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The Tragedy of Cambodian History

The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945

David P. Chandler
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    The Tragedy of Cambodian History
    Book Description:

    The political history of Cambodia between 1945 and 1979, which culminated in the devastating revolutionary excesses of the Pol Pot regime, is one of unrest and misery. This book by David P. Chandler is the first to give a full account of this tumultuous period.

    Drawing on his experience as a foreign service officer in Phnom Penh, on interviews, and on archival material. Chandler considers why the revolution happened and how it was related to Cambodia's earlier history and to other events in Southeast Asia. He describes Cambodia's brief spell of independence from Japan after the end of World War II; the long and complicated rule of Norodom Sihanouk, during which the Vietnam War gradually spilled over Cambodia's borders; the bloodless coup of 1970 that deposed Sihanouk and put in power the feeble, pro-American government of Lon Nol; and the revolution in 1975 that ushered in the radical changes and horrors of Pol Pot's Communist regime. Chandler discusses how Pol Pot and his colleagues evacuated Cambodia's cities and towns, transformed its seven million people into an unpaid labor force, tortured and killed party members when agricultural quotas were unmet, and were finally overthrown in the course of a Vietnamese military invasion in 1979. His book is a penetrating and poignant analysis of this fierce revolutionary period and the events of the previous quarter-century that made it possible.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16267-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Preface to the Paperbound Edition
    (pp. x-xii)
    David P. Chandler
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    The prairie fire of revolution that swept through Cambodia between 1975 and the beginning of 1979 was one of the fiercest and most consuming in this century of revolutions. Under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), a million Cambodians, or one in eight, died from warfare, starvation, overwork, misdiagnosed diseases, and executions. Most of these deaths, however, were never intended by DK. Instead, one Cambodian in eight fell victim to the government’s utopian program of total and rapid social transformation, which its leaders had expected would succeed at far less cost. This does nothing to alleviate the horror or their...

  8. one In Search of Independence, 1945–1950
    (pp. 14-45)

    At 9:30 p.m. on March 9, 1945, in a bold, coordinated gesture, Japanese military forces throughout Indochina moved to disarm French units, to intern French officials, and to assume control of the peninsula. Nearly everywhere the French and local people were taken by surprise. Resistance was sporadic and casualties, in Cambodia at least, were relatively light: a report prepared later estimated that forty-one people, nineteen of them civilians, had lost their lives throughout the protectorate on March 9 and 10. The total probably included four or five Cambodian militiamen who had been guarding the Frenchrésidence supérieurein Phnom Penh....

  9. two Political Warfare, 1950–1955
    (pp. 46-84)

    Cambodia’s political history experienced several important turning points in the early 1950s. The first of these was the eclipse of the Democratic party in 1952. This was followed soon afterward by Sihanouk’s so-called Crusade for Independence. By the end of 1953, France had granted nearly all of Cambodia’s political demands, and the country celebrated its independence. The Viet Minh and their Cambodian supporters contested the legitimacy of this, but by the end of 1954 armed resistance to the Phnom Penh government had come to an end. The final turning point occurred in 1955, when Sihanouk assumed personal command of Cambodian...

  10. three Sihanouk Unopposed, 1955–1962
    (pp. 85-121)

    In the aftermath of the elections of 1955, many Democrats, fearful of Sihanouk’s vengeful style and of the effects that not joining might have on their careers, joined the Sangkum. Yet some of the executive committee and many members of the party held back, thinking that the party might still play a constructive role outside the National Assembly. Nonetheless, the violence of the campaign and the imprisonment of several Democrats without trial dissuaded the executive committee from convening a meeting to discuss the party’s future.

    In early 1956, the Democrats were in limbo. Desultory talks about joining forces with the...

  11. four Cambodia Clouds Over, 1963–1966
    (pp. 122-158)

    The period beginning with the anti-Sangkum student demonstration in Siem Reap in February 1963 and ending with the elections for the National Assembly in October 1966 can be perceived as the first act of the nightmare that terrorized Cambodia after 1970.

    During these years, Sihanouk’s ability to control Cambodia’s politics diminished, but it is hard to say whether this was a cause or an effect of his dwindling popularity among the elite. In part, it may have sprung from his own melancholy assessment of the future of Cambodia, colored by the intensifying conflict in Vietnam; but the Vietnam war aside,...

  12. Figures
    (pp. None)
  13. five Changing the Rules, 1967–1969
    (pp. 159-191)

    Tensions among Cambodia’s political factions broke into the open with the Samlaut rebellion in northwestern Cambodia in early 1967. For the next three years Sihanouk, the urban elite, and the Cambodian left were engaged in mortal combat. Broadly, this period can be seen in terms of the left’s ascendancy, the urban elite’s increasing restlessness, and Sihanouk’s decline.

    Between 1967 and the beginning of 1970 the left and pro-Western segments of the Phnom Penh elite overran and usurped Sihanouk’s political position and dissipated his hegemony. By 1969, if not before, educated people under thirty had deserted Sihanouk en masse, and many...

  14. six Sliding toward Chaos, 1970–1975
    (pp. 192-235)

    At the beginning of 1970, with Sihanouk and Lon Nol out of the country, Sirik Matak and his colleagues enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity to implement policies aimed at introducing rationality into Cambodia’s economic affairs and at facing the implications of the Vietnamese occupation of the border area. Both policies were keyed to improved relations with the United States. Unfortunately, Matak sought an alliance with the Americans at a moment when the United States was beginning to reduce its commitments to Southeast Asia.

    Sirik Matak was confident of his ability to introduce and manage change. The government hoped that progress would...

  15. seven Revolution in Cambodia, 1975–1979
    (pp. 236-272)

    The revolution that swept through Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 left over a million Cambodians dead and half a million more exiled in Thailand and elsewhere. Many of the survivors were scarred physically and psychologically by what they had gone through. To understand what happened and why, one must regard the revolution both in terms of its relations with Cambodia’s past and in terms of its horrifying uniqueness; not only that, one must view it against the background of revolutions elsewhere in order to determine what may have been characteristically Cambodian about it.

    Government spokesmen in DK frequently boasted that...

  16. eight Inside the Typhoon: Testimonies
    (pp. 273-318)

    The testimonies discussed in this chapter were gathered in the course of my research. Each of them tells an unusual story. The witnesses include two former government ministers, a French citizen, a practitioner of traditional medicine, a former member of the Communist party of Thailand, a former civil engineer, and a leftist intellectual who returned to DK in 1976 from France. Only the Thai can be called a Communist. Everyone but he lost family members in the DK era. All of these people remember the time as one during which they suffered malnutrition, overwork, and victimization, but they are astute...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 319-380)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 381-388)
  19. Index
    (pp. 389-396)