1980s >> 1983 >> no-945-may-1983

Kampuchea now

A glance at the past and present of Kampuchea (Cambodia) suggests that this is a country where even world capitalism’s gruesome achievements have been surpassed. War, genocide and starvation have been the lot of a people who have been so unfortunate as to find themselves in a potentially fertile country located in a strategically-important area.

In 1975 the Khmers Rouges climaxed a four-year guerrilla struggle by conquering power from an American-backed dictatorship. Vast numbers of people were evacuated from the cities to the countryside, and forced to work in slave-like conditions by the new rulers. Nobody will ever know for sure, but it is widely estimated that three million people out of a total population of seven million died during this period, whether murdered or “just” starved to death. The official rhetoric was that a classless society was being established, and that goods were being distributed without the intermediary of money, on the basis of need. In fact trading did occur and foodstuffs, including rice, were exported to earn foreign exchange. Democratic Kampuchea, as the country was ironically called, had very capitalist priorities.

A number of Western leftists did their best to act as apologists for the Khmers Rouges, trying to discredit refugees’ accounts of atrocities and to justify the evacuations. Among those who were not fooled by these silly pleaders, however, were the governments of Vietnam and Russia. The Vietnamese press published tales of Kampuchean horrors, and a border conflict between the two countries eventually escalated. At the end of 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Kampuchea and in January 1979 installed a new regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, under Heng Samrin. Another four years has gone by, marked by continual fighting between the new government and the Khmers Rouges, who have now returned to their earlier guerrilla status. It is now the turn of the Khmers Rouges to accuse the Vietnamese of atrocities, such as forced resettlement and the use of chemical weapons. (Beijing Review, 17 May 1982.)

Although it controls only a small part of the country’s territory, Democratic Kampuchea has retained its seat in the United Nations. Britain has managed to face both ways by supporting this situation but not recognising Democratic Kampuchea in the first place. In June last year an agreement was signed in Kuala Lumpur setting up the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. The signatories were Sihanouk (former ruler, and head of state during the first year of Khmer Rouge rule). Khieu Sampan (once of the Khmers Rouges) and Son Sann (a former prime minister). This motley crew of turncoats and mass-murderers now heads the resistance movement.

The so-called Government of Democratic Kampuchea still controls small areas of the country, which it defends against Vietnamese and official army assaults. Life in these districts is clearly a struggle, with backward production techniques and the ever-present threat of attack. Part of the resources must be put to the production of mines and other weapons. No attempt is made now to promote the image of a moneyless, classless society. A Chinese reporter noted the existence of privately-owned shops, and added: “The Government of Democratic Kampuchea does not levy commercial taxes so all the profits go to the owners”. (Beijing Review, 24 May 1982.)

The destruction and upheaval of the last eight years has inevitably led to a huge number of refugees, both within and beyond the borders of Kampuchea. Many squalid and disease-ridden refugee camps have been established, but even here the wretched Kampuchean peasants and workers are not free of the murderous social system they live under. For instance, at the end of January the Vietnamese army attacked and captured the Non Chan refugee camp on the border with Thailand. A rocket and mortar barrage rocked the camp, giving rise to many civilian casualties. (Guardian, 1 and 2 February 1983.)

The most recent developments have taken place in response to the oldest of capitalism’s needs — trade. Towards the end of March, Common Market Foreign Ministers visited Bangkok to discuss with the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam is not a member of ASEAN, which does not recognise the Heng Samrin government. But advantage was taken of the spotlight being on Bangkok for Vietnam to suggest talks with ASEAN on Kampuchea without the participation of the Heng Samrin regime. There are all sorts of possible motives here: in particular, the Vietnamese may be wishing to achieve closer relations with ASEAN (and attendant possibilities of increased trade with the West), with a view to reduced dependence on Russia. The fate of the ordinary Kampuchean people is, as ever, dependent on great power politicking.

Socialists opposed both the Vietcong and the Khmers Rouges while they were fighting for political power under the guise of “liberation movements”. We pointed out that in the context of world capitalism the idea of “national independence” is a myth, and that being ruled and exploited by people of one’s “own” nationality makes no difference. Nothing that these and similar organisations have done on gaining power suggests that our opposition was misguided. Quite apart from the Khmers Rouges’ genocide, there is the Vietnamese government’s vicious internal policies, their invasion of Kampuchea and their attacks on refugee camps. The Mugabe government in Zimbabwe is demonstrating equally clearly that nationalist governments can be just as murderous and tyrannical as any colonialist power. The workers and peasants of developing countries should not place their faith in leaders or would-be liberators. Kampuchea shows only too well the fatal consequences of such misplaced trust.

Paul Bennett