The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was founded in Cambodia by the Salvation Front, a group of Cambodian leftists dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge, after the overthrow of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot's government. Brought about by an invasion from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which routed the Khmer Rouge armies, it had Vietnam and the Soviet Union as its main allies.

Although it enjoyed very limited international recognition and failed to secure United Nations endorsement due to the diplomatic intervention of the People's Republic of China, the United Kingdom, and the United States (among a host of other countries in their wake) on behalf of the ousted Pol Pot regime, the PRK was the de facto government of Cambodia between 1979 and 1993.

International relations

The PRK's quest for legitimacy and the paradoxical Western support for Pol Pot

After the KPRC proclaimed in January 1979 that the new official name of Cambodia was the "People's Republic of Kampuchea" (PRK), the newly-established government notified the United Nations Security Council that it was the sole legitimate government of the Cambodian people. Vietnam was the first country to recognize the new regime, and Phnom Penh immediately restored diplomatic relations with Hanoi. On February 18, Heng Samrin on behalf of the PRK and Pham Van Dong on behalf of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam signed a twenty-five-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.[1]

The Soviet Union, Laos, the Mongolian People's Republic, Cuba, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the People's Republic of the Congo and other Eastern Bloc states, as well as a number of pro-Moscow developing countries, like India, followed Vietnam in recognizing the new regime. By January 1980, twenty-nine countries had recognized the PRK, yet nearly eighty countries continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge.[2]

Despite the previous international outcry and concern surrounding Pol Pot's DK regime's gross human rights violations —an outrage that in its time would not cause any action, beyond the statement of the USSR representative at the UN that the DK government had "established a system of slavery of a new type" with the complicity of China and the USA[3]— it would prove difficult for the PRK/SOC government to gain international recognition beyond the Soviet Bloc sphere.

The Chinese government, who had consistently supported the Khmer Rouge, quickly labelled the PRK as "Vietnam's puppet state" and declared it unacceptable. Thailand and Singapore would be very vocal in their opposition to Vietnamese expansion and influence, the Singaporean representative stating that recognition of the PRK would "violate the UN's non-intervention principle."[4] International forums, like ASEAN meetings and the UN General Assembly would be used to condemn the PRK and, in a Gilbertian reversal of roles, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge was removed from the centre stage of attention and Pol Pot effectively won the support of the US and most of Europe against Vietnam.[5]

Effects of the lack of international recognition

The UN security council, would condemn Vietnam after its invasion for "its acts of aggression against Democratic Kampuchea, ... acts which cause serious damage to the lives and property of the Kampuchean people".[6]

As a result of the vehement campaign against the PRK, the Khmer Rouge retained its UN seat despite its genocidal record. Cambodia would be represented at the UN by Thiounn Prasith, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary's crony since their student days in Paris. The seat of '"Democratic Kampuchea"'s regime lasted for three years at the United Nations after the fall of Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia. Only in 1982 it would be renamed as 'Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea'. The CGDK would hold the seat until 1993, when the SOC gave way to the restoration of the Cambodian monarchy.

China and most Western governments, as well as a number of African, Asian and Latin American states[7] repeatedly backed the Khmer Rouge in the U.N. and voted in favour of DK retaining Cambodia's seat in the organization. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated that "there are amongst the Khmer Rouge some very reasonable people and they will have to take part in a future government in Cambodia".

The government of Sweden, however, had to change its vote in the U.N. and to withdraw support for the Khmer Rouge after a large number of Swedish citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives demanding a policy change towards the Pol Pot's regime. [8] France remained neutral on the issue, claiming that neither side had the right to represent Cambodia at the UN.[9]

In the years that followed, the United States, under the staunch anti-Soviet "rollback" strategy of the Reagan Doctrine would use its Heritage Foundation to support what it perceived as "anti-communist resistance movements" in Soviet-allied nations. According to the Ronald Reagan's era logic, any enemy of the Soviets, no matter how crooked, was deserving US help and support and American response to the invasion of Cambodia by a Soviet-backed Vietnam was dictated by that logic.[10] Cambodia was targeted for rollback and the opposition movements fighting against the PRK received U.S. funding, in much the same manner as the movements that fought the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan —which would eventually give rise to Al Qaida and the Taliban— and in Angola. The result was widespread devastation in the countries that had been targeted for "rollback". The effects of this devastation are still being felt in Cambodia.[11]

To refer to Cambodia as a state, the General Assembly of the United Nations continued using the terms "Democratic Kampuchea" and "Kampuchea" for over a decade. It decided to start using the term "Cambodia" only at the 45th session in 1990, when the transitional phase of the SOC was well on its way.[12]


  1. Pobzeb Vang, Five Principles of Chinese Foreign Policies
  2. Major Political Developments, 1977-81
  3. Pierre Claude Richard & H. Weston Burns, Human rights in the world community: issues and action
  4. Nicholas J. Wheeler, Saving strangers: humanitarian intervention in international society
  5. Elizabeth Becker, Pol Pot remembered - BBC
  6. United Nations Doc. A/13022 11 January 1979
  7. Natalino Ronzitti, Rescuing nationals abroad through military coercion and intervention
  8. John Pilger, Tell me no lies", Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2004.
  9. The diplomats dig in, Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 Oct. 1979
  10. Third World Traveler, US supports Pol Pot
  11. Thomas Bodenheimer & Robert Gould, Rollback: Right-wing Power in U.S. Foreign Policy, South End Press, 1989.
  12. Susanne Alldén & Ramses Amer, The United Nations and Peacekeeping: Lessons Learned from Cambodia and East Timor (A/45/PV.3 par. 8)
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