US in Indochina: How the US helped the Khmer Rouge and the legacy that it has left in Cambodia

The capturing of Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) on the 17th April, 1975 by the Khmer Rouge marked the beginning of a destructive 3-year reign that left approximately 2 million people dead, and a dark stain on the nation’s history. Even today, Cambodia is still recovering from the extensive damage caused by their destructive plans and policies. Most disturbingly, the Americans did contribute a helping hand to the KR’s rise to power, and thus, they are responsible for much of the widespread harm that the nation has experienced since this time.

Nixon’s presidency kick-started  a period of chaos that resulted with the collapse of the old monarchy and the rise of the KR into governance. In response to King Sihanouk’s allowance of the Viet Cong (VC) to set up sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia (which was perceived as an anti-US act, but was really because of the overwhelming strength of the VC), Nixon covertly initiated Operation Menu in March 1969, which resulted in the extensive bombing of eastern Cambodia. The damage from the bombings included widespread food shortages and critical economic turmoil. Even more harm was inflicted with the joint US-ARVN (ARVN was the South Vietnamese army) operation that started in May 1970, involving a land invasion of Cambodia. It attempted to destroy the reported secret North Vietnamese headquarters in Cambodia, the COSVN, even though it never existed – North Vietnamese leaders operated in decentralised locations. As a result, it exacerbated existing issues and caused a major refugee issue- mainly with people flocking from the countryside into overcrowded cities, such as the capital Phnom Penh. The KR grew a substantial following in the chaos partly due to their anti-US stance, and this rising strength was crucial to their path to power.

Nixon showing the locations of Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia – they would be the key targets of Operation Menu (Source: National Archives Catalog)

Another crucial part of US interference in the nation was their support of Lon Nol following the coup of King Sihanouk on the 18th March, 1970. Although there has been no official confirmation of CIA involvement in the coup itself, there are very strong indications that they did have at least some influence and support given that the US were still finding a way to undermine North Vietnam in the Vietnam War (also, Sihanouk personally claimed that the CIA were involved, although it may not be totally reliable) [1]. Lon Nol’s subsequent rule of the the nation was disastrous, as it was his governance was ineffective in gaining any popular support, unlike Sihanouk and plagued by corruption [2]. In the case of his rule, the US did provide financial support to Lon Nol, which suggests their involvement in Cambodia at this time. Furthermore, by late 1970, a civil war broke out between the KR and Lon Nol’s Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK). The KR further capitalised on the poor government and unpopularity of Lon Nol’s regime, as they united with the deposed Sihanouk to form the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), which was very popular amongst rural peasants. With a series of offensives between 1973 and 1975, the KR managed to take power and oust Lon Nol in April 1975. Although, the incompetence of the FANK did play a role in their rise to power, the US undoubtedly contributed significantly by toppling a stable monarch, causing nationwide chaos and setting up a poor government that was completely isolated from the Cambodian people. With the KR marching on into Phnom Penh on the 17th April, 1975, many Cambodians cheered for the end of Lon Nol’s regime, not knowing that for the next three years, the country would become living hell.

The impact after the 1970s and in the modern day

The legacy of the KR has undoubtedly shaped the nature of Cambodia today, even over four decades after they first established their regime in the nation. One of the most concerning aspects is that the US aided the survival of the KR for almost a decade after their regime collapsed following Vietnamese capture of Phnom Penh in 1979, with aid packages and allowing them to take refuge camps in Thailand [3]. The US were willing to promote such a destructive movement all for the sake of attempting to weaken the Vietnamese due to the KR’s anti-Vietnamese stance, well after they lost the Vietnam War [4][5].

Participant - World Economic Forum on East Asia 2010
Hun Sen – a former member of the Khmer Rouge, has led Cambodia for over three decades (Source: Wikipedia)

Nowadays, there are still plenty of signs of the nation recovering from the damage caused decades ago. The lack of justice carried out to the main perpetrators in the Cambodian genocide is one of the most significant aspects, with peace being placed in priority over justice. Many KR members were amnestied by the democratically elected government in 1994 and the co-founder of the KR, Ieng Sary was even pardoned [6]. Even still, the Prime Minister Hun Sen was a former KR member, and has established a near authoritarian rule over the nation with the facade of a democracy since 1985. Under his rule, issues of widespread poverty, income inequality and corruption from the elite remain key hallmarks that only extend upon the ever-continuing trouble that plagues the nation in the present, thus confirming the devastating impact of the dark legacy of US involvement and the KR.

1. ^ Sihanouk, N. & Burchett, W. (1973). My War with the CIA (1st ed., pp. 35-40). New York: Pantheon Books.
2. ^ Kangas, S. (2016). A Timeline of CIA Atrocities. Global Research. Retrieved 28 January 2017, from
3. ^ Calhoun, J. (1990). On the Side of Pol Pot: U.S. Supports Khmer Rouge. CovertAction Quarterly, (34), 37-40.
4. ^ Ibid.
5. ^ Parkinson, C., Cuddy, A., & Pye, D. (2015). The Pol Pot dilemma. Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 27 January 2017, from
6. ^ Neou, K. & Gallup, J. (1997). Human Rights and the Cambodian Past: In Defense of Peace Before Justice. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from


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