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Cycle of violence engulfs gentle Cambodia


Visitors to Cambodia invariably refer to the people as gentle. Few nations, however, have experienced as much unrelenting violence over the past 30 years.

Many are to blame for this modern horror story, but a good portion can be traced to decisions made in Washington at the end of the 1960s.

For Cambodians, or the Khmer people, as they are known, today's turmoil, including a coup and potential civil war, is sadly just the latest eruption in a history of close to a thousand years of periodic violence, much of it the result of scheming outsiders.

Cambodia reached its zenith of cultural and political influence in the 10th and 12th centuries, eras of flourishing art forms, Indian-inspired religious temples and rites and diplomatic influence stretching to the corners of Asia.

However, the past 800 years have been for the Cambodians a story of decline, slaughter and assimilation, much of it resulting from military campaigns launched by its two more dominant neighbors, the Thais to the north and Vietnamese to the northeast. Were it not for mid-19th century French colonialism, which froze Southeast Asian geopolitics, Cambodia might not exist today.

Understandably, Cambodians remember fondly their glorious past, a time of divinely inspired monarchs and royalty. Many in this still largely feudal society long for the stability of monarchy and royalty, which complicates efforts at democratic reform.

French colonialism in Indochina ended in the mid-1950s. Out of it emerged the shrewd King Norodom Sihanouk, heir to royal history and the nation's only living symbol of unity. With a nod to modernity and foreign pressure, he abdicated his throne in 1955, quickly winning an election that made him head of a republican state.

By then the United States, ignorant of Asian culture and blindly driven by anti-communist zeal, was sinking into the Vietnam military quagmire. Sihanouk wanted no part of it.

By the mid-1960s, Vietnam had become a pawn on the superpowers' chess board and was becoming engulfed in war. Sihanouk, however, played the Soviet knights against U.S. bishops, keeping Moscow's, Washington's and Beijing's warlords at bay. By doing so, he kept Cambodia an oasis of peace in a desert of war that was spreading through Laos and North and South Vietnam.

It was not to last.

In February 1969, Gen. Creighton Abrams, then commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, asked President Nixon for permission to bomb North Vietnamese troops along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. Nixon agreed. On March 18, 1969 -- without Congressional approval -- American B-52s launched the first of hundreds of secret bombing missions over Cambodia. The magnitude of the bombing was horrific, drawing Cambodia into the wider war.

The unraveling of Cambodia's social structures now gained pace. On March 18, 1970, one year to the day after the first U.S. bombing strike, Sihanouk and his reticence to engage in war were overwhelmed by Nixon and a pro-U.S. Cambodian general named Lon Nol. While on a trip to Moscow, Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup by Lon Nol, who proclaimed himself head of state. The Lon Nol government was instantly recognized by Washington.

On April 30, 1970, only six weeks later, Nixon ordered American and South Vietnamese government troops to invade Cambodia in search of a mythical communist operational headquarters. It was never found.

As the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops advanced westward, North Vietnamese troops retreated, dividing Cambodia. The action increased the credibility and cause of a still relatively small band of Cambodian communists, numbering a few thousand. Sihanouk sided with them, dubbing them the "Khmer Rouge" (French for red Khmer).

The B-52 carpet bombings continued mercilessly. By August 1973, when Congress finally forced a halt to the raids, the United States had dropped some 540,000 tons on Cambodia and the ranks of the Khmer Rouge were growing to some 50,000 peasant troops.

In April 1975, after five years of carnage, bombings, corrupt government and civil and military strife, Congress finally forced an end to U.S. military actions in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge takeover ended one nightmare and began another. Revenge, purges and ideology led out into the Killing Fields, in which an estimated 1.5 million out of 7 million Cambodians were murdered. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, kept Sihanouk under house arrest.

The carnage ended on Christmas Day 1978, with the invasion by 90,000 Vietnamese and 18,000 dissident Cambodians. The troops were greeted as liberators.

The United States, by then defeated in Vietnam, began an international campaign to force the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. A decade later, under pressure to normalize ties with Washington, they withdrew. The effect, however, was to open the door for Pol Pot, still operating from along the Thai border, to become a power broker once again.

Through the 1990s, the United Nations has worked to piece the nation back together. It is hard to imagine building a modern nation after the murder or exodus of virtually all its educated citizens.

U.N.-brokered elections were held in May 1993, setting up a power-sharing scheme that held until last month when Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of Sihanouk, was routed by rival Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge operative.

Hun Sen's bloody seizure of power again dashes hopes of peace. King Sihanouk could mediate, as he has done in many past crises, but he is currently in Beijing, ill with cancer.

Perhaps neighboring Asian states and U.N. pressure will move Hun Sen to allow elections scheduled for next year. That should be everyone's hope. Meanwhile, modern Cambodia remains a nation still in need of invention. Its people are resourceful, but the might of arms has become a way of life. Outside aid, including U.S. aid, is desperately needed -- if only to clear some of the 3 million land mines still scattered throughout the otherwise fertile land. 

Fox is NCR's Publisher. He received a master's degree from Yale University in Southeast Asian studies. He lived in Asia for five years between 1966 and 1972.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997