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Elections solve nothing

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Under the auspices of the United Nations one of the world’s key “trouble spots”, Cambodia, has just witnessed elections designed to end the civil war. Chris Bryant looks at the background to these elections and explains why none of the alternatives on offer can bring a progressive solution to the conflict any nearer.

In 1975 the imperialists were thrown out of Cambodia by the Stalinist Khmer Rouge guerrilla army, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge regime of “Democratic Kampuchea” (DK) embarked on a reign of terror to fulfil their goal of “socialism in one country”. Although the wild claims of two million executions under Pol Pot do not stand up to even a cursory study, hundreds of thousands did die through starvation, torture and execution.

Capitalist explanations for the terror of the “Zero Years” paint the Cambodian peasantry as easily manipulated, too backward and too stupid to run their own affairs. The source of all the problems was, quite simply, Pol Pot and his henchmen.

Without detracting from the real barbarism of the Pol Pot regime the reality was very different from this imperialist explanation. A glance at the history of Cambodia shows that imperialism itself was heavily responsible for the tragedy that engulfed the country.

By the late 1960s the US was feeling the squeeze in Vietnam. The puppet Republic of Vietnam regime in the South, and the US military, desperately needed to secure the western flank of the conflict—Cambodia. The US response was to launch B52 bombers against Cambodia. The first missions took place in complete secrecy.

In the five year “sideshow”, as the war in Cambodia was described by the Pentagon, 45 kilos of explosives were dropped for every man, woman and child in Cambodia.

Approximately 600,000 were killed and another 600,000 injured, a total that matches and perhaps even surpasses the numbers killed under Pol Pot.

Just as horrific was the damage done to agricultural land. The total workable farmland was reduced to one fifth of its pre-1970 level. It was the devastation of the B52s that created the conditions for the famines of the Pol Pot years.

The resistance to US imperialism and its puppet regime in Cambodia was spearheaded by the anti-urban and anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot clique in the Communist Party—the Khmer Rouge. Their policies were based on reactionary ideas of an economically independent, peasant-based utopia. The building of industry was inconceivable, they reasoned, without first achieving agricultural self-sufficiency.

After the victory of April 1975 the DK government set about the destruction not only of the bourgeoisie and capitalist property relations but also of the cities, industry and the working class. The tiny (less than 10% of the population) urban and rural working class were the key force for socialist construction. But Pol Pot saw them as enemies, tainted by city life and foreign influence.

The cities were evacuated, their inhabitants forced onto collective farms to work in the paddy-fields and on irrigation projects. Private property, right down to cooking pots, was abolished, along with money itself. The focus of the terror was not only the bourgeoisie and the old regime. Anything associated with the cities was destroyed. No section of society escaped the waves of executions and torture.

This regime soon came into conflict with its Vietnamese neighbour, whose own revolution had also become a victim of Stalinism. The extent to which both workers’ states had degenerated became evident when they went to war with each other. There were clashes between Vietnamese and Kampuchean forces over disputed border areas as early as 1975.

Vietnam wanted a reliable, and preferably subordinate, ally between its Southern border and Thailand. DK wanted to reclaim the territories of the ancient Angkor empire which included a large slice of the fertile rice growing area of Vietnam’s Mekong Basin. Border skirmishes escalated to full scale war by December 1978.

With the support of a faction of Kampuchean Stalinist dissidents the Vietnamese invasion drove out Pol Pot and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). It was no more democratic than the regime it replaced. But Vietnam gained a reliable ally.

Despite having condemned the DK regime in the past, the USA—seeing Vietnam as its main enemy—now recognised it as the only legitimate government of Cambodia, blocking PRK representation at the UN.

The USA insisted that millions of dollars in aid should be channelled through the refugee camps on the Thai border that were under the control of anti-PRK forces—Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the petty bourgeois nationalist Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and Norodom Sihanouk’s royalist resistance. Only one quarter of the aid agencies channelled any aid through the PRK despite it controlling the areas in which the overwhelming majority of the Cambodian population lived.

To increase the pressure on the PRK government the US pressured its three opponents into an unholy alliance. Basing themselves on the displaced population in the refugee camps, fed by Western aid and armed by the West and China, this alliance, within which the Khmer Rouge was the strongest military force, waged a low intensity war from 1979. Even today large areas remain under Khmer Rouge control allowing Thai capitalists and the Khmer Rouge themselves to exploit the gemstones and timber resources of the north-west of the country.

The isolation of the PRK regime placed it under enormous economic pressure. And this pressure pushed it towards accepting a deal with its opponents. In the late 1980s, following Eastern Europe and Vietnam, the PRK retreated even further from any rhetoric about socialist planning. They marked their policy turn by renaming the country the State of Cambodia (SOC).

In 1989, under pressure from Moscow, the imperialist embargo and the economic crisis at home, Vietnamese forces withdrew from Kampuchea, leaving the 50,000 government forces and the quarter million strong militia to face the anti-government forces alone. Civil war continued to wreck the lives of thousands of Cambodians. But it was clear that the regime was prepared to settle on imperialism’s terms.

After a series of stop-go talks, the four principal forces finally reached agreement on terms for a settlement in October 1991—the Paris Accords.

China was bullied into stopping its arms supplies to the Khmer Rouge and the hawks in the Pentagon, still fighting the Vietnam War, came to realise that they had created a Frankenstein’s monster in the regenerated Khmer Rouge. The push towards a pro-imperialist peace settlement gathered pace.

The agreement was based on UN-controlled free elections in May 1993 with disarmament of all non-government forces. Government forces were to be restricted to a purely defensive role. The 16,000 troops, 5,000 civilian personnel and the $2.5 billion bill of UNTAC—the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia—were the result of this agreement.

All UN forces are to be withdrawn by September. In the meantime the Supreme National Council, set up in 1990, headed by Norodom Sihanouk and comprised of members from each of the four factions, would oversee the moves towards democracy.

Son Sann’s KPNLF feared complete eradication in the elections, as they had no serious base inside the country. The Sihanoukists, while fearing an SOC majority hoped to rely on the mystique of Sihanouk himself, generated in the relatively calm and prosperous days of the early to mid-1960s.

The Khmer Rouge, which has long ceased to maintain even a formal commitment to any sort of “socialism”, became the main opponents of the deal, fearing that a victory for the forces of the SOC would leave them once again totally isolated.

Their main objective was to grab as much land as possible in order to place themselves in a strong position after the elections. By these means they hoped to be able to mount a renewed challenge to the new government. They eventually withdrew from the elections, denouncing them as a sham. They refused to hand over their arms.

Despite their threats at disruption of the elections over one thousand Khmer Rouge guerrillas, including Pol Pot’s brother, turned out to vote. Presumably they voted for Sihanouk’s FUNCINCEP, on the grounds that he had promised the Khmer Rouge a place in any new government; a promise that he has since retracted. Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has not retracted his promise to give his father executive power as head of state if they win the elections!

Having seen the impressive turn-out for the elections, over 90% of the 4.7 million registered voters, the Khmer Rouge relented and decided widespread electoral disruption would be counter-productive. But this does not mean that they have ceased to be a force to be reckoned with. They have a battle-hardened, well armed guerrilla army of 16,000 and are able to operate in about one third of the country.

The SOC forces have themselves been involved in disruption and intimidation during the campaign. It may have been less violent than expected but it was still a bloody campaign. Whatever the outcome of the elections, the war will not stop.

The UN operation has nothing to do with the democratic rights of the Cambodian people. It is all about building a new world order in which the imperialists can gain untrammeled access to the gems, the timber and the rubber of Indochina. It is a plan that must not be allowed to succeed.

Nevertheless it would have been wrong for socialists to boycott the elections. The whole process should have been torn out of the hands of the imperialists and the anti-working class cliques in the Supreme National Council. Local committees of peasants and workers needed to put forward their own slates for the elections and defend the electoral process by refusing to hand over their arms.

In place of the sham constitutional elections, socialists would have fought for a democratic constituent assembly, convened and defended from below by armed workers and peasants. There should have been no collaboration with UNTAC forces and a campaign, military if necessary, is needed to drive them out immediately.