Killing in Cambodia: A Tale of Two Decades

<i> Joel R. Charny is Asia regional director for Oxfam America</i>

Cambodian Buddhists believe that dead souls not given a proper burial are condemned to wander restlessly in a nether world, unable to enter another body for reincarnation. Among the 500,000 dead in the civil war from 1970-75 and the 1 million killed or worked to death by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79, few were accorded the proper rites. This deeply troubles the Cambodian spirit.

The survivors themselves are in limbo. For 10 years, since January, 1979, they have been ruled by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, two former mid-level Khmer Rouge officials who were placed in power when the Vietnamese invasion toppled Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Invasion liberated the country from genocidal tyranny but put state power in the hands of leaders who owed their survival to Vietnam.


For centuries the more powerful states of Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west have threatened to swallow Cambodia. When the Vietnamese did arrive in 1979 the situation was ambiguous: Vietnamese military and political support was essential to protect the fledgling People’s Republic of Kampuchea, as the country is known today, from the return of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was rebuilt and rearmed with military assistance from China and Thailand, and diplomatic support from much of the world including the United States.

The 7 million Cambodians who remain in their country have had to accept occupation by their traditional enemy, Vietnam, as the lesser evil compared with the return of the Khmer Rouge. For most of the last 10 years the international community has been content to condemn Cambodians to this awful choice.

For nine of those years I have been traveling back and forth to Cambodia as a relief worker, attempting to provide humanitarian assistance in an atmosphere of continued anxiety, conflict and polarization. From the beginning of my involvement in 1980, the policy of the United States--diplomatic backing for the Chinese and Thai policy of full support to the Khmer Rouge as the strongest resistance force to the Vietnamese occupation--struck me as immoral Realpolitik of the most cynical sort.

I have heard many stories of the Pol Pot period--of a son whose father died in his arms, of a young woman whose parents and 12 siblings were killed. In 1980 such stories poured out of Cambodians, more to each other than to outside relief workers. Ten years later, the emotions are not as raw and vivid, but the healing has been incomplete.

A decade ago exhausted and malnourished survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide began to trek across Cambodia to return to their villages and search for missing relatives. When they reached their villages they often found nothing left: homes damaged or destroyed, no trace of family and friends, food stocks looted or burned. Fighting between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops still swirled around them. Recapture by the Khmer Rouge meant instant death or, at best, a forced march west with the retreating soldiers.

Once the fighting passed, peasants devoted any remaining energy to scavenging for food and constructing shelter for their families. Others headed for Phnom Penh, the capital that became a ghost town under the Khmer Rouge and was slowly being repopulated.

Today Phnom Penh has a population of 800,000. It has the surface feel of a city--bustling markets, restaurants, cinemas, shops and a tame version of rush hour. But at night, even before the 10 p.m. curfew, the city seems to suffer absence, as quiet as a village.

Recovery from the 1979 famine was at first rapid; it has since slowed. The Vietnamese-backed government, unrecognized by all but the Soviet bloc and India, has faced an embargo on trade and aid imposed by Asian neighbors and Western countries. Cambodia has reached bare self-sufficiency in food production but even minor problems with drought or floods puts lives in jeopardy. In sectors dependent on outside investment--industry, transport, communications and sanitation--progress has been minimal. Just to get back to where it was in the ‘60s, much less to develop, Cambodia needs massive outside investment. This can only come when the political stalemate is resolved. In the meantime, the embargo on humanitarian aid punishes the poor of Cambodia.

Politically, the current government has gained in stature following the series of meetings between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the nation’s former leader. Sihanouk’s name still evokes, after decades of war and revolution, what Cambodians remember as the halcyon days when the country was whole. Cambodians now welcome government tolerance of the small private sector and recent announcements that collectivization of agricultural land will no longer be encouraged.

But there is dissatisfaction with the continued dependence on Vietnam. The human-rights record of the government has been condemned by Amnesty International and other such organizations that deplore the detention of political prisoners without trial and the use of civilian labor on military works projects near the Thai-Cambodian border, projects that have resulted in deaths from land mines and malaria.

The dialogues between Hun Sen and Sihanouk are the most concrete sign of hope that a settlement is possible in 1989. The initiatives of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to reduce tensions with the West by cutting Soviet commitments to client states in regions of superpower tension, also help.

The Vietnamese, feeling Soviet pressure and desperate for capitalist investment in their own economy, have begun significant troop withdrawals from Cambodia, with a pledge to withdraw fully by 1990. The Soviet dialogue with China, main backers of the Khmer Rouge, hold further promise.

At the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge holds Cambodia’s seat, the General Assembly, for the first time since 1979, passed a resolution dealing with Cambodia that included a veiled condemnation of the genocide when the Khmer Rouge were in power.

But these diplomatic efforts, as significant as they are, cannot by themselves banish the Khmer Rouge. This monstrous group, revived and sustained since 1979 as the means to drive the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, refuses to leave the scene now that its task is nearly done. So as the Vietnamese troops withdraw, Khmer Rouge begins to fill the vacuum, promising revenge on all those who dared to collaborate with the Vietnamese to ensure their own survival.

Without an immediate halt to military and political support for the Khmer Rouge from China and Thailand--a policy heretofore aided and abetted by the United States--the talk of peace and U.N.-supervised elections and quadripartite governments is irrelevant and even dangerous. A strengthened Khmer Rouge has the potential power to disrupt any settlement, even if the group is nominally made a part of it.

Now, State Department sources emphasize U.S. distance from the Khmer Rouge. During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State James A. Baker III promised, “The United States will continue to work for a new Cambodia, free of both Vietnamese occupation and the Khmer Rouge.”

To say Cambodia could become another Lebanon, another Mozambique or another Nicaragua does not do justice to Cambodia. Cambodia, where the perpetrators have changed but violence has been the norm for 20 years, begs no comparison. Cambodians, the dead and the living, beg only, finally, for peace.