Op-ed: Will Cambodia’s History Repeat Itself?

Phnom Penh, October 29, 2020 —

Our world keeps changing, even the climate changes, but what remains unchanged are human values, ideology, and all those factors that define us as human beings. Cambodia went to war again and again, history tells us, due to many factors overshadowed by the Cold War from 1945 to 1990. Our world became divided as the U.S. led the ‘liberal’ camp and the former Soviet Union led the communist one.

Between them were the non-aligned nations, then known as the ‘Third World’, nations who sought to plow their own fields with dignity.

As a son of this Kingdom of Cambodia, I recall the past experiences this nation went through, from which, I hope, younger Cambodian generation will learn something and avoid repeating the bad ones.

The backgrounds

We cannot change the past but we learn from it. I do not have to go back as far, as for example, the First Indochina War (1946 to 1954) but it is a good place to start. That conflict pitched the French colonial ruler against Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian Communist rebel forces. After the French pulled out from Indochina, America moved in as the ‘liberal’ camp wanted to dominate the Southeast Asian nations and stop them from falling into the communist bloc.

Vietnam, temporarily divided by the Geneva Accords was then considered central to the ‘domino theory’, which held that if one South East Asian nation adopted Communism then the rest of the region would fall to Communism one-by-one. The U.S., in particular, sought to prevent that from happening.

But, there were many relevant elements that brought U.S. to wage the war against North Vietnam. By the mid-1940s Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, was viewed as a communist nationalist with no direct ties with Washington.

Still the western bloc did not share the communist values and saw them as a threat to their own colonial interests in the region, for example, the British in what was then Malaya, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the U.S. in the Philippines. In addition, Paris alerted Washington about the falling domino theory, prompting the U.S. to wage the war in Vietnam to prevent the North communists of Hanoi from dominating the South of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh.

This Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1955 to 1975) and in Vietnam as the American war, spread across land borders with Cambodia and Laos. These nation’s land borders formed part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Cambodia sought to remain neutral, but as a tiny nation and militarily weak, she was dragged into a proxy war between the superpowers, U.S., China, and former Soviet Union whether she liked it or not.
Cambodia’s domestic conflict emerged in 1970 as the U.S. supported the pro-democracy faction led by military chief Lon Nol on one side; while China and then the Soviet Union lent support to the Khmer Rouge spearheaded by the-then Prince Norodom Sihanouk in exile and Pol Pot in the country, on the other.

The deaths of Cambodian people by the U.S. bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh trail during the war also played key part in pushing the locals to join the communists to fight American and its ally, South Vietnam.

This complex situation ultimately drove Cambodia into an abyss of tragedies when Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975 and ruled with a bloody hand till January 1979. More than 2 million people died from executions, starvation, disease, and forced labour.

Despite intervention by Vietnam army volunteer driving the creators of the killing field from power in January 1979, still Cambodia’s war dragged on. Another 10-years of war (1979- 1989) between Cambodia’s forces of Phnom Penh supported by Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, on one side, and the Cambodian resistance, including the Khmer Rouge, supported by China and the west, on the other.

At the time, Cambodia faced a number of challenges, such as economic embargoes by the west, which on one hand prevented Pol Pot from returning to power but on the other stopped the nation rebuilding from its ashes.

Cambodia’s civil war continued. Despite the Paris Peace Agreement agreed by the four conflicting factions, to cease fire, and followed by the U.N. sponsored election in May 1993; the war did not end until PM Hun Sen championed his win-win policy to bring about the full national reconciliation in late 1998.

Today, Cambodia enjoys its social and economic development, along with ensuring a level playing field in international affairs, but some express fears that history may repeat itself when Cambodia is again viewed as a battleground. The U.S. has accused Cambodia of making a secret military deal with China, although Cambodia rejected these claims over and over.

The claims raise the risk of Cambodia becoming embroiled in someone else arguments yet again.
PM Hun Sen said this week that, [the U.S.] accused Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1960s and 70s of hiding the communist Viet Cong operating from Cambodian soil to justify American attacks on Cambodia, along with political attacks as the Vietnam War scaled up.

Same, same but different?

During the Cold War era, the Vietnam War, as claimed by Washington, was to prevent the communist from dominating the ‘liberal’ camp. Cambodia was then also victimised by the war as the result of foreign intervention in Cambodia’s domestic affairs.

This time, a new issue has emerged: the South China Sea (SCS). Cambodia has been doing her part while respecting the ASEAN bloc’s principle of non-interference, among other fundamental principles. Still, America and the west, concerning the issue of SCS, see Phnom Penh as favoring Beijing, saying, in effect, “If you are not with us, you are against us”.

In this respect, how will Cambodia position itself in the long run when this issue may not be over in the next several years from now. Yes, Cambodia can safeguard its interests—while still contributing to global peace and development—by adhering to national and international laws.

Cambodia’s approach can be best explained by Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation: On Oct. 27, 2020 in Phnom Penh, as the world marked the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, he said: “Cambodia’s foreign policy is firmly underpinned by a strong spirit of multilateralism”.

In conclusion, Cambodia’s painful history will not repeat itself thanks to its strong leadership, in addition to the country’s friendly foreign policy, among other factors.

China today is far much better in all ways to China in the 20th century. Washington’s foreign policy may view Cambodia differently from the past by seeking ways of developing mutual interest. Vietnam’s memories from the Vietnam War’s legacies continue to stay in the head and heart and they know what they are doing. Moscow is positioned well in terms of global diplomacy and has friendly ties with Phnom Penh.

Cambodia continues to play several cards, along with equal footing, for its survival thanks to the lessons learnt from the past. The Kingdom has diplomatic ties with North and South Korea, EU, Arabic world. Cambodia is in free trade talks with Republic of Korea, Japan, India, and others. Such a fair balanced and pragmatic position gives Cambodia good leverage in world affairs.

Engaging with the future is like crossing the road – one must look both ways to cross safely.

By Ek Tha
Standing-Vice Chairman of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit,
Spokesman of the Council of Ministers,
Advisor to the Ministry of Information