Before leaving for Cambodia, I had grand aspirations to read up on the period between 1975 and 1979 when the radical communist group called the Khmer Rouge had control of Cambodia and carried out a massive genocide in which around 2,000,000,000 people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, were killed. I wanted to brief my friends and family on my upcoming two-week trip to Cambodia that is part of a Conflict Resolution course at the Monterey Institute. However, in the past month I have used to read about the conflict and prepare for the trip, I’ve learned that merely reading up on that particular period is insufficient to gain any solid insight into the implications of the genocide. I do feel more compassion for the plight of a historian; there are so many lenses through which to view history, and infinite details to cover. Additionally, as I have learned through the memoirs, briefings, documentaries, and films I have poured over in the past month, a society is truly a product of its culture, and the task of summing up a culture as rich and complex as that of Cambodia does not lend itself to simplistic explanations. Therefore I hesitate to launch into any kind of summary of Cambodian history because it will be inevitably incomplete, but for the sake of those who know very little to nothing about the conflict, I’m going to do just that. Since this is a blog, I intend to edit my entries as I learn more about the conflict, and I am hoping that if I leave anything important out that comes to someone’s attention, they will fill in the blank with a comment.
The class will focus on the challenges that Cambodia faces today regarding peacebuilding in their society. The country was deeply affected by the period between 1975-79, and studying this conflict is crucial to understand why there are such challenges to peacebuilding. The conflict begins to make sense to me when I begin examining Cambodia’s history in the 1950’s. During this time, French rule of Cambodia ended and Prince Sihanouk gained control of the country. Although I have learned a lot about this prince, what sticks out in my mind about him is that his regime was rather corrupt, and eventually he was replaced by the pro-Western and U.S. backed Lon Nol government. Lon Nol was the Prime Minister of Cambodia between 1966-1969.
In this period, the United States was fighting the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon became president. In 1969, the United States secretly bombed Cambodia in order to eradicate any North Vietnamese forces located there. An estimated 600,000 people died in this incident, and the U.S. continued to bomb Cambodia for the next four years. Here I would like to recommend the film The Killing Fields, which is about the genocide and begins with this bombing. Sometimes the government of Cambodia agreed to these bombings, and sometimes they did not.
The Lon Nol government became very unpopular with the royalist rural population of Cambodia, which was most affected by the bombs. Various political factions gained momentum, one of which was the Khmer Rouge, headed by the communist mastermind, Pol Pot. The former Prince Sihanouk allied with the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to regain power, and gradually the Khmer Rouge gained popularity among the peasant population of Cambodia.