Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 17

The Cambodian civil war ended thirty-three years ago today, as the Supreme Committee of the Khmer Republic abandoned the capital of Phnom Penh. Over the previous five years, the war had consumed the entire nation, with government forces -- supported by the United States -- waged an increasingly futile campaign against the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), a coalition of forces increasingly dominated by the communist Khmer Rouge. As they chipped away at the territory controlled by the government of Prime Minister Lon Nol, FUNK earned the financial and military backing of the Chinese and North Vietnamese. In the field, the Front were commanded by named Saloth Sar, a monster from the Khmer Rouge who would become known to the world in coming years as Pol Pot.

For its part, the United States unwittingly aided the cause of the Khmer Rouge by dropping a half million tons of bombs on central and eastern Cambodia, where North Vietnamese forces had set up camp in its ongoing effort to run the US out of South Vietnam. As the American bombing campaign remade Cambodia into something resembling the landscape of the Moon, the Khmer forces acquired further support among a peasantry that already had good reason to detest the government in Phnom Penh. After 1973, when the US acknowledged the futility of its war on Vietnam, it likewise ended its campaign on behalf of the government of Cambodia.

By 1974, the Khmer Republic could only assert control of Phnom Penh and Battambang, the country’s two largest cities, both of which were overcrowded with citizens displaced from the countryside. Roughly 700,000 soldiers of the Khmer Rouge soon launched a final assault on the capital, which succumbed a mere two weeks before the reunification of Vietnam under communist control. Though Lon Nol himself had fled to Hawaii along with other government officials, others in the Cambodian government remained; captured by the Khmer Rouge, they were quickly executed.

As many as 150,000 Cambodians may have perished in the civil war that formally ended on April 17, 1975. Over the next 44 months, anywhere from one to two million more would die as Pol Pot committed Democratic Kampuchea -- as his country was now called -- to a campaign of ideological and economic purification. Cities were evacuated and the people herded onto collective farms, where they labored and starved by the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more -- intellectuals, professionals, ethnic minorities and other “parasites” -- were taken to the so-called Killing Fields, where they were shot or (more frequently) slugged with hammers or gouged with pick axes before being dumped into mass graves.

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