The Cambodian Genocide in the light of the Cold War

Written by Alex Plant. Edited by Megan Wright.

In just under four years, between one and a half to three million people died in a country a quarter of the size of Texas. The Cambodian genocide scarred a population, changed the face of a country, and destroyed a civilisation. Not only was this an important contemporary event, but its resonances of politics and human rights still ring true even today.

In 1975, after a lengthy and bloody civil war, the Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia with the mysterious Pol Pot at its helm. The socialist revolution that followed shifted Cambodia back to an aggressively agrarian society based on the principles of Maoist China, coupled with an almost unhindered ethnic cleansing policy. Similar to that of Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge saw Cambodia as having been ‘polluted’ by an increasingly diverse number of ethnic identities, and violently sought to reassert the native Khmer race as supreme. Torture, forced labour and starvation became a routine part of life for the average Cambodian citizen, and between 1975 and 1979 around 20% of the country’s population died a premature and preventable death. Yet how does this horrendous and little known period of history link into the hugely publicised and explored Cold War?

The Cambodian civil war that preceded the genocide occurred roughly at the same time as the Western superpowers were fighting the Vietnam war, with the two countries sharing a large border. During this period, the United States not only financially backed the side that ultimately lost the civil war, General Lon Nol’s dictatorial regime, but also severely bombed the border of Cambodia killing approximately 750,000 Cambodians in the effort to destroy the North Vietnamese. These factors led to a high anti-American sentiment in the country, with many Cambodians joining resistance forces against General Lon Nol purely as an anti-American protest. The fact a Communist revolution then ensued, naturally meant that the West assumed Cambodia had fallen under the Soviet’s influence in line with Vietnam. However one aspect of the Cold War that is often overlooked is the ideological division within the socialist camp itself; drawn between the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Cambodia not only fell into the Maoist camp, but was actively fighting against the Soviet backed Vietnam, an issue which the West soon realised.

In 1979 when the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge was halted by the invasion of North Vietnamese troops, the majority of Cambodians dared to hope that they would now receive the humanitarian aid they needed to rebuild their country. Their capital, Phnom Pehn, had all but been destroyed in the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to de-urbanise the country, and vital infrastructure such as communication lines and transport links had been deliberately removed in order to divide the citizens from their families and friends. The new temporary coalition government established was intent on restoring Cambodia and rehabilitating the millions who had nearly lost their lives in the genocide, however the fact that this government was implemented by the Soviet-backed Vietnam meant that the West, and particularly the United States, viewed them as the enemy. Despite the atrocities the Khmer Rouge had carried out over the past four years, and despite the state the country had been left in upon their ousting from power, Britain and the United States continued to support them as the rightful leaders of Cambodia over the overtly Soviet coalition government. Cambodia’s seat at the UN continued to be occupied by the Khmer Rouge for several years after their fall from power, protected fiercely by the Western superpowers. Moreover, the United States and Britain even attempted to block NGO efforts to bring emergency humanitarian aid to the country in order not to fuel the geopolitical tensions surrounding the country.

These actions by the Western superpowers were understood in contemporary politics as simply a necessary reaction to halt the flow of Soviet communism internationally. However at what point should it have been decided that human rights ultimately should rise above the tensions of the Cold War and take priority? After Nuremberg, there was a general feeling, particularly in the West, that such a horrific episode of history should never occur again, under any circumstances. Was the West’s handling of Cambodia influenced by this; the idea that Nuremberg should have removed any country’s motive to undertake a genocide, that the West had indeed failed at disciplining the Nazi’s enough to stop a similar event occurring? The Cambodian genocide took place within a generation of World War Two, yet the aftermath had not been enough to halt such a similar episode from occurring, and as a result the West plainly wanted to refuse its existence. Or was this simply a matter of geopolitics triumphing over the individual; that such a small country was worth been taken as ‘collateral damage’ in the much larger fight against Communism. Whatever the actual reasoning behind the West’s handling of the Cambodian genocide, it can ultimately be seen that the moral issues that arose from the event are still being applied to the world today, and their constant need indicates that this period of time should never be forgotten as simply ‘history’.