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It could be said that Cambodia has had two histories with communism, one more well known than the other, at least in the West. Why is it that the story of Khmer Rouge and their reduction of the country into a feudal slave state is widely known, while the reconstruction that followed under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea is not? The answer to this question is on one hand understandable, and on the other hand hides a darker chapter in the history of the cold war.
About the country’s first experience, with the Khmer Rouge, little needs to be said. The nationalist guerilla army which, like many anti-colonial movements of the 1960′s and 70′s, used the language of Marxism-Leninism for both domestic recruitment and to legitimize themselves in an international context before revealing their true intentions, has been much written about and its crimes have been well documented. (The 1984 film The Killing Fields does a beautiful job recreating the atmosphere of the time, while for a more academic treatment, Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over is a commendable work of explication that tries to make sense of the Khmer Rouge period.)
The history books have paid far less attention to the country’s second communist government. After the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge by Vietnam, Hanoi established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea with the cooperation of defecting members of the Khmer Rouge and leftist anti-KR dissidents. When it came to power, the PRK found itself faced with the insurmountable task of rebuilding society in a country wrecked by civil war, genocide, and the mass enslavement of its citizenry. For those of us in the safety of the developed world, it is difficult to make sense of this of this kind of thing, so I urge the reader to take pause here and consider the magnitude of this task. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to create an “agrarian utopia,” systematically executed anyone with even a basic education. Doctors, lawyers, administrators, businessmen, engineers, police, teachers, academics – all killed. With a country literally reduced to a nation of peasants – how do you get on your feet? Who designs the roads and bridges? Who teaches in the schools? Who sets up a legal system and a government? These were the questions the government of the PRK and the Vietnamese, still occupying the country, had to answer.
Compounding the problem, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea faced major diplomatic opposition by a United States and United Nations that couldn’t abide a “Vietnamese puppet state” in Southeast Asia. In a twist of history that would be comical if not so tragic, the US and China blocked the PRK from gaining UN recognition, and the United States, under the Reagan administration, found themselves channeling intelligence and food aid to the remainder of the Khmer Rouge, now fighting a guerilla war out of the jungle against the Vietnamese occupation forces. Vietnam, meanwhile, found itself stuck in a quagmire. Without a Cambodian government capable of functioning on its own, a Vietnamese withdrawal would have meant an immediate return of the Khmer Rouge, yet the international community, led by the United States, simultaneously refused to contribute to the reconstruction effort while insisting on a Vietnamese pullout.
Regarding the visible impact of Cambodia’s communist histories on modern Phnom Penh, both the Khmer Rouge and the PRK, it might noted that at first glance such impact seems minimal. Phnom Penh, now sprouting with skyscrapers and in the midst of an economic renaissance, lacks many of the common features of once-communist capitals – no grandiose Stalinist architecture, no public murals glorifying the people’s struggle, no wide sidewalks or spacious city parks, no overbuilt infrastructure, not even a statue of Lenin. One could say, however, that the lingering traces of each of these communist regimes can be found in its own way: the Khmer Rouge for what isn’t there, for that of which they robbed the country, and the PRK for the fact that anything is there at all. This is certainly the latter’s greatest success.