Today is a public holiday in Cambodia (where I currently live) celebrating the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 (សន្ធិសញ្ញាសន្តិភាពទីក្រុងប៉ារីស), formally titled Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, which were signed on this date, and marked the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975 – 1991). The agreement marked the first occasion when the UN took over as the government of a state. The last quarter, or so, of the 20th century was a horrific time to be living in Cambodia, so that as the century closed with the Paris Peace Accords there was a sense in the country that a modicum of equilibrium and normalcy in the country was possible. I’ll highlight a few salient points in the history of Cambodia here as a way of underscoring two themes I return to in my writing quite often: (1) Nationalism has been an unmitigated disaster since the 19th century. (2) The vast bulk of Westerners are quite contentedly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of Asia as a whole and of SE Asia in particular. Obviously, all I can do is scratch the surface. You’ll have to learn more on your own.
Independence of Cambodia and Vietnam from France in the 1950s led to civil war in both countries but in different ways. Cambodia’s independence was reasonably straightforward at the outset, Vietnam’s was not. When France divested itself of Indochina in 1953, Cambodia became a kingdom under Sihanouk, but Vietnam split into a pro-Russian communist northern region and a pro-Western southern region. We all know what happened there next. Cambodia’s history in that era got very complicated because it not only split ideologically between the kingdom under Sihanouk and the Chinese-communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, but also had to battle incursions from Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist armies had formed an alliance to fight U.S.-backed regimes in their respective countries. Despite their open display of cooperation with the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge leadership feared that the Vietnamese communists were scheming to form an Indochinese federation with Vietnam as the dominant force in the region. In order to pre-empt an attempt by the Vietnamese to dominate them, the Khmer Rouge leadership began purging Vietnamese-trained personnel within their own ranks starting in 1975 when the Lon Nol regime, which had overthrown Sihanouk in 1970, capitulated. (Are you following so far?) Then, in May 1975, the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea, dominated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, began attacking Vietnam, beginning with an attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc. In spite of the fighting, the leaders of reunified Vietnam and Kampuchea made several public diplomatic exchanges throughout 1976 to highlight the supposedly strong relations between them. However, behind the scenes, Kampuchean leaders continued to fear what they perceived as Vietnamese expansionism. As such, on 30 April 1977, they launched another major military attack on Vietnam. Shocked by the Kampuchean assault, Vietnam launched a retaliatory strike at the end of 1977 in an attempt to force the Kampuchean government to negotiate. In January 1978, the Vietnamese military withdrew because their political objectives had not been achieved and the Khmer Rouge remained unwilling to negotiate seriously.
Small-scale fighting continued between the two countries throughout 1978, as China tried to mediate peace talks between the two sides. However, neither country could reach an acceptable compromise at the negotiation table. By the end of 1978, Vietnamese leaders decided to remove the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime of Democratic Kampuchea, perceiving it as being pro-Chinese and too hostile towards Vietnam. On 25 December 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Democratic Kampuchea and overran the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army in just two weeks. On 8 January 1979, the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established in Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation. During that period, the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea continued to be recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Kampuchea, and several armed resistance groups were formed to fight the Vietnamese occupation. Behind the scenes, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the PRK regime approached factions of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) to begin peace talks. Under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, the Vietnamese government implemented a series of economic and foreign policy reforms, which led to their withdrawal from Kampuchea in September 1989.
At the Third Jakarta Informal Meeting in 1990, under the Australian-sponsored Cambodian Peace Plan, representatives of the CGDK and the PRK agreed to a power-sharing arrangement by forming a unity government known as the Supreme National Council (SNC). The SNC’s role was to represent Cambodian sovereignty on the international stage, while the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was given the task of supervising the country’s domestic policies until a Cambodian government was elected by the people through a peaceful, democratic process. Cambodia’s pathway to peace proved to be extremely difficult, because Khmer Rouge leaders decided not to participate in the general elections, and instead chose to disrupt the electoral process by launching military attacks on UN peacekeepers and killing ethnic Vietnamese migrants. In May 1993, Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC movement defeated the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), formerly the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), to win the general elections. However, the CPP leadership refused to accept defeat and they announced that the eastern provinces of Cambodia, where most of the CPP’s votes were drawn from, would secede from Cambodia. To avoid such an outcome, Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC agreed to form a coalition government with the CPP. Shortly afterwards, the constitutional monarchy was restored, and the Khmer Rouge was outlawed by the newly formed Cambodian Government.
If the alphabet soup and other complications confuse you, don’t panic. To be customarily simplistic I’ll boil it down for you. In the post-war era European colonial governments granted independence to the nations that they had colonized and created where previously ethnicity and governance had been fluid for centuries. Here’s where my fury against nationalism comes in. You really have to be a complete simpleton (which unfortunately too many people are), to think that nations have rigidly defined borders that were established in some misty past (perhaps by God?), and that all the people within the borders of that nation belong to one stock speaking one language. ALL nations are inherently multi-ethnic and linguistically diverse. I’m not talking about the complexities of immigration for the moment; I’m talking about people born and bred on the soil for generations. Even if you take away the problem of defining borders you are left with a mess. Look at Italy, which has water surrounding it on most sides with the Alps in the north to define the northern bit. Within those geographic borders you have a complete hodge-podge of languages, dialects, and ethnicities of long standing. When I taught in Mantua I had a fair sprinkling of red-haired, blue-eyed students who would look quite at home in Glasgow, yet were as Italian as they come.
Nationalism was the great evil perpetrated on Europe by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/ — allowing the powerful nations it solidified to spend the rest of the century dominating the world via colonization. Prior to the Congress, Spain and Portugal had done the job of colonizing the New World only to see its empire crumble when they were weakened by the Napoleonic Wars, so that local forces were able to fight successfully for independence. The aftermath, especially in South America, was a century of civil war as local factions sought to carve out their own nations. In place of Spain, Britain and France took the initiative, colonizing much of the rest of the world (fighting over colonial territory among themselves when they weren’t fighting the locals), with Germany and Italy joining the fray rather late once they had unified into nation-states in the latter 19th century.
What happened to South America in the early 19th century happened in south and southeast Asia in the post-war era. When France felt compelled to release its colonies in Indochina all hell broke loose as I have summarized above. Cambodia does not have God-given boundaries that contain a unitary ethnicity speaking a single language, but Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot thought it should be, though, and set about killing everyone that was not “Cambodian” enough. Pol Pot slaughtered roughly 25% of the population (somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of a population of 8 million), because they were not ethnically pure enough (or were not agricultural enough, or too well educated, or simply a threat to his vision of Cambodian nationalism). The deep irony was that Pol Pot was himself part-Chinese and had been to university. I’m sure someone has written about this before, but the common thread among tyrannical nationalist dictators is that their own ethnic bona fides are far from pure. Hitler had some Jewish ancestors, Napoleon was a Corsican, Stalin was Georgian . . . etc. etc.
It has not been plain sailing in Cambodia since 1991 but the Paris Peace Accords were a start. In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as king of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. The stability established following the conflict was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Elections next year are a toss-up for the moment with a lot of trepidation in the country.
In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp and he was sentenced to life in prison. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers. In August 2014, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue to life in prison on war crimes charges for their role in the country’s genocide in the 1970s. The trial began in November 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s supreme leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
As has become my custom here I ought to simply suggest that you buy a ticket to Phnom Penh if you want to taste Cambodian food and leave it at that. Normally for breakfast I find a stall in the market that serves some kind of noodles in broth with meat or fish and vegetables. That is a very common Cambodian breakfast. Noodles in broth with bits added is ubiquitous throughout SE Asia with seemingly infinite regional and local varieties. Without the proper noodles, vegetables, and flavorings you don’t stand a remote chance in the West of replicating even the simplest dish that you can find at a market stall in Cambodia for $1 or less (Cambodian rials and US dollars are used interchangeably in Cambodia). They simmer their broths over wood fires for hours and then heat your chosen ingredients in them for a minute, serving them in deep bowls with a generous portion of broth, (which gets richer the more ingredients are added), and giving you side dishes of condiments. I’m partial to fiery pepper condiments, but I enjoy the pickles also.
What can I say? Pork is a very common broth base. You could start by making a stock from meaty pork bones from a roast. Green onions, garlic, cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves can be added in various quantities to enrich the broth. The secret is to simmer the broth for hours, refrigerate overnight, and then simmer again in the morning. Then cook some rice noodles of your choice in the broth augmented by vegetables such as bean sprouts or Chinese greens and a little sliced pork. Really though – come to Cambodia if you want the real thing.