What Went Wrong with the Pol Pot Regime? An Analysis of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (Cambodia)

(By F.G.) 



In April 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, an army of ragged, thin and very young peasant men and women defeated the US-backed government in neighbouring Cambodia. In January 1979, some 44 months later, this new regime was swept from power and scattered by invading Vietnamese soldiers.

The briefness of this period is part of what makes it hard to understand. Further, there are no sweeping eye-witness accounts, and even some of the basic facts are in dispute among those who study Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it is called in the country’s Khmer language). A major difficulty is that the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) led by Pol Pot made a secret of its policies and goals and even its existence for most of its time in power, and since then none of its leaders have come forward to defend its line. Yet the main source of confusion about this period is that a reactionary consensus has been imposed, both because it has been drummed into people’s heads by the media, and because there have been so few dissenting voices.

Whenever Pol Pot is mentioned (often, considering that it has been two decades since the demise of his Democratic Kampuchea regime), the conclusion is always the same: revolution is worse than the social ills it claims to cure. Many studies focus on unsubstantiated figures on the number of people who died during the Democratic Kampuchea period in an effort to prove that the forces who drove the US out of Southeast Asia turned out to be worse than the imperialists themselves.1

The truth – who and what do you believe – is a big issue here. Any reader who doesn’t ask “Why should I believe that?” isn’t fully awake to the way this issue is being used.

We are out to overthrow “common knowledge” on this question. Unlike others who falsely claim they have no particular viewpoint from which they judge, our basic stand is explicit: as Mao said, “It’s right to rebel against reaction.” In other words, here our starting point is that the war waged by the three Indochinese peoples (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) against imperialism was just. No matter how critical our conclusions on the Pol Pot regime, the fact is that they had to deal with the horror that the US created. If anyone should be on trial for genocide in Southeast Asia, it should be the US ruling class. The charges of genocide the rulers of the US want to press against former CPK leaders are an attempt to reverse right and wrong.


A major problem in other analyses of this experience is the foregone conclusion that it was “irrational” and therefore basically inexplicable. We’ve looked at it through the lens of dialectical materialist reason, examining who was trying to do what – their politics and policies – and further, what was possible in that objective situation, and the results of those policies. This is why we have focused on basic questions the CPK had to solve.
There are four intertwined, key issues:

• The relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. This question conditioned the entire development of the Cambodian revolution. The CPK was born and developed in conflict with the Communist Party of Vietnam (formerly known as the Workers Party of Vietnam), which sought to strategically subordinate the Cambodian revolution to the Vietnamese struggle against imperialism. After the victory in Cambodia, Vietnam, in the eyes of the CPK leadership, became the main danger to their revolution. This was a defining question, both objectively and in the thinking of the CPK leadership. The course of the revolution in Cambodia depended on it.

• The kind of society the CPK sought to build and the role of the masses in that. This means the path of revolution in Cambodia, especially the fundamental question of two-stage revolution, in the specific context of the Indochina war centred in Vietnam, with all the particular opportunities and constraints that imposed; the united front during and after the war, including a very complicated relationship with Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk; and socialist construction in the shadow of a Vietnam whose failure to carry out social revolution was linked to an increasing dependence on the USSR. Many people have heard how the Democratic Kampuchean government completely emptied the cities, for instance. Here we intend to examine these policies and why they were carried out.

• The question of the party: the state of affairs in the CPK and its leaders’ conception of what a party is for. Until September 1977, the Cambodian people didn’t know that what they called “the Organisation” [Angkar] and what its opponents called the Khmer Rouge was a communist party. Yet, to a large extent because of the Vietnamese victory over the US, this Party was suddenly thrust into power. It also had to deal with a situation in which its own line and ranks were far from consolidated.

• The question of the CPK’s attitude toward foreign experience in general and especially Maoism. It has often been claimed that the CPK was guided by Maoism and the Chinese revolution. This is based on little but ignorance of the facts, or, in some cases, a deliberate effort to slander Maoism.2 The Cambodian Party never made such a claim. Although Pol Pot lived in China on the eve of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and even though this earth-shaking event, the farthest advance yet achieved by the world proletarian revolution, had a spontaneous impact on Cambodian political life, still any support for the GPCR is completely absent from CPK documents and other statements during Mao’s lifetime.3 The CPK was pro-China because Vietnam was pro-Soviet (and for the same reason also had relations with North Korea, Albania and Yugoslavia), but when CPK documents refer to the Chinese revolution it is usually to belittle it by comparison to Cambodia. The CPK claimed that it was so advanced that it “exceeds Lenin and is outstripping Mao”,4 leading a revolution so “unique” that, “[i]n this case, it is better to learn nothing from foreign experience”.5 But the “foreignness” of this experience is not the only reason why the CPK leadership did not want to learn from Mao’s development of Marxism. They didn’t like its content. As we shall see, the policies they carried out were the opposite of those developed by Mao. For the most part, the CPK leadership maintained their reserve on China until September 1977, when they established enthusiastic relations with Deng Xiaoping, the man who overthrew Mao’s successors. It didn’t matter much to Pol Pot what class ruled in China when he was looking for an ally against Vietnam.6 Continue reading