Cambodia: Starting from scratch – Part 4 in a series on failed states

National Museum of Cambodia
National Museum of Cambodia (Flickr)

Cambodia is in transition to have the real state. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia was a failed state, with governments that were unable to control the country’s territory or meet the people’s basic needs. By the time the Vietnamese started coming in in the end of 1978, the state was so failed that everything collapsed. Nearly three decades later, Cambodia is still picking up the pieces.

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: May 10, 2006


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Starting from scratch”. It’s the last programme in “The Abyss”, a 4-part series on failed states, produced in collaboration with the Ford Foundation. It’s presented by Eric Beauchemin.

By the time the Vietnamese started coming in in the end of 1978, the state was so failed that everything collapsed.

We saw many people die on the streets.

I do not want to see any more bloodshed.

Cambodia is in transition to have the real state.

Failed states are countries where the government does not control its territory and is unable to provide basic services – such as water, electricity, education and health care – to its citizens. In recent years, the issue of state failure has become a growing concern for the international community. Weak states not only pose a real threat to their citizens, they often destabilise neighbouring countries and are a source of weapons and drugs trafficking as well as terrorism. In the 1970s, Cambodia became a failed state. This story is about how that happened and how the country is now trying to climb out of that abyss.

In the early 1960s, Cambodia was one of the more prosperous countries in Southeast Asia. Though it was quite poor, it’d been able to maintain relatively good conditions after it gained independence from France in 1953. Michael Vickerey is a leading Cambodia scholar who first travelled to the country in the early 1960s as an English teacher.

Well, superficially for a foreigner newly arrived, it appeared to be sort of the last romantic Oriental paradise. Everyone seemed to be happy. There seemed to be enough food for everyone. Phnom Penh I would say was the neatest and cleanest city in Asia, and the other large towns were well kept too. This was partly based on what the French had done to Phnom Penh and the large towns but also this had been maintained and even made better under the independent Cambodian government. So to start with, things looked very nice. And as I went out to teach English in a small town in central Cambodia, Kâmpóng Thum, the town there was nice. My students were well-dressed. When you went outside of town into real rural areas, people appeared to be healthy. Infrequent complaints about life in general. That was probably the best time from 1958 to 1967. And living standards were fairly high? Yeah, I would think so, compared both to later and then compared to other Southeast Asian countries at the time. After my first year in Cambodia, I visited Java and Bali and I made a lot of trips into Thailand, and general living standards in Cambodia were good compared to those places.

By the late 1960s, this idyllic paradise started falling apart at the seams. The economy stalled, says Vickerey, in large part due to corruption within the central government. The authorities tried to take more than their fair share from the rural regions in order to build in the cities and increase the wealth of a small number of rich Cambodians. Peasants responded by trying to export their main product – rice – to neighbouring countries.

Michael Vickerey
Michael Vickerey

The government tried to stop this because they earned income from, both from taxation and export. And this led by 1970 to serious conflicts in certain rural areas between government forces, trying to ensure that the rice crops stayed in the country rather than being exported privately. The first what you can call revolutionary outburst was in 1967 when a rural area in Battambang province fought against government officials trying to collect their rice crop. And then over ’67 and ’68 and ’69, more and more explosions of rural violence between local people and the police and government forces which led in 1970 to a real generalised war in Cambodia, which was connected with the war in Vietnam.

It was at this time, in the late ‘60s, that a group of Communist leaders began to emerge in the countryside. They were known as the Khmer Rouge, a term coined by King Sihanouk himself. It’s unclear whether they were behind the first revolt in 1967, but Michael Vickerey believes they coordinated and organised much of the ensuing violence. They were largely responsible for Cambodia falling into the abyss of state failure.

Beginning with these first revolts in the end of the 1960s, they expanded their areas of control and influence. When in 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown, not by the Khmer Rouge but by his own hitherto supporters, led by General Lon Nol, who established the Khmer Republic, by that time, there were large areas of the country which were totally outside of Phnom Penh government control.

In 1970, the United States invaded Cambodia to try and expel the North Vietnamese who were hiding out in the border region. Washington intermittently bombed their camps, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. Hundreds of thousands of other people fled to the capital. The chaos resulted in growing support for the Khmer Rouge, who marched into the Cambodian capital in April 1975. Their leader, Pol Pot, began a radical experiment to establish an agrarian utopia. That meant forcing virtually everyone out of Phnom Penh, including Sok Sam Oeun, a lawyer and the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a local human rights organisation. At the time, he was a high school student in Phnom Penh.

Sok Sam Oeun, Cambodian Defenders Project
Sok Sam Oeun, Cambodian Defenders Project

When Khmer Rouge arrived, they forced us to go out. At that time, they said we should go out of the city because the Americans will bomb us in the city. EB: How did they tell you this? Were there loudspeakers, things on radio? How did you know that you had to leave? They told by loudspeaker and many Khmer Rouge troop on the street. They tell us, forced us to go out of the house and at that time, there was also some shooting too. They shooting any person who resist not to go out of the house. We saw many people die on the street. EB: Were you able to take anything along with you? We can’t took anything. Even some people has a car, they cannot drive a car. They would only push the car. The reason that we do not dare to use the cars because we know that the Khmer Rouge hate capitalists, rich people. So that’s why if we use the car, we fear the Khmer Rouge accuse us, we are rich man and we are capitalists, so maybe we will be on their list, their black list, you know. So that’s why the people, they are scared to use cars. Only push the car and they told them, ‘oh it is not my car. It is the car we found on the street.’

Within days, Phnom Penh, a city of 2 million people was evacuated, as were the rest of the country’s urban centres. Tens of thousands of people died during the mass exodus. Thus who survived wound up in rural regions, where they had to work the land.

My father was taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers and at that time they told us that they took my father for education. But until now we do not see him any more. And because my family is like the family of the high-rank military officer in the Lon Nol regime, so the Khmer Rouge soldiers escort my mother and my brother, the sister to another place. We do not know what place is this, but it is a pagoda. At that time, we do not know that it is a prison and then we, our family, took there around 7 days, and then they, on 15 May 1975, the Khmer Rouge soldiers, they took my brother and we saw that them, they took 7 of them. After that we know that all of them are, were killed. EB: Including your brother. Yes, including my brother.

Like most other Cambodians, Sok Sam Oeun and his family had to farm and for months on end, they endured hunger. It’s estimated that up to 1 million people – that’s 1 in 8 Cambodians – died of starvation, disease, exhaustion and executions. Despite the enormous scale of the genocide, says Michael Vickerey, the Pol Pot regime wasn’t a failed state, at least not initially.

By 1977, then you can start talking about the Khmer Rouge project having really failed. I think that some of them realised that it was failing, but they couldn’t draw a lesson from the mistakes and try to start changing what they were doing. Instead they blamed it all on foreign saboteurs – Vietnamese – and they began an anti-Vietnamese pogrom, an invasion of Vietnam in 1977. And this is what led to their overthrow because of course the Vietnamese responded to the attacks from Cambodia and of course they were much stronger, and eventually they won and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. So in the end, the Khmer Rouge project failed. They were in the end a failed state. Everything collapsed. In the last months of ’78 and early months of ’79, the Khmer Rouge army just fled everywhere, realised that they couldn’t face what was happening. Villagers suddenly freed from them, when they could, they often massacred their former Khmer Rouge cadres or guardians. They broke into granaries and food store houses and killed animals to just finally eat whatever they wanted. I really think that there were a few months of totally anarchy until the Vietnamese re-established some kind of state political and economic discipline.

The Khmer Rouge eventually retreated to the jungle, and with the support of the United States and other Western powers, continued to fight the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government for another decade, effectively blocking the country’s recovery. Despite this, argues Michael Vickerey, the Cambodian government gradually was able to reassert its power over the country, drawing Cambodia back from complete state failure.

Year by year, the Cambodian government took over more and more authority. I think by 1981 when I made my first trip in Cambodia, I consider internal administration was almost entirely under the Cambodian government, under Cambodian personnel. There still was then a strong Vietnamese military presence, but they were mainly out fighting against the rehabilitated Khmer Rouge, rehabilitated by the United States and China and Thailand and so forth, up there on the border. That’s where most of the Vietnamese troops were in 1980, ’81, ’82 and so forth.

The Vietnamese were forced to withdraw from the country in 1989. Two years later, Cambodia’s opposing groups signed a peace agreement, and in 1993, the United Nations sent a peace-keeping force to monitor democratic elections. The ballot was successful, and it seemed to bring an end to a tragic chapter in the nation’s history. But the consequences of the Killing Fields are still felt by everyone in the country, says Thida Khus, executive director of SILAKA, a local management and administration training association.

Thida Khus, executive director of SILAKA
Thida Khus, executive director of SILAKA

The Khmer Rouge effect is on everybody. The main problem is people do not trust each other. People do not trust organisations, organised groups. People feeling not trust to the people in power because of the experience that they went through during the Khmer Rouge time. And also people lose a sense of security and the sense of anything can happen any time. So people try to think only of short-term gain, and also try to get as much as they can if they get into power or be able to do so.

This mentality has led to widespread corruption. But actually, says Michael Vickerey, corruption is nothing new in Cambodia.

In the pre-war system, and this goes back to the pre-French Cambodian government, back to the time when officials were not paid salaries. That was the normal way that officials lived. The French tried to do something about that but you see, under the French protectorate, the French never abolished the Cambodian administration. The Cambodian traditional administration was preserved, with a French parallel administration. Although the French made some moves to provide salaries so that officials would not be corrupt, this never took over completely. After independence, the same things continued, and in spite of efforts by governments with modern ideas, still old practices continued, and these continued since 1979. I think there were some real efforts between 1979 and 1993 with Vietnamese advice to try to avoid what they saw as the worst features of pre-war royalist corrupt government, and I think they were fairly successful until 1993.

In that year, though, everything changed with the democratic elections. Many opposition politicians who had spent 15 to 20 years in exile returned to take part in the poll and they saw coming back to Cambodia as a way to grab what they had lost when they left the country. Officials in the Cambodian government started following their example. The arrival of the United Nations peace-keeping force only exacerbated the situation.

The UN intervention encouraged free-capitalist development. What they encouraged was a great leap forward in the unregulated market capitalism in a country which had never had any idea or any mechanism for regulating the worst aspects of free market capitalism, whether through taxation or applying laws against corruption or what have you. And among other things, besides just corruption, it meant for one thing an influx of stolen automobiles from Thailand, an influx of guns. You know, before 1993, nobody in Cambodia had a gun except military and police. People were not shot down in the streets. After 1993, it’s become a gun society like the United States and Thailand. And contrary to what some journalists say whenever there’s a flamboyant murder and they say the country is awash in weapons left over from the Khmer Rouge, that’s nonsense. The weapons being used are not left over from the Khmer Rouge. They are the most modern automatic pistols, all imported since 1993.

You’re listening to Cambodia: Climbing out of the Abyss from Radio Netherlands.

The stolen imported cars and the influx of weapons highlight the difficulties the Cambodian authorities still face in exerting control over the country. They also underscore the chasm between Cambodian law and reality, says Yong Kim Eng, the president of the Khmer Youth Association.

When we see the law, we are very happy. We are so proud that our law is good. Maybe this law can protect our rights and protect ourselves from the bad things, from the violations. But also the law is still a law. It’s still the paper. The real ?? is in the hands of powerful people. They can decide what they want. They don’t look at the law at all. But when the people, the simple people, if they are doing wrong, they will look at the law and bring those people to the jail. But high-ranking officials, it’s OK for them. EB: And these high-ranking officials, who are they? Are they military? Yeah, both also like the people in the ministry, the civil ministry and also in the military as well. Yeah.

For Cambodia to really move from a failed state to a modern-day democratic nation, says Thida Khus, the country’s old patronage system needs to be dismantled once and for all.

It’s still pretty much factionalised and it’s pretty much work under the patronage system, mean group of people taking care of their own people, their own group and you have different group of people are competing with each other and the ideas of state, ideas of common interest is still secondary to the interests of their own group. EB: When you say group, do you mean political party or do you mean something else? Yes, I mean political parties, yes, because it was group before but now these groups transform themselves into what you call political parties.

Chea Vannath, director of the Centre for Social Development
Chea Vannath, director of the Centre for Social Development

Chea Vannath, the director of the Centre for Social Development, agrees that many things still need to change in Cambodia, but she believes a failed state cannot be reformed overnight.

Right now I can describe as a nation-building phase, after long decades of civil war, and now we start to have the state apparatus, the government with the separation of power, the constitution, the king. All of that. But after more than one decade, we kind of going forward and also backward at the same time. EB: What do you mean when you say that? Because imagine a country out of the killing fields, people out of the oppression, hardship, communism and brusquely, quickly opening for the so-called democracy and respect for human rights. The word democracy and human rights at the moment is interpreted differently. It depends on who you are or where you are, what you’re doing, the word democracy and human rights means different things.

Nonetheless, thanks to the media, there is a growing awareness in Cambodian society about these issues and the government’s shortcomings.

Even though it’s still a small number of people – but people are still understanding and expressing what’s going on. And now it’s the stage of communication, so you can have access to radio, to televisions, to news. So it brings a lot of information to you, rather than what had happened before the Pol Pot time, when we did not really understand what’s going on with the affairs of the government. Now we know more. The people who want to know would know more, have more access to these information. That’s one thing. Another thing is print media is out there. It’s out in the open, but it’s not very much restricted because the government know very well that not many people read newspapers. The print media can be free, but if they don’t have any business, you know, to… any readers no readers or no sponsors to put advertisements on the newspaper, the newspapers will die themselves, so it’s free the print media, but it’s very tight control over the television and radio.

Since the return to democratic rule, the Cambodian economy has blossomed. Today, the garment industry makes up 80% of the country’s export earnings. It mainly employs women, who send a big share of their salaries to their families in the countryside. The government, says Thida Khus, has also succeeded in restoring and expanding basic services to an ever-growing number of Cambodians.

There is electricity. Yeah, electricity we got now, even though we had a black-out last night, but most of the time now we have electricity. We have clean water. We have more reliable garbage collection. We have roads. Major roads now are being rebuilt and we can go to many of the areas that major cities, even though there are still some problems with the other small access to other villages. So these are main developments and the most visible development, I see, is the blossoming of the civil society organisations, NGOs, union workers, association and federation and there now is a development of community-based organisations.

Chea Vannath, the director of the Centre for Social Development, also sees other positive developments in Cambodian society.

The revival of the culture, of the tradition, the religion, the monarchy, the warmness, the hospitality of a nation. And the negative things? I can say the weakness of the law enforcement, the weakness of the judicial system, the state affairs are not well handled and also another negative part in the social aspect is the widening gap between the poor and the rich, between the people in the city and in the rural area.

The chasm between urban and rural areas is clear when it comes to public health and education. The authorities say these are priorities, but according to Thida Khus, rhetoric and reality in Cambodia are often two very different things.


Education is very important, but we have a dilemma here. Cambodian government has signed on to all the treaties that are exist – human rights, you name it, they have signed – but they have not recognised what that obligation of signing those treaties are. And there are a lot of efforts from the civil society and the government as well, but the majority are from the civil society into educating people on not just literacy but also understanding be more of themselves and around themselves. Our main task ahead of us is to build human resources, means investing in health and in education. But if you don’t have a government that spend. Budget is not dedicated, the priority is not dedicated towards education and health, where do you get? So we are on a constant struggle trying to find this, a clean government, a more prioritised that give up on human development, education, health and giving up more for economic development, but it’s always a struggle and a challenge because those things are not very transparent. System is not yet very efficient, let’s say.

It’s not because of a lack of resources, argues Chea Vannath.

I fear more the lack of the sense of ownership, the self-reliance spirit. Again, the money is a Catch 22. For example, currently the Cambodian government receives about $500 million US dollars every year. Sometimes, it’s about the absorption and sometimes that aid instead of helping the poor, also benefits the corruption. So not enough effort to address the issues such as health and education, and I think because the aid are coming too fast and too much, the government do not have the opportunity to reflect on their experience and try to find out the better way how to improve things.

It’s not only the government that needs time to come to terms with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the experience of state failure. Cambodian society too needs time to reflect on the country’s descent into the abyss three decades ago, believes Tida Khus.

It take a long time because I do not want to see any more bloodshed and I think Cambodia has enough shedding blood. So we will, a lot of people willing to work at a slow pace. You can say slow, but I think it’s what it takes to do things in a peaceful transformation.

Compared to other countries in the region – such as Burma and Laos – Cambodia today finds itself in a relatively good position: there is greater freedom, social services are improving, and the government exerts control over the territory. But the events that led Cambodia to become a failed state and their consequences are issues which all Cambodians will eventually have to confront.

Other people can say failed state. But I think the important thing for us is for Cambodian society and for Cambodian government to understand that it’s considered a failed state. I don’t think they even realise that they have failed. We still have to catch up with a lot of the things that are going on. You know it is in the interests of everybody to really pull ourselves up and do some real painful reform, social reform and soul-searching.

I think we will still for that stage for at least a couple of more decades before we will be able take off, to become a developed country. EB: Do you find that sad? It’s not sad. It’s just a natural process of growing pain. So it’s not a matter of sadness or joy. No, it’s just the facts that we need to face.

“Starting from scratch” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This series on failed states is produced by Radio Netherlands in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.