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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia


Beginning in the first month of 1979 Cambodians in their thousands stumbled towards the border of Thailand, the only place they could hope to find refuge. They were emaciated and afraid. Some carried children in their arms or on their backs; injured people were pushed in handcarts. By May the Red Cross was feeding forty thousand refugees. Journalists and photographers from across the world jostled for stories and filed reports of torture, slave labour and executions.

Survivors told of three years, eight months and twenty days of terror, of family members lost or killed. They described Cambodia, smaller in area than Victoria, as littered with the bodies of victims. Careful calculation has now shown that almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population of between seven and eight million had suffered ‘forensic death’, death caused by crime. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, CPK, known as the Khmer Rouge or Red Cambodians, had held the total population captive. While this was happening the attention of the world media was elsewhere.

It was 17 April 1975, just before the North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon, that the army of the Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh. There were no longer government troops to oppose them. The population, swollen by refugees from battles in the countryside, awoke to silence instead of to the familiar sound of war. At sunrise young Khmer Rouge soldiers, some clad in black pyjamas, some in tattered army uniforms, were noticed on the streets. For years government troops had been fighting the Khmer Rouge. It was as if peace had come at last. As the sun rose higher on this hot April morning families cheered and girls brought flowers.

By noon the young fighters began issuing orders from their leaders for the entire population to leave their homes and evacuate to the countryside. The evacuation was chaotic but the intention of the Khmer Rouge leadership was purposeful.

Family members who were in different parts of the city when the command was given were separated without farewell. Patients were pushed on trolleys from the hospital wards and even from operating theatres. The elderly, the disabled, the very young, the mothers giving birth and those who questioned the command were the first to die. The purpose of this exodus of people forced to walk north, south, east or west away from Phnom Penh was, in the mind of the Khmer Rouge leaders, the very-great leap forward, the re-founding of Cambodia/Kampuchea. The nation was to emerge as a pure communist state.

The leaders were a circle of young Cambodians who had been sent to France for post-graduate study and had returned, most with doctorates, all with a dream for change. There was in Paris a Cambodian section of the French Communist Party convinced that revolution was the way to free their country from a long history of despotic leadership, corruption, impunity, greed and oppression of the poor. Back in Phnom Penh they worked as teachers, university lecturers, or politicians seeking opportunities to influence others. Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, had failed his exams. He began working in rural villages for the CPK.

This ferment took place during the reign of Norodom Sihanouk. For centuries Cambodians had been ruled by monarchs with absolute power. The French, who had established a Protectorate over Cambodia, appointed Norodom Sihanouk as King in 1941. He was a self-described playboy with an ebullient personality; they expected him to be their puppet. As it happened he claimed glory for gaining independence from France, resigned as King, appointed his father in his place and assumed a role of ‘head-of-state’; in this way gaining more power. His was a one-party regime that lasted until 1970. He cultivated international relationships and gained aid to spend on health and education. By the end of the sixties the number of children in school had increased by 400 percent and there were opportunities for the brightest to pursue post-graduate degrees overseas. He later ruefully said that he should have been more careful about this. He spent time among peasant farmers offering small gifts to their families. They saw him as the God-King and called him King Father. Activists and even members of his cabinet who dared to have a view different from his risked torture and execution. A significant number fled to the jungle to join the communists.

The first small Cambodian communist cells in the 1950s were inspired and supported from North Vietnam. During the late 50s the intellectuals from France abandoned their careers in the city one by one and gained leadership within the CPK. They had a vision of a rural-based, simple society. City dwellers would be re-educated by the labour of working the land, a hard life that would teach simple values. People who could not adjust would die. This would remedy the suffering inflicted by vast inequalities of wealth and power. It would be a classless society.

The program to train revolutionaries blended the Cambodian culture in which they themselves had been shaped with the communist theory that they had absorbed in Paris. Among them were men who had lived and been taught in Buddhist monasteries during their schooldays, as was common in Cambodia. In their communist movement, as in familiar Cambodian monastic tradition, detachment and renunciation were central. For a worthy society to be brought about, it was taught, one must be ready to sacrifice, to renounce possessions and renounce family. The planned revolution would create a nation where all people were equal and would work together for the common good. For this great goal they should detach their hearts from feelings of guilt or hesitation about tough actions that must be taken. This could be understood even by recruits who were illiterate. It was repeated like the mantra of the monks; it was ‘correct behaviour’. Earnest young people and disillusioned activists were taught to sacrifice everything for this revolution.

A central theme of the indoctrination was loyalty to every aspect of the party’s policy and organisation. There was rigid hierarchy and a code of secrecy. Like teachers in the traditional schools the leaders wrote the rules that adherents to the organisation must obey. Those who would renounce everything in personal life and be willing to kill even their mother or father for the cause of the revolution could expect to be highly regarded.

Pol Pot, who became leader of the CPK in 1962, was adamant about the need to root out enemies. The more zealous followers responded by ‘smashing the enemy’ through ritual torture that had been known in Cambodia for centuries. Zealous Khmer Rouge cadre would do a ‘wild’ thing to restore ‘correctness’. One example, practiced by some Khmer Rouge though not only by them, was to tie an enemy to a tree, cut out his liver and as he died cook and eat it. This demonstrated that the revolutionary was detached of heart, and able to kill without wavering. In addition the eating of liver would bring courage to the liver of the one who ate it for the liver was the seat of courage. Admiration was gained by brutalising an enemy until he was no longer human.

The Khmer Rouge movement would have dwindled and disappeared as did other extreme groups in earlier times, but a series of events nobody could have foreseen swelled its ranks until it became a force to be taken seriously. Both the policies of the USA and the unpredictable decisions of Norodom Sihanouk strengthened the Khmer Rouge. Though Norodom Sihanouk did not set out to support the communists, and successive Presidents of the USA feared communism and set out to eradicate it, the Khmer Rouge gained supporters from their actions.

Sihanouk made choices to maintain ties with neighbouring countries and with the international community. While America and its allies were supporting the South in the war in Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, known as the Viet Cong by Western sources, ferried munitions through Cambodian and Laotian territory. Sihanouk chose to ignore this, navigating relationships with the USA, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, France, South Vietnam and the USSR simultaneously. The Viet Cong nurtured the fledgling Cambodian communists, the Khmer Rouge, in the jungle areas that they shared, until 1970.

Between 1965 and 1968 President Johnson began bombing attacks on Cambodian territory. The Khmer Rouge fanned the anger of rural Cambodian populations who suffered from these attacks. In March 1969, as part of his strategy to end the Vietnam conflict, the newly elected President Nixon ordered intensified bombing. ‘I want anything that flies to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage an there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?’ Nixon’s National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, relayed the order: ‘A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.’ Recruitment for the Khmer Rouge escalated in rural areas.

Sihanouk, mainly because he now believed the North Vietnamese would overcome the South, cut off relationships with the USA. His decision was disputed by the Cambodian military commanders, who depended on American aid, but Norodom Sihanouk did not brook dispute; in January 1970 he set out on a journey to Paris, Moscow and Peking seeking financial support. Before he reached Peking he was usurped as leader by Lon Nol, who was pro-American. The Chinese leadership supported the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk was persuaded to become the movement’s ‘titular head’. The former King broadcast by radio into Cambodian villages to strengthen armed resistance against Lon Nol. This appealed to rural populations where he was still regarded as King Father. It also further boosted Khmer Rouge recruitment.

Nixon, to take attention away from US withdrawal from Vietnam, ordered carpet bombing across eastern Cambodia and closer to Phnom Penh. During the American raids 2,765,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, compared to 2,000,000 tons dropped by the allies during the whole of Word War Two, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US Congress, in response to protests of US citizens, cut off funds for the bombing of Cambodia in August 1973. This left Lon Nol’s army without aerial support. The Khmer Rouge army was already strong; the fall of Phnom Penh was inevitable.

Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

On seizing power the Khmer Rouge declared Year Zero. They abolished private ownership, abolished currency, closed markets, schools and monasteries, and emptied towns. Townspeople were sent to rural areas where they would labour without pay and without rights to build a nation that the Khmer Rouge named Democratic Kampuchea.

Sihanouk was flown back from China to become Head of State, to represent Democratic Kampuchea internationally and to ensure a seat for this ‘new nation’ at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He achieved these tasks with his usual ebullience, but a short time after his return to Phnom Penh he resigned from his role, pleading health problems and the need to travel to China for medical treatment. The leadership denied his request and kept him under ‘house arrest’.

By the end of the first year of their regime the Khmer Rouge identified ‘failures’ preventing the revolution from reaching its goals. They suspected sabotage and disloyalty. Purges of ‘the guilty’ commenced. All, even senior Khmer Rouge officials, lived in fear. Suspicion became paranoia, torture yielded new names of traitors. Bodies rotted in fields and Buddhist Wats and schools became torture centres. In Toul Sleng, the largest of these prisons, more than twelve thousand prisoners were photographed, tortured until a confession was extracted, and then executed. Khmer Rouge interrogated mercilessly, in the ‘correct way’.

The regime was nationalistic, obsessed about safeguarding Cambodia’s borders and regaining territory lost to neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Border areas were attacked without provocation. The Vietnamese, backed by the Soviet Union, timed their response carefully.

Late in 1978 the Vietnamese army advanced towards Phnom Penh along the highways that converged on the capital. They were well armed and equipped and in two weeks ‘liberated’ the country. Pol Pot, now recognised as Khmer Rouge Brother Number One, announced resumption of guerrilla warfare from the jungles.

The Vietnamese Communist army reached Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 and installed a regime, to be known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, with a governing body of Cambodians appointed and advised by Vietnamese. Its leaders and many of its members had fought with the Khmer Rouge before defecting to Vietnam in 1977–78. A twenty-three year old former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen, became the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In 1985 Hanoi appointed him Prime Minister.

Millions who had been held captive by the Khmer Rouge walked the roads seeking food and freedom, seeking lost family members, seeking their former homes, or seeking safety at the Thai border. Those who clustered close to Thailand were a mixed group, of deserters from the Khmer Rouge army, peasant farmers, former business people, intellectuals, artists, black marketeers and other opportunists, as well as many widows and children.

Civilians were a magnet for international aid and resistance groups made their bases close by, where they were supported by foreign allies. The Chinese resurrected the Khmer Rouge army. The USA, Western powers, and ASEAN states supported two anti-Communist resistance groups, the Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (known by its French initials, FUNCINPEC). The USSR supported the Vietnamese troops stationed in Cambodia. This force attacked the resistance; the resistance attacked back with logistical help from the Thais. Many of the refugees caught in the crossfire realised that they were being used as political pawns.

After two years of sheltering in China, Sihanouk agreed to lead a national front, consisting of the two non-communist resistance groups together with the Khmer Rouge. It was named the Coalition of Democratic Kampuchea and occupied the seat at the United Nations previously held by the Khmer Rouge.

In 1989 the USSR withdrew support from Vietnam. The Vietnamese troops, having trained and armed a military force for Prime Minister Hun Sen, withdrew from Cambodia. Within two years Peace Accords were signed in Paris.

A United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) governed beside a Supreme National Council (SNC), consisting of representatives from each of the four factions. Sihanouk presided over this. The border camps were closed and more than three-hundred-thousand people were brought back into the country, to a doubtful future. The Khmer Rouge refused to demobilise as agreed in the Accords, withdrew from the planned election, and continued fighting. They held territory in Battambang Province and mined gems and cut timber to trade for armaments. UNTAC Peace Keepers were blocked from entering their territory. Hun Sen boosted the numbers of his powerful national police by moving soldiers into this force instead of demobilising them. He refused to allow UNTAC to oversee them. The Khmer Rouge continued their war until 1998, holding a ‘liberated zone’ and threatening villages and towns.

Four million people voted in the 1993 General Election. FUNCINPEC gained the majority of votes but Hun Sen rejected the outcome. After a standoff and the threat of further bloodshed Sihanouk proposed that, for the sake of national reconciliation, there would be a coalition government with two Prime Ministers: Ranariddh the leader of FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen the leader of the CPP. Hopes for the stability of the Peace Accords and for democracy faded.

When the compromise disintegrated in 1997 Hun Sen emerged as sole Prime Minister, the role he had held from 1985. The United Nations Commission for Human Rights and other human rights groups filed thick documents detailing political and civil rights abuses under his leadership.

Early in Hun Sen’s leadership I stood in the foyer of a restored reception centre in Phnom Penh, waiting for a conference to begin, talking among a small cluster of people that included the Prime Minister. During the conversation he commented that without his strong authority there would be far more bloodshed. He believed it.

Hun Sen’s power mirrored that of despotic Cambodian rulers before him. He had ultimate control over the judiciary, the armed forces, the police and secret security teams. Journalists and editors with opposing views were assassinated and nobody was ever found guilty of their deaths. Before each election there were political murders.

The Paris Agreements had not provided for accountability for Khmer Rouge crimes but had simply called for a ‘non-return to the policies and practices of the past’. In the late 1990s Hun Sen agreed to negotiate with the United Nations for a tribunal; one set up on his terms. It was now generally accepted that the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for between 1.7 and 2.12 million deaths. In Western countries there was a public call for the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge atrocities to be held accountable. The United Nations General Assembly, against the advice of the Secretary-General, eventually agreed to a tribunal formula acceptable to the Prime Minister. Western countries, including Australia, were willing to provide the funding needed for a court to proceed on Hun Sen’s terms.

A compromise was agreed. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), established in 2001, would comprise a minority of judges and co-prosecutors nominated by the UN Secretary General, and a majority of judges and co-prosecutors selected from the Cambodian judiciary and appointed on the approval of Hun Sen. The period to be examined would be precisely the days of the Khmer Rouge regime; nothing earlier, nothing later. The ECCC would try ‘senior Khmer Rouge leaders’ and those ‘most responsible’.

Pol Pot had died in the jungle in 1997.

Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, the commander of Toul Sleng Interrogation Centre, and Ta Mok, known as the Butcher of Battambang, were already in prison. Ta Mok died there.

Hun Sen gave permission for the police to apprehend Noun Chea, Pol Pot’s deputy, Khieu Samphan, president of Democratic Kampuchea from 1976 until 1979, and Ieng Sary, a co-founder and senior member of the Khmer Rouge and foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea from 1975–79, together with his wife Ieng Thirith. Ieng Sary died in prison before coming to trial; his wife was assessed as not fit to be tried because of advanced dementia.

Case 001, the trial of Duch, sifted through a vast number of documents and called many witnesses even though the accused admitted guilt. People from the countryside were bussed to Phnom Penh to watch. Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Case 002, the trial of Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, had both men appear together because they were already elderly and frail. Pressure was mounting for more convictions before further suspects died. Khieu Samphan in particular protested against this, saying that his role was quite different from that of his co-defendant. Many aspects of this case left grounds for appeal and in mid-2015 the court was still bogged down in hearing appeals.

Hun Sen, his appointed judges and the police have refused to cooperate with any further trials. Trial 003 could bring evidence from the Eastern Zone where Hun Sen and Chea Sim, a senior member of Hun Sen’s government, held positions of authority. Many former Khmer Rouge members and military leaders have official roles in Cambodia’s present government.

Despotic leadership, corruption, impunity, greed and oppression of the poor prevail now as they did when the Khmer Rouge leadership first shaped their vision of Year Zero. Corruption remains an unchecked problem. The gap between rich and poor is extreme. Crimes are committed with impunity and people are imprisoned without cause. Powerful elites plunder the nation’s resources. Land is ‘grabbed’ from the poor and sold to big companies for profit. I have seen all of this. There is an oft-repeated Cambodian proverb: ‘The rich plough the backs of the poor’.

In writing this necessary background I have turned to historians and other scholars whom I trust. I acknowledge them as my source. There is however a parallel narrative. It tells of ordinary women and men in Cambodia, and of their response to these grim times. Theirs is a story about compassion, courage and humour. Goodness persists. Whether it sprang from the dark tangle of Cambodia’s past, or simply survived it, I cannot say.

I must write about this because I have seen it, and know. There is beauty: a terrible beauty.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy