Cambodia: the Abolition of Money

We have been asked to comment on the situation in Cambodia. “Here is a country three years without money”, writes one correspondent. “This is proof that the moneyless system works”.

On 17 April 1975 the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was captured by the Khmers Rouges (Red Cambodians). The new state of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) was established, with Norodom Sihanouk, who had been ruler from 1941 until the 1970 coup, as Head of State. The victory was followed by an immediate evacuation of Phnom Penh and other large cities, their entire populations being deported to the countryside to build their own dwellings and grow their own rice. The country is now controlled by the Angkar (Organisation, a euphemism for the Cambodian Communist Party), and has to a remarkable extent shut itself off from the rest of the world.

For this reason, information about what is going on in Cambodia is rather hard to come by, the main sources being official government statements and refugee accounts, neither of which can be regarded as fully reliable. Refugees often blacken the state they have left in order to justify their leaving, and say what they think their interviewers would like them to. But even when due allowance is made for this, there are independent accounts which give the impression of a slave-like system based on unremitting work, little food and arbitrary killings at the whim of the Angkar, making it impossible not to give some credence to them.

The refugees ‘stories could scarcely be more different from the government’s depiction of Cambodia as a society without money, classes, or exploitation. Here is the picture drawn by Sihanouk (interview in Far Eastern Economic Review 14.11.75):

“I am very proud that Cambodians are the first to create a classless society. The Khmer Rouge have introduced into Phnom Penh the same sort of regime they had in the countryside. Everything has been levelled. There are no longer rich or poor, exploiters and exploited; no longer any differentiation because of class or fortune. There is one single class—the Administration feeds and clothes everyone according to their needs. At present there is no money and no markets. Everyone works, repairing and running electric power and water supply, making bicycles and textiles; refining sugar; or transforming destroyed tanks into agricultural and kitchen implements. Within their working organisations, there are FUNK (United Front of Cambodia) committees at every level which draw the necessary supplies from the Minister of Trade. Equal distribution on a family per-head basis is made through the FUNK committee. If clothing is needed, Government stores are there to provide it.”

There is, however, plenty of evidence that “moneyless, classless Cambodia” is nothing but a myth.


For one thing, Sihanouk himself is one of the privileged. When he “retired” from his post as Head of State in April 1976, the government voted to pay him an annual pension of eight thousand American dollars — an odd gesture in a society without money. Many refugees have reported that the Angkar and their soldiers are better fed and clothed and receive better medical attention than the ordinary population. As far as decision-making is concerned, the population at large is totally excluded, political power being firmly in the hands of the Angkar.

The distribution of food rations (mostly rice) may well be conducted without the intervention of money, but some exchange of goods still takes place. A Phnom Penh radio report stated that silk products not “needed” by local people are traded for goods from other co-operatives (Summary of World Broadcasts, Far East, Weekly Economic Report 7.4.76). Cambodia’s need to import raw materials, medicines, and the like has necessitated the setting-up of a trading company in Hong Kong. A large foreign-trade deficit has been financed by China, but certain Cambodian products are exported, including rubber to China and North Korea. At a time when the daily rice ration was a mere 250 grams per person, Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary stated that rice was being exported to earn foreign exchange (FEER 29.10.76. and 10.12.76). Most people live on little more than rice, yet according to Phnom Penh radio:

“We are boosting the production of our fresh and salt water fish for export. This will bring the money we need to buy various engines and motors for our factories and build the economy of cur new Cambodia” (SWB 25.6.75).

In their drive to industrialisation, Cambodia’s rulers are well aware that they cannot do entirely without money.

Rivalry with other newly-established regimes in Southeast Asia has led in recent months to a border conflict with Vietnam. The Vietnamese press has published accounts of Cambodian-committed atrocities which in their horror equal any of those recounted by refugees to Western journalists. One Hanoi paper described the new Cambodian villages as “forced labour brigades of the age of slavery” (Guardian 20.7.78).

Evil cities

While Cambodia is certainly not a moneyless society, dislike of money and other trappings of “civilization” in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh seems to have been widespread among the Khmers Rouges. During the forced march from Phnom Penh, soldiers were reported to have searched evacuees for their money and then thrown notes in the air, saying that the Angkar had put an end to money (Francois Ponchaud: Cambodia Year Zero). At a commercial bank in the capital, notes were burned or just dumped by the victorious troops (John Barron and Anthony Paul: Peace with Horror). On the day of the Angkar takeover, one of their commissars told some foreign priests:

“Cities are evil. There are money and trade in cities, and both have a corrupting influence. People are good, but cities are evil. That is why we shall do away with cities”  (quoted in Peace with Horror).

Slogans used by the Khmers Rouges in “education” classes included: “We are building the only true communism . . . Our communism will be better than in Russia or China where there are still classes” (ibid).

Some of these views are probably best interpreted as a reaction to the corruption and inequality of the American-backed Republican regime which ruled Cambodia from 1970 to 1975. Many of the Khmers Rouges leaders are Paris-educated intellectuals who on the one hand look back to the pre-monetary agricultural economy of traditional Cambodia and on the other look forward to the country’s modernisation and “independence”. The radicalness of their policies has led to an almost unimaginable degree of suffering, with some estimates of the deaths since April 1975 exceeding one million, out of a population of about seven million. It should perhaps be said that many of these would have died of starvation in any case (the inhabitants of Phnom Penh were previously only fed by massive American airlifts of rice). But, as was shown above, food desperately needed by the Cambodian people is being exported for the sake of foreign exchange. As production in Cambodia increases, money will be reintroduced, together with wages and prices (Ieng Sary has accepted that a monetary system might be set up later, see FEER 23.3.76.). When that happens Cambodia will be more fully integrated into the world capitalist system.

In reply to our correspondent’s remark, we can point out that there have been many human societies which have functioned without money and even without exchange relations at all, so that the fact that people can live together without the intervention of money is incontestable. But Cambodia provides evidence of no such thing.

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