When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia it was still communists who were in control. Both the invaders and the Cambodians they elevated into government had long entrenched political inclinations and aspirations. The new regime had to somehow separate themselves form the hated Khmer Rouge 1, as many of their policies looked similar to those that had brought such tragedy to their country.

Dutch UNTAC soldiers in 1993, supervising return of refugees from Thailand2

Their situation was unprecedented. “In the early months of 1979, Cambodia barely existed as a nation. Millions of ragged, malnourished Cambodians wandered around a bewildering void, a fragmented landscape of violence, grief, anger and uncertainty.”3 The only elements of social and political organisation were what the Vietnamese army brought with them.

As if this was not desperate enough, most of the rest of the world turned their back on lending any assistance to a recovery. A geopolitical fault line developed immediately with the West and China condemning Vietnam (and by association, the USSR) for their invasion and demanding they withdrew.

Power politics

For the next decade “… power politics trumped human rights in Cambodia. The question was framed in a straitjacket of how to end Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. No other subject was allowed to enter the debate: especially forbidden was any acknowledgement of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, how it was ended by the Vietnamese occupation, or how the Khmer Rouge should be held responsible for their crimes against humanity”4

The new government was called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. It was at war with the Khmer Rouge and other armed resistance groups sponsored by China and the West. 300,000 Cambodians remained stranded in refugee camps on the Thailand border, also part of the geopolitical standoff. The Khmer Rouge continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN.

This situation lasted for most of the 1980’s until the thawing of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc filtered through to Cambodia. In September 1989, the last of the Vietnamese troops withdrew and they stated they would not be back, challenging those who had protected the Khmer Rouge - if Cambodia was to be saved from the Khmer Rouge it was now up to someone else. And so UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was conceived. 

Hen Sen, leader of Cambodia since 19935


With a US$2 billion pricetag this would be one of the most expensive and ambitious UN projects ever undertaken. The world was now available to assist Cambodia recover from what was by now two decades of civil war, genocide and disfunction. As UNTAC drew up plans for elections the Khmer Rouge refused to take part or disarm, leading to the de facto government led by Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party (CPP) to also refuse to disarm.

The Khmer Rouge continued to undermine a peaceful transition, but gradually parties lined up to contest elections, and 4 million Cambodians voted in the 1993 election. It was won by FUNCINPEC party, which finished ahead of the CPP. Despite this the “ … CPP still effectively controlled Cambodia.”6 A shared government emerged from this but the uneasy alliance ended in July 1997 when Hun Sen “staged a coup d’etat in July 1997”.7 Elections would continue but the CPP would from now, always have the advantages of incumbency.

Within a year Pol Pot died in a camp near the Thai border, and the Khmer Rouge agreed to amnesty proposalsoffered by a government keen to move on and end the violence. With this move, international aid organisations now flooded into Cambodia to help a struggling people.


  1. The defeated regime was labeled the” Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique”, and ‘official’ Cambodian history since 1975 has been written with that overlay. They had allegedly betrayed the legitimate revolution that the masses won in April 1975.
  2. "Dutch troops guarding a train with refugees returning to Cambodia from camps in Thailand. May 1993. 01/05/1993. Sisophon, Cambodia. UN Photo/P Sudhakaran. www.un.org/av/photo/
  3. Evan Gottesman, 2003, Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. (Silkworm Books, Bangkok, x
  4. Elizabeth Becker, When the War was over. (Public Affairs, New York, 1998), p 444
  5. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHun_Sen.jpg
  6. Becker, ibid, p 515
  7. ibid.
  8. The amnesty was not extended to a small group of Khmer Rouge leaders who would face a tribunal - The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia(ECCC). This was convened in 2006 and is still running in 2017.