Political economy of the Khmer Rouge: Khieu Samphan’s doctoral thesis

Dr. Khieu Samphan is one of the most well-known leaders of the former Communist Party of Kampuchea, known informally as the Khmer Rouge. After the Communist Party took state power in Cambodia in 1975 in the victorious conclusion of the Vietnam War for the national liberation forces, Samphan became the President of Democratic Kampuchea while Pol Pot was the Party Secretary and Prime Minister. In 2014, Samphan was sentenced to life in prison by the comprador Cambodian state.

In 1959, Samphan received his doctoral degree in France with a dissertation analyzing the unequal economic relationship between his home country and imperial powers like France. Samphan argued that the economy and productive capabilities of Cambodia had been maldeveloped by imperialism and how the country would need to develop independently before entering the global economy in its own right. The original dissertation was divided into two parts, with the second part being more moderate in calling for reforms within the existing government to benefit poor Cambodians more. As the plight of the masses worsened over time however, Samphan decided that mere reforms and moderate changes were simply not feasible and that a complete social transformation was necessary. When the Khmer Rouge took state power in 1975, Samphan’s thesis became a sort of roadmap for the new government as it sought the complete independence of the Khmer people.

In his thesis, Samphan begins by laying out the situation of the country in the 1950s, a small nation with the vast majority of the working population involved in agriculture using wooden tools and vulnerable to preventable diseases and the elements. Most families worked on their own lands, whether growing rice or garden farming in the Mekong river valley, although the families growing rice were largely indebted subsistence farmers which put them in a more backward position than the garden farmers along the river who could sell their produce in markets. Samphan considers the farmers along the river to have been more advanced as a form of “rural bourgeoisie” which is closer to capitalism than semi-feudalism. This bourgeoisie, based in the vicinity of the river, represented only about a quarter of the Cambodian farmlands while the other three-quarters were semi-feudal, which meant that the country was mostly semi-feudal. Furthermore, there was a lack of an industrial national bourgeoisie in the largely agricultural and export-based economy. The agriculture of the country as well as what industry that existed was subservient to demands from the rich countries, which determined the type and the amount of crops that would be produced. Industry was oriented towards facilitating the production of agricultural exports. The only agriculture that employed the labor of others was the set of rubber plantations owned by foreign capitalists.

Samphan demonstrates how weak industrial production was in Cambodia by going over the statistics where industry generated only as much value as small craftsmen, who worked on their own as families and did not employ others. These craftsmen comprised around eight percent of the national economy, similar to the industries, which were largely light industries and not very capital-intensive. The steam-run power plants of Cambodia were highly inefficient and produced very little in comparison to the amount of energy they required to operate. So little electricity was being produced that the foreign-owned industries bought and operated their own generators. Most of the electricity produced was for the “public services and a thin layer of the population”, which shows the tiny amount of electrification in the country. Any development and industrialization carried out in the country was by and for the foreign capitalists, who rendered the industries dependent on unprocessed and semi-processed material from other countries. Much of the national services and industries were controlled by the colonial Bank of Indochina, although some were nationalized during that period.

All of this made Cambodia one of the poorest and most backward economies in Asia and in the world. Samphan points out that less than one-tenth of the Khmer people could consume fruit, fish, chocolates, cigars, alcohol, etc. but that these items were nearly half of the country’s imports as they were to the benefit of “”Europeans,” landlords, compradores, high civil servants”, showing the way in which the local allies of imperialism benefited greatly from the maldevelopment of the country. Consumer goods that most of the population could access however, such as candles, incense, condiments and gasoline, were only four percent of the goods imported into Cambodia. Samphan calculates that nearly half of the national product was the “value” of the armed forces and the government.

With all of this, the idea propagated by reactionaries that the Khmer Rouge “dragged” the country into feudalism is shown to be completely baseless, since the country was already in a semi-feudal position before 1975. After Samphan wrote his thesis in 1959, his country was thrown into chaos by the Vietnam War, which saw a U.S./South Vietnamese invasion and carpet bombings by U.S. planes. The bombardment would kill hundreds of thousands of people and devastate the already poor and ruinous countryside, forcing those who survived to flee into the cities. It is not possible to begin criticizing the policies of the Khmer Rouge without taking into account this situation.

In describing the historical background by which Indochina came to its impoverished and semi-feudal position, Samphan explains how French colonial authorities in the 1890s established a free trade policy with the Indochinese colony but required other imperialist countries to pay duties in trading, which gave France a major advantage and restricted other countries. Samphan writes, “The present economic structure of Cambodia issues from this free and unfettered contact between a basically precapitalist Khmer economy and a more advanced, French capitalist economy.” Samphan implicitly promulgates productive forces theory by framing the differences between France and the territories it colonized as a matter of advancement over time, even though the French Empire had existed before the 1890s and had built up its wealth and its relations of production from imperial ventures and exploitation by that point. But at the same time, Samphan underlines that unequal exchange between France and Indochina resulted in the Cambodian economy being underdeveloped. U.S. efforts to establish free trade policies with Cambodia after the country’s nominal independence are also mentioned. Samphan then upholds productive forces theory once again by comparing Cambodia’s feudal economy in the 19th century to the French economy of the Middle Ages, which implies that Cambodia would have needed development over several centuries in order to attain a position similar to which France had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though the main point remains, “Contact with France did not accelerate the expansion of this national capitalism. Rather. the integration of the transitional economy into an international market dominated by the most advanced countries sidetracked development onto its contemporary semi-colonial and semi-feudal path.” A clear affirmation that Cambodia’s position in the 20th-century as a semi-feudal country was the result of imperialism.

In the following section, Samphan describes how small production in Cambodia was effectively destroyed by the introduction of cheap manufactured goods by the French who were in search of new markets. Samphan connects the collapse of Cambodian production in losing the competition with French goods to the way that French producers were outcompeted by other French producers as France moved towards capitalism. Crafts production nevertheless existed to some degree in the 1950s, as poor Cambodians could buy from local craftsmen instead of foreign goods which were too expensive for them, and other craftsmen moved towards making a living on repairing foreign goods. The rapid growth of population in the Cambodian countryside between 1900 and 1950, compared to the much slower growth/decrease in the imperialist countries in the same time frame, is also discussed to further demonstrate the underdevelopment of Cambodia.

Landlords and wealthy farmers with large plots of land in the colonial period benefited from most of the country being divided into millions of tiny plots while the larger plots were fewer by comparison, which put the owners of the larger plots in a much better position. The minority of farmers with lands larger than five hectares often had the means to employ others’ labor and/or rent their land to others. Those who would rent land or work for others were mostly families with very small amounts of land which did not allow them to live off of their own land. Peasants under the semi-feudal system for a while paid their rent in kind, which became the personal subsistence of the landlords. As imperialism took over Cambodian agriculture, the payments in kind became money payments which were paid through selling produce on the market, which signifies the commercialization of agriculture. The maintenance of soil through modern irrigation and fertilizing was unprofitable for the landlords, which is why soil in most farmlands remained at a low quality. These extreme inequalities and problems in agriculture, which kept the Cambodian economy maldeveloped, would begin to be addressed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s through collectivization and communalization. Currency and commercial services were abolished almost overnight as the Democratic Kampuchea government sought to move towards farming on a more equitable basis.

Samphan references the work of his colleague Samir Amin who wrote on the concept of unequal exchange between imperialist countries and exploited countries, with the imperialist countries importing unprocessed material from the exploited countries in order to benefit from the cheaper production. This had the effect of maldeveloping the local economy, and the growth of local comprador forces. Poor farmers were forced to become proletarian as they had to work on others’ lands for a wage. Amin’s work concludes that independent self-reliant development was necessary for post-colonial countries like Cambodia, where development would have to be a new unique path based on the local economy instead of the industrialization process which happened in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, etc., forgoing the capitalist model.

This approach is reflected in the programs of past socialist countries, like the Soviet Union in the 1930s as it industrialized and collectivized its agriculture, or China under the New Democracy period in the 1950s when Chinese peasants began to pool their lands as well as in the Great Leap Forward period, which saw more radical attempts at transformation of agriculture through less capital-intensive and decentralized industry in the countryside which the peasants would be able to use to facilitate agricultural production. When the Khmer Rouge seized state power in 1975, they began with an emergency situation where millions had abandoned the countryside and fled into the cities in the wake of the American bombing campaign and to escape persecution by the forces of the Khmer Republic, the military dictatorship which the KR toppled. In order to restart agricultural production, to ensure the feeding of the population and to begin their social transformation program, the Khmer Rouge would quickly clear out Phnom Penh and other cities and move the people to the countryside. In pursuing a program of self-reliance, they used mechanical parts, scraps, enemy vehicles and planes to build many pots, plates, equipment, weapons and other items while trying to minimize foreign aid in order to prevent foreign dependence (although the Khmer Rouge ultimately invited Chinese assistance and trade as efforts at complete autarky proved impossible in their given situation).

Samphan notes how capital investment from imperialist countries did little to develop the country due to the subsequent extraction of profits and increase in capital intensity to make way for more consumer goods. Profits resulting from increased capital intensity were also extracted. The foreign capitalists played down the value of extracted profits and inflated the value of their imports into Cambodia in bank records. Samphan shows how these records are distortions by estimating the total value transfer and demonstrates how the extraction of massive profits hindered the development of the country. The national economy was stunted to the point that there was negligible growth without foreign investments.

In the period of the Second World War, most French public investment in Indochina went towards railways, military posts for the French colonial army, and other infrastructure. While new railways and roads were built in Cambodia, there were not any seaports on the 300 miles of Cambodian coastline but only a port along the Mekong near Phnom Penh. There were also no significant irrigation projects. Much of the public infrastructure was built by forced labor, which meant that the investments paid mostly the comprador forces and the colonial authorities but not the workers. Machinery required for production came from mainland France. Samphan attributes the lack of development of the Cambodian economy to “the fact that these investments were made under terms imposed by economic integration into world trade”, or the use of the infrastructure towards furthering colonial exploitation of the country and not internal development and local commerce. The latter would have meant the development of Cambodia into a capitalist economy of its own but the free trade policies imposed by imperialism resulted in the French economy growing at the expense of Cambodia and the rest of Indochina.

After Cambodia gained official independence from France in 1953, it was receiving aid from the United States, nearly two-thirds of which went to the Cambodian military and the remainder was given as “economic aid”. The military portion had the purpose of backing the comprador government and the army, along with other comprador governments nearby such as Thailand and South Vietnam, as a bulwark against China and North Vietnam. The military aid enabled officers and soldiers of the military to have lavish living standards compared to the rest of the population, which was acknowledged even by Norodom Sihanouk, who was the King of Cambodia until 1955. The economic aid was largely towards maintenance of infrastructure in the country, which was for the purpose of maintaining the exploitation of the country through unequal exchange. By the late 1950s, Cambodian imports of U.S. goods – imported from the U.S. as well as nearby Asian countries with U.S. goods – accounted for nearly half of all imports while close to one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports went to the U.S. Samphan concludes that this is when Cambodia effectively fell under U.S. imperialism, as the Cambodian economy moved towards benefiting U.S. interests in the form of markets and production for the U.S. The U.S. went about the subjugation of Cambodia for its own interests with claims of helping the development of Cambodia’s economy, which is similar to how the U.S. and the rest of the First World today claim to be helping the economies of the Global South to benefit the local populations, as supposed acts of altruism. Just as this pretext was used against the mostly semi-feudal economies of Asia and Africa during the Cold War, this pretext is used today to an even larger extent. Samphan concludes the first part of his thesis by emphasizing the need for a self-reliant and independent economy in order to enable the development of Cambodia and its national bourgeoisie and craftsmen, which would allow the country to progress and no longer be semi-feudal, while to remain as part of the global imperialist economy would have meant that the country would remain in a miserable position and increase social antagonisms, as unequal exchange and the exploitation of the country would continue.

The doctoral dissertation of Samphan, which earned him a doctorate in Europe, outlined in detail the challenges that Cambodia faced as a victim of imperialism and highlighted the importance of independent development in order to end the chronic exploitation which ruined the nation’s economy and to improve the welfare of the masses, but also as part of the transition to communism. This dissertation motivated much of Khmer Rouge’s program in Democratic Kampuchea in the years that it held state power as a country free from the U.S. as well as Soviet social-imperialism. The problems and contradictions discussed in the dissertation exist in similar forms throughout the world to this day, and the masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America will need to take up radical programs based on independent development and withholding capital from the imperialists in order to free themselves from the current order.

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