The Khmer Republic 1970-1975

Language and National Identity in Asia: Cambodia (by Steve Heder) – Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic

Language and National Identity in Asia
Edited by Andrew Simpson
Oxford University Press, 2007

Chapter 13: CAMBODIA
by Dr. Steve Heder

13.5 The Khmer Republic, 1970-1975

The crises of the late 1960s culminated in the March 1970 overthrow of Sihanouk by Lon Nol. Following this, the next five years saw an acceleration of the trend toward Khmerization that had gathered steam since the 1960s, and indeed set the stage for its triumph during the last quarter of the twentieth century. For the second time (since the communist Issaraks’ Nokor Khmaer), Cambodia was replaced by Khmer in the polity’s name, it being declared a ‘Khmer Republic’ in October 1970, and Lon Nol began the elaboration of a florid political philosophy of ‘neo-Khmerism’, reclaiming the mantle of earlier colonial-era nationalist Khmerism. Neo-Khmerism called for ‘the spread of traditional culture and absorption of the various philosophies of the world’s civilisations’ to promote prosperity for the people via ‘a special accelerated economic program’ to bring Cambodia rapidly to a high state of development, thus restoring it to Angkorian glory (Lon 1974). In the meantime, Lon Nol’s army units massacred thousands of Vietnamese civilians and ‘repatriated’ 200,000-250,000 to South Vietnam, halving the Vietnamese population of Cambodia. This move came with state propa­ganda that all ethnic groups in Cambodia, except Vietnamese and Chinese, belonged to a single ‘great Khmer race’, while Republican policy further restricted Chinese schooling and damned Chinese for ruining Khmer morals and sabotaging the national economy.

Popular republican nationalism was apparent within an outpouring of Khmer literature and non-fiction, the latter including anti-Vietnamese, anti-French, and anti-Sihanouk histories and general treatises on philosophy, religion, law, linguistics, literature, and social science. One current combined opposition to Vietnamese domination with promotion of liberal democracy in place of Sihanouk’s retrograde autocracy, in order to move politically to catch up with or surpass Thailand and Vietnam. This current turned against Lon Nol when it became obvious that virulent ethno-nationalism could not sustain a regime that did not deliver on other fronts. As tirades against the Vietnamese were replaced by angry criticisms of the corruption, authoritarianism, political violence, and incompetence of the Khmer Republic, Lon Nol imposed censorship.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, the Khmer Rouge insurgency led by Pol Pot’s Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) imposed increasing control over villagers and posed an ever-greater challenge to the republican government. As conditions deteriorated and CPK forces took the upper hand, the Khmer Republic collapsed in 1975 and was replaced by the state of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), ushering in four violent years of murderous domination.

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