Saturday, November 04, 2006

Humanitarian Interventions -- Cambodia, 1979

The second major humanitarian of the 1970's was Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia to expel the murderous Khmer Rouge. Although the invasion can certainly be defended on humanitarian grounds, the entire episode does not reflect favorably on anyone -- including the Vietnamese government.

The Khmer Rouge began as a Communist insurgency against the Cambodian government, trained and supported by, and largely subordinate to, the larger and more powerful Vietnamese Communist party. Originally a minor force, the Khmer Rouge became powerful when the unpopular (pro U.S.) government of Lon Nol took over and U.S. forces attempted to subdue the Communists by bombing. Civil War followed from 1970 until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over and quickly proved itself to be one of the most bloodthirsty governments of all time.

Although the Khmer Rouge singled ethnic and religious minorities out for special persecution, the primary driving force behind the regime's extraordinary savagery appears to have been a fanatically doctrinaire of Communism, exceeding even the dogmatism of Stalin or Mao.

Cambodians were essentially classified into three groups. The elite, including anyone with wealth or education, were to be executed en masse. Urban residents (including peasant refugees who fled the civil war in the countryside) were classified as "new people" and force-marched into the countryside and put to slave labor, where many died of exhaustion and starvation. The Khmer Rouge motto toward new people was, "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." Only undisplaced rural peasants, or "old people" were not considered class enemies. Modern medicine was banned as a foreign intrusion, and many people died of disease as a result.

The Wikipedia describes conditions as follows:

In order to save ammunition, they used simple weapons like pickaxes and ax handles to carry out executions. People were executed for not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food for their own use, wearing jewelry, having sexual relations, grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or expressing religious sentiments. Even something as simple as wearing eye glasses could result in execution because the Khmer Rouge associated it with Western intellectualism. Sick people were often killed.


Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them. Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as "private enterprise" for which the death penalty applied.

The total number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge is unknown. Estimates range from a low of 750,000 to a high of 3 million, with most estimates in the 1 to 2 million range, out of a starting population of 7 to 8 million. This means that the Khmer Rouge directly or indirectly killed off at least a tenth and perhaps as much as 30% of the total population over a period of four years. This dwarfs the number of people killed in the civil war leading to the Khmer Rouge. The absolute number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge is similar in absolute terms to the number killed in the the Bangladesh war, but with a population a tenth the size. Proportionate to population, the Khmer Rouge was one of the most murderous governments of all time.

In addition to being dogmatic Communists, the Khmer Rouge leaders were extremely xenophobic. Allied with China, the cut off almost all relations with other countries. The Cambodian army made repeated, unprovoked attacks on villages in neighboring Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. (Numerous Cambodians had also fled to these countries). After repeated provocations, on December 25, 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to get rid of the Khmer Rouge once and for all. Vietnamese forces were reached Phnom Penh within two weeks and proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, led mostly by former members of the Khmer Rouge. Securing the countryside proved slower and more difficult. In places where Vietnamese control was less than secure, Cambodians faced the possiblity of old rulers being temporarily driven away, only to return and take revenge on anyone who accepted Vietnamese help. Over time, however, the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge back into the areas around the Thai border, where the Khmer Rouge forces joined with remnants of other opponents of Vietnamese occupation and fought a prolonged guerrilla war. Vietnam ruled Cambodia with an occupying army between 120,000 and 200,000, settled numerous Vietnamese in Cambodia, and generally attempted to rule the country as a puppet state. The murderous policies of the Khmer Rouge ended, but Cambodians increasingly began to resent the Vietnamese occupation. The usual estimate of the number of people killed in this war is 30,000 on each side, over a period of 10 years.

If the reaction of the international community (including the United States) was less than edifying in Bangladesh, it was shameful in the case of Cambodia. Cold War politics trumped humanitarian concerns. Because Vietnam was a Soviet ally, the invasion of Cambodia was seen as an indirect act of Soviet aggression. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the invasion and continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. China made a brief punitive invasion of Vietnam. And China, the United States, Thailand and other countries supported anti-Vietnamese guerrillas operating out of Thailand. Although non-Communist groups were included for window dressing, this effectively translated into support for the Khmer Rouge. This support ended with the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and the end of the Cold War. A low-grade civil war remained, which gradually faded out in the 1990's.

Vietnam's motives were also far from pure. The government they installed consisted of dissenting members of the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam was clearly acting less out of humanitarian motives than a wish to reduce Cambodia to a puppet. The entire episode does credit to no one.



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