The Civil War in Cambodia

Decades of War in Cambodia

The years 1965 – 1991 were a time of horrible war and destruction in Cambodia. The strife was both internal and external, marked by civil war, being an innocent bystander in the Vietnam War, genocide and famine, and international war with Vietnam.

Civil War

Cambodia remained neutral through the early 1960’s but slowed became more open to the People’s Republic of China, as Prince Sihanouk expected their victory and future dominance in Southeast Asia. This met with resistance from conservatives, who were represented by Minister of Defense Lon Nol.

Cambodian General, Prime Minister Lon Nol

Lon Nol

At the same time, North Vietnamese forces began to encamp on the Cambodian side of the border, to provide a logistical advantage against the South Vietnamese and US. The latter forces began bombing raids beginning in 1969, which killed between 40,000 and 150,000 Cambodians.

With both internal economic struggles and external political problems, Cambodia was torn. Lon Nol led a National Assembly vote which unanimously ousted Sihanouk while he was abroad. Vietnamese were scapegoated, sometimes hunted by neighbors and soldiers. Official efforts were to round them up in detention camps.

Lon Nol attempted to also remain neutral; however the North Vietnamese saw the coup as an opportunity, and persuaded Sihanouk to ally himself to the Khmer Rouge, the communist Cambodian movement, which gave the movement greater credibility and helped them to recruit. The North Vietnamese, in early 1970, pressed attacks into northeastern Cambodia, and the US and South Vietnamese sought to attack them, only to discover that the North Vietnamese had moved even further into Cambodia.

Determined peasants made up the bulk of the Khmer Rouge, and from 1970 to 1975, gradually transformed from auxiliaries to the North Vietnamese forces, to being its own complete entity. The North Vietnamese government continued support throughout.

On June 4, 1972, Lon Nol was elected President in rigged elections; democracy had not truly been achieved. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords brought hope, US bombings were stopped, and Lon Nol declared a unilateral ceasefire. But the Khmer Rouge continued fighting, which reached the edges of Phnom Penh.

Prince Sihanouk was in exile in Beijing; here he is pictured with Mao

Prince Sihanouk (dark suit) with Mao Zhedong (far left)

Khmer Rouge policies and oppression were beyond expectations and belief. In 1973, Pol Pot and Son Sen, among the most radical members, rose to power, with the belief that “Cambodia was to go through a total social revolution and that everything that had preceded it was anathema and must be destroyed”.  Lon Nol resigned April 1, 1975, and the US embassy evacuated on April 12. The capital had been lost; and the Khmer Rouge army began driving forces from the city to rural areas, with tens of thousands of fatalities in the process.

Year Zero and Genocide

With the Khmer Rouge takeover, Year Zero was declared, meaning that the revolutionary culture must replace all that went before. All old culture and traditions had
to be discarded. “New People” – teachers, artists, intellectuals, even simply city people – were especially targeted for execution. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to create a state of agrarian socialism.

Among targets for arrest, torture and execution were anyone with connections to the former government or foreign governments; professionals and intellectuals (including anyone who spoke a foreign language, or even simply wore glasses); ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai; Christians, Muslims and Buddhist monks; and economic saboteurs – which largely meant former city dwellers with little agricultural ability.

Tuol Sleng was a prison/torture center in Phnom Penh where confessions were forced and included lists of friends and acquaintances, who also were often called for interrogation. Confessions often included imaginary accounts of work on behalf of the KGB, CIA or Vietnam. About 17,000 people went through Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21) before being taken to “The Killing Fields” to be executed. To save the cost of bullets, pickaxes were often the weapon of choice for execution. Only 7 who entered Tuol Sleng are known to have survived (hear Bou Meng’s and Chum Mey’s stories ). There were nearly 200 other similar prisons.


A display from the Tuol sleng Museum - images of victims of the Cambodian genocide

Memorial to victims, at the Tuol Sleng Museum

t’s estimated that 25% of urban Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge (about 500,000 people) and 16% of the rural population (825,000). Some estimates run higher, around 1.75 million total. It came to be termed “autogenocide” – genocide against one’s own people.

On January 7, 1979, Vietnam takes Phnom Penh, and the Khmer Rouge is forced west. The Vietnamese occupation will last 11 years. After Pol Pot was overthrown, a law was passed allowing for the genocide trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary; they were tried and found guilty in absentia.

Aftermath and Vietnamese Occupation

In 1982 a coalition government forms among three parties: Prince Sihanouk, who was in exile; the Khmer Rouge and non-communist leader Son Sann. This was in opposition to the Vietnamese-backed  government, led by Heng Samrin.

Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1990, and the following year peace talks in Paris lead to an accord. Elections are held, supervised by the United Nations Transitional Authority. However, the Khmer Rouge boycott the polls and don’t demobilize.

The elections are held in May 1993, and Ranariddh, a son of the king, wins a plurality and forms a transitional government with the Cambodian People’s Party. He and Hun Sen are made co-Prime Ministers.

In 1996, King Norodom Sihanouk pardons Ieng Sary’s genocide sentence. The following year, the Khmer Rouge tries Pol Pot for crimes allegedly committed since 1979. The UN is asked to help create a court to prosecute other top leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

Other trials and convictions have continued and continue today; Alex Hinton has served as an expert witness. Pol Pot died in 1998, denying responsibility for genocide. His death brings an end to the Civil War.

A 2009 law makes it illegal to deny the Cambodian genocide.


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