Despite being one of the most brutal regimes in history Democratic Kampuchea was also one of the least successful. So, why did Democratic Kampuchea fall? A simple answer would be that it fell quite simply because it was too extreme and drastically unpopular. This would of course be a drastic over simplification and there were of course numerous contributing factors as why the Communist Party of Kampuchea lost power in the country.
How long were the Khmer Rouge in power for?
When you consider quite how many died under Pol Pot it is astonishing just how little time they spent in power over the whole country.
Phnom Penh was finally overrun by the Khmer Rouge on April 16th 1975. On January 7th 1979 they were removed from power by a Vietnamese invasion backed by numerous Cambodian communist rebels. Whilst this was not to be the end of the Khmer Rouge as a fighting force, or even as the “legal” government, it did largely put an end to their reign of terror. They had been in power just over three and a half years.
They of course did not go away though and would go on to form the internationally recognized Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.
Why did Democratic Kampuchea fall?
There are many reason for the failure of the Polpotist regime, but they can largely be split into five main failures of Angkar.
The Population of Kampuchea was extremely weakened
The core tenet of the 4 year plan of the DK was that the country would produce 3 tones of rice per hectare. This was twice the yield of pre-revolutionary times. Even ignoring that the country has been devastated by war, these targets would have been unrealistic at any time.
This was where the Super Great Leap Forward would mirror the Chinese Great Leap Forward. Regions did not communicate with each other and reports of yields were falsely given.
The Standing Committee rarely visited the field and were thus largely or at least allegedly unaware that they had plunged Cambodia into famine. This led to a overly malnourished and weakened population base. Those who managed to survive were hardly fighting machines by this point.
The Purges of Democratic Kampuchea
The Khmer Rouge regime had entered into the Super Great Leap Forward and the first and only 4 year-plan. This aimed to fast forward the country into a socialist utopia in 4 years. It involved moving quickly in every aspect of socialism.
One of these aspects was in purging the country of capitalists and the like. There were therefore quotas of the amount of people that had to be killed. Mostly this meant that people from the educated classes, including party loyalists with military backgrounds being purged and killed.
Aside from the fact that this took away valuable educated people it also left fear and distrust in the population, not the kind of thing you need going into a war.
Anti-Vietnamese racism and the Democratic Kampuchea fall from grace
In what can only be described as self-fulfilling prophesy the Khmer Rouge elite both hated and feared the Vietnamese. They were intensity scared that some of their ranks were Vietnamese 5th columnists, instituted purges against those suspected of ties with the Vietnamese and killed many many of Vietnamese ancestry.
Also literally from the moment they had taken over the country they had began border skirmishes with Vietnam.
This is one area where the DK regime was much more nationalist that it can be accused of communist. Despite the Vietnamese seeing them initially as fraternal brothers the Khmer Rouge not only feared the Vietnamese, but also planned a war in order to win back territory from them.
Ironically the Vietnamese whilst not exactly liking the Khmer Rouge initially saw them as people they could do business with. The groups had previously worked together and to the Vietnamese at least a socialist government next door, even one aligned to China was better than a capitalist one.
This irrational racism was to create this self-fulfilling prophecy. By attacking Vietnam they forced the Vietnamese hand into invading, due to the purges where everyone was accused of supporting Vietnam, they drove fearful cadres into the arms of the Vietnamese. Thus when they did finally invade they were seen as liberators, not occupiers.
The Khmer Rouge overtly relied on China
After assuming power the Khmer Rouge were staunchly aligned with Maoist China. China supported them both ideologically and with billions in military equipment and training.
The Vietnamese were supported by the Soviet Union. The west and indeed other countries in the region feared Soviet and Vietnamese hegemony in the region, which also inadvertently turned the Khmer Rouge into a western ally.
In 1977 Pol Pt and senior cadres had visited China and were extremely confident about the alliance. Senior CPK members felt that China would support them militarily in any war against the Vietnamese, potentially by invading from the north.
the DK regime though had drastically misread the Chinese position. Mao had died in 1976 and whilst the Chinese still supported the Khmer Rouge (right up until the 90’s) it was about geopolitics rather than ideology. China was now under the rule of Deng Xiaoping and was less than 10 years away from KFC opening in Beijing. Maoism was dead.
After starting the war the Khmer Rouge expectedly asked the Chinese for military support, the Chinese expectedly refused, but instead urged the Khmer Rouge to enter peace negotiations. The leadership arrogantly refused still believing that they would win the war.
At this point the Chinese, Vietnamese and even the USSR would have probably been more than ok with the status-quo. Each having strategically placed allies, but everyone’s hands were forced by the Khmer Rouge.
China would eventually make a punitive attack on the Vietnamese. This would draw Vietnamese troops away from Cambodia and ensure that survival of the Khmer Rouge as a dissident organization, but they were never going to put boots in the ground in Cambodia.
To read about the Vietnamese – China war click here.
Why did the Khmer Rouge think they could beat the Vietnamese?
Quite simply and another argument against their communist credentials was that they felt the Khmer to be some kind of super race. Despite all the evidence the Khmer Rouge simply felt they were better than the Vietnamese and it was impossible that they could lose any war against them. This was of course completely wrong.
To read about the Cambodia – Vietnamese War click here.
The Khmer Rouge were extremely unpopular
The main nail in the coffin was just how unpopular the regime and its extreme policies had been. City dwellers were forced to work in the fields, farmers had the lost the land they had previously had and almost everyone had lost loved ones in such a short period of time.
The only people benefiting from the regime were the Party Center and their minions. During the time of the Khmer Rouge the number of cadres controlling the workers were few in number. They were though the ones with the food and guns, which made it easy for them to control the people.
Thus when the Vietnamese rolled in it was in the interests of the few to resist them. The Vietnamese backed “National Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea” while socialist promised an end to forced collectivization a return to the cities and in essence normality. At least a form of normality in comparison to Khmer Rouge rule.
A conclusion on Why did Democratic Kampuchea fall?
Again whilst there are numerous factors on why the Pol Pot regime fell, we can sum it from these 5 reasons as thus. The Standing Committee had grown so aloof from the situation on the ground that they were led by an intense arrogance. This arrogance being further fueled by their intense racism against the Vietnamese led them into an a war they could not win.
The Khmer Rouge belief that they were the saviors of Cambodia and that the “masses” would resist Vietnamese invasion was at best misplaced and at worst completely detracted a sense of reality.
Conversely had they actually concentrated on cementing the power of the regime rather than pick a fight against the Vietnamese they would have likely stayed in power.
A typical Cambodian opposition tactic today is to play the “Vietnam” card, but without them it is likely that many more people would have died in Cambodia.