Government and Politics

Cambodia Table of Contents

THE 1970S WERE cruel years for the Khmer people, and their impact was still being felt in the late 1980s. The decade opened turbulently, with the deposition of ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been in power from 1941, during the period when the war in Vietnam boiled over into Cambodia. The country, militarily feeble and putatively neutral, soon plunged into a succession of upheavals, punctuated by foreign incursions, civil war, and famine. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot (also known as Saloth Sar) and aided initially by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), overran in 1975 the pro-Western Khmer Republic led by the president, General Lon Nol. At least 1 million Cambodians either were murdered or starved to death under the Pol Pot regime. In 1979, however, Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge regime and installed a puppet regime headed by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge military commander.

The Vietnamese set out to tighten their grip on the country by occupying and colonizing it. Meanwhile, the deposed Khmer Rouge regime regrouped in remote enclaves near the Thai border to give armed resistance to Vietnamese forces and the puppet government in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital.

At the end of the 1970s, Cambodia was divided politically and territorially under two regimes, each claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the nation. Since then, the competing regimes have been locked in an armed struggle in Cambodia, as one side contested the Vietnamese presence and the other acquiesced more or less grudgingly to its role as Hanoi's surrogate.

Vietnam promised repeatedly to leave Cambodia by 1990, and by the end of 1987, Hanoi had staged six partial troop withdrawals. Officials in Hanoi indicated, however, that phased withdrawals would end and that Vietnamese forces would return to Cambodia if there were a threat to Vietnam's national security. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and most Western nations were skeptical of the moves and viewed them as merely disguised troop rotations. Among Cambodia's noncommunist neighbors, Thailand especially was concerned about the threat posed to its own security by a large, well-armed Vietnamese army just to the east of its borders. On the diplomatic front, the United Nations (UN) routinely condemned the Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia on an annual basis, and most countries withheld diplomatic recognition from the pro-Vietnamese Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh.

In 1987 uncertain prospects for peace continued to vex Cambodian nationalists. Differences--among warring Cambodian factions and their respective foreign sponsors over the projected terms of a possible settlement--were likely to remain unresolved in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Cambodian people continued to suffer from the war between anti-Vietnamese guerrillas on the one side and the Vietnamese and the Heng Samrin forces on the other side. The Cambodian search for reconciliation among contending parties can be understood only when the perspectives of foreign powers are taken into account.

In the late 1980s, the ruling political organization in Phnom Penh was the Marxist-Leninist Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), a political offshoot of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. Heng Samrin headed both the state bureaucracy and the party apparatus in late 1987. Hun Sen, prime minister since January 1985, chaired the single-party, KPRP-run government, that was administered by the Council of Ministers. In seeking to enlist mass support for its regime, the KPRP depended on an umbrella popular front organization, affiliated with numerous social and political groups, that was called the Kampuchean (or Khmer) United Front for National Construction and Defense (KUFNCD). The KPRP, in exercising power in Phnom Penh under Vietnamese mentorship, pursued three main objectives: to combat the enemy (anti-Vietnamese resistance groups); to intensify production for the fulfillment of targets set in the First Five-Year Program of Socioeconomic Restoration and Development (1986-90), hereafter known as the First Plan; and to build up the party's revolutionary forces by strengthening the regime's political and administrative infrastructure and its national security establishment. The party's foreign policy goals were to reinforce solidarity with Vietnam and to develop cooperation with the Soviet Union, the principal source of economic assistance to the government in Phnom Penh.

The other regime competing for legitimacy in the 1980s was an unlikely partnership of feuding communist and noncommunist factions, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). The coalition government, with Sihanouk serving on and off as president, was formed in 1982 under the sponsorship of China and the ASEAN states. The coalition comprised the Khmer Rouge and two noncommunist groups led by Sihanouk and Son Sann. Son Sann, a former prime minister under Sihanouk, was known for his dislike of Sihanouk and of the Khmer Rouge.

Despite its claim that it was based inside Cambodia, the CGDK was a government in exile. It operated out of Beijing, Pyongyang, or Bangkok, or wherever its three leaders--Sihanouk, Khieu Samphan, and Son Sann--happened to be, whether or not they were together. In the 1984 to 1985 Vietnamese dry-season offensive, the coalition lost nearly all of its fixed guerrilla bases along the Thai border. Nonetheless, its fighters continued to operate in small bands in many Cambodian provinces. The CGDK's forces sought to drive the Vietnamese out of the country, to win over the Cambodians who were resentful of the Vietnamese, to destabilize the Heng Samrin regime, and to seek international aid for continued resistance. The coalition government had a distinct asset that its rival lacked--it was recognized by the United Nations as the lawful representative of the state of Cambodia.

Democratic Kampuchea
The Khmer People's National Liberation Front
The Constitution
Government Structure
The Coalition's Strategy
Phnom Penh and Its Allies
The Search for Peace
From "Proximity Talks" to a "Cocktail Party"
The Sihanouk-Hun Sen Meeting

For more information about the government, see Facts about Cambodia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress