Who Are the Khmers?

Cambodia is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations in Asia, with 96% of its population being ethnically Khmer. Apart from that there are communities of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham (both Muslim and Buddhist), plus animist hill tribe groups in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. The Khmers have been in this area since the start of recorded history, long before the Thais or Vietnamese migrated here. This fairly straightforward story of Khmer ethnicity gives the Khmers a strong sense of collective self, despite all the upheavals they have undergone. Even 1,000 years later, a pride in the cultural achievements of Angkor is central to Khmer identity. There are also many Khmers living in the northeastern Thai provinces of Buriram, Surin, and Sisaket as well as in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Ethnically these provinces were Khmer but were dislocated as a result of the ebb and flow of empire.

Who Was Pol Pot?


Pol Pot (aka Saloth Sar) was the enigmatic and chillingly ruthless leader of the Khmer Rouge. He took the name Pol Pot upon coming fully to power in 1975. It most likely comes from a phrase translated into French that the Chinese leadership used to describe him, "Politique Potentielle," though that is only a theory. Pol Pot and his equally despotic cronies -- Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Ta Mok, and a host of others -- were the architects of a horror so total that the world is still reeling at man's capacity to be so inhumane to his fellow countrymen. Torture was an everyday tool employed by this regime. Toddlers and infants were as callously killed as adults were. The killing was run like a mundane bureaucratic procedure, and Pol Pot was the chief executive calling the shots.

Born in 1925, Saloth Sar was part of the tiny Phnom Penh middle class and he had royal connections. His sister was a palace concubine, while he was sent to Paris to be educated as an electrical engineer. He wasn't very good, repeatedly failing his exams and returning to Phnom Penh in 1954. While in Paris he fell in with a group of committed Cambodian leftists dubbed the "Cercle Marxiste." At this time, Saloth Sar was not in any way the leader of this group and people such as Ieng Sary, who later became Khmer Rouge foreign minister, were far more important.

Saloth Sar may not have been very successful academically, but by the mid-'60s as leftists fled the increasingly repressive Sihanouk regime, he was showing a considerable talent for organization and had an utterly ruthless ambition. Over time, he came to be the de facto leader of the movement. His actions in that role set the tone for the brutality, the arrogance, and the intense paranoia that marked out the Khmer Rouge regime. Although other Khmer Rouge leaders such as Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary were far more academic ideologues and theorists for this poisonously lunatic bunch, Pol Pot remained very much in control. This was until international support for the Khmer Rouge waned, the movement fractured, and he was toppled by Ta Mok, one of the few of his longtime lieutenants who had not either defected or been murdered on his orders. His death in 1998 was an ignominious one: He is said to have been interned in a seedy shack deep in the jungle, and his body burned atop a pile of car tires.


Who's Who in Cambodian Politics?

Cambodian politics remains an affair of shifting sands, Byzantine alliances, and Mafia-like power plays. The prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled the country for 3 decades. He heads the Cambodian People's Party, successor to the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea. He was a midlevel Khmer Rouge commander from the Eastern Zone. Initially under So Phim (purged and killed on the orders of Pol Pot in 1978) the Eastern Zone cadres were always fairly strong on their own account. They came under the paranoid suspicion of the "Center" of Angkar in 1978 and were forced into the arms of the Vietnamese. Hun Sen and many others fled to Vietnam after the bloody purges of their people.

When the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen was one of the Vietnamese-backed returnees installed in power. Under Heng Samrin, prime minister of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, he served as foreign minister, becoming prime minister himself in 1985. He has been the main power in Cambodia ever since, through turbulent times, winning the last two elections in 2003 and 2008.


FUNCINPEC was formed as a political front, built around Sihanouk's opposition of the Vietnamese after they liberated Cambodia in 1979. This alliance included the Khmer Rouge as the backbone of their fighting force. Following the withdrawal of the Vietnamese in 1979, Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, served as co -- prime minister from 1993 to 1997 and led the party until October 2006. In 1997, the FUNCINPEC rivalry came to a head and Ranariddh was evicted from government in violent military clashes across the country. This was not unexpected, given that the UN had left in place two competing prime ministers. Ranariddh fled but returned later on to rejoin politics in a reduced role. In reality, he was already finished. He has since been forced out of the party and formed a new one of his own, the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP). Current leader Keo Puth Rasmey succeeded Ranariddh. Both FUNCINPEC and Ranariddh's new party took a hammering in the 2008 elections, from which they are unlikely to ever recover.

The SRP, or Sam Rainsy Party, first formed by the politician of the same name, is a mercurial mix of pro-Western liberal sentiment and violently racist, anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. Sam Rainsy himself was a FUNCINPEC finance minister in the '90s, but quit as a result of what he saw as unbridled corruption. While he highlighted an issue that is central to Cambodia's progress, he has confronted Hun Sen's undoubted thuggery with a political demagoguery of his own. As things stand now, SRP is the second-largest party in the National Assembly but has an increasingly diminishing chance of ever seeing real power.

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