The “New” Cambodia Is Only 20 Years Old

This photo shows an arial view of Phnom Penh city. (Photo: Xinhua)

The National Day of Remembrance held each year on May 20 is a powerful tribute to the victims—more than 2 million people—of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. 

Every Cambodian knows exactly the number of days the Pol Pot regime was in power: three years, eight months, 20 days. 

Because from the first to the last day, each one was hell on earth for all those the Pol Pot regime viewed as enemies. 

Numerous visitors to Cambodia who only have a vague idea of the country’s history assume that the deadly ramifications of the Khmer Rouge on the country stopped in January 1979 when they were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Kampuchean Front for National Salvation and the Vietnamese forces.  

In fact, it will only be toward the end of the 1990s that the Khmer Rouge forces, which got back on their feet after their 1979 defeat due to support from countries opposed to the Soviet Bloc, would be crushed. Turning their backs on the Paris Agreement they had actually signed in 1991, the Khmer Rouge would, through the Win-Win Policy of Prime Minister Hun Sen, eventually lose the strongholds that were still under their control.   

Moreover, while the regime that carried out the genocide ended on Jan. 7, 1979, it left behind, in addition to scores of bodies piled in mass graves, a country depleted of qualified human resources. By slaughtering virtually all intellectuals and specialists of every field and by eliminating schools, the Khmer Rouge deprived, for nearly three decades, the country of forces vital to its reconstruction and development.     

And so, while neighboring countries, for which the Second Indochina War had in fact ended with the U.S. defeat and the Fall of Saigon in 1975, were taking advantage of the return to peace to focus on their economic and social development, Cambodia was stagnating, still caught in the dark legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. 

In the end, what is Cambodia today will have been achieved in only 20 years.


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