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This week in history: Khmer Rouge overthrown in Cambodia

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 6:47 p.m. MST

This conflict came to a head in late 1978 when the Vietnamese government, no stranger to atrocities itself, decided to intervene and stop the rampant killing in Cambodia. On Jan. 7, 1979, the capital city fell to the Vietnamese.

In his book “The Rise and Fall of Communism,” historian Archie Brown wrote: “After almost two years of border clashes, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia/Kampuchea at the end of December 1978. Their intention was to dislodge the Khmer Rouge — not, of course, to put an end to communist rule. Most of the Cambodian population welcomed them as liberators, and in the course of that year a more 'normal' communist government than Pol Pot's was established, under Vietnamese supervision.”

The ousting of the Khmer Rouge from power was not the end of the movement, however. China still supported the party as a resistance group, which operated out of western Cambodia and Thailand, and even invaded Vietnam itself to restore the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The Chinese invasion of Vietnam, however, proved short-lived and unsuccessful.

Despite U.S. President Jimmy Carter's emphasis on international human rights, the United States opposed the actions of the Soviet-backed Vietnamese and gave support to the defunct Khmer Rouge. This was also done because the U.S. was seeking better relations with China (Carter extended formal diplomatic recognition to China on Jan. 1, 1979).

The Khmer Rouge continued to formally represent Cambodia in the United Nations until the early 1990s. Pol Pot died in 1998 and the Khmer Rouge officially dissolved the next year.

In his book “The Cold War: A New History,” historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote of the Khmer Rouge's legacy: “No tyrant anywhere had ever executed a fifth of his own people, and yet the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot did precisely this in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The future will surely remember that atrocity when it has forgotten much else about the Cold War, and yet hardly anyone outside of Cambodia noticed at the time.

"There was no trial for crimes against humanity: Pol Pot died in a simple shack along the Thai border in 1998 and was unceremoniously cremated on a heap of junk and old tires. At least there was no mausoleum.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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