Cambodia Since April 1975

III. The Peoples’ Republic of Kampuchea

With some two hundred thousand Vietnamese troops stationed in Cambodia, the new People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK) began to rebuild its administrative structure. In 1979-1980, the party was busy setting up central, provincial and local governments to extend government control throughout the country. (For further discussion of the political system of PRK see Michael Vickery, 1986).

An election of representatives to fill the 117 seats at the National Assembly was organized in May 1981. The PRPK nominated all the candidates, though the party did allow more candidates than the available number of seats. The majority of the 146 candidates were senior party cadres or party members, and the rest were a handful of non-party members whose loyalty the party trusted. The party center sent directions that voters should cross out undesired candidates (Heder 1998:8 and 17). Under the constitution adopted in 1981, the National Assembly was the supreme organ of the nation and was responsible for passing laws and overseeing their implementation. In reality, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea completely dominated the government.

The PRK administration restored many socio-cultural traditions that had been forbidden during the DK era. The practice of Buddhism was no longer banned, though it was not declared the state religion. Some temples were rebuilt and men over 50 years old were allowed to ordain. Rights of minority groups were revived. Muslim Cham were allowed to practice their religion freely, and to rebuild their mosques. Muslim Cham and the upland peoples were specifically courted by the PRK regime. Members of these minority groups were appointed to positions of authority within the government at the central and provincial levels. However, there was also a policy of trying to "convert" upland people to be "civilized," meaning to live in individual houses, wear Khmer clothes, eat Khmer food, and generally act like Khmer.

After the Vietnamese invasion, many Vietnamese began to migrate to Cambodia; some were former residents of Cambodia who had fled in the 1970s while others were new arrivals. The presence of this Vietnamese population in Cambodia was politically controversial. In the early 1980s, while the PRK admitted that there were 60,000 Vietnamese immigrants residing in Cambodia, Khmers living abroad and in refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border placed the number in hundreds of thousands (Chandler 1996:233). With the presence of Vietnamese civilians, soldiers and advisors, the growing Khmer resistance to the PRK (see below) claimed that Hanoi was pursuing a policy of Vietnamization in Cambodia.

Although Chinese and Sino-Khmers did not suffer greatly during the PRK, their freedom was restricted by the government. These restrictions paralleled similar limitations on Sino-Vietnamese in Vietnam. Chinese schools and religious associations were banned. In 1983 after the issue of Party Center Circular #351, the government announced a nationwide registration of ethnic Chinese. However, Circular #351 was not thoroughly implemented. Some local governments strictly implemented the process while others did not. As a result the effects of the policy also varied from place to place. In some areas, Chinese were driven out of their houses and were removed from their jobs. Some disappeared without reason (Edwards and Chan 1996:76-77). Others were taken to be photographed with identification numbers.

Immediately after the collapse of the DK regime, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians traversed the country in search of family members. This mobility of the population and the social chaos that ensued after the collapse of tight DK control resulted in low rice production in 1979. Consequently, people consumed even draught animals and rice seed. The shortage of draught animals and rice seed, compounded with drought for the 1979-80 planting season, led to severe food shortages. Thousands of people, especially elderly people and children, died of starvation. This tragedy generated a generous response from the world community, which provided emergency food relief to Cambodia under the supervision of United Nations agencies.

People’s lives subsequently improved considerably as they took up residence and began to engage in agricultural and commercial activities. The PRK introduced a semi-socialist economic system in which factories, land, and industrial crop plantations such as rubber and banking belonged to the state. Peasants were organized into solidarity groups (krom samaki) comprised of 10 to 20 families. Members of the group communally cultivated certain plots of land and shared the harvest based upon their contributions. There were three main different kinds of krom samaki that varied in the extent to which property and labor were collectivized (Frings 1994, 1997). However, by the mid-1980s in virtually all areas peasants had reverted to farming private plots. The PRK administration also reintroduced money and markets. Small businesses and handicraft production sprung up throughout the country.

The PRK reestablished schools and basic medical care throughout the country, though the tremendous loss of life under DK meant a lack of trained staff, and an external embargo meant no international aid from the West for the regime (see Mysliwiec 1988).

In the meantime, traumatized by the DK and fearful of foreign domination, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps located along the Cambodian-Thai border. The camps were administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other private international organizations. Some 200,000 of the refugees were able to resettle in western countries such as France, the United States, Canada and Australia. The rest continued to live in fear and poverty in the camps until 1993.

Defeated, the remnant of the DK forces withdrew to the Thai-Cambodian border, where they were supported by China and Thailand. The Thai army provided food and shelter to the Khmer Rouge soldiers while China shipped large quantity of weapons. This enabled the DK forces to regroup and reorganize into guerrilla units to fight the Vietnamese and PRK forces. Internationally, with strong support from the United States, China and ASEAN, DK continued to retain the Cambodian seat at the United Nations.

Two other non-communist resistance movements were established at the Thai border. In 1979, Cambodia’s long-term political veteran Son Sann formed the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF). A year later, Prince Norodom Sihanouk founded the National United Front for a Cooperative, Independent, Neutral and Peaceful Cambodia (FUNCINPEC).

As information about DK’s atrocities spread worldwide, the Khmer Rouge became increasingly vilified. In 1982, to restore the credibility of the anti-Vietnamese resistant movements, China, the United States, and ASEAN forced the three movements to form a tri-party coalition government in exile under the title of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Norodom Sihanouk became CGDK’s president. Aside from their common goal to end the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, these three parties did not have anything in common. The United States, China, and ASEAN did not expect that the resistance movement would be successful in driving the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. However, they were an important instrument for inflicting pressure on Vietnam so that the latter would come to the negotiating table.

After the creation of the CGDK, some military units and followers transferred their bases a few kilometers across the Thai border into Cambodia. The Vietnamese and the PRK responded by launching a series of dry season military offensives in 1983-85 against these bases. The Phnom Penh government also conscripted thousands of civilians to lay mines and build defensive lines along the border to prevent encroachment by the resistance forces. Many of these workers died of malaria while some others were maimed by landmines. These programs, known as K-5 (ka pram) were extremely unpopular. Though life under the PRK was undeniably better than under the DK regime, human rights abuses existed. Those suspected of counter-revolutionary activities, including any contact with the border camps, were arrested, tortured and imprisoned without trial (see Amnesty International 1987).

While military campaigns were launched to weaken the resistance movements, the Vietnamese also intensified their effort to strengthen the PRK armed forces to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of their forces.

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