Book Examines the Effort to Rebuild Cambodia in the 1980s

“Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building”

When Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge in Jan­uary 1979, Cambodia had no currency, no businesses, no monks or judges, no cities. Its political, economic and social institutions had been eradicated; all that remained were a traumatized population, the cadres at whose hands they suffered, and piles of anonymous dead bodies.

In October 1991, with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, Cam­­bodia re-emerged—but this time it had a Council of Ministers, family farms, and a thriving private sector.

What happened inside Cambo­dia during the nearly 13 years in between has largely been shrouded in darkness. Aside from anecdotes and a handful of public documents, little concrete information was available about the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (later, the State of Cambodia).

Based on a fascinating trove of newly discovered internal party and state documents, “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building” shines a penetrating light. The subtitle is apt, for, as the book shows, it was the regime of the 1980s that truly built the modern Cambodian nation.

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Evan Gottesman, a US lawyer who spent three years in Cambo­dia with the American Bar As­socia­tion Cambodia Law and Demo­cracy Project in the 1990s, claims he was simply “[wandering] through Cambodian government buildings” when he “came across thousands of documents from the PRK and SOC: internal reports, secret telegrams, draft laws and regulations, and, most important, hundreds of minutes of meetings of high-level Communist Party and state institutions.”

Apparently, no one had stumbled across these papers and recognized their importance before. “Unsorted, uncatalogued, and left to gather dust, they were the product of a bureaucracy that was adept at recording its own activity but extremely disorganized.”

Here are the meetings in which economic policy was hashed out, the Constitution was drafted, disgraced politicians confessed the wrongness of their actions, and so on. The presentation of such re­vea­ling new evidence alone would make this an important book. It also happens to be im­pressively thorough, engaging and fair-minded.

Cambodia in the 1980s can be—and has been—seen as a pawn of Cold War superpower politics. It has been seen through the fractured accounts of the refugees who trickled steadily into Thai­land, and dispersed around the world throughout the decade.

But the view of Cambodia as helpless victim and a land of malnourishment and repression are both complexified by Gottes­man’s history. Neither, for example, ac­counts for a remarkable human rights report drawn up by the Council of Ministers in 1985:

“Arbitrary searches, arrests, detentions, and imprisonments occur practically everywhere. Ar­rests, detentions, and imprisonments are getting more abusive…. People arrested, detained, and im­prisoned in political cases, as for ordinary criminal offenses, are com­monly hit with sticks and tortured by interrogating organizations until they confess…. [Offi­cials] abuse their power, frequently assaulting people over small matters.”

Under the Khmer Rouge, no one would have dared admit the state’s failure to control its own authorities—much less been troubled by the humanitarian effects. The PRK even tried to insert civil liberties into its Constitution, but these were mostly yanked by the Vietnamese overseers.

On the other hand, throughout the regime, human rights were routinely violated, power was abused, and civil rights were nonexistent.

In this instance and many others, Gottesman shows us that the PRK was not a monolithic Big Brother but an evolving, often confused regime in which debate was constant and relatively tolerated.

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Certain names blare from the book’s pages like beacons: Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, Hun Sen. All three were Khmer Rouge military officers in the contentious Eastern Zone who fled and joined the Viet­na­mese-backed Kampuchean Uni­ted Front for National Salva­tion. All three survived the PRK and SOC and now hold prominent positions in the CPP and government.

But the similarities end there, and the personalities of these men and others emerge gradually over the course of Gottesman’s book.

Heng Samrin (now honorary CPP president and first vice president of the National Assembly) was the PRK’s first president and head of state; he was also secretary-general of the Communist party (officially the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party) from 1981 to 1991.

But he is portrayed as stiff, both in person and in ideas—lacking charisma or a personal network, and dogmatic in his adherence to old-style communism long after other communist regimes, including Vietnam, had softened their approach.

On the other hand, Chea Sim (now president of the CPP and the Senate) is an elusive, behind-the-scenes figure who inspired respect and fear even among the Vietna­mese advisers. He served for two years as Minister of Interior, then took up the presidency of the rubber-stamp National Assembly, all the while serving on the Politburo.

But his real influence was the vast web of loyal connections he developed throughout the country—a patronage system that forced the Vietnamese to “tolerate” him instead of removing him, as they did other independent operators.

The conventional view of now-Prime Minister Hun Sen is that he rose to power in the 1980s through sheer canniness and man­euvering, a level of instinctive political mastery that is apparent to this day. That is true, but Gottesman claims it’s not the whole picture.

Appointed foreign minister and Politburo member at the tender age of 26, Hun Sen is repeatedly described as “nonideological”—that is, he respected practical situations more than the tenets of socialism.

“What mattered [to Hanoi] was the ability to accumulate power, the willingness to wield it in ways that supported the regime’s military and diplomatic campaigns, and the capacity to construct a power base that could withstand a partial or complete Vietnamese withdrawal.

“Hun Sen managed all of this, using whatever positions the Vietnamese granted him as a base for future advancement while carefully timing his challenges to political rivals,” Gottesman writes.

As minister of foreign affairs, Hun Sen, with only a high-school education, had the best and brightest of the country’s few intellectuals—all noncommunists—in his em­­ploy. From them, his Vietna­mese advisers and his extensive travels, he learned astonishingly quickly.

Named one of three deputy prime ministers in 1982, Hun Sen was the only one to seize the position as a chance to build up his profile and power base, but that wasn’t all. By 1984, “For several years [Hun Sen] had been im­pressing the Vietnamese with his bureaucratic and diplomatic skills and his willingness to support a series of controversial, pro-Vietna­mese border agreements,”   Gottes­man writes. “But his economic maneuvering bears notice as well.”

The PRK’s economic policies were confused from beginning to end for several reasons. First, forced collectivization was too reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge for the population to accept; gradually, collectivization weakened until family farms were the norm, although the land was technically owned by the state. Second, the Vietnamese advisers were at a loss as their own country vacillated between trying to impose socialism, giving way to limited privatization, then reversing itself, particularly in the traditionally capitalist South. Third, the PRK simply didn’t have the capacity to impose strict policies through its disorganized, undereducated network of local cadres.

With the Vietnamese largely mute on the subject, then, economic policy was largely up to the Cambodians. The hard-line communists said the state simply had to be strengthened to de-privatize the economy. The liberals argued the state should give in and recognize the private sector’s overwhelming power.

It was the “nonideological” Hun Sen who found the middle ground. The government, he said, should “use” the private sector—for tax revenue, for example—while building up the state system. He thus showed loyalty to socialism and the Vietnamese model at the same time as he acknowledged the need to be realistic.

Hun Sen’s views prevailed, and it was in the immediate aftermath of these debates that, with the death of prime minister Chan Si in 1985, Hun Sen was named head of government.

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Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin survived gloriously, but many significant figures of the PRK faded away; their personalities, and the reasons they faded, are equally interesting.

Ros Samay, a charismatic intellectual, was the primary author of the PRK’s Constitution; he is now an undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication. Pen Sovan, Ros Samay’s cousin, was the PRK’s first prime minister, in 1981; he now splits his time between Cambodia and the US and has announced he will run in July’s elections. Both ran afoul of the Vietnamese and spent 10 years in detention without trial in Hanoi.

Uk Bunchheuan, the PRK’s Minister of Justice, evolved from a believer in arbitrary detentions and torture to, by 1988, a daring and isolated advocate of human rights. He now holds the relatively marginal position of chair of the Senate’s Legislation Commission.

Say Phouthang’s only current position is as a member of the CPP’s 21-member Politburo, where he is said still to wield considerable influence. But the man who, after the removal of Pen Sovan, was once “perhaps the most powerful Cambodian leader,” has disappeared from the public eye and spends much of his time in Thailand. During the PRK, he served in important party roles but was gradually marginalized as Hun Sen strengthened the state’s power relative to the party’s.

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There are plenty of others—some dead, some expatriated, some still serving in the present government. The point—Gottesman’s point—is that these were the men who shaped Cambodia; that the PRK was emphatically not the “Vietnamese puppet regime” of international cliche.

The Vietnamese in Cambodia were focused on military and diplomatic matters; after the first few years, “the Vietnamese actually had everything to gain by allowing the Cambodian power struggles to play themselves out,” and allowing the Cambodians to figure out the political and economic systems that Hanoi itself was still struggling with.

This is because, by increasing the Cambodians’ autonomy, Hanoi hoped to wean Cambodia from its support as quickly as possible. Gottesman makes a convincing case that, contrary to popular belief, Vietnam never wanted to colonize, conquer, subjugate or “Vietnamize” its neighbor.

Rather, provoked by the Khmer Rouge who engaged its troops on the border, and fearful of Chinese dominance of the region, Hanoi’s motives were strategic. Despite trade relations in its favor, Vietnam expended a huge amount of resources sending thousands of advisers and as many as 180,000 troops to Cambodia. It also suffered near-universal international condemnation. It was willing to do this only because it was, in effect, fighting a war—a war it needed to win.

According to the government, about 55,300 Vietnamese soldiers died in Cambodia from 1978 to 1989—a number “slightly higher than the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.”

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After the Vietnamese pullout in late 1989, Hun Sen and his crew proved they could indeed hold their own. They lost territory at the Thai border, including Pailin, but not as much as they expected. The PRK became the State of Cambodia, communism was officially renounced, and the KPRP became the Cambodian People’s Party.

The rest is well-known history, from the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to the 1992-1993 Untac mission. But as Gottesman meticulously shows, it was the PRK, not Untac, that accomplished “nation-building” in Cambodia.

“No Berlin Wall ever fell in Cambodia. No Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa ever came to power. The regime did not collapse; it negotiated the terms of its survival,” he writes.

The CPP has, since Untac, maneuvered (sometimes violently), swerved back and forth, and accommodated its various constituencies, in order to retain power and bring in international aid and investment. But underlying it all, as “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge” vividly illustrates, is the PRK: A regime based on patronage, loyalty and the amassing of power.

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