Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

InReview: Cambodia Grapples with its Past

By October 1979, merely 35 years ago, the death toll in the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to “purify” the Cambodian populace reached 1.7 million, approximately 21% of the country’s population. This October 2014, the Cambodian NGO Sleuk Rith Institute unveiled a plan for an imposing complex that “will incorporate a museum, research centre, graduate school, document archives and research library, set in an expansive new park south of the centre of the capital, Phnom Penh” dedicated to the memory of and justice for the Cambodian Genocide.

The gruesome events of the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot have left a gaping wound throughout the country. The oft-repeated figures are stark: 1.7 million people killed, around 20% of the country’s population, 1 in 4 adults – not including the millions more forced into prisons, re-education centers and relocation. Vice Magazine recently published an incredible interview with a survivor and of the Genocide. Sovannora leng tells his story, “I Survived a Khmer Rouge Execution,” which is excerpted below:

Sovannora leng should be dead. Just before his 14th birthday in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over his hometown Phnom Penh. Civilians were evacuated from cities and put to work in the countryside, as part of an “agrarian socialist” revolution targeting the educated and wealthy. After surviving a severe illness, teenage Sovannora was enlisted to “report” on his neighbors, friends and family—something that could lead to their death. “The only way I can explain it is that people had no choice,” said Sovannora to VICE.

In the next few years, Sovannora escaped reporting duty and went onto survive a stint in a prison camp, an execution attempt and an unfathomable journey over a minefield near the Thai border. His family eventually wound up as refugees in Australia in 1980. Not everybody was that lucky. An estimated 1.7 million—21 percent of the population—died as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign in Cambodia, either through starvation, forced labour or execution in Cambodia’s now infamous “Killing Fields.”

Further explaining this period—now known as the Cambodian genocide—can be difficult, especially because Pol Pot’s regime essentially killed its own people and race. In the words of Sovannora, it was “a revenge against one and another.” In Cambodia’s darkest moments, mothers even ate their children’s dead bodies. Now, 40 years later, survivors are still waiting for answers despite the recent final sentencing of two Khmer Rouge officials. VICE interviewed Sovannora about surviving “Year Zero” and what the world has learned from genocide.

VICE: What your life like as a young boy before the war?
Sovannora Leng: I always dream about going back to life before the war. It was peaceful. You went to school and played. Maybe I was just young, but I didn’t think about politics. I was a student from a working class family, and I always wanted to try something new. Once I got bigger, I got a part-time job and generated income to help my family. My mum passed away when I was six. I had a stepmother, but the love and the bond was slightly apart. It learned to stand up for myself and fight for my life.

What do you remember from the very early days of the war—when you and your family were still at home in the city?
The war started in the countryside, but not on the outskirts of Phnom Penh until the end of 1974. Then there was a lot of bombing. It worries you and we started to build a bomb shelter, but we didn’t know what war meant. We’d only heard of the WWI and WWII, and now we were wondering if that was happening to us? But I was still young, so I didn’t think that much. I was still thinking about playing and life as a child.

Then Khmer Rouge officers told everybody to evacuate the city. In your book, Surviving Year Zero, it feels like either people didn’t understand what was happening or they just didn’t want to think about the worst scenario. What did you think was happening?
Well, there was the propaganda. A Khmer Rouge statement loudly spoke out from the street speakers that Americans are going to bomb, and everybody was so anxious looking at the sky and seeing if there are any planes, and then we started to move. I don’t know if this is for everybody else, but after we left Phnom Penh, I was still always thinking about going home. It happened from when we left to when I was almost about to die, and I then realized there was no return.

One of the strongest memories in your book is when you arrived at a rural work camp and you accidentally stumbled into a Killing Field while you were sick. You described walking over things that you thought were fruit but were maybe bones or bodies in retrospect. It felt like your father knew what that field was for, but you didn’t quite understand yet?
That’s correct. At that time, I don’t think much. I only tried to focus my energy on fighting for my life. Nothing else. There was nobody else in my head, except for my mother, who I asked for strength. I feel very emotional now talking about this. But she tapped me and she said ‘you are not ready’. I just kept walking and never saw anything else, and thought about how to stay alive.


You wrote a lot about having no food and physical survival in the camps. But how did you psychologically survive?
Oh, what can I say? I wished I was a God. But I realized it was all happening and it did take place. I don’t know why, but the feeling of my mother kept on coming, and she gave me the strength to guide me. It gave me some confidence, but I was also in a dream. Until one day, when I just got up and grabbed my stuff and walked out of the teenage camp. Then they arrested me, put me in a dark prison and locked me up for weeks before they sent me back to my village. I never thought I would be released.


After you fell asleep while guarding the camp, the Khmer Rouge took you to be executed. What were you thinking?
They tied up both my hands very tight. In my mind, I only knew that I had been disobeyed the Angkar’s rule by falling asleep, and I knew nothing else. At that time in my spine, I can already feel the nerves. I couldn’t even walk properly. They took me to a place in the early evening, and we knew this place as Killing Field forests. I keep asking them “what’s going on?” and they said nothing. Until we get to the end and they ask me to confess to something I didn’t even know about, like stealing rice crackers. Then they told me to kneel down and they kept saying “you have contact with enemy.” I had no idea what enemy. In a way, I think they were trying to get me to confess about my father doing something. And then that was it. They started the execution.

What happened after they hit the back of your head with the stick?
I never cried so loudly as that time. I fell down into a grave filled with many dead bodies and said “okay, mum, I am coming to you,” and I did not even want to live. When I fell down into the grave, I thought that was it, but the guy somehow did not hit me 100 per cent. I still have a question mark about that. I’m asking myself why? It was a one in a million chance that I stayed alive. Then they pulled me back with my hands still tied. The executioner guy said “should we finish him off?” and the other man—who was a good guy—said no. And that was it. They gave me a second chance and put me to work in the rice field.


It is difficult to say exactly why certain acts of mass killing are afforded more attention than others. It is clear, however, that in spite of its size and recent place in human history, the Cambodian Genocide is largely neglected. The Hindu provides a useful historical backgrounder to the events that ensued under the Khmer Rouge, “Retracing Cambodia’s Past”:

1975: Cambodia under Khmer Rouge

The Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as Khmer Rouge had recently gained power in the south-east Asian country Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, the government embarked on a regimented restructuring of the Cambodian society. People were asked to leave the cities and congregate at the fields to participate in agricultural work. In a bid to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society educational and religious institutions, government buildings and shops were closed or converted into prisons, re-education centres and granaries. Currency was abolished as the Khmer Rouge did not believe in accumulation of wealth and foreign labels, private property, leisure activities too met with the same fate.

Basic rights were denied, congregation of any sort discouraged and family relationships were abhorred. People were forced to work for long hours and those who opposed or failed to participate were mercilessly killed or tortured. Even the old, young and the invalid were made to participate in this vast program of social engineering which left as many as two billion people dead in the country in a period of four years due to exhaustion, starvation and torture.

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

In 1953, Cambodia became independent from French rule and came under the rule of its monarch Prince Sihanouk. In 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a coup which saw the army under the leadership of Lon Nol, a right-wing politician take over the reigns of the nation with the help of the U.S. Around this time, the Khmer Rouge, a communist organisation in the country was quietly gaining foothold and sided with Prince Sihanouk in the fight against the military government.

It was also during this time that neighbouring Vietnam was witnessing a large scale civil war between its northern and southern regions. While Sihanouk had maintained neutrality in his involvement in Vietnam, Lon Nol, a supporter of the U.S. backed and aided America’s intervention in South Vietnam in 1964. American troops used Cambodia as a passage to intervene in South Vietnam and pretty soon the civil war spread into Cambodia. Many Cambodians were killed in the U.S. involvement which, unfortunately, proved lucky for the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians who suffered personal losses in the Vietnam conflict, soon joined the Khmer Rouge.

As the Khmer Rouge’s popularity and support base grew, their campaign against Lon Nol’s regime also met with success and by April 17, 1975 they had toppled Nol’s government and gained control over the country.

Restoration of hostilities

The Khmer Rouge’s rule, brief but horrific, lasted only for a few years as tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam escalated again in 1977. Vietnamese troops occupied Cambodia in 1978, captured the capital Pnomh Penh in January 1979 and established their representative to head the government in 1982. The Khmer Rouge leaders, meanwhile had defected from the country.

However, with the tacit backing of the western powers the Khmer Rouge leaders continued to fight against the new government which was backed by a Communist Vietnam. For almost a decade, the fight between the two countries continued when finally in 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia owing to international pressure and sanctions. In 1991, a peace treaty was signed between the warring factions and democratic elections were held and by 1993 Prince Sihanouk was elected to lead the new democratic set up in the country.

(The Hindu)

Today’s Cambodia

Beyond the deep wounds that were left from the Cambodian Genocide, the process of holding the leaders accountable while also brokering reconciliation efforts is ongoing. While Pol Pot spent the rest of his days in practical exile in the jungles of Cambodia, even today the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders are proceeding. The BBC reported in mid-October “Khmer Rouge Genocide Trial Resumes in Cambodia”:

The genocide trial of two former Khmer Rouge leaders has resumed at a UN-backed court in Cambodia where they face charges over the mass murder of Vietnamese people and ethnic Muslims, forced marriage and rape.

Nuon Chea, 88, known as Brother Number Two, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 83, have already been given life sentences after a separate trial at the same court in August for crimes against humanity.

That ruling saw them become the first top figures to be jailed from a regime responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians from 1975-1979.

The second trial, which opened in July, got under way on 17 October with judge Nil Nonn reading out the charges against both suspects of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Nuon Chea, wearing his familiar sunglasses, and Khieu Samphan sat in court alongside their defence teams as about 300 survivors of the regime protested outside, demanding monetary compensation for their suffering.

The complex case against the pair was split into a series of smaller trials in 2011 to get a faster verdict given the vast number of accusations and their advanced age.

Both men have appealed against their August convictions, which followed a two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of around 2 million Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps and murders at one execution site.

The second trial, broader in scope than the first, is viewed as an opportunity for many other victims of the regime to seek redress.

The mass killings of an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 ethnic Cham Muslims and 20,000 Vietnamese form the basis of the genocide charges against the pair.

“The ways in which the Khmer Rouge mistreated us is too heinous to describe in words. Their goal was to exterminate our race,” said Seth Maly, a 64-year-old Cham labour camp survivor who lost 100 of her relatives, mostly through execution, during the regime – including her two daughters, parents and five siblings.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan also face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the second trial – for the deaths of up to 2 million people through starvation, overwork or execution during the communist regime.

A court spokesman has estimated the trial may go on until 2016.

(BBC, emphasis added)

Given this explosive history, the sluggish progression of accountability and reconciliation, the deep rifts left amongst the Cambodian population, the vitality of civil society groups, like the reconciliation organizations or the Sleuk Rith Institute, can be seen as downright impressive. And with this backdrop, the country’s measured and incremental democratization might make more sense. Foreign Policy recently contextualized “Cambodia’s Long March Toward Democracy”:

Cambodia has just taken a crucial step toward more participatory politics. But further progress toward democracy is likely to be slow and evolutionary rather than sudden and dramatic.

On July 22, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen finally announced a deal to end a ten-month standoff between the government and the opposition, which has been boycotting parliament as part of its protest against disputed elections last year. Rainsy has now agreed to let his party take up seats in the National Assembly in exchange for an overhaul of the election commission, the release of eight opposition leaders arrested in recent clashes with government security forces, and a grab-bag of other reforms. Though still controversial, the deal may yet herald a new turn in Cambodian politics.

Since 1993, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian politics in semi-authoritarian fashion. The CPP held regular elections, but the opposition never had a chance of winning due to widespread fraud, intimidation, and lack of capital. In 2013, however, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) shattered this paradigm. The new opposition coalition came within a whisker of beating the CPP on a platform saying that they’d had “enough” and promising “change,” which appealed to a youthful, tech-savvy, and urban-centric demographic excluded from the spoils of political power, tired of rampant corruption and the oligarchic management of the economy, and unhappy at the prospect of dynastic succession among nouveau-rich families and clans.

Though the change and fallout of the Arab Spring reverberated globally, Cambodia’s “almost democratic breakthrough” in 2013 and this week’s deal are best understood as part of a slow evolution rather than a “revolutionary” change or upheaval as in the Middle East. The CNRP’s near victory was possible because of elite miscalculation and infighting within the CPP, the opposition’s newfound organization, and tacit support from Cambodia’s neighbors. (Both Vietnam and China are equally weary of Hun Sen’s reign.)

Hun Sen has long recognized that the CPP, which initially came to power on the coattails of the Vietnamese in 1979, needs legitimacy from the ballot box to cement its claim to rule. Periodic elections, however flawed, offered a fig leaf for continued authoritarian rule, allowing Cambodia’s leaders to assert their superiority to Vietnam and China. They also set the stage for the genuinely contested parliamentary election last year.

Dissent within the party has been simmering for years. Over time, Hun Sen has become an institution that eclipses all others, including the CPP, the military, and the police. The party and its leader habitually renew their vows, but for at least the past five years Hun Sen has ruled by fiat, ignoring the CPP’s Standing and Central Committees, and in no small way contributing to the CPP’s malaise. In fact, Hun Sen has been running the country through his public speeches much like Cambodia’s ex-King Sihanouk did in the 1950s and 1960s. The discord came to a head in the wake of the 2012 local elections, when — despite another landslide victory for the ruling party — the opposition made clear inroads in the CPP heartland provinces of Prey Veng and Kampong Cham. The loss of influence clearly reflected party dissent. According to the Economist, of the 5.7 million CPP members, roughly half failed to vote for the CPP. At an internal party meeting in August 2012, just 11 months before the 2013 elections, Hun Sen berated individuals by name for sloth, corruption, and ostentatious displays of wealth, and ordered CPP parliamentarians to spend their weekends in the provinces with their constituencies.

After their surprising gains in 2012, the Cambodian opposition approached the 2013 elections with gusto, knocking on provincial doors well in advance of the campaign period. Two of the parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, joined together to form the CNRP and developed a national platform to increase monthly salaries and the minimum wage and improve access to health care.

After winning 55 of 123 parliamentary seats in 2013, the CNRP cried foul, citing widespread vote tampering to buttress its claim that it deserved a much greater share of the seats than awarded to it. Opposition leaders then decided to boycott parliament unless the government granted concessions. Under this week’s compromise, the CNRP will take its seats in return for reform of the National Election Commission and an enhanced role in the National Assembly, including the chairmanship of several legislative committees. The opposition also won a marginal concession from Hun Sen to bring forward the next national elections by five months to February 2018, in which they hope to fare even better. Finally, the prime minister allowed the release on bail of eight opposition leaders who are currently in jail on charges of abetting insurrection; they will acquire parliamentary immunity upon taking their seats.

(Foreign Policy, emphasis added)

Cambodia’s Foreign Relations

As seen in the previous article, any mention of Cambodia inevitably draws in discussion of its relations with China and other regional players. As Voice of America recently reported, the country’s foreign policy is challenged by regional conflicts: “Cambodian leaders are facing a very uncertain Asean in recent weeks, with anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam pitting two of the country’s standards allies against each other and a Thai coup sealing the western borders and leaving a neighbor in the hands of military control. Both issues greatly affect regional stability, and Cambodia, geographically, is right in the middle of them, said Chheang Vannarith, a lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at Leeds University in Leeds, United Kingdom. “These are two issues that affect the stability and security in the region, as well as in Cambodia,” he said. The Thai coup is of particular concern, he said, following a prolonged military standoff over the border between 2008 and 2011. The protests in Vietnam, meanwhile, will put pressure on different camps within Cambodia’s power structure, he told “Hello VOA” in May 2014.” (Voice of America)

China’s growing influence seems to be further exasperating these regional conflicts. As described in a Foreign Policy report “Cambodia Sleeps with the Fishes,” Southeast Asian countries were previously teaming up against China but “now they’re at each other’s over water, dams, and fish.” The article explains: “Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries are spooked these days by China’s aggressive behavior. But the real threat to Vietnam’s future may come from a different communist neighbor. Ambitious plans for hydroelectric development in the region, especially by Laos, pose a real danger to the food supply of Vietnam and Cambodia. Upstream dams will imperil the fish stocks that provide the vast majority of Cambodia’s protein and could also denude the Mekong River of the silt Vietnam needs for its rice basket. Laos’s drive to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” is producing plenty of sparks, but not the right kind. Diplomatic tension over the dams — as well as their effect on fisheries and agriculture in a river basin that is home to more than 60 million people — threatens to drive Southeast Asian countries apart right as they are trying to present a common face toward China’s increasingly brazen behavior in claiming parts of the South China Sea for itself.” (Foreign Policy)

Cambodia’s foreign relations are especially significant when it comes to cross-border threats prominent in the region such as natural disasters or disease control. For example, several years ago there was a shocking development of a “Drug-Resistant Malaria ‘Growing’ in Cambodia”: “Parasites are developing resistance to one of the most important anti-malaria drugs, according to experts. Artimisinin has been highly effective, particularly in places where resistance to other drugs has developed. But now some patients along Cambodia’s border with Thailand are taking longer to respond to the treatment. Experts on the disease are meeting village health workers in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to discuss ways to stop drug-resistant malaria spreading.” (BBC)

The Environment

As with many cross-border conflicts over resources, a key issue for developing countries is the balance between their development and the environment. The issue is a controversial one. Historically, developed countries, those at the helm of the industrial revolution, have been responsible for the majority of global greenhouse emissions. More recently, just as developing countries are growing and ushering in their own industrial and information successes, the world is turning it’s attention to environmental concerns. Chief among them is the issue of deforestation, an issue that is also gripping Cambodia. In mid-October, reports emerged that a Cambodian journalist was shot dead while investigating illegal logging in the country:

Cambodian journalist Taing Try was shot dead in mid-October while investigating illegal logging in the southern province of Kratie with five other journalists. Three suspects have been arrested.

A reporter for several local newspapers, Taing Try was shot while in his car. The car of the suspected killer was found 200 metres down the road where he had to abandon it.

Reporters Without Borders is appalled by this cold-blooded murder of a journalist who was investigating a sensitive story. Environmentalist reporter Hang Serei Oudom already lost his life in late 2012 because of his coverage of deforestation and illegal logging in protected areas.

“The fact that some of the people running this lucrative trafficking in timber hold senior positions must not afford them any kind of immunity,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “If the three detained suspects really were involved in this shocking murder, we hope they will be tried like anyone else.”

The three detained suspects – Mondolkiri police chief Ben Hieng, military police officer Khim Pheakdey and Cambodia Royal Air Force member La Narong – have reportedly admitted having a hand in the murder. All three are also suspected traffickers.

At a press conference, the police said Taing Try – a member of the Khmer Journalists for Democracy Association – had threatened to report the three suspects to the authorities.

Freedom of information is increasingly restricted in Cambodia and journalists who cover illegal logging are often the targets of threats.

Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

(Reporters without Borders)

Will Cambodia Flood a Sacred and Biodiverse Valley for a Dubious Dam?

On 15 September, Cambodian police detained 11 environmental activists for blocking a convoy of government vehicles headed for Areng Valley, the site of the controversial Stung Cheay Areng hydro dam project. The activists were released, but 12 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officers are now stationed at the makeshift roadblock where villagers have been protesting the dam since March. Nothing now stands in the way of Sinohydro Resources, the Chinese company that the Cambodian government has contracted to construct the dam.

If built, the Stung Cheay Areng dam would flood at least 26,000 acres or 40 square miles (some estimates say 77 square miles)—displacing more than 1,500 people who have no desire to leave their ancestral homes. The government plans to forcibly resettle them within the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, a vital elephant corridor, causing further encroachment on an area internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. The dam would thereby threaten the habitats of 31 endangered animals, including the world’s largest habitat for the threatened Siamese crocodiles.

Conservation experts also question the project’s economic viability, citing high production costs and a very low rate of economic return. During the rainy season, the dam is hypothetically capable of producing enough electricity to power some 87,000 US-style homes. But, according to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, “the dam will only operate at 46 percent capacity during the dry season, precisely when Cambodia most needs the electricity.” (Mother Jones)

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