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The Khmer Republic


Phnom Penh street
Phnom Penh street

In March 1970 Cambodia’s legislature, the National Assembly, deposed Sihanouk while he was abroad. The conservative forces behind the coup were pro-Western and anti-Vietnamese. General Lon Nol, the country’s prime minister, assumed power and sent his poorly equipped army to fight the North Vietnamese Communist forces encamped in border areas. Lon Nol hoped that U.S. aid would allow him to defeat his enemies, but American support was always geared to events in Vietnam. In April U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, searching for North Vietnamese, who moved deeper into Cambodia. Over the next year, North Vietnamese troops destroyed the offensive capacity of Lon Nol’s army.

In October 1970 Lon Nol inaugurated the Khmer Republic. Sihanouk, who had sought asylum in China, was condemned to death despite his absence. By that time, Chinese and North Vietnamese leaders had persuaded the prince to establish a government in exile, allied with North Vietnam and dominated by the CPK, whom Sihanouk referred to as the Khmer Rouge (French for “Red Khmers”).

The United States continued bombing Cambodia until the Congress of the United States halted the campaign in 1973. By that time, Lon Nol’s forces were fighting not only the Vietnamese but also the Khmer Rouge. The general lost control over most of the Cambodian countryside, which had been devastated by U.S. bombing. The fighting severely damaged the nation’s infrastructure and caused high numbers of casualties. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into the cities. In 1975, despite massive infusions of U.S. aid, the Khmer Republic collapsed, and Khmer Rouge forces occupied Phnom Penh. Three weeks later, North Vietnamese forces achieved victory in South Vietnam.

Democratic Kâmpŭchéa


Immediately after occupying Cambodia’s towns, the Khmer Rouge ordered all city dwellers into the countryside to take up agricultural tasks. The move reflected both the Khmer Rouge’s contempt for urban dwellers, whom they saw as enemies, and their utopian vision of Cambodia as a nation of busy, productive peasants. The leader of the regime, who remained concealed from the public, was Saloth Sar, who used the pseudonym Pol Pot. The government, which called itself Democratic Kâmpŭchéa (DK), claimed to be seeking total independence from foreign powers but accepted economic and military aid from its major allies, China and North Korea. Without identifying themselves as Communists, the Khmer Rouge quickly introduced a series of far-reaching and often painful socialist programs. The people given the most power in the new government were the largely illiterate rural Cambodians who had fought alongside the Khmer Rouge in the civil war. DK leaders severely restricted freedom of speech, movement, and association, and forbade all religious practices. The regime controlled all communications along with access to food and information. Former city dwellers, now called 'new people,' were particularly badly treated. The Khmer Rouge killed intellectuals, merchants, bureaucrats, members of religious groups, and any people suspected of disagreeing with the party. Millions of other Cambodians were forcibly relocated, deprived of food, tortured, or sent into forced labor.

Cambodia inhabitant image
Cambodia inhabitant image

The Khmer Rouge also attacked neighboring countries in an attempt to reclaim territories lost by Cambodia many centuries before. After fighting broke out with Vietnam (then united under the Communists) in 1977, DK’s ideology became openly racist. Ethnic minorities in Cambodia, including ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, were hunted down and expelled or massacred. Purges of party members accused of treason became widespread. People in eastern Cambodia, suspected of cooperating with Vietnam, suffered severely, and hundreds of thousands of them were killed. While in power, the Khmer Rouge murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million Cambodians—more than one-fifth of the country’s population.

The war with Vietnam went badly for Cambodia, and in the second half of 1978 the DK tried to open the country up to the wider world, inviting journalists to visit and extending diplomatic recognition to several nonsocialist countries. In December 1978 the Vietnamese launched a blitzkrieg assault on Cambodia, using more than 100,000 troops. A group of Cambodian Communist rebels, the Khmer National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), accompanied them. On January 7, 1979, the invading forces occupied Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge leaders had abandoned the day before. Pol Pot, his colleagues, and hundreds of thousands of followers sought refuge over the next few months along the Thai-Cambodian border. There they were protected by the Thai regime, which was hostile to Vietnam. "Cambodia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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