The Khmer Rouge and Cold War Geopolitics




The Khmer Rouge was surely one of the most brutal and barbaric regimes of the 20th century. According to Ben Kiernan, a genocide scholar who has spent many years in Cambodia and can speak the Khmer language, the death toll for the years that the Khmer Rouge were in power “was between 1.671 and 1.871 million people, 21 to 24 percent of Cambodia’s 1975 population.”1 According to an Amnesty International report, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for “extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture and forced labour on a massive scale” and they “executed hundreds of thousands of people to eliminate perceived opposition; they purged educated groups, and summarily executed leaders and members of religious and ethnic communities.” The same report also stated that “starvation and disease were widespread” under Khmer Rouge rule.2


The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a “concentration camp of the mind, a slave state where absolute obedience was enforced on the killing fields.”3 The policy of going back to “Year Zero”, where there would be no connections with the modern world, “no families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music, no song, no post, no money; only work and death”, ripped “apart the fabric of [the] whole [of Cambodian] society.”


Why did the world allow this to happen? Because Cambodia was so caught up in Cold War politics. A British diplomat in Thailand said of Cambodia: “It’s only 8 million people. Our ties with China and our ties with the U.S. are much more important than these 8 million people.”5


There are two different ways that powerful countries affected the Khmer Rouge. The first is through direct involvement. This would include Chinese military aid given to the Khmer Rouge and American and British training of Khmer Rouge Guerrillas. The second is through indirect involvement. This would include the adoption of an ideology based on Maoism by the Khmer Rouge and the transformation of the Khmer Rouge into a movement with a large base due to peasant anger over the American bombing. In this essay I will look at both direct and indirect involvement. 


The aim of this essay is to assess where the Khmer Rouge fits in to the geo-political framework of the Cold War. It seeks to assess how the great powers affected Khmer Rouge ideology, how they affected or responded to Khmer Rouge actions, to what extent they supported or opposed the Khmer Rouge and how the Cambodian tragedy was cynically exploited by the great powers to achieve their Cold War aims. This essay assumes that the Cold War didn’t end in Indochina until 1995, when the U.S. embargo on Vietnam was lifted and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had all been integrated into the capitalist economy.



Phase 1: The growth of the Khmer Rouge


Maoism and Khmer Rouge Ideology


From the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge it was obvious that their ideology was based on Maoism. In 1967 Pol Pot wrote a letter to the Chinese Central Party Committee, which lavished “fulsome praise on the cultural revolution,” which he claimed that the Cambodian communists had “studied, are studying and are determined to go on studying continuously without let-up”6. Much of the Khmer Rouge revolution was based upon the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in China. Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” programme can be viewed as an extreme version of the Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot believed that after Year Zero Cambodian society would be “purified”. “Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favour of an extreme form of peasant Communism”, much like the Cultural Revolution in China.7 Much of the cultural repression under the Khmer Rouge found it’s predecessor in the “cultural repression of Tibet” that was instituted in the Cultural Revolution.8 


In 1976, the Khmer Rouge instituted a campaign very similar to the Great Leap Forward in China, which they initially called the “Great Leap Forward.” But by 1977 it was the “Super Great Leap Forward”. According to Ben Kiernan: “Two major ideological features of China’s Great Leap era, crash collectivism and the concept of a ‘communist wind,’ prefigure [the Khmer Rouge’s] own leap.” During the Great Leap Forward in China, a Chinese official urged “unified uprising, eating, sleeping, setting out to work, and returning from work.” This policy of extreme collectivization was later followed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.


The repression of family was an important policy in Mao’s Great Leap Forward and this was copied with even more extremity by the Khmer Rouge. In 1958 Mao proclaimed that “the family, which emerged in the last period of primitive communism, will in future be abolished”. “Long after the Chinese had abandoned such ideas, Pol Pot took up Mao’s gauntlet.”10 In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge forced women “to marry [men] they did not know” and “only a camp controller could sanction marriage”11


In 1960, Mao said that “we must disperse the residents of the big cities to the rural areas”. In China, “100,000 urban enterprises were closed down, and by 1961 ten million people had been moved from urban to rural areas, and another ten million by 1965.”12 During this period Pol Pot went to China to see the Chinese Revolution for himself. The evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975, the forced marching of all city dwellers into the countryside and the creation of “Year Zero” by the Khmer Rouge all have their roots in this Chinese “over-correction” of the urbanization policies of the Great Leap Forward. The Khmer Rouge also applied the Chinese policy of extermination of ethnic minorities, intellectuals and city dwellers. 



U.S. Bombing and the Growth of the Khmer Rouge


The Khmer Rouge was, for the most part until about 1970, a small revolutionary group with little base. They needed a catalyst. This came in the form of the American bombing of Cambodia, a “sideshow” to the war against Vietnam. The bombing was initiated in October 1965 and ended in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. Between 1965 and 1970 “475,515 tons of ordinance” was dropped on Cambodia. In 1969 the bombing was stepped up to carpet-bombing and “beginning in 1969, the [U.S.] air force deployed B-52s over Cambodia.”13 On December 9th 1970 Richard Nixon further stepped up the bombing of Cambodia, saying that he wanted “everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them”, and that there was “no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget”14. In 1973 the bombing of Cambodia was “increased to a scale that might truly merit the term ‘genocidal’”, and in the five-month period after the signing of the Paris peace accords, the bombing matched the level of the preceding three years.”15 “During one six-month period in 1973 B-52s dropped more bombs in 3,696 raids on the populated heartland of Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during all of the Second World war: the equivalent, in tons of bombs, to five Hiroshimas.” This bombing “provided a small group of fanatical Maoists, the Khmer Rouge, with a catalyst for a revolution which had no popular base among the Khmer people.”16


The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) regime, led by Pol Pot, “profited greatly from the U.S. bombing. It used the widespread devastation and massacre of civilians for recruiting purposes, and as an excuse for its brutal policies and its purge of moderate Khmer communists.”17 The Finnish Inquiry Commission estimates that about 600,000 people died from the bombing while about 2 million became refugees.18 The Khmer Rouge used this suffering for propaganda purposes. There are many cases where Cambodian villages were bombed, and directly after the bombing the villagers went to join the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, a young man who at the age of 20 had become a CPK company commander told journalists how “his village in Pursat had been bombed eight years before, killing 200 of its 350 inhabitants and propelling him into a career of violence and absolute loyalty to the CPK.” In 1973 a group of peasants told journalists that “they wanted the bombing stopped whatever the consequences for the Phnom Penh government.” The Khmer Rouge told peasants that “the purpose of the bombing was to completely destroy the country” and that joining the Khmer Rouge was the only way to be protected from further bombardment and protect Kampuchea.19


This table was put together by Ben Kiernan and it shows the “relationship between U.S. bombing and CPK armed forces growth”20:




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