After the Killing Fields: Paul Bellamy Reviews New Zealand's Approach to Cambodia from 1979 to 1989

By Bellamy, Paul | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

After the Killing Fields: Paul Bellamy Reviews New Zealand's Approach to Cambodia from 1979 to 1989


Bellamy, Paul, New Zealand International Review


With the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, one of modern history's most brutal and terrifying regimes came to power. Once in control, the Khmer Rouge implemented a radical and brutal policy aimed at restructuring society. Cambodia was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, and the advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed 'Year Zero'. By the time the Khmer Rouge was ousted in early 1979 up to 1.7 million lives had been lost through executions, malnutrition or disease. Overall, up to a quarter of the population is estimated to have died as a direct result of Khmer Rouge policies. (1)

This article focuses an New Zealand's foreign policy towards Cambodia during the ten years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge from power. This was a period of much upheaval in Cambodia as it was occupied by Vietnam, and faced the on-going threat posed by the brutal Khmer Rouge, which continued to receive support from members of the international community. As the old Khmer saying went, 'to go in the water there is the alligator [Vietnam], and to go on land there is the tiger [the Khmer Rouge]'. It was also a period during which New Zealand was faced with the complexities of developing a policy towards a country governed by a regime installed as a result of an illegal invasion, but where the new regime's strongest opponents were the Khmer Rouge.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Capital falls

The successful Khmer Rouge offensive started on 1 January 1975. As the regime of Lon Nol was collapsing, the Khmer Rouge raced towards Phnom Penh, and on the 17 April 1975 its troops entered the capital.

The seizure of Phnom Penh was widely reported in New Zealand. Prime Minister Bill Rowling announced on 21 April that New Zealand had decided to recognise the Royal Government of National Union in Kampuchea that had taken power (this had been formed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge after Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk in 1970). By this time, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and the Association of South East Asian Nations had recognised the new regime or had announced their intention to do so. Rowling noted that his government's action did not, in itself, mean that New Zealand and Cambodia would exchange diplomatic representatives, although it made such an exchange possible. He also rejected criticism that the government had shown undue haste in recognising the nw regime. (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The brutality of the Khmer Rouge after their seizure of power was also widely reported in New Zealand. As early as July 1975 the New Zealand entitled a front page article 'Khmer Rouge shackle men to ploughs say refugees'. It quoted an unidentified Western diplomatic source as saying: 'The world probably does not realise it yet, but one of the greatest human dramas in recent times is taking place in Cambodia'. (3) The article prompted an urgent question in Parliament. After noting that he had seen the article, along with other media reports on Cambodia, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tizard said:

   The Government is not in a position to
   take any action on these reports. We do
   not yet have diplomatic relations with
   the new Government in Phnom Penh,
   or any independent means of obtaining
   information about happenings in
   Cambodia. We are unable, therefore,
   to verify these reports, so it is not possible
   for us to make positive pronouncements
   or protests about them. It would
   be obvious, however, from what I have
   already said, that the reports do cause
   us considerable concern. The Cambodian
   people have already endured
   a decade of conflict and misery. It is
   reconstruction, rather than revolutionary
   upheaval, which is their most urgent
   need now. (4)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Domestic upheaval

Brutality reached a climax with widespread killings. Those deemed to threaten the Khmer Rouge and the revolution were readily killed by a regime that placed little value on individual life. …

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