The leaders - Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan - of what became one of the most bloody regimes of modern history were shaped by French Marxist idealism and the memory of the agricultural roots of the great Khmer empires. Their communism and their nationalism were fierce, and brought them soon into conflict with the haughty and sophisticated Vietnamese communists.

As early as 1947, the Viet Minh had had some contact with Khmer rebels. In 1949, they had set up a Central Office of Cambodia in Kampot and sent "volunteer" units to campaign under the Viet Minh Nam Bo command. A Central Committee for Khmer Liberation and, borrowing the nationalist name, an Issarak Front were then established. But many of the true Khmer Issarak were anti-communist and the relations between them were uneasy. In 1951, with the dissolution of the Indochina Communist Party, a Revolutionary Party of the Cambodian People was formally established.

By early 1953, a Central Committee of five Khmer and seven Vietnamese was working under a Vietnamese colonel. There was also a military arm entitled the Cambodian Liberation Army which consisted of about 7,000 personnel (1,000 main force, 3,000 local force, and 3,000 guerillas). It was particularly active in areas of significant Vietnamese minority population. At the Geneva Conference, however, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam representatives, pressed hard by Prince Sihanouk's diplomats, agreed to withdraw these elements within 90 days of the accord. Under the regroupment, some 3,000 Khmer went to North Vietnam, leaving many cadre in place.

In the July 1955 election, the Communist Pracheachon (People's) Party received only four percent of the vote. Sihanouk, impelled by his moods and his reading of the external and internal pressures, wavered between encouragement for, and suppression of, the political left. In the mid 60's, he became alarmed at the leftist activism. The Royal Army put down with force rural disturbances in Battambang and unrest among the Khmer Loueu tribals. Leftist politicians were arrested, some reportedly were executed, and others fled to the maquis.

After the coup against Sihanouk and the clear evidence that the new government would not support the North Vietnamese presence along the border, COSVN on March 27, 1970, issued a general directive to lower commands "to help our friends" build "a People's Government in Cambodia". The Cambodian cadre who had long been in training in North Vietnam were reinfiltrated. The People's Army of Vietnam forces began in late March a general offensive designed to destroy the Cambodian army presence along the border and to seize populated areas in order to provide a population base for building a Khmer communist army and an agricultural base for feeding the North Vietnamese forces. The PAVN carried the brunt of the early part of the war in Cambodia, but tried to turn the task over to the Cambodian communists as soon they could.

Sihanouk, angered by his fall, headed a Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK). This was from the beginning an uneasy alliance of Sihanouk supporters (called Khmer Rumdo), the Vietnamese supported Khmer, and the so-called Khmer Rouge, the native and independent communists. The latter moved methodically against their rivals, and by 1973 had taken effective control of the National United Front for Cambodia (FUNK) and its armed forces, the Cambodian People's Liberation Armed Forces (which they later called the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea). Their government was known to their own people by the shadowy name of Angkar (the organization).

Although Khmer soldiers fought well on both sides, the flabby Phnom Penh leadership could not stand up to the sternly disciplined Khmer Rouge. Upon entering Phnom Penh on April 18, 1975, the Khmer Rouge were free to purify Cambodian society in their own style. They first killed the leaders of the Khmer Republic. For instance, on April 19, 1975, some 300 officers who had surrendered at Battambang were told to wear their dress uniforms and decorations in order to greet a returning Sihanouk. They were then taken by truck to a field and machine gunned. Besides people identified with the old society, the Khmer Rouge moved to destroy all who were associated with Sihanouk and with the Vietnamese, and those of their own ranks who were not trusted or could not stomach the murderous new ways. Estimates range from one to three million Cambodians died from execution, starvation, and maltreatment during this brutal period.

Hanoi had been disturbed from early on by the actions of the Khmer Rouge but had concentrated on the main task of winning in South Vietnam. After the two victories in April 1975, traditional Khmer-Viet disputes about the border were again reenacted. The Khmer Rouge were as harsh against the Vietnamese along the border as they were against their own people. In some engagements, as at Chau Doc, the vaunted PAVN forces, fat from occupation duty and full of unwilling southern conscripts, were thrashed by the Khmer Rouge forces.

Finally the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, angered by the Khmer intransigence, and concerned that the Chinese were building up Kampuchea against them, decided to take forthright action. In January 1978, they crossed over the border in force, bringing back enough refugees to have a base for forming their own Kampuchean organization. A year later, in a well planned blitzkrieg, the PAVN struck towards Phnom Penh. The forces around Phnom Penh, the six Nirdey divisions from the trusted southwest base of the Khmer Rouge that were the praetorian guard of the regime, were swept back to the Thai border.

The remnants fled to wild areas along the frontier. There they were fed by international relief and rearmed by the Chinese through the Thais. The Democratic Kampuchean forces - largely hated by their countrymen - were not able to oust the Vietnamese, but they remained far more disciplined and battle hardened than the non-communist elements such as the Khmer People's National Liberation Front under Son Sann's leadership and the pro-Sihanouk faction. Swallowing their gorge, a majority of the United Nations recognized the Democratic Kampuchean regime as the legitimate government of Cambodia, while trying to develop an alternative, unified structure for the country.

In 1991-92, after long, fruitless discussions, finally the four contending elements appeared to agree on new compromise government, the Supreme National Council, to be formed under the control and auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia. Troops were to be gathered and disarmed in UN-run regroupment areas. The Khmer Rouge, however, secure in their bastions in the west and northwest of Cambodia, refused to cooperate in practice, instead continuing their attacks designed to broaden the areas under their control. They financed themselves with lucrative sales of timber and precious stones to Thai along the border, and bought arms and ammunition from the Thai and their Cambodian opponents. Even under the reestablished Kingdom of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge long remained a dangerous presence, humiliating the newly reformed Royal army in an ill-managed offensive at Pailin.

But they increasingly showed signs of corruption, wear, and new schisms. Ieng Sary and others "defected" to the government; Pol Pot died under mysterious circumstances; and other leaders, such as the ruthless Ta Mok, were captured. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge had been reduced to a warlord force profiteering on the Thai border.


The Medals:

Apparently there are no medals of Democratic Kampuchea, as such would be inconsistent with its radical egalitarianism. Both sexes were forced to wear solid black clothes. Main force troops wore green fatigues, a plain cap, and often the checked Khmer all purpose scarf around the neck. There were no insignia or rank markings. The only award that has been noted was in the comment of the Voice of Democratic Kampuchea on January 31, 1980, that: "On January 17, army guerillas and people in the Western Region met to commemorate the awarding of the banner of merit in defense of the Kampuchean nation and the 12th anniversary of the national army".

Democratic Kampuchea had a red flag with a central device of the three towers of Angkor Wat in yellow, expressing thus both their communist and nationalist roots. The arms were of standard communist style, with sheaves of rice on either side, a straight irrigation canal headed into the distance with square paddies on either side, and factory with smoking chimneys at the top. On the riband at the bottom was the name in Cambodian script.