What was China’s Khmer Rouge Role?
Image Credit: Luke Hunt

What was China’s Khmer Rouge Role?


On a 300 hectare expanse in a remote part of central Cambodia, a massive airstrip capable of handling the heaviest of bombers lies abandoned. A Cold War relic, the 1.4 kilometer runway has rarely been used. Still, it goes to the heart of an enormous travesty.

Ey Sarih knows this full well and has stood guard at the airstrip’s gates for more than 20 years. At 46 years of age, he has three children and a wife who runs a small roadside drinks shop. And he remembers very clearly the Khmer Rouge and what they did here.

“Most of the work was done here over 1978,” he says. “Then they killed a lot of people. They deserve to be there in front of the tribunal.”

Back in the capital, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has wound up after a controversial year, but with the three most senior surviving leaders in the dock for crimes against humanity as part of Case 002. Other charges of genocide, murder and torture are expected to be laid later.

Among the latest revelations were that members of the all-important Standing Committee had routinely visited the site of the airstrip, where Khieu Samphan, a former head of state, had pressed laborers to work ever harder.

There are several estimates on how many were deployed to work here, but tribunal sources put the number at 30,000 people. Those sent here were put to work constructing the runway, access roads, blast walls and a control tower that remains useable to this day. But conditions for laborers were allegedly so appalling that many preferred suicide, throwing themselves under passing trucks. Hanging, drowning and poisons were also used by workers to take their own lives. Then, nearly all those who survived until the end of 1978 were killed.

Ey Sarih says the dead were buried around the airstrip and at a nearby mountain where secret tunnels were dug to house Chinese logistics and computer equipment linked to the control tower.

The crimes were, of course, part of a much greater atrocity. Between 1.7 million and 2.2 million people died under Pol Pot, whose tyrannical rule lasted from April 1975 to January 1979. These were the darkest days of Cambodia’s 30 year war that ended in 1998, when efforts to kick start a war crimes tribunal finally gained some traction.

How much Beijing knew about the atrocities as they were being committed has been the subject of much debate among academics and military analysts. China has said nothing about the airstrip or its support of the Khmer Rouge, except to say the tribunal and prosecution of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders was an internal matter for Cambodians to resolve.

At the time, China also had its problems. Back in the 1970s, the Cultural Revolution was at its peak, and the leadership in Beijing was in disarray following the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976. The one man considered powerful enough to intervene, Deng Xiaoping, had been exiled to the countryside. Deng returned and took control of China in December 1978, the same month Vietnam invaded and ousted Pol Pot from power. Beijing, in support of the Khmer Rouge, retaliated by launching a cross border incursion into northern Vietnam.

The airstrip would have allowed the Chinese to stage short-range bombing raids over southern Vietnam and its near-completed status, some military analysts have argued, was also likely in Hanoi’s thinking and partially responsible for its invasion of Cambodia.

Ey Sarih says the reason the airstrip was constructed is a matter for the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) to establish, although he adds that “Chinese people came here to build the airport for fighting.”

April 1, 2013 at 18:26

South east Asia is like a game of chess being played between the United States and China. Lon Nol, Pol Pot, Sihanouk were just pawns in the eyes of the superpowers. Lon Nol and Sihanouk were sacrificed by the US while China moved Pol Pot across the board and promoting them making them a more powerful piece…So I blame the US for making KR so powerful


thu nguyen
December 26, 2011 at 23:36

I am a Vietnamese;)) , but if I were a Cambodian, I would choose the Vietnamese people (if necessary) because today, Vietnam doesn’t have the power, nor the population (and certainly, no political will from its common people) to dominate and assimilate another country in the long run. A country with 1.3 billion people is always right and can ignore the voice of your people like the buzz of a fly, if your people has a population of anything below 50 million and/or poor and weak.

Don’t mistake my idea. I’ve heard that the Vietnamese govt takes some of Cambodia’s lands. I feel ashamed. I will never fight against Cambodia except when it’s for Vietnam’s rightful benefits, and I will teach my children to do the same.

Yin and Yang
December 23, 2011 at 07:01

Ok, you didn’t get my point. I said that it doesn’t mean anything at all whether someone claims to be “democratic” or “communist”, or all these exciting words. Important is just what they do! You correctly pointed out that the Khmer Rouge rule had nothing to do with democracy, the same is true for communism (read Marx if you want to know what communism is supposed to mean, or any other theoretician). If the Khmer Rouge stand for communism, then the word has absolutely no meaning. A Neo-McCarthyist might not understand that, which was to be expected.
If the USA stand for democracy, then democracy is the greatest rubbish of all times. A simple look at Vietnam and Cambodia (or Nicaragua, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the US itself at the moment and so on and so forth..) is enough to show that. Or maybe democracy is just a hollow phrase, just like all the others.

December 20, 2011 at 18:08

@Wendy Wang,
In a case like Cambodia’s tragedy, what is important is not to call for vengeance, nor to mourn the deads (only). The crucial point is to understand what happened and how a better World can avoid such a tragedy in the future. This is the main reason for a fair trial, out of which is the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth. This is NOT a Cambodian internal matter. This is why the ECCC is not the right court. This trial is not the end of the story.

Leonard R.
December 20, 2011 at 17:48

@Bob: “Love Cambodia…..”

Yes. I do love Cambodia. It is one of my favorite countries in the world.
And I am against these pointless Western tribunals. The West should be spending
that money to actually help the Khmer people. Fresh water, infrastructure,

But no. These well-paid Europeans are now sitting in judgment over old men who were
down in the chain of command. It’s a waste of time and money. It’s an insult to the Khmer. But it makes the Westerners feel good about themselves apparently.

Cambodia was a pawn being played by both the US and the PRC.
The era was one of America’s more disgraceful episodes IMO.
But I don’t expect either the PRC or America to be mentioned much
in those on-going tribunals.

December 20, 2011 at 10:47

Throughout its history China (in various forms) has always tried to dominate and control Vietnam in particular, and Indochina in general. China’s support for North Vietnam in the Vietnam-America War is well documented, but its support (materiel, manpower, ideology, and diplomacy) is not as well documented. However, it was known that tens of thousands of Chinese ‘advisers’ were evacuated (by ships) from the country ahead of the Vietnamese forces in 1979. Taking into consideration the Khmer Rouge’s Mao-inspired agrarian revolution and policies once they took over the country in 1975, the presence of thousands of Chinese advisers provides a strong indicator of their non-agricultural roles. Deng Xiaoping’s decision to invade Northern Vietnam provides another clear indication of China’s role in supporting the Khmer Rouge (i.e., to relieve the pressure facing the Khmer Rouge leadership as the Vietnamese troops neared Phnom Penh). Another tragedy of this case was America’s decision to join the Chinese in tacitly supporting the Khmer Rouge through the recognition of their seat at the United Nations, all in the name of the Cold War geopolitics! Jimmy Carter, for all his human qualities in his post-Whitehouse time, made a really terrible mistake in such decision.
Even as China has become more prosperous since its economic opening to Capitalism, its foreign policy continues to seek out advantages for itself, even at the expense of human rights in other countries. One needs look no further than China’s involvement today in many African countries ruled by oppressive dictators. China has not, and does not seem to be interested to contribute to world peace and well-being of other peoples. So much for China’s slogan of “Peaceful Rise”!

December 20, 2011 at 08:28

Communist China supported KR allies with weapons during the early 70′s. After the fall of PP Gov. in April 1975, China wanted their pay-back from KR Gov.. KR then have to pay to the Chinese Com. Gov. with rice and other natural resources, and that’s why all Khmer people went starvation with no rice to eat.
KR also got supported from Sihanouk during that time.
In the eye of all Khmer people, China Com. Gov. and Sihanouk himself needed to be in the box of this UN Tribunal to answer along with those senior KR’s to find the real truth.

December 20, 2011 at 08:26

Communist China supported KR allies with weapons during the early 70′s. After the fall of PP Gov. in April 1975, China wanted their pay-back from KR Gov.. KR then have to pay to the Chinese Com. Gov. with rice and other natural resources, and that’s why all Khmer people went starvation with no rice to eat.
KR also got supported from Sihanouk during that time.
In the eye of all Khmer people, China Com. Gov. and Sihanouk himself needed to be in the box of this UN Tribunal to answer along with those senior KR’s to finbd the real truth.

Wendy Wang
December 20, 2011 at 02:01

Those who used the term “democratic” as part of their country’s formal name are mostly “communist”. It is a false pretense to make it appear as though theirs are haven for “democracy” when in fact the power is absolutely ruled by the communist party. The party proclaimed itself to be the leader of the people’s will and therefore it can ignore any individual’s wishes. Therefore, there is nothing “democratic” about the Khmer Rouge and it had nothing to do with “freedom” or otherwise. The communists “liberated” their people from so-called “domination” either by foreign powers or the elite ruling class, only to turn themselves into the ruling class -with absolute control.

But then how can that explain the massacre of 2 million Cambodians? Or on the same token should one ask why Stalin and Mao killed so many people (even in much greater numbers than Pol Pot) on their way to achieving socialism paradise?

Wendy Wang
December 20, 2011 at 01:47

No one can best explain the situation than the two million Cambodians who were massacred by the Khmer Rouge. But they can’t call for justice now, can they -since they are all dead?

Then, perhaps the ones who understood the situation the most had to be the Vietnamese. They had to face down a mischievous China while trying to protect their citizens from ethnic persecution inside Cambodia. China gave the green light for the Khmer Rouge to attack Vietnam, provoking a counter attack by the latter, and then China used that excuse to invade Vietnam. That effort failed once the “deadly” Khmer Rouge turned out to be just butchers against their own people and not good soldiers against the battle-hardened Vietnamese troops.

Pol Pot was a devout Communist and an extreme follower of communist dogma with a fatal attitude toward history -especially regarding the influences of Westernism and Vietnam’s slow southerly expansion at the expense of ancient Khmer empire. Pol Pot was a tool and fell perfectly in the hands of China, which gladly exploited the anti-Vietnam attitude.

The US and the West may be partially blamed for the do-nothing attitude, but why should they do otherwise? The Cold War was raging and with disappointment from Vietnam War still fresh in the minds, nobody wanted to fall back to the previous decade again. Besides, it was a fight between communist countries, any intervention from a non-communist country could easily turn into a world war.

Therefore, let history be what it is, or was, and stop speculating about what could or who should. China was instrumental for the Khmer Rouge problem in Cambodia. Those butchers should face justice finally so that Cambodia can move on.

December 19, 2011 at 18:49

What the Cambodians deserve most is truth. Without truth there can not be justice. Your post shows that there are still many people like you (and even young Cambodians today) that are very far from the truth. How can it be otherwise? This truth is very, very ugly, and there is a tremendous effort from the Chinese government and their allies at the time (the US, UK, ASEAN countries) to cover-up this monstruousity of mankind.

I suggest you Google the following (together with “cambodia”):
-”Ben Kiernan” (a history professor at Yale)
-”John Pilger” (a journalist)
-”Tom Fawthrop” (another journalist)
and if you read French:
-”Francois Ponchaud” (a french missionaire)

Yin and Yang
December 18, 2011 at 21:46

Dear Wendy Wang,

i wonder were you got your version of history. Well, in fact i don’t really wonder, because the mainstream press is full of such nonsense.

The US and other western governments indirectly supported the “Khmer Rouge” (by the way, Prince Sihanouk invented that name, they called their state “Democratic Kampuchea”, another reminder of how cautious one must be with these grand words like “Democracy”, “Freedom” or “Communism”; in fact they had very little support in the communist world) via Thailand. UN “relief” went to the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border where the Khmer Rouge could pick them up and use against the new government, which was of course backed by Vietnam. The US gladly took the advantage to take revenge on Vietnam – they don’t care about human rights, as long as their interests are served.
The same holds true for China of course. No doubt they used Pol Pot as a proxy against Vietnam – quite disgusting if you ask me. But how can you forget the “China Card”? The US turned towards China “as a thorn on the side” for the Soviet Union, so they gave them green light for their behavior in South East Asia. They supported the exile government that was controlled by the Khmer Rouge at the UN for a very long time! In fact without diplomatic support by the West and of course China Pol Pot could have been defeated, caught and the whole thing would have ended much earlier. Only the eastern bloc (no guys to be fond of, for sure, but you brought up “the communists”) voted against Pol Pot at the UN.

One last comment: Does the use of the word “democratic” mean that someone is a democrat? What then does democracy mean? If not, then what does it tell you about the use of the word “communist”?

December 18, 2011 at 11:08

It’s good to see your comment Wendy and it’s true what you have said I agree with you 110%. But I just want to justify what isaid. You missed the word Against “The Democrat against so call Communist later became Khmer Rouge” and I never said Democrat turned to Communist? I’m french and I know what it meant Rouge. Sihanuk gave them that name.
It’s more complicated then black and white…. Even today the scholars could not conclude what the real motif of this tragedy… Khmer Rouge idealism was to fight against the corrupted Cambodian and exploitation of the poor peasant v by the rich and powerful elite. you still can observe even today…To most of Pol Pot supporter, he was the real patriotic but later after the end of Lon Nol regime Pol Pot and his inexperience leaders turned a sharp corner against some of its own communist factions , right at the beginning wen they took over Phnom Penh…

China is still involved in every today activities in Cambodia…And the Vietnam is exploded present in utmost Cambodia politic and economic more then China….
If you were Cambodian who do you choose? China or Vietnam?

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
December 18, 2011 at 07:35

The communist were really a headache to the new society and peace loving nation, it secretly focus on the benefits and power of the few leadership on the top and deals a masses as a material things and the used to convince masses by using deceptive propaganda to be able to win the political war favoring the communist thoughts. . . what have done by Polpot is a complete genocide with the Chinese communist at the back and china were very silent on this crime against humanity happen in Cambodia, its great that Vietnam have able to stop the crime against humanity done by Polpot.. The Cambodian leadership of Polpot should pay the debt and crimes committed to their own people. . .

History hope do not repeat itself in other country, communism were obsolete already. . .

Wendy Wang
December 18, 2011 at 02:56

That’s funny. Where did you get your version of history? Ever wonder what the word “Rouge” mean? It means “Red”. Yes, “Red” as in the red color of communist flag and emblem. It means they are communist. They are nothing but a bunch of communists, not democrat-turned-communists. However, their version of communist paradise was to bring the country back to the Stone Age -free of all the Western influences and re-actionary thoughts.

It is a stretch to call the US supporting the Khmer Rouge. The US just tacitly ignored the Khmer Rouge because those guys were bothering Vietnam, which at that time was an enemy of the US.

It was China that supported the Khmer Rouge, both ideologically and financially. China’s intention was to use the Khmer Rouge as a thorn on the side for Vietnam, to keep Vietnam at bay while embarking on their economic restructuring and modernization.

December 17, 2011 at 13:16

With millions of Chinese died in the ‘cultural revolution’ in China in the 60s & 70s, then 2 millions lives of innocent Khmer people perished in the killing field would not be any problem for Communist China’ leaders at the time! To the communist regimes in this world, ‘the end always justifies the means’!!

December 17, 2011 at 09:29

Absolutely agree with you Leonard R. American created Khmer Rouge by using Lon Nol a corrupted Colonel and using him to fight its own people… The Democrat against so call Communist later became Khmer Rouge…. Nixon started a secret bombing in neutral Cambodia which known as Watergate… Without this B52 bomb rade, Cambodia is probably the most prosper in its region….

Today Cambodia is not only lost so much of its LAND to VietName, it also offshore where are hiding natural resources (petrolium…)…And its people are so dis pared to survive. Nowadays Cambodian are still suffer by its neighbor coutry, Thailand VietName, Singapore Malaysia… they have been abuse, torture and kill in a domestic labor forces fishery industry…

I can only cry and helpless… But I thank people like you in supporting Khmer people and find justice for those… They have been victim of slavery for many century already and how much more do they have to endure!!!

If GOD does exist why he has not open his eyes to Cambodia!

Love Cambodia…..

December 17, 2011 at 09:09

No dought about it, China had been in Cambodia to support Khmer Rouge and Khmer Rouge provide them Rice in exchange arms and making its people into famine shortage of food and medicare….. Poor Cambodian…. They have been victimized of experimental power between China and American trying to spreed their power over south-east asia…

Leonard R.
December 17, 2011 at 08:15

The US and the PRC both supported the Khmer Rouge during that era.
It was not America’s finest hour.

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