The Khmer Rouge and The Cambodian Genocide

By Olivia, Melody, Damien

Settlement Options / Outcomes

For Cambodians seeking refuge from the crisis which began with the Khmer Rouge, there were many places of settlement. According to the United States Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey of 1998, “More than 75,000 Cambodians were refugees at the end of 1997, including an estimated 62,000 in Thailand and 15,000 in Vietnam. Nearly 30,000 Cambodians were internally displaced.” This statement concludes that displaced persons settled first in neighboring countries. Often this meant that refugees were placed within camps along borders, such as the Thai-Cambodian border. Movement across the border was frequent. Some people came fleeing the Khmer Rouge and invading Vietnam, while others sought temporary relief or supplies before returning to their homes. Concluding the USCR World Refugee Survey of 2000, it was stated that, “…there were no camps for Cambodian refugees in Thailand.” These camps which once housed thousands of refugees were now empty.

Settlement within Cambodia was also difficult, due to the invading Vietnam troops as well as U.S bombing, large land areas were unsuitable for repatriates. The process of repatriating with in Cambodia was long and difficult due to fear of further violence and poor living conditions. Despite this, by 2000 more than 30,000 Cambodians returned. 

Cambodian refugees have settled across the world. In the United States alone, thousands of Cambodian people have been relocated away from conflict and persecution. Populations concentrations have grown to create and add to the rich cultural landscape within America. Between 1975 and 1994, almost 158,000 Cambodians gained entry to the United States, most as refugees while a small number of people came as immigrants. These refuge seekers came in three waves: before the Khmer Rouge gained power, during Khmer Rouge regime, and after regime was over thrown. As a result, to settlement within the United States, refugees faced difficulties adapting to American life. A large portion of refugees would end up relying on welfare or other forms of public assistance. Many suffered from PTSD or other issues which impacted their settlement. 

Many refugees despite resettling outside of Cambodia still face violence and poor circumstances due to their status within society as refugees. For example, within the United States, Cambodians are facing deportation despite being citizens for many years. 

Representation of Refuge Seekers

In France, the perception of refugees at large depended greatly on the political leanings of the leadership of the country at any particular time. For the Right-leaning government of Giscard D’Estaing in 1974, the Cambodian refugees served as a piece of propaganda against the political Left because they were running away from a communist regime. This allowed the Right to propagate an image of openness and inclusiveness that extended to Cambodian refugees and vowed to aid them in their plight, but didn’t actually put that into effect. On the other hand, when the Left won the presidential elections in 1981, despite espousing the idea of being a staunch defender of suppressed peoples, newly elected President Mitterand and his government also sympathized with other communist regimes, and, in the case of Cambodia, had trouble reconciling their sympathies for refugees with their sympathies for Communist regimes. 

The closure of Cambodia kept most receiving countries far outside its borders from understanding the full consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime. Thus, while the French media made the ‘defence of Cambodia’ a political issue, it was rife with misunderstanding and misinformation, and sometimes led to French communities to disbelieve the stories of Cambodian refugees based on their own political opinions. It wasn’t until the country opened up that the French could finally get an idea of the atrocities that had occurred, and individual narratives held by refugees were quickly swept away by the perceptions that the media made of the situation. With so much interest and reporting about the Khmer Rouge and refugees, the French came to see Cambodia as the ‘country next door’ as it permeated the news cycle. However, divided opinions still remained strong, and soon enough, Cambodian refugees came under the banner of ‘boat people’ despite their distinctions from Vietnamese.

In the United States, the tradition of persecuting non-white immigrants was upheld in the case of Cambodian refugees, which made integration into society even harder when combined with the internalized mistrust of others that came from years under the Khmer Rouge regime. Like other minority people, Cambodians were driven by a sense of preservation of their culture, doing their best to integrate into American society while also holding on to traditions long held by their people. Based on the few studies on the topic of Cambodian refugees in the United States, the perception of Cambodians by Americans was rather in line with the way they viewed other Southeast Asian immigrants, and other minority groups in general. Not until recently, however, have the perception by the US government shifted so that any Cambodian refugees who had established themselves legally, but who did not possess American citizenship, who had, at one time or another, received something as little as a misdemeanor could see themselves sent to a home most of them could not remember. Cambodian refugees came to be seen by organizations like ICE as criminals, who could thus be repatriated back to Cambodia. The narrative that Cambodians being repatriated were ‘criminals’ arose in 2017 alongside other persecutions of immigrant populations in the United States, after a deal, which Cambodia argues was strong-armed into, was made between Cambodia and the US where Cambodia would accept to receive repatriated Cambodian refugees from the United States.

Political Stakes

Cambodian refugeedom was closely linked to the factional divisions that had rapidly developed since the occupation of French Indochina by the Japanese during WWII. As a result of multiple factions vying with each other in addition to Monarchic institutions, and from about 1966 when Cambodia under Prince Sihanouk gave access and basing rights to PAVN (North Vietnamese) troops experienced a number of regime changes. In 1970 Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk which intensified the ongoing Cambodian Civil War which ended in 1975 with the capture of Phnom Penh by Khmer Rouge forces. Though war had ended, the Khmer Rouge brought in a radical reform program, displacement of millions, and a campaign of mass executions, that ended only with Vietnamese intervention in 1979. It was this intervention that generated the largest waves of refugees out of Cambodia, driven out by a fear of encroaching Vietnamese forces and a high chance of famine, many Cambodians found shelter along a narrow strip of lands hugging the Thai side of the border and in the in between zones of legal treaties and political forces.

As no country in the area was a signatory of the UNHCR refugee treaties (1951 and 1967) this meant that the determination of their status was at the discretion of their host countries. Furthermore, the permeation of Khmer Rouge and other guerrilla forces into these camps turned simple refugees into the more complicated “refugee warriors”. As Ted Morello pointed out in 1988, the Khmer Rouge had forcibly recruited 7000 Cambodians from the camps to wage war against the Vietnamese back People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK)(Morello, 27). Other factions also led similar policies in the camps that they controlled, thus the refugees were politicized and turned into fighters in a war that they were fleeing from initially. This however was a situation that was both allowed and encouraged by the Thai government who had their own historical antagonisms with Vietnam. In the period between 1979 and 1982 a number of key decisions changed the usage of refugees for political goals. The first was that the People’s Republic of China agreed to withdraw support for the Communist Party of Thailand in exchange for Thai support against the Vietnamese in Cambodia. Since the Sino-Soviet Split (1956-1966) China resumed its historical antagonism with Vietnam (leading to war in 1979), while North Vietnam cooperated closely with the Soviet Union. The other significant event in 1982 was the formation of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) out of a number of factions that existed in the refugee camps in Thailand. As a counterweight to Vietnamese-PRK, international recognition of the CGDK was assured when it gained the seat for Cambodia at the UN, despite not controlling any significant territory or populations in the country.

            Thus, the refugees were used as political pawns in factional and regional politics as they were used to give legitimacy to the CGDK. As to recognize them as refugees would also imply the collapse in some respect of the Cambodian state. Such an admission would inherently undermine the position of the CGDK as the legitimate government. Johnathon D. Pollack, from a 1988 current affairs article, made two important observations that the USSR maintained relations with Vietnam for expanded military access in the Pacific aimed at countering the US, and there was a desire to thaw relations with China. The former hinged on the Soviet-Vietnamese Alliance which complicated the latter through Vietnam’s regional ambitions – and in particular Cambodia (Pollack 26).  In effect the fate of Cambodian refugees rested on the grand geopolitical strategies, policies, and diplomatic needs, where they had little opportunity to voice themselves. At every level explored here – internal conflict, regional politics, and even the Cold War – the fact remains: Cambodian refugees were reduced to diplomatic currency and unwilling recruitment pools.


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Pollack, Johnathon D., “Moscow Takes a Hard Look at Ties with Vietnam.” and Morello, Ted, “Cause for Concern: Khmer Rouge refugee are denounced at UN meeting.” 1988. Far Eastern Economic Review 141 (38) (Sep 22): 26-27.

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