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You are at » Cambodia History
CAMBODIA HISTORY

The good, the bad and the ugly is the simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly as a brutal civil war lead to the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79), from which Cambodia is still recovering.

 

Early Beginnings
Cambodia came into being, so the story goes, through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya and the princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled over a watery land. One day, as Kaundinya sailed by the princess paddled out in a boat to greet him. Kaundinya shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat, causing the fearful princess to agree to marriage. In need of a dowry, her father drank up the waters of his land and presented them to Kaundinya to rule over. The new kingdom was named Kambuja.
Like many legends, this one is historically opaque, but it does say something about the cultural forces that brought Cambodia into existence; in particular its relationship with its great sub continental neighbors, India. Cambodia’s religious, royal and written traditions stemmed from India and began to coalesce as a cultural entity in their own right between the 1st and 5th centuries.
Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia. Much of the south-east was a vast, shallow gulf that was progressively silted up by the mouths of the Mekong, leaving pancake-flat, mineral-rich land ideal for farming, Evidence of cave-dwellers has been found in the northwest of Cambodia. Carbon dating on ceramic pots found in the area shows that they were mane around 4200 BC, but it is hard to say whether there is a direct relationship between these cave-dwelling pot makers and contemporary Khmers. Examinations of bones dating back to around 1500 BC, however, suggest that the people living in Cambodia at that time resembled the Cambodians of today, Early Chinese records report that the Cambodians were ‘ugly’ and ‘dark’ and went about naked; but a pinch of salt is always required when reading the culturally chauvinistic reports of imperial China concerning its ‘barbarian’ neighbors.

 Indianisation & Funan
The early Indianisation of Cambodia occurred via trading settlements that sprang up from the 1st century on the coastline of what is now southern Vietname, but was then inhabited by Cambodians. These settlements were ports of call for boats following the trading route from the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China. The largest of these nascent kingdoms was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province, a site only owrth visiting for the archaeologically obsessed today, and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. It would have been a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region.
Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnan (mountain). Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power.
It is most likely that between the 1st and 8th centuries, Cambodia was a collection of small states, each with its own elites that often strategically intermarried and often went to war with one another. Funan was no doubt one of these states, and as a major sea port would have been pivotal in the transmission of Indian culture into the interior of Cambodia.
What historians do know about Funan they have mostly gleaned from Chinese sources. These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraces the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practiced primitive irrigation, which enabled the cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India.

 Chenla Period
From the 6th century the Funan kingdom’s importance as a port of call declined, and Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimized their absolute rule through hierarchic al caste concepts borrowed from India.
This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that the Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo; and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of the Tonle Sap lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, and essential stop on a chronological jaunt through Cambodia’s history.
The people of Cambodia were well known to the Chinese, and gradually the region was becoming more cohesive. Before long the fractured kingdoms of Cambodia would merge to become the greatest empire in Southeast Asia.

 Angkorian Period
A popular place of pilgrimage for Khmers today, the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, to the northeast of Angkor, is home to an inscription that tells us in 802 Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a ’ universal monarch’, or devaraja. It is believed that he may have resided in the Buddhist Shailendras’s court in Java as a young man. One of the first things he did when he returned to Cambodia was to reject Javanese control over the southern lands of Cambodia. Jayavanrman II then set out to bring the country under his control through alliances and conquests, the first monarch to rule all of what we call Cambodia today.
Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who presided over the rise and fall of the Southeast Asian empire that was to leave the stunning legacy of Angkor. The first records of the massive irrigation works that supported the population of Angkor date to the reign of Indravarman I (877-89). His rule also marks the beginning of the Bakong. His son Yasovarman I (889-910) moved the royal court to Angkor proper, establishing a temple-mountain on the summit of Phnom Bakheng.
By the turn of the 11th century the kingdom of Angkor was losing control of its territories. Suryavarman I (1002-49), a usurper, moved into the power vacuum and, like Jayavarman II two centuries before, reunified the kingdom through war and alliances. He annexed the Dravati kingdom of Lopburi in Thailand and widened his control of Cambodia, stretching the empire to perhaps its greatest extent. A pattern was beginning to emerge, and can be seen throughout the Angkorian period: dislocation and turmoil, followed by reunification and further expansion under a powerful king. Architecturally, the most productive periods occurred after times of turmoil, indicating that newly incumbent monarchs felt the need to celebrate and perhaps legitimize their rule with massive building projects.
By 1066 Angkor was again riven by conflict, becoming the focus of rival bids for power. It was not until the accession of Suryavarman II (in 1112) that the kingdom was again unified. Suryavarman II embarked on another phase of expansion, waging wars in Vietnam and the region of central Vietnam known as Champa. He also established links with China. But Suryavaman II is immortalized as the king who, in his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu, commissioned the majestic temple of Angkor Wat.
Suryavarman II had brought Champa to heel and reduced it to vassal status. In 1177, however, the Chams struck back with a naval expedition up the Mekong and into Tonle Sap lake. They took the city of Angkor by surprise and put King Dharanindravarman II to death. The next year a cousin of Suryavarman II gathered forces and defeated the Chams in another naval battle. The new leader was crowned Jayavarman VII in 1181.
A devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism, Jayavarman VII built the city of Angkor Thom and many other massive monuments. Indeed, many of the monuments visited by tourists around Angkor today were constructed during Jayavarman VII’s reign. However, Jayavarman VII is a figure of many contradictions. The bas-reliefs of the Bayoun depict him presiding over battles of terrible ferocity, while statues of the king show him in a meditative, otherworldly aspect. His programme of temple construction and other public works was carried out in great haste, no doubt bringing enormous hardship to the laborers who provided the muscle, and thus accelerating the decline of the empire. He was partly driven by a desire to legitimize his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline, and partly by the need to introduce a new religion to a population predominantly Hindu in faith.

Decline & Fall
Some scholars maintain that decline was hovering in the wings at the time Angkor Wat was built, when the Angkorian empire was at the height of its remarkable productivity. There are indications that the irrigation network was overworked and slowly starting to silt up due to the massive north deforestation that had taken place in the heavily populated areas to the north and east of Angkor. Massave construction projects such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom no doubt put an enormous strain on the royal coffers and on thousands of slaves and common people who subsidized them in hard work and taxes. Following the reign of Jayavarman VII, temple construction effectively ground to a halt, in large part because Jayavarman VII’s public works quarried local sandstone into oblivion and the population was exhausted.
Another important aspect of this period was the decline of Cambodian political influence on the peripheries of its empire. AT the same time, the Thais were ascendant, having migrated south from Yunnan to escape Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes. The Thais, first from Sukothai, later Ayuthya, grew in strength and made repeated incursions into Angkor, funally sacking the city in 1431 and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court. During this period, perhaps drawn by the opportunities for sea trade with China and fearful of the increasingly bellicose Thais, the Khmer elite began to migrate to the Phnom Penh area. The capital shifted several times in the 16th century but eventually settled in present day Phnom Penh.

The Dark Ages
From 1600 until the arrival of the French in 1863, Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings who, because of continual challenges by dissident members of the royal family, were forced to seek the protection – granted, of course, at a price – of either Thailand or Vietnam. In the 17th century, assistance from the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam was given on the proviso that Vietnamese be allowed to settle in what is now the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, at that time part of Cambodia and today still referred to by the Khmers as Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia).
In the west, the Thais controlled the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap from 1794k; by the late 18th century they had firm control of the Cambodian royal family. Indeed, one king was crowned in Bangkok and placed on the throne at Udong with the help of the Thai army. That Cambodia survived through the 18th century as a distinct entity is due to the preoccupations of its neighbors: while the Thais were expending their energy and resources in fighting the Burmese, the Vietnamese were wholly absorbed by internal strife.

French Rule
Cambodia’s long period of bouncing back and forth between Thai and Vietnamese masters ended in 1864, when French gunboats intimidated King Norodom I (r 1860-1904) into signing a treaty of protectorate. French control of Cambodia, which developed as a sideshow to French-colonial interests in Vietnam, initially involved little direct interference in Cambodia’s affairs. More importantly, the French presence prevented Cambodia’s expansionist neighbors from annexing any more Khmer territory and helped keep Norodom on the throne despite the ambitions of his rebellious half-brothers.
By the 1870s French officials in Cambodia began pressing for greater control over internal affairs. In 1884, Norodom was forced into signing a treaty that turned his country into a virtual colony. This sparked a two-year rebellion that constituted the only major anti-French movement in Cambodia until after WWII. This uprising ened when the king was persuaded to call upon the rebel fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for a return to the pretreaty arrangement.
During the next two decades senior Cambodian officials, who saw certain advantages in acquiescing to French power, opened the door to direct French control over the day-to-day administration of the country. At the same time the French maintained Norodom’s court in a splendor unseen since the heyday of Angkor, thereby greatly enhancing the symbolic position of the monarchy. The French were able to pressure Thailand into returning the northwest provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon in 1907, in return for concessions of Lao territory to the Thais, returning Angkor to Cambodia control for the first time in more than a century.
King Norodom I was successes by King Sisowath (r 1904-27), who was successes by King Monivong (r 1927-41). Upon King Monivong’s death, the French governor general of Japanese-occupied Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, placed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne. Sihanouk would prove pliable, so the assumption went, but this proved to be a major miscalculation.
During WWII, Japanese forces occupied much of Asia, and Cambodia was no exception. However, with many in Frence collaborating with the occupying Germans, the Japanese were happy to let these French allies control affairs in Cambodia. The price was conceding to Yhailand (a Japanese ally of sorts) much of Battambang and Siem Reap Provinces once again, areas that weren’t returned until 1947. However, with the fall of Paris in 1944 and French policy in disarray, the Japanese were force to take direct control of the territory by early 1945. After WWII, the French returned, making Cambodia an autonomous state within the French Union, but retaining de facto control. The French deserved independence it seemed, but not its colonies. The immediate postwar years were marked by strife among the country’s various political factions, a situation made more unstable by the Franco-Viet Minh War then raging in Vietnam and Laos, which spilled over into Cambodia. The Vietnamese, as they were also to do 20 years later in the war against Lon Nol and the Americans trained and fought with bands of Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) against the French authorities.

Indenpence & Sihanouke's Rule
In late 1952 King Sihanouk dissolved the fledgling parliament, declared martial law and embarked on his ‘royal crusade’: his travelling campaign to drum up international support for his country’s independence.
Independence was preclaimed on 9 November 1953 and recognized by the Geneva Conference of May 1954, which ended French control of Indochina. In 1995, Sihanouk abdicated, afraid of being marginalized amid the pomp of royal ceremony. The ‘royal crusader’ became ‘citizen Sihanouk’. He vowed never again to return to the throne. Meanwhile his father became king. It was a masterstroke that offered Sihanouk both royal authority and supreme political power. His newly established party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community Party), won every seat in parliament in the September 1955 elections and Sihanouk was to dominate Cambodian politics for next 15 years.
Although he feared the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk considered South Vietnam and Thailand, both allies of the USA (which he mistrusted), the greatest threats to Cambodia’s security, even survival. In an attempt to fend off these many dangers, he declared Cambodia neutral in international affairs and refused to accept any further US aid, which had accounted for a substantial chunk of the country’s military budget. He also nationalized many industries, including the rice trade. In May 1965 Sihanouk, convinced that the USA had been plotting against him and his family, broke diplomatic relations with Washington and tilted towards the North Vietnamese and China. In addition, he agreed to let the communists use Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and USA.
These moves and his socialist economic policties alienated right-leaning elements in Cambodian society, including the army brass and the urban elite. At the same time, left-wing Cambodians, many of them educated abroad, deeply resented his internal policies, which did not allow for political dissent. Compounding Sihanouk’s problems was the fact that all classes were fed up with the pervasive corruption in government ranks, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family. Although most peasants revered Sihanouk as a semidivine figure, in 1967 a rural-based rebellion broke out in Samlot, Battambang, leading him to conclude that the greatest threat to his regime came from the left. Bowing to pressure from the army, he implemented a policy of harsh repression against left-wingers.
By 1969 the conflict between the army and leftist rebels had become more serious, as the Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s political position had also greatly deteriorated – due in no small part to his obsession with film-making, which was leading him to neglect affairs of state. In March 1970, while Sihanouk was on a trip to France. General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, Sihanouk’s cousin, deposed him as chief of state, apparently with tacit US consent. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing, where he set up a government-in-exile nominally in control of an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. This was a definitive moment in contemporary Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge exploited its partnership with Sihanouk to draw new recruits into their small organization. Many former Khmer Rouge fighters argue that they ’went to the hills’ (a euphemism for joining the Khmer Rouge) to fight for their king and knew nothing of Mao or Marxism.

The Lon Nol Regime
Sihanouk was condemned to death in absentia, an excessive move on the part of the new government that effectively ruled out any chance for compromise over the next five years. Lon Nol gave communist Vietnamese forces an ultimatum to withdraw their forces within one week, which amounted to a virtual declaration of war, as no communists wanted to return to the homeland to face the Americans.
On 30 April 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in an effort to flush out thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who were using Cambodian bases in their war to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. As a result of the invasion, the Vietnamese communists withdrew deeper into Cambodia, thus posing an even greater threat to the Lon Nol government. Cambodia’s tiny army never stood a chance and within the space of a few months, Vietnamese forces and their Khmer Rouge allies controlled almost half the country. The ultimate humiliation came in July 1970 when the Vietnamese seized the temples of Angkor.
In 1969 the USA had begun a secret programmed for bombing suspected communists base camps in Cambodia. For the next years, until bombing was halted by the US Congress in August 1973, huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed by US B-52s, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Some historians believe the bombing campaign may have killed as many as 250,000 Cambodians. Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. While the final, heaviest bombing in the first half of 1973 may have saved Phnom Penh from a premature fall, its ferocity also helped to harden the attitude of many Khmer Rouge cadres and may have contributed to the later brutality of the regime.
Savage fighting engulfed the country, bringing misery to millions of Cambodians; many fled rural areas for the relative safety of Phnom Penh and provincial capitals. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand people died in the fighting. During these years the Khmer Rouge came to play a dominant role in trying to overthrow the Lon Nol regime, strengthened by the support of the Vietnamese, although the Khmer Rouge leadership would vehemently deny this from 1975 onwards.
The leadership of the Khmer Rouge, including Paris-educated Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, had fled into the countryside in the 1960s to escape the summary justice then being meted out to suspected leftists by Sihanouk’s security forces. They consolidated control over the movement and began to move against opponents before they took Phnom Penh. Many of the Vietnamese-trained Cambodian communists who had been based in Hanoi since the 1954 Geneva Accords returned town the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join the Khmer Rouge in 1970. Many were dead by 1975, execute on orders of the anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot faction. Likewise, many moderate Sihanouk supporters who had joined the Khmer Rouge as a show of loyalty to their fallen rather than a show of ideology to the radicals were victims of purges before the regime took power. This set a precedent for internal purges and mass executions that were to eventually bring the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.
It didn’t take long for the Lon Nol government to become very unpopular as a result of unprecedented greed and corruption in its ranks. As the USA bankrolled the war, government and military personnel found lucrative means to make a fortune, such as inventing ‘phantom soldiers’ and pocketing their pay, or selling weapons to the enemy. Lon Nol was widely perceived as an ineffectual leader, obsessed by superstition, fortune tellers and mystical crusades. This perception increased with his stroke in March 1971 and for the next four years his grip on reality seemed to weaken as his corrupt brother Lon Nol’s power grew.

Khmer Rouge Regime
Upon taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted; its goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of the Khmer Rouge coming to power the entire population of the capital city and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march out to the countryside and undertake slave labor in mobile work teams for 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. Except for one fortnightly flight to Beijing (China was providing aid and advisers to the Khmer Rouge), the country was cut off from the outside world.
In the eyes of Pol Pot; the Khmer Rouge was not a unified movement, but a series of factions that needed to be cleansed. This process had begun previously with attacks on Vietnamese-trained Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk’s supporters, but Pol Pot’s initial fury upon seizing power was directed against the enemies of the former regime. All of the senior government and military figures who had been associated with Lon Nol were executed within days of the takeover. Then the center shifted its attention to the outer regions, which had been separated into geographic zones. The loyalist Southwestern Zone forces under the control of one legged general Ta Mok were sent into region after region to purify the population, and thousands perished.
The cleansing reached grotesque heights in the final and bloodiest purge against the powerful and independent Eastern Zone. Generally considered more moderate than other Khmer Rouge factions (although ‘moderate’ is relative in a Khmer Rouge context), the Eastern Zone was closer to Vietnam. The Pol Pot faction consolidated the rest of the country before moving against the east from 1977 onwards. Hundreds of leaders were executed before open rebellion broke out and set the scene for civil war in the east. Many Eastern Zone leaders fled to Vietnam, forming the nucleus of the government Zone leaders fled to Vietnam, forming the nucleus of the government installed by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The people were defenseless and distrusted – ‘Cambodian bodies with Vietnamese minds’ or ‘ducks’ arses with chicken’s heads’ and were deported to the northwest with new, blue karma (scarves). Had it not been for the Vietnamese invasion, all would have perishes, as the blue Krama was a secret party sign indicating an eastern enemy of the revolution.
It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the years, eight months and 21 days of their rule. Vietnamese claimed three million deaths, while foreign experts long considered the number closer to one million. In early 1996, Yale University researchers undertaking ongoing investigations estimated that the figure was around two million.
Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of famine and disease. Meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the field. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families; death was a relief for many from the horrors of life. Some zones were better than others, some leaders fairer than other, but life for the majority was one of unending misery and suffering.
As the center eliminated more and more moderates, Angkar (the organization) was now the only family people needed and those who did not agree were sought out and destroyed. The Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from all they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith. Even the peasants who had supported the revolution could no longer maintain their support. Nobody cared for the Khmer Rouge by 1978, but nobody had an ounce of strength to do anything about it…. Except the Vietnamese.

Vietnamese Intervention
From 1976 to 1978, the xenophobic government in Phnom Penh instigated a series of border clashes with Vietnam, and claimed the Mekong Delta, once part of the Khmer empire. Khmer Rouge incursions into Vietnamese border provinces left hundreds of Vietnamese civilians dead. On 25 December 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, toppling the Pol Pot government two weeks later. As Vietnamese tanks neared Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge fled westward with as many civilians as it could seize, taking refuge in the jungles and mountains on both sides of the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by several former Khmer Rouge officers, including Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. The Khmer Rouge’s patrons, the Chinese communists launched a massive reprisal raid across Vietnam’s northernmost border in early 1979 in an attempt to buy their allies time. It failed, and after 17 days the Chinese withdrew, their fingers badly burnt by their Vietnamese enemies. The Vietnamese then staged a show trial in which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were condemned to death for their genocidal acts.
The social and economic dislocation that accompanied the Vietnamese invasion – along with the destruction of rice stocks and unharvested fields by both sides (to prevent their use by the enemy) – resulted in a vastly reduced rice harvest in early 1979. The chaotic situation led to very little rice being plated in the summer of 1979. By the middle of that year the country was suffering from a widespread famine.
As hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand, a massive international famine relief effort, sponsored by the UN, was launched. The international community wanted to inject aid across a land bridge at Poipet, while the new Phnom Penh government wanted all supplies to come through the capital via Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) or the Mekong River. Both sides had their reasons - the new government did not want aid to fall into the hands of its Khmer Rouge enemies, while the international community didn’t believe the new government had the infrastructure to distribute the aid – and both were right.
Some agencies distributed aid the slow way though Phnom Penh, and others set up camps in Thailand. The camps became a magnet for half of Cambodia, as many Khmers still feared the return of the Khmer Rouge or were seeking a new life overseas. The Thai military bullied and blackmailed the international community into distributing all and through their channels and used this as a cloak to rebuild the shattered Khmer Rouge forces as an effective resistance against the Vietnamese. Thailand demanded that, as a condition for allowing international food aid for Khmer Rouge forces encamped in the Thai border region as well. Along with weaponry supplied by China, this international assistance was essential in enabling the Khmer Rouge to rebuild its military strength. The Khmer Rouge regrouped with food and shelter from willing donors and managed to fight on for another 20 years.
In June 1982 Sihanouk agreed, under pressure from China, to head a military and political front opposed to the Phnom Penh government. The Sihanouk-led resistance coalition brought together – on paper, at least – Funcinpec (the French acronym for the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia), which comprised a royalist group loyal to Sihanouk; the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a noncommunist grouping formed by former prime minister Son Sann; and the Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea and by far the most powerful of the three. The undisputed crimes of the Khmer Rouge were conveniently overlooked to ensure a compromise to suit the great powers.
During the mid- 1980s the British government dispatched the Special Air Service (SAS) to a Malaysian jungle camp to train guerrilla fighters in land mine-laying techniques. Although officially assisting the smaller factions, it is certain the Khmer Rouge benefited from this experience. It then used these new-found skills to intimidate and terrorize the Cambodian people. As part of its campaign to harass and isolate Hanoi, the USA gave more than US$15 million a year in aid to the noncommunist factions of the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition and helped the group retain its seat at the UN assembly in New York. Those responsible for the genocide were representing their victims on the international stage.
For much of the 1980s Cambodia remained closed to the Western world save for the presence of some aid groups. Government policy was effectively under the control of the Vietnamese so Cambodia found itself very much in the Eastern-bloc camp. The economy was in tatters for much of this period, as Cambodia like Vietnam, suffered from the effects of a US-sponsored embargo.
In 1985 the Vietnamese overran all the major rebel camps inside Cambodia. Forcing the Khmer Rouge and its allies to retreat into Thailand. From that time the Khmer Rouge – and, to a limited extent, the other two factions – engaged in guerrilla warfare aimed at demoralizing its opponents. Tactics used by the Khmer Rouge included shelling government-controlled garrison towns, planting thousands of mines along roads and in rice-fields, attacking road transport, blowing up bridges, kidnapping village chiefs, and killing local administrators and school teachers. The Khmer Rouge also forced thousands of men, women and children living in the refugee camps it controlled to work as porters, ferrying ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across heavily mined sections of the border. The Vietnamese for their part laid the world’s longest mind field, known as K-5, strectching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao border, in an attempt to seal out the guerrillas. They also sent Cambodians into the forests to cut down trees on remote sections of road to prevent ambushes. Hundreds, surely thousands died of disease and from injuries sustained from land mines.
By the late 1980s the military wing of Funcinpec, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukiste, had 12,000 troops; Son Sann’s faction, plagued by internal divisions, could field some 8000 soldiers; and the Khmer Rouge’s National Army of Democratic Kampuchea was believed to have 40,000 troops. The army of the Phnom Penh government, the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, had 50,000 regular soldiers and another 100,000 men and women serving local militia forces.