Memorial Day is traditionally a time for remembering war veterans in the U.S. and this year it coincides with a 13-year initiative created by President Obama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Taking into consideration Cambodia’s part in the war, the month of May in 1970 heralded a tumultuous period after President Nixon announced the “official” U.S. invasion of Cambodia to flush out North Vietnamese troops.  Disgusted, anti-war activists mobilized at Kent State on May 1, protesting through the 4th, when four students were shot to death and nine wounded in a violent crackdown by the National Guard.  This sparked national outrage and further protests erupted across the country including one at Jackson State, an African American university protest which received little press, on May 14 where two black students were killed and 12 wounded by police.

While these events sparked changes in U.S. policy toward handling protests and its involvement in Vietnam, life became much worse for Cambodians.

A column of US infantrymen, soldiers of the Third Brigade task force of the 25th infantry Division, seen patrolling the Cambodia-Vietnam border in 1966. Pic: AP.

Unofficially Cambodia had been bombed by the U.S. since March, 1969 which continued until August 1973, in a campaign called “Operation Menu”.  A researcher at Yale estimated 2.7 million tons of ordinance was dropped from U.S. planes (exceeding WWII bombings), which actually began under the Johnson administration in 1965.  Cambodians fled to Phnom Penh for safety, or joined the ranks of a guerilla war known as the Khmer Rouge, which is said to have grown in response to the bombing.

When Saigon fell to communists in the spring of 1975, Phnom Penh also fell to the Khmer Rouge, who unleashed a reign of terror.  The refugee-packed capital was forced into the countryside by the new socialist regime that modeled itself after China’s Cultural Revolution.  An estimated two to three million were starved to death in extreme communist work camps from 1975 until 1979, or killed outright.

The Khmer Rouge Years

Sek Sokunroth, an NGO worker in Phnom Penh said, “My dad was young, so didn’t remember much [of the fall of Phnom Penh].  He just knew that [his dad] went missing after an explosion.” Sokunroth’s 10-year-old father fled south with his four siblings and mother near Kampong Speu.  When the Khmer Rouge came, the family was separated into different work camps. “My dad and his brother went to a children’s camp but escaped one day to visit [their mom].  They saw each other for just a few moments before the Khmer Rouge saw them.  [Knowing they could be killed] they swam across the river to get away and jumped into a pit filled with dead people [to hide],” said Sokunroth.

Human skulls of the Khmer Rouge's victims are on display at Choeung Ek stupa, former Khmer Rouge killing field in the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Pic: AP.

“There were five kids but three died and two lived— my father and his brother.  My grandma had to watch her children die in front of her.  [They would beg] ‘Mom I need food, I need to eat.’  My grandma would tell them that the whole family would be killed if she took some food.”  Even children and old people were forced to grow crops for the Khmer Rouge but could not eat them and were given meager rice rations instead.  Those caught taking crops could be killed, said Sokunroth.

Vietnamese Occupation

Vietnam invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge from the capital in 1979, but for many Cambodians these years were just as deadly.

Reacxmey Angkor was born “between 1976 and 1977” in Battambang, where her parents met at a work camp.  In 1979 when the Vietnamese came, her family got separated, fled to Malaysia but fortunately reunited there.

In 1983 her family decided to return to Cambodia, thinking the war had officially ended. “The war was not over.  We were being bombed left and right by the Vietnamese. Landmines exploded, villages were gunned and burned down to the ground,” she said. Refugees who fled to Thailand were forced back.  “I spent a few years of childhood on both sides of [Dangrek Mountain]. My parents call it ‘Landmine Garden,” said Reacxmey, now a mental health worker and activist living in NYC.

Those that lived near the Vietnamese border also struggled.  Srun Srorn, a human rights activist in Phnom Penh, was born in the 1980s.  “It was the hardest time of my life and the rest of the family.  Nothing was left from the Khmer Rouge. Twelve members were in the family [and] we never had enough food to eat. My dad told [me] each family received 12m x 200m of land, no matter if you had a big or small family.   All economic flow was controlled by government… They limited the price — we could not bargain,” said Srun.

A Traumatized Nation

Bill Herod worked in Vietnam during the war for an NGO in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  During the 1980s, he made work trips into Cambodia twice a year.  “Cambodia was much, much worse in many respects than Vietnam.  The whole society, the community, family, were torn apart.  This was because of the Khmer Rouge, the American bombing, the civil war, the destruction of the infrastructure — all the professional classes were destroyed.”  Herod, who has lived in Cambodia since 1994, said Cambodians still remember the conflict which continued through the 1980s. “All survivors of that period are permanently scarred from the experience and some of that is passed on to their children and grandchildren,” he said.

Daniel McLaughlin, one of the researchers of a recent study published by the Leitner Center on Cambodia’s mental health system, said Cambodia has some of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world, from 14.2 percent to 33.4 percent in survivors of the Khmer Rouge and following conflict.  The global average is under 0.4 percent. While PTSD has been shown to pass down through generations, McLaughlin said many respondents attributed Cambodia’s alarming mental health statistics to the poor human rights situation and extreme poverty.

However, despite the country’s many problems, many Cambodians accept things as they are.  Herod explained that the relative calm is seen as “tenuous” by survivors of the conflict.

Sokunroth agreed.  His parents worry about his activism, telling him: “You don’t know how hard it is to build a life up from ground zero.  Every second, you enjoy your life.  It’s living from second to second—American bombs, KR bombs.”

But there are some Cambodians who think the U.S. should address its part in the war.  “Many Khmer people who are older than me still want [the U.S.] to look at what they made and created during that time.  Many [were] killed, disabled, [with] mental problems and side affects till now,” said Srun.

While the Obama administration is now working to honor Vietnam veterans, a third of who were drafted, for their part in the controversial war, no U.S. president has officially apologized for the suffering caused to Cambodians from Operation Menu.

About the author
Michelle Tolson has contributed to Inter Press Service (IPS), the Global Post, Women’s Media Center, Women’s International Perspective,  Women’s News Network, the UB Post of Mongol News Group and the Phnom Penh Post.  She has also worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia.