front, headed by a retired Cambodian politician named Son Sann. The KPNLF was formed under the auspices of the Thai military authorities, who put it in control of the most populous refugee camps along the border.

The KPNLF's military arm, led by officers who had been prominent in the bungling ranks of Lon Nol's commanders, proved quite effective at stealing refugees' valuables and profiteering in relief supplies; they were notably less interested, and almost completely unsuccessful, in fighting the Vietnamese. recent years the KPNLF and its military leadership were split, although the military commander, former Gen. Sak Sutsakhan, has announced he will seek a reconciliation with Son Sann.)

The second non-communist resistance group was the pro-Sihanouk National Army, formed in 1981 from two smaller pro-Sihanouk guerrilla units. The prince also organized a political movement with a cumbersome name: the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC, from its French initials).

As part of the peace process, Prince Sihanouk has now withdrawn from all leadership posts in the Sihanoukist organizations, which are now led by his sons. Prince Ranariddh and Prince Chakrapong.

Since the Khmer Rouge was (and remains) by far the strongest of the three resistance forces, it has always been the real, if unacknowledged, beneficiary of American diplomatic and indirect military support, which continued for more than a decade despite the Khmer Rouge's murderous record.

For years, even while claiming it hoped to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power, the United States would not even call on China to stop its supply of arms (official U.S. statements expressed only a flabby hope for "some sort of decline" in arms shipments to the Khmer Rouge). Nor did the United States offer any support for an effort to try Pol Pot and other top Khmer Rouge leaders in an international court for crimes against humanity.

Since the peace process began, both the Khmer Rouge and the pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh have tried to improve their image by abandoning the words, if not the practices, of the past.

The Khmer Rouge has claimed in recent years that it now espouses a "liberal capitalist regime, economically, and a parliamentary regime, politically." Meanwhile, the ruling People's Revolutionary Party just this month changed its name to the Cambodian People's Party while dropping Marxist-Leninist ideology and the hammer-and-sickle emblem and proclaiming support for "a democratic and free political system."

One may hope (though Cambodia's past does not inspire optimism) that these conversions are real. But it is hard to forget the responsibility that all the competing Cambodian leaders bear for their country's long travail -- and hard to forget, too, the mistakes and cynical policies of outside powers, the world's indifference to the Cambodian holocaust and its hypocritical support for the murderers.

Haing Ngor, a Cambodian doctor who survived the Khmer Rouge era and later won an Oscar for his role in the movie "The Killing Fields," wrote in a 1988 book about his enduring guilt at having been unable to save his father, his pregnant wife, and other victims of the slaughter. He ended his memoir with the words: "I will never be forgiven by my memories." Ours should not forgive us, either.

Arnold R. Isaacs, who covered Indochina for the Sun in 1972-75, is the author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia." He teaches the history of the Vietnam war at Towson State University.


Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad