Xi’s Fake History Lesson for Hun Sen
Eager to appease his benefactor in Beijing, the Cambodian leader is excluding China’s role from the Khmer Rouge narrative.
Last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in a show of solidarity amid the coronavirus crisis. Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit China after the outbreak began, calling Cambodia and China “steadfast friends” and criticizing other countries for restricting travel to China. The visit was another example of how Phnom Penh has grown closer to Beijing in recent years, while drifting further from the West.
Cambodia appears increasingly like a Chinese vassal state. China is Cambodia’s biggest investor—best evidenced by the coastal city of Sihanoukville, transformed by the construction of apartments, casinos, and hotels for Chinese nationals. Cambodia seems to have handed over large swaths of its coastline to China for military purposes. And as China has backed major infrastructure projects and pledged around $100 million in military aid, Cambodia has vetoed Association of Southeast Asian Nations resolutions opposing China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
It’s unsurprising then that Hun Sen has shaped Cambodia’s domestic and foreign policy to support Beijing’s interests. He has now taken the alliance a step further, mirroring Xi in rewriting Cambodia’s official Khmer Rouge-era history: exempting Beijing’s wrongdoings and emphasizing those of the United States instead. The shift seems intended to enable China’s influence-building process in Cambodia.
Hun Sen was just a low-level commander in the Khmer Rouge when he defected to Vietnam in 1977. Vietnam occupied Cambodia in 1979 and placed Hun Sen in power in 1985, and he has remained there ever since. He now rebukes the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed nearly a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1979—a reign of terror from which Hun Sen claims to have delivered Cambodia. “The January 7 victory saved millions of Cambodians who were already at the brink of death,” he said last year during annual celebrations commemorating the Khmer Rouge’s defeat. “It restored the spiritual and physical value of the Cambodian people.”
Recently, Hun Sen has excluded China from the Khmer Rouge narrative, revealing where his loyalties lie. In a 2018 propaganda film that presents the ruling party’s version of history, the prime minister emphasizes the U.S. clandestine bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, just before the Khmer Rouge gained popular support. He does not mention Chinese aid. Hun Sen is also eager to blame other Asian countries for supporting the Khmer Rouge, such as Singapore, which he says has a “wish for its return to Cambodia.” Singapore, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries—deeply divided by the Cold War—opposed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge.
Yet the Chinese leader Mao Zedong did support the Khmer Rouge, seeking to preserve the ideological similarities between his Communist Party—struggling at home in the wake of the Cultural Revolution—and Pol Pot’s Cambodian analogue. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, Mao won a vital ideological victory, gaining a proxy in the developing world as many other China-backed groups, such as those in Malaysia and Myanmar, struggled.
The details of China’s support for the Khmer Rouge are still debated, but Chinese officials have conceded that Beijing provided Cambodia’s Maoists with “food, hoes and scythes.” Andrew Mertha, the author of Brothers in Arms: China’s Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979, contends that it was more than that: Based on interviews with Cambodians and Chinese officials, he estimates that China provided at least 90 percent of the Khmer Rouge’s foreign aid. “Without China’s assistance, the Khmer Rouge regime would not have lasted a week,” Mertha told the New York Times in 2015.
Some Cambodian experts agree. “China supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1970-1975 war and was the sole critical supporter throughout the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea period of genocide,” Diep Sophal, a Cambodian professor at the University of Cambodia, told Voice of America. “With Chinese money and support, Pol Pot carried out the period of murder, starvation and brutality.”
In disputes over Khmer Rouge history, Hun Sen’s regime now backs China. Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh posted a statement on Facebook blaming China for supporting the Khmer Rouge that included a photo of Pol Pot with Wang Dongxing, then the vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Embassy responded by blaming the United States for the 1970 coup, carried out by a U.S.-favored general, that set the stage for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. There is no concrete evidence that the United States supported the coup, but Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense echoed China in the dispute, blaming the civil war on “a coup supported by [the] United States in 1970.”
Siding with China is a pragmatic choice: Cambodia is economically dependent on Chinese patronage and Hun Sen relies on Beijing’s political support. But the Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Cambodia has prompted rising anti-Chinese sentiment among locals. China’s past support of the Khmer Rouge could further diminish its poor public standing. Hun Sen’s historical revisionism is an attempt to lift up Cambodians’ opinions of China—another example of Hun Sen’s fealty toward Beijing.
In rewriting history, Hun Sen is also following Beijing’s lead. Xi is focused on projecting China’s supremacy by diminishing past failures, including the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese War. China ordered a punitive invasion of Vietnam after it invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and forced the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh, causing Beijing to lose its proxy state. The Sino-Vietnamese War was disastrous for China: At least 20,000 Chinese soldiers died in the first month, and a cease-fire was called. Vietnam occupied Cambodia for nearly a decade. China has omitted this history from its own books, with many university students unaware of the war and books about it refused publication.
In 2012, it briefly appeared that China would acknowledge its role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge. “When people mention the Khmer Rouge, many might be reminded of the support China once gave it. This is a problem that cannot be avoided,” an article in the state-run Global Times read. But Xi ascended to power two months later and embarked on a campaign against “historical nihilism”—anything critical of the party’s legacy or its leadership. Xi’s rewriting of history reflects Beijing’s desire to move beyond its so-called century of humiliation after the First Opium War. China’s failures in Cambodia, supporting a genocide and losing a proxy state, have simply been erased.
Hun Sen’s own historical whitewashing, which supplants Chinese wrongdoing with U.S. wrongdoing—its relentless Vietnam War-era bombing campaign—is designed to please Beijing. It also serves to bolster dwindling public support for China within Cambodia and to counter good will toward the United States. But if Hun Sen hopes to pave the way for increased Chinese influence in Cambodia, it will require at least some toleration from Cambodians.
So far, Xi has been more successful at rewriting history than Hun Sen. Many young Cambodians blame the prime minister for corruption, skyrocketing household debt, and lagging development despite Chinese investment. It remains to be seen if they will come to blame Cambodia’s genocide on the United States. Unless Cambodians come to trust their prime minister’s politicized praise, his historical revisionism looks unlikely to succeed.