• Matthew Smylie

The Khmer Rouge's lasting legacy on Cambodia's Political Economy

The Khmer Rouge murdered millions of Cambodian citizens- the regimes actions continue to affect Cambodia's institutional structure and economy.

Photo Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/17/phnom-penh-empty-skyscraper-vattanac-capital

When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, it embarked on a mission to bring happiness and prosperity to Cambodia faster than any of its competitors (Locard, 2005: 121). Yet, nearly 45 years later, Cambodia remains one of the least developed nations in East Asia, suffering from corruption, inequality, and poverty. This post, with a focus on corruption and natural resources, will discuss the legacy of the Khmer Rouge for the development of Cambodia’s political economy. I argue that the regime’s legacy has been to weaken the state apparatus to the extent that patron-client politics is deeply embedded; allowing the elite to misuse natural resources in order to build power and wealth. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of private property and the judicial system has made it easier for elites to take resources from the public and use them to pursue their own private goals. This has led to an increase in inequality, keeping rural areas in a state of poverty.

Cambodia: Past and Present

Cambodia was put under French protectorate in 1863 and French colonial rule persisted until independence in 1953. The Cambodian colonial experience proved to be economically disastrous, leaving the country with weak infrastructure and ‘no modern industry of importance’ (Ear, 1995: 36). In understanding Cambodia’s underdevelopment, Khieu Samphan, a future leader of the Khmer Rouge, wrote a thesis utilising Marxist theory. For Samphan, Cambodia’s underdevelopment stemmed from the nation having been integrated into the world economy simply to provide cheap labour (Samphan, 1976: 3). The French had distorted the economy, with the introduction of foreign goods discouraging craftsmen and stunting the expansion of national capitalism (Samphan, 1976: 13). This consigned most of Cambodia’s population to agricultural production, with peasants under the exploitative control of feudal landlords (Samphan, 1976:16). The only way to overcome such underdevelopment would be to pursue development outside of the global capitalist system, and build rural industry by curbing the power of landowners and fundamentally altering the economic system (Samphan, 1976: 4).

Following decades of conflict and a period of aerial bombardment by the United States, the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. The regime’s goal was to return Cambodia to ‘year-zero’ and ‘transform it into an agrarian utopia’ (Brinkley, 2009: 111) where people would work for the common good and ensure that the country was self-reliant. To this end, the Khmer Rouge ruled through terror and violence. The urban populations were forcibly evacuated from their homes and sent to the countryside to work in agricultural communes (Strangio, 2014: 2). All private property ownership was abolished, with land and resources collectivised. The entire Cambodian educational system and the majority of school infrastructure was destroyed, replaced by a new system ‘dedicated to larger social goals’ (Clayton, 1998: 8). It was not only the educational system that was dismantled but also anything that ‘smacked of capitalism…or class oppression’ (Hinton, 2014:149) including the media, legal system, and money.

The aim of forming a nation around a new communist and ideological structure prompted the Khmer Rouge to execute those who resisted or held counter-revolutionary thoughts and memories (Hinton, 2014: 151). Educated individuals, such as skilled workers, elites and teachers were especially targeted due to their exposure to western ideas (Jackson, 1989: 9) and the potential opposition that they could raise which would jeopardise the success of the regime. The violence was widespread and by the time the Khmer Rouge were displaced by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, they had caused 2.2 to 2.8 million excess deaths (de Walque, 2007: 223), although estimates vary on the number of lives lost. Pol-Pot’s repressive regime, aimed at creating an egalitarian society, therefore had a huge impact on both the institutions and the people of Cambodia.

Modern-day Cambodia has made progress, with Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, bringing peace and stability to the nation (Strangio, 2014: xv). Since liberalising its economy in 1989, Cambodia has achieved impressive growth figures, attaining an average economic growth rate of 7.6% in 1994-2015, reducing poverty from 47.8% in 2007 to 13.5% in 2015 and obtaining lower-middle income status in 2015 (World Bank, 2017). However, despite these successes, many problems persist in Cambodia. Corruption is endemic, with the nation rated as the most corrupt in Southeast Asia; this makes Cambodia less attractive to businesses and causes large distortions in the economy (Keo, 2013). The country is also heavily dependent upon foreign donor aid, with as much as 50% of the national budget sourced from international aid packages (Haakansson, 2011: 14). Further, whilst poverty has officially fallen, child mortality and inequality in Cambodia continue to rise (Ear, 2007: 76). The rural areas, where up to 90% of the population live (Strangio, 2014: 140), continue to rely heavily on subsistence farming, with little access to running water and sanitation. Low development levels continue to affect many people, with 21% of the population living below the poverty line and 56% living in ‘vulnerable poverty’ (Nathan, 2014).

Of particular interest for the purpose of this essay is the issue of corruption. Indeed, it has been argued that for many natural-resource rich nations in Africa, corrupt practices by the elite have prevented countries from breaking the cycle of underdevelopment (Awojobi, 2014). Many similarities can be drawn with the case of Cambodia. The following sections explore the Khmer Rouge’s legacy in weakening the state apparatus and facilitating a corrupt elite who misuse the nation’s natural resources, create inequalities and stunt development.

Patronage, Corruption and Natural Resources

Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the incoming government, the PRK, faced many hurdles in trying to rebuild the state. The Khmer Rouge had left very little behind in terms of state infrastructure, creating a highly fragmented country where villages were isolated from central government (Kent, 2007: 336). Similarly, the elimination of the majority of the skilled sector, especially civil servants, had ‘erased a national memory of how government worked’ (Smith, 2007: 38). This weak state infrastructure was coupled with the fact that much of the citizenry no longer trusted the state as a provider of security and development, following the breakdown of social order experienced under the Khmer Rouge (Öjendal & Lilja, 2009: 1). Indeed, the violence persisted as the Khmer Rouge continued to operate from their strongholds in the north and fought against the newly installed government (Biddulph, 2014: 876).

The lack of a functioning administration allowed patronage to become ‘the logic of Cambodian governance’ (Smith, 2007: 89); a mode of governance in which individuals of high economic status (Patrons) use their influence and resources to provide protection and benefits to a person of lower status (Client) who reciprocates by providing support and assistance to the patron (Scott, 1977: 125). Such Patron-client relationships developed in the early 1980’s as the PRK, headed by Hun Sen, set out to rebuild the state and gain cooperation to underpin their position. Here, party and administrative positions were given to clients who adhered to patronage, creating a network of ministries and administrative bodies based upon patron-client relationships (Un, 2006: 229). Many of these ministers and bureaucrats had no prior experience in running state departments and, in a post-conflict environment where many were faced with poverty, prioritised distributing positions to their family and friends (Gottesman, 2003: 51). Further, loyalty was built among officials ‘by permitting them to enrich themselves through the exploitation of resources at their disposal, such as land…and timber’ (Verver & Dahles, 2014: 52). This created a system in which government officials were able to use their roles to extract vast amounts of revenue, through activities such as logging, in return for loyalty to the party (Milne et al, 2015: 39). At the same time, natural resources were used to achieve peace and build alliances with opposing factions, with the Khmer Rouge leadership promised control over their economic interests, such as mining and forestry, in return for loyalty to Phnom Penh (Biddulph, 2014: 877).

The liberalisation of the Cambodian economy in 1989 provided greater opportunities for state officials to enrich themselves through the privatisation of land and leasing of property (Milne et al, 2015: 31). Here, the political elite have been able to use their political resources to territorialise forested land and grant concessions to extractive industries who are engaged in large-scale production of goods such as timber and rubber (Padwe, 2017: 139). In return, businesses provide financial support to the ruling party, contributing to their ‘growing hegemony over Cambodian society’ (Verver & Dahles, 2014: 63). The granting of such concessions represents a highly corrupt practice, with the authorisation and implementation of concessions often deviating from established legal and policy frameworks (Diepart & Schoeberger, 2017: 163). The result is a more deeply entrenched patronage network, which has seen power and wealth increasingly concentrated into the hands of Hun Sen, who provides the umbrella under which officials and businesses extract huge benefits from the destruction of the nation’s natural resources (Petersson, 2017: 25).

The corrupt nature of Cambodia’s patronage network has largely been facilitated by the weak state apparatus left by the Khmer Rouge. Particularly important is the ‘absence of independent and well-functioning bureaucracies that regulate politicians’ access to public resources’ (Bustikova & Corduneanu-Huci, 2017: 281). Here, the civil service and governing bodies remain weak as the removal of skilled individuals and physical infrastructure by the Khmer Rouge continues to haunt the state apparatus. Key bodies such as the National Assembly lack the capacity to exercise their oversight powers and hold officials to account (Un & So, 2009: 125); a problem also evident with the state bodies responsible for overseeing concessions, where a lack of human and financial resources has made it ‘virtually impossible’ to control concessionaries on the ground, resulting in widespread exploitation of timber (Diepart & Schoenberger, 2017: 160).

Further, the tax and budget systems, which were dismantled in 1975, are of terrible quality (Un & So, 2009: 125). The absence of an effective system to generate and manage state revenue means that the state apparatus is denied the capital that it requires to develop, whilst also making it easier for government departments to disguise illegal activities (Smith, 2007: 53). At the same time, the weak tax system also results in a heavily underpaid civil service (Locard, 2005: 136). As a result, civil servants and officials working in lower levels of bureaucracy often accept bribes and engage in petty corruption in order to supplement their salaries, which only support bare subsistence (Le Billon, 2000: 791). In many cases, people working in administrative bodies are fully incorporated into the patronage system; this is evident in the Forestry Administration which oversees the regulation of Cambodia’s forests. Here, people were required to buy their positions within the administration and engage in extracting both legal and illegal revenues from logging activities in order to keep their positions (Smith, 2007: 55).

Similar issues are also evident with the judiciary, which had been dismantled and left in disarray by the Khmer Rouge (Petersson, 2017: 21). Here, the killing of educated individuals had an especially pronounced effect, leaving only a handful of lawyers to write a new constitution and rebuild the entire judicial system (Hughes, 2003: 20). The judiciary remains very weak and is unable to effectively perform its role of providing checks and balances, making sure that officials act within the legislative framework (Un & So, 2009: 126). The absence of an effective judiciary allows patronage and corruption to run rampant with officials never held to account. Further, the appointment of judges is highly politicised and forms part of the patronage network, with most judges paying for their posts and basing their decisions on the interests of the powerful in order to maintain their jobs and security (Un, 2006: 232). This enables the elite to protect their clients who are engaged in destructive practices such as illegal logging (Smith, 2007: 39).

The examples of state administrators and the judicial system show how deeply embedded the Cambodian patronage network is. The absence of strong and independent bureaucracies, as a direct result of the Khmer Rouge’s policies, has allowed the ruling elite to build an extensive patron-client network which extends throughout the body of the state, making the ‘state apparatus largely dependent on and indistinguishable from the ruling party’ (Verver & Dahles, 2015: 52). This deeply embedded network, funded by the exploitation of the nation’s natural resources, undermines any attempts to strengthen and rebuild the weak state apparatus, with institutions created simply to ‘service the interests of patron-clientism’ (Un, 2006: 230). Such a deeply embedded patronage network appears to be almost impossible to dismantle due to the fact that it supports the interests and needs of so many in Cambodian society (Varkkey, 2015: 114).

Property Rights

Corruption and the misuse of land and natural resources is further facilitated by the Khmer Rouge’s lasting effects on land rights. During the collectivisation process, the regime completely destroyed land ownership records along with the institutions that govern property rights (Un & So, 2011: 291). As a result, the Cambodian citizenry has inherited a very weak system of property rights which provides meagre security in terms of land tenure. This weak system enables the elite to grab land from citizens and grant concessions to large businesses, legitimizing their actions by claiming that the occupants are ‘squatters’ who are illegally inhabiting the land; claims which are difficult to oppose because land registration has not been successfully implemented (Schneider, 2010: 52). Similarly, the lack of an effective accounting system to manage public and state property (Gottesman, 2003: 321) has made it easier for officials to misuse Cambodia’s land for personal gain. This was evidenced in 2017 when the head of a provincial department sold a piece of state-owned land for $62,000 profit by taking advantage of the weak land registration system (Chheng, 2017). A legacy of the Khmer Rouge has therefore been to substantially weaken Cambodia’s system of property rights, benefitting elites and leaving 80% of rural households without a secure land title (Hughes, 2008: 71).

Attempts to overcome the issue of land rights are proving difficult within the state infrastructure. Firstly, laws such as the 2001 Land Law, which ‘envisaged the establishment of private land titling’ (Diepart & Dupuis, 2014: 456) and limited the expropriation of land only to those cases where it was in the public’s interest (Haakansson, 2011: 9) have proved futile. This is because, as discussed earlier, the judicial system remains weak in the wake of the Khmer Rouge period and has been absorbed into the patronage network, thus weakening the enforcement of new laws. At the same time, the severe lack of human and technical resources for land registration (So, 2011: 146) has made it very difficult for the state to effectively implement a system of property ownership. The courts often fail to settle land disputes in a fair manner and do not offer equal protection to each citizen. Instead, people seek protection from powerful individuals rather than utilising the legal system (So, 2011: 160); this further supports the system of patronage and makes land tenure reliant on how much money a person can mobilise to support their claims to property (So, 2011: 160). The actions of the Khmer Rouge therefore continue to reverberate around the state apparatus, playing a part in blocking land ownership reforms.

Effects on Development and Inequality

The effects of a corrupt elite, operating through patron-client networks and taking advantage of the weak state apparatus, have been substantial. These practices have led to large inequalities and continuing rural poverty. The grabbing of land has led to large disparities in land holdings, with the top 10% owning 64% of the land (Strangio, 2014: 183) whilst 20% of rural households are landless (Hughes & Un, 2011: 10) and thousands of families continue to be evicted from their homes. This issue of landlessness is the key component in rural poverty, as underdevelopment is increasingly concentrated in the countryside (Rudi et al, 2014: 565). Further, the substantial number of logging concessions granted has seen wealth flow into the pockets of the elite and large foreign businesses whilst denying the rural population access to non-timber forest goods which are crucial in sustaining their livelihoods (Un & So, 2009: 129). Corruption and the weakness of land tenure have therefore served to increase inequality and keep the rural population in a state of poverty.

Further, the legacy of the Khmer Rouge continues to hamper development and block improvements in living standards (Turner, 2013: 279). The lack of secure property rights discourages both domestic and foreign investors which negatively affects growth (Hughes & Un, 2011: 14). Here, a more secure set of property rights would be especially beneficial to rural citizens, allowing farmers better access to credit and providing incentives to invest in agriculture, thus increasing rural productivity and creating more equitable development within Cambodia (Rudi et al, 2014: 571). Similarly, the corrupt nature of the patron-client network denies the state a huge amount of revenue. In the case of forestry, only $120 million of the $2.4 billion worth of timber exported between 1989 and 2001 flowed into the national treasury (Diepart & Schoenberger, 2017: 160). Such large amounts of money could be used to address some of the systemic issues that continue to stunt the countries development, such as the poor education system which continues to struggle in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s destructive policies (Locard, 2005: 137). This also denies funds to support the removal of landmines planted by the Khmer Rouge; deadly weapons which can destroy the lives of rural citizens if they become disabled and are unable to provide the labour which is so crucial to agrarian livelihoods (Asia Watch Committee, 1991).


This post has sought to discuss the legacy of the Khmer Rouge for the development of Cambodia’s political economy. Indeed, the legacy of the Khmer Rouge continues to be felt in modern-day Cambodia, through its destructive effects on the state apparatus. When the regime was removed in 1979, Pol-pot left behind an administrative vacuum, having dismantled key apparatus such as the judiciary and tax systems, as well as killing a vast majority of the nation’s skilled and educated individuals. The absence of independent and well-functioning bureaucracies has enabled the current ruling elite to create a deeply embedded and corrupt patronage network which feeds off the nation’s natural resources. These corrupt actions are further facilitated by the weakness of Cambodia’s property right systems and land laws, which enable the powerful to grab land and resources from the rural poor in order to enrich themselves and build greater support for their government. This has created huge inequalities within Cambodian society, with businesses and elites enriching themselves through activities such as logging, whilst the rural poor are left behind to watch their livelihoods disappear.


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