I am glad to announce a new part of the show, a series of video lectures/essays on Youtube. The first will be a 20ish minute overview of Cambodian history, tailored to visualise the history rather than just rely on audio. That will be the ‘base’ of what will be different essays about different topics that I feel are often asked about or thought about. I will rely on what I have already produced in large part for the ‘Askhistorians’ Subreddit, so questions like ‘Did the Khmer Rouge kill everyone with glasses?’ or ‘Is the term genocide controversial in its application to Cambodia?’, and perhaps a big breakdown of parts of media produced about the Khmer Rouge, like The Killing Fields.
I’m really excited about this as it gives me an opportunity to reach a new audience, with new/different content. This also presents a chance for those that are eagerly awaiting the podcast series to get to the period around the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, a chance to ask questions about or get a look at that history before the show (eventually) gets there.
While it will be less detailed than the ‘deep dive’ and chronologically developing podcast series, which is basically turning into a 25 hour audiobook, utilising a new way of making content like this allows me to tailor short, specific essays that may not fit neatly into a) the timeline of the podcast, or b) the medium of audio.
The podcast episodes that are already on youtube, if you have ever watched one, definitely have the ‘visual’ aspect as a less important focus… more or less just images that I try to make vaguely relate to what is being said. They aren’t really designed to be ‘watched’ per se. But this new series will be, and I am having fun with new video editing software that isn’t a total pain in the ass and going through my catalogue of images and movies to try and fit in some engaging stuff.
The podcast will still very much remain the focus, but I hope that the two projects can work hand in hand for those that are interested in this topic. Because of the relative time it takes to produce the videos I hope this will allow for subscribers / listeners to be able to start an easy dialogue and perhaps ask me anything episodes or patreon videos can be something that we look at in the future.
Keep a look out for this as I hope to get the first episode up and running in the next couple of weeks.
A recent review left on Itunes gave me a lot to think about today when I saw it. While it was not outright negative (3/5 stars), even generally praising of the show, the reviewer did make a point of saying that the show meandered into territory outside of the scope of initial objectives and that I had 'bitten off more than I could chew' in certain areas that weren't directly related to Cambodian history.
I tend to agree with this person.
I initially thought the show would be ten, 45 minute episodes. A manageable task for someone studying full time and working part time. Two years later, having produced eight standard episodes totalling more than 10 hours of content, without having reached the second world war, I think somewhere the show may have stumbled into unfamiliar territory.
This is one problem of not having an editor, nor a deadline. But it is a problem for those that are listening to the show that may already have a strong grasp on world history, and themes, and are more looking for a series dedicated to just the Khmer Rouge or Cambodia. The problem that I have encountered is that producing a show like this, without really knowing who the audience is can produce issues when tailoring the content of the series for what could be an extremely wide audience.
I think this problem became pronounced when introducing colonialism and these kinds of themes into the show. Explaining why europeans conquered much of the world in the 'age of discovery' relies on many other pieces of assumed knowledge, as does why the french revolution happened when it did, or why.
Cambodian history has been influenced so much by the 'great forces of modern history'; colonialism, european empire, de-colonisation, globalisation, the cold war, nationalism, communism, asian history and world history. It is so hard to explain this story without referencing these ideas, and when they come up, knowing how much to explain them can be a difficult task. One that I am still learning to get better at.
I hope that this listener keeps listening to the show, and enjoys the parts of it that they find interesting. As I've said what I feel like must be at least a few other times in this blog, the show has become a way for me to explain everything that I can to the 'me' in my late teens who wanted to know about why the Khmer Rouge revolution happened. I want people to be able to listen to this show, know what 'enlightenment values' are, or what the 'reign of terror' was or how nationalism was born. I want them to know what the proletariat is. I want them to be able to pick up a book by David Chandler or Philip Short and have that experience of reading a true historian's explanation be enriched because they were aware of the basics that these authors tend to take for granted in what can be a very general audience. Not have to skip over a sentence only half aware of what was being referenced.
However, I feel I can begin to limit the topics that were beginning to creep into the show. I disagree with the reviewer in their opinion that a one hour explanation of the origins of communism was unnecessary. Knowing what went wrong in Cambodia and for other communist experiments is really only possible with reference to the theories that these experiments were based upon. BUT, as I looked over the notes that I had begun preparing for the next episode of the show, 'Part Two' of this exploration, that would have looked at the Soviet Union and Europe between the wars, well... it did strike me as biting off more than I can chew. While we still need to know about how 'revolutions', particularly communist ones, aim for one thing and turn out as another, it certainly can be less intricately explained and I want to shift the focus back upon Indochina and spend more time tracing how these ideas were imported and acted upon by someone much closer to this narrative, the Viet Minh.
So, if the person that left that review ever reads this, I want you to know that I value the fact that you listened to the show intently enough to be able to form such a reasonable reaction to it, and I hope you know that I intend to take your review as intended, constructive criticism. Thank you.
Episode Seven, which felt like it took awhile but fell fairly neatly into that ideal three-month schedule, is out on podcast providers and Youtube. It’s another long one, I think it was about 20,000 words – which I stayed up one night to record (quite hard to avoid noise when you are recording in your home). Eagle-eared listeners might pick up on some birds here or there, or perhaps a couple of slightly slurred words as 3am approached and the one or two whiskeys I’d had to keep myself perky took effect.
But I am happy with the result, happy with the content and glad to have got this one done considering the busy period it was in my life.
I’ve tried to keep up the momentum and begun work on the new episode already. As I discussed in the intro of the latest release, we need to broaden the scope way back and head to Europe again to discuss the ideological birth of Marxism and perhaps the actual start of the Cold War in the wake of WWI. This episode will need to get our vocabulary of terms up to scratch with the slightly complex ideas of Marx and Engels… Proletariat, Bourgeoisie, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks… fun stuff. We need to know how these ‘ideas’ develop for a variety of reasons and I believe the episode will not feature much from Cambodia, perhaps just some of the echoes we can identify between some aspects of soviet ‘terror’ and eventual Khmer Rouge actions, much like we did with the French Revolution.
At the moment it’s looking as though it will cover the industrial revolution all the way up to the beginnings of World War Two, which will fill in the picture that was left dark in Episode Seven quite nicely. Then we will be exploring WWII in Southeast Asia, the end of this conflict, the bipolar world and the ‘proper’ Cold War beginnings – as well as the start of independence movements in Indochina. That will be Episode Nine and soon enough we will get to the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Civil War and the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, hopefully by the end of 2020 (crikey!)
At the end of this year, which basically brings us to the two-year anniversary of the show, I just wanted to thank everyone for listening and engaging with the show. It makes me really proud to produce something that more and more people seem to be connecting with, and if I had shown some of the numbers that I am getting for the show to me from two years ago, I would have been amazed.
I would also like to particularly thank the people that have taken the time to review the show on itunes or wherever they might listen to it. I think the US itunes store has more than 37 ratings and a solid amount of written reviews, a recent one was quite touching. It was from a 33-year-old Khmer person who had immigrated to the US following the end of the Khmer Rouge period, born in a refugee camp. Their parents did not speak much about it but had experienced losses like most Cambodians, including family members being taken away and killed. They said that the show was a way for them to learn about their culture and heritage... something they barely knew anything about. This isn't the first time someone has contacted me with this kind of comment and this really makes me proud to have tried to ‘do something’, however basic, with some of the time and energy I’ve spent learning about this period of history and it makes the energy I put into making the show really feel worthwhile.
Another person spoke about how the podcast had been a companion for them on a recent trip to Cambodia. This was another great example for me because I really hope that the show can act as a kind of contextualisation for what a lot of people see and do in Cambodia.. I know that many people don’t have time to read a book and many movies and documentaries don’t quite tell the whole story. So I hope the podcast can act as a kind of intermediary for some people who visit the country, and that makes me really proud too.
Finally, I’d like to extend a very special thank you to two people who contributed financially to the show in the last year: Will Swope and Bunra Long. Together the amount they gave has covered the cost of the microphone that I purchased two years ago, and probably one or two of the books that I’ve bought to help research the show. I appreciate very much that not everyone is in the position to be able to spare money for a show that they can access for free, and I did not set up this show for financial gain. But the show does cost money to produce and keep on the internet/podcast hosting websites.
For full transparency I will give a breakdown of the costs:
15 AUD per month for an Audioboom subscription which posts the show to numerous providers including Spotify.
18 AUD per month for website hosting with Weebly
40 AUD for the domain name annually
So, around 450 AUD per year (that's about 300 US for those who may be interested)
As I said, this project has not been set up for financial gain. I pay to keep it running. As the support page says, if you’d like to donate to a Cambodian charity like the Cambodian Children’s Fund, I would recommend you do so. But for those in the position to help out with the costs of running the show, if you would like to do so, it does make a big difference and makes the show a sustainable financial prospect for me. So, thank you to Bunra Long and Will Swope once again for doing that, it means a lot.
So, I guess that is about it. If you are reading this prior to December 31st, have a good new year. I will have a new episode up hopefully not too far down the track.
I also have some potentially exciting news regarding an interview with a historian whose work I greatly admire and have mentioned on the show so far… so keep a look out for that too
All the best,
Hello everyone, I've had a few messages lately about when the next episode is coming out (which honestly still kind of amazes me that the audience has grown to a point where that comes up semi-regularly!) so I thought I'd check in here and get some stuff out.
First of all, episode seven (not including the interviews) should be out by the end of this month. I work weekdays but every now and again I have a day off so I can work on the script, and there will be enough weekends coming up to be able to record. Saturday the 30th, or December 1st I'd say. The script is coming along nicely I'm just writing the section on rural Cambodian life based on May Ebihara's PHD. There will be no singing in this one, but we will be establishing key 'Cambodian' issues (the warm/moist air of the hurricane) from the start of the French Protectorate up until the beginnings of WWII. So, French Protectorate, Rural Cambodian life and the beginnings of Nationalism.
I'm excited about this one I think it is going to be a belter.
Now, while I was sat procrastinating... I also figured I'd quickly sketch out what the future of the show might look like... 'Phase two and three' or whatever Marvel does. Here is a very rough idea of when and what to expect going forward:
•E7 – French Indochina until 1939 (nov 19)
•E8 – the long beginnings of the cold war, the state of the world into and after 1945. (Feb 20)
•E9 – independence movements in Vietnam and Cambodia. (April 20)
•E10 – The Vietnam War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. (July 20)
•E11 – The Cambodian Civil War. (September 20)
•E12 – Year Zero (December 20)
•E13 – 1975-1976, goals, constitutions, wiping the slate clean.
•E14 – The Killing Fields
•E15 – The security state, S-21 and the network of prisons
•E16 – Enemies
•E17 – Eating your own Children
•E18 – The state crumbles
•E19 – Aftermath
•E20 – Realpolitik, Reconciliation and elusive justice.
So, I dunno. 2021? Jesus. Well let's hope.
Also, a reminder that you can follow the show on Twitter (please do I've got so few people on there its embarrassing) https://twitter.com/KhmerUtopia
Alright. The new episode is coming together nicely, just thought I would start updating the blog with this kind of content to assure people the show is progressing. I’d say, just in regards to my own circumstances, I am going to perhaps start a teaching role in a high school toward the end of this year and I am already worrying about the impact that doing a masters/being a full-time teacher might have on the podcast… but we will come to that when we come to that!
Anyway, for now I think I have sketched out the next episode pretty well. We are going to start just with the general low-down on what happened right after the French protectorate was established. What did this period look like? What happened? What were the French hoping to get out of this arrangement? Etc.
Then we are finally going to move into the 20th century proper. The flaws in some elements of French control, as well as the tightening of this control – from ‘protectorate’ to ‘colony’. Most texts speak about the period from 1916-1925 as one of basic peace and conformity to the colonial presence in Cambodia (although other events in Southeast Asia will differ) but I will take that opportunity in this historical ‘lull’ to settle down for a moment and just talk about Cambodian culture, particularly life in the rural areas. I will use May Ebihara’s fantastic study ‘Svay: a Khmer village in Cambodia’ to base this information on (yes I know she wrote it in the 60s but there was not much change between the 20’s and 60’s). This will give us a much needed look at the actual ‘people’ of Cambodia again as they have been left out of most texts from antiquity onward and the show has mostly detailed the role of kings and ‘big history’. Another important aspect of talking about this element of Cambodia is the eventual role of the ‘peasantry’ or at least an idealised view of this ‘rural’ lifestyle that will become a hugely important facet of Khmer Rouge ideology. The distinction between ‘old people’ and ‘new people’ after 1975 is fundamental to a study of the Khmer Rouge revolution, and being able to distinguish between the basics of these two groups beyond just ‘those who lived in the city and those who lived in the country’ is something I really want people to be able to get out of the show. The ‘agrarian’ aspect of the Khmer Rouge revolution is often referenced, but I feel that an actual understanding of what ‘agrarian’ life in Cambodia looked like is less understood and not often explained.
Once the sojourn in the village is over we will return to the city and the big themes once again. Nationalism is back and the metaphor for burning coal will be back too. The first flames of nationalism in Cambodia will be discussed as the 1930s approach the second world war – which is where this episode will end. Communism will be mentioned ever so briefly as the Vietnamese workers party extends to the ‘Indochinese’ one, but a full discussion of communism, and the long beginnings of the Cold War will be explained in the next episode when we talk about WWII, independence movements across Southeast Asia and how the post-second world war period will be the framework for the rest of the series.
I will make use of the other metaphor I’ve brought up a couple of times ‘the hurricane’. This episode will very much be about the ‘warm, moist air systems’ coming from Cambodia rather than the ‘cold, dry air’ coming from foreign lands and big historical themes. The next episode, about the cold war – that will be (pardon the pun) much more focused on these ‘cold winds’.
Look out for this one probably in November.
And if you are here reading this, first of all thank you for being interested enough to come all the way here and have a read – second, if you’ve come this far why not leave a review on itunes or castbox or stitcher? They really make my day. Also if you’ve got twitter why don’t you pop a follow there as well – I don’t post often but you’ll stay in the loop and sometimes I drop some fun examples of sources I’ve collected over the years.
Thanks for getting involved and listening to the show,
all the best
The news that broke after the publication of an article found here https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/mahendraparvata-an-early-angkorperiod-capital-defined-through-airborne-laser-scanning-at-phnom-kulen/CAC3E93D6046CC27D862C1E333FD0713/core-reader detailed the pre-Angkorean city of Mahendraparvata. This wasn’t exactly ‘new news’, and the city had been known about and studied for decades – but the sheer extent of the city has now been uncovered by teams on the ground and in the air utilising LIDAR, the technique I explained in the episodes about Angkor.
What I wanted to bring up in regards to the podcast and this discovery is just to reiterate that my study of Cambodia had always been – basically up until the point that I decided to produce the podcast – study of modern history and the Khmer Rouge. My inclusion of pre-modern history into the show is done at an extremely basic level, as I state a few times through out ‘we are skipping ahead hundreds of years here’. Naturally I am giving this part of the picture because it does eventually relate to Cambodia’s position in the 20th century – but not to the extent that the upmost detail was required when telling this part of the story.
As I have begun to realise, the show is transforming into a ‘jumping off point’. It is the content that I wish that I had had before I began studying Cambodia. A ‘101’, a basis for reading more complex texts. Upon finishing the series I expect someone to have quite a detailed knowledge of the history, particularly more than just the basic ideas of ‘Pol Pot = Hitler’ or ‘the Khmer Rouge killed everyone with glasses’ that a very basic glance at this topic might produce. The early episodes have relied heavily on sources like ‘A History of Cambodia’, but to my mind would more or less give someone with little-to-no experience studying Cambodia a ‘briefing’ before reading that text. I’m not sure how everyone else feels about their attention spans these days but I certainly feel that constant exposure to social media, mobile content or just the internet in general has produced a serious inability to really be able to just sit down and read a long, complex non-fiction text without having to stop every few minutes and say ‘wait… what did I just read??’
The podcast, particularly the early episodes (1-7 will probably make up the first third of the series) are intended to set the stage for the events of modern history, not so much to provide the most up to date, precise and detailed historical study of these periods. The story I am telling is akin to a tragedy, as I said in episode two ‘the path from Angkor Wat to Choeung Ek’. So basic elements like Angkor’s transition to Phnom Penh or the dominance of Cambodia by Siam and Vietnam need to be explained – but perhaps not so much the finer details of the archaeology involved. Bringing me to the recent discoveries at Mahendraparvata.
I recently saw a thread on twitter, a historian outlining problems she had found within an article about the decline of Angkor. I agreed with the points she made and the podcast itself was aligned with those points – but I worried that other general statements I made might not stand up the highest historical scrutiny. As I said I am simply not that familiar with the study of medieval/ancient Cambodia – the only piece of writing I’ve produced that I would say was vaguely up to an ‘upper’ academic standard was my thesis about Buddhist influence on Khmer Rouge policies compared to those in Myanmar in the recent attacks on the Rohingya population. I am aware of the historical debates about the Khmer Rouge – not the ones about Angkorean archaeology, at least not the finer details. Something like the discovery of Mahendraparvata, a city I think I mentioned just once in the show, was not in my focus when I was researching those episodes. The importance of this city is huge if I am reading this article correctly and I just wanted to address some of the reasons that it did not figure into my content about this era.
If I was to quote one of the biggest influences on the show, Dan Carlin, I would also claim that I am not a historian. Just a fan of history. And I apologise for any lack of academic rigour that those more familiar with Cambodia’s older periods might find within my own, perhaps ‘shallow’ reading for the content about these eras in the show.
I was 20 when I visited Angkor for the first time. I knew nothing about Cambodia pre-1960. I just hope that I can provide someone who is in a similar circumstance a more detailed knowledge than I possessed at the same time.
Ah, episode seven ‘The Dawn of French Indochina’, is finally out. It took around three months to research, produce the script and then record, edit and release. This episode produced my first full on panic attack as the entire two-hour recording was corrupted by Audacity at a late stage in editing and I was forced to re-record the entire episode. That was not fun.
But you live and learn!
On that note.. two hours? That was a long one. The longest yet – and I hope that I can start getting the episode length back down a little. That may have been why this episode took so long, although I usually take about 2-3 months… and this one was double the size. I dunno, having a long section about the French revolution, I felt that I couldn’t release that as its own episode, because there are other podcasts and people much more qualified to speak about that part of history, but I did need it in this story too.. it couldn’t be skipped, and I couldn’t release it by itself. So there you go – two hour episode.
I am happy with how it turned out, but I am more excited that the content of the series is finally turning toward the 20th century and the history that I am more familiar with. Having to research the history of ancient Cambodia and the middle-ages, as well as Vietnamese, French and European history – all of that falls outside of my general area of comfort which is squared much more on the years leading up to and into the revolution in Cambodia. But we are almost there now. Another reason which led me to start the episode with the story of Pol Pot in Prek Sbau. I wanted listeners to get a touch of actual ‘Khmer Rouge’ content in the series again, as I felt that it had been slightly out of sight for the last few episodes.
In the days and weeks after I release an episode I usually get to work on the youtube version, and I like to take a little break as well. Between a full time job, a girl friend and 5 cats, my life has actually become busy and I’ve finally felt like I have a fraction of the responsibilities and commitments of a full on adult human being.
That being said – I’ve also spent all day just trying to get a social media presence together for the podcast. I deleted my personal facebook account about a year ago and I do not really like that platform… or any of the others if I am being honest. But after seeing how other shows self-promote and how mine basically hinges on people googling ‘khmer rouge genocide podcast’ then I figured maybe I should push the show out there a little bit more.
I have a twitter now. It is https://twitter.com/KhmerUtopia and if you have twitter please follow the show. We are looking at a big fat goose egg on the followers front right now and I am not savy enough to be able to get that up up up by myself.
Also, if you are reading this, and you do like the show, please leave a review on itunes or wherever you might listen to the show. It really makes me happy to read them and know that the time and effort I put into creating this podcast is being turned into enjoyment for other people, I love doing it but I also love hearing people engage with it. Why not tweet about the show if you can? Or share it on social media or reddit if you have the time. I would really appreciate it.
Thanks for listening everyone, should be starting work on the next episode really soon.
If you read the previous post about the discussion I had with David Chandler, recorded in November 2018 but not released until now, you might have a slight idea to why the episode itself sounds a little disjointed. I went there expecting to have a 45 minute ‘interview’, which turned into an almost two hour ‘chat’, where I was able to ask him about all the little things that I cared about but would not really be suitable for an audience who basically might not have a clue about what we were talking about. The 'interview part' started half-way though the chat, so some stuff had to be repeated, other stuff had to get put back... I think the final edit flows 'ok' though.
I had been reading and writing and thinking only about Khmer Rouge for the last year or so because of my thesis and to be able to just … ‘shoot the shit’ or ‘talk shop’ with someone that not only knew what I was talking about but more or less taught me how to think about what I was talking about was … well it was an honour and something of a redemptive moment for me as I had walked away from studying while David was my undergrad thesis advisor when I was 21.
As for the content of the interview itself… well it had to be chopped and swapped around a little to make up for the fact that my recording just kind of started mid-way through a discussion of Michael Vickery. I didn’t end up including this in the final cut, as well as some other comments about other scholars, because I wasn’t exactly expecting them to be part of the original ‘talking points’, nor did it strike me as particularly interesting for those who aren’t aware of the general ‘history wars’ that went on between some of the historians who wrote about Cambodia/DK.
While this part of the chat included a few other historians outside of the recorded interview, it was fascinating to hear how these fractures occurred in this community.
What I did include were the aspects of these fractures that related to the Chams and Vietnamese. As the ECCC was so close to handing down their verdict on the genocide of these groups I thought that David's ideas on the matter - even if it meant outwardly dismissing other scholar's claims - should stay in the final cut, as it was what we had predominantly agreed to talking about in correspondence before the interview and to what David had been recently writing.
Having recently finished my thesis comparing the treatment of the Chams to that of the Rohingya in Myanmar it was a little deflating to hear that he thought the Muslim minority in Cambodia were not subjected to 'genocide' (as defined in the UN definition), but I had come around to this opinion to a large extent toward the end of my own study. I think the argument can be made that they were swept away in trucks and murdered, in large groups as well, contrary to what David claimed in the interview. Tens of thousands died, but again -- roughly in similar proportions to the wider Khmer population.
Anyway, I had a great time talking with David and I hope I can get some other high profile historians outside of the Chandler family to come on the podcast in the future.
Sorry it took me so long to release the episode as well…
I gave an answer to a similar question not long ago that was more directed at the generalities and background of ‘Cambodia VS Vietnam’, that can be found here. As for this question, I think it could be more easily answered if it is broken into two sections:
Why did Vietnam invade Cambodia?
To what extent was this due to Human Rights violations?
As the other answer I linked gives a general overview of the long history of antagonism between the Khmer and Vietnamese, I will skip that part and simply refer to the two groups as ‘hereditary enemies’, with the Khmer playing the more ‘inferior’ role in this often violent dynamic. So, why did the Vietnamese invade Cambodia in late 1978? Well the most straightforward explanation is that it was in retaliation to Khmer Rouge incursions into Vietnam. Naturally the next question is, well... ‘why where the Khmer Rouge doing that?’ That is where the story becomes a little less easy to explain. Both the Cambodians and the Vietnamese achieved communist victories within weeks of each other in 1975. Soon after these governments stopped celebrating their respective victories and patting their communist ally’s backs it became clear that there would be an uneasy relationship between the two. Disputes over land and sea borders were almost immediately brought up, as were minor skirmishes between each army. These skirmishes and border raids – often involving the slaughter of civilians as Khmer Rouge troops travelled into Vietnamese territory – were not always unprovoked, and the case could be made from the viewpoint of the Khmer that the Vietnamese were looking at claiming more Cambodian land (as they had done since the middle ages).
In 1977 these clashes became more pronounced and it seemed as though the two former communist allies were falling into a war that both would perhaps had rather avoided. Journalist Philip Short explains this situation; ‘ill-founded or not, Cambodian fears were real. After two years in which both sides had tried to avoid a collision – the Cambodians because they wanted time to make their regime stronger, the Vietnamese because they expected to achieve their ends by political means – all their ancient hatreds abruptly reignited … the only choice in Pol Pot’s view, was what Douglas Pike termed the ‘bristly dog gambit’.
This metaphor is an attempt to explain why the Khmer Rouge, seemingly not at all equipped for this kind of conflict, were pursuing this policy. This apparently irrational behaviour could be seen in the same way that a small dog, surrounded by bigger, stronger dogs, can bristle and assume an aggressive posture and appear so fearfully troublesome, so indifferent to consequences, as to convince others to leave well alone. He would go on to say that ‘the gambit may not work, but it holds as much promise to the Cambodians as any other.’
Hanoi’s response to these incursions included bombing raids on Cambodian border positions and attempts at political negotiations. On the wider international-political side of things, we need to talk about who is on what team in this scenario in this point in time. For Cambodia, this was relatively straightforward: the CPK relied on China, and Beijing saw them as a barrier to the spread of Vietnamese power (read as Vietnamese/Soviet power). Vietnam had angered its former benefactor in China by siding with Moscow in the greater Sino-Soviet split, and was not in a particularly good position to ask for China to reel in the Khmer Rouge.
In late 1977 Vietnam retaliations involved 50,000 troops being sent onto Cambodian soil, something that the CPK could claim fully justified their fears that the Vietnamese had expansionist ideas for Indochina. These forces were eventually recalled, but the conflict was now fully out in the open. The CPK spent the next year turning further in on itself with hundreds of thousands purged, particularly in the Eastern Zones that bordered Vietnam. Former cadre sent to prisons such as S-21 were forced to confess their plans of subterfuge and collusion with the Vietnamese under torture, only reinforcing Pol Pot’s notions that there was a plot to overthrow him and it would come from the East.
Meanwhile, Vietnam began to be seen by China as fully committing to the Soviet bloc, and seen as the gateway for the potential of an Indochinese federation that was loyal to the Soviet’s rather than China; naturally something they would be increasingly weary of. The Vietnamese, unable to simply do nothing in the face of Khmer aggression (even calls for genocide of the Vietnamese) began actively cultivating a Khmer resistance to the CPK (thousands of Khmer Rouge cadre fled to Vietnam in the wake of purges initiated by Pol Pot) and they began planning their invasion of Cambodia to topple the regime and implant one that was friendly to Hanoi. This occurred on Christmas Day, 1978.
This is the bit where it can come down to what you think about what happened. How much of the Vietnamese invasion that I just talked about can be attributed to a concern about human rights violations?
Did the Vietnamese perform a humanitarian intervention in Democratic Kampuchea?
That depends on your point of view and I cannot give a definitive answer.
My opinion on the matter is that no, it was not. Human Rights violations were not a primary concern for Hanoi in the invasion of Cambodia, and certainly not the reason that the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia for a subsequent decade following the ousting of the CPK.
What this hinges on, and why I take this point of view, is that it certainly had the effect of a humanitarian intervention. But this was not the motivation.
When testifying for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Stephen Morris saw this as the outcome - echoing other historians such as Chandler and Short. Morris went further however, and basing this on research in Soviet archives, claimed that the Vietnamese did intend to create an Indochina Federation that was a unified communist bloc. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but it does add to the claims that the Vietnamese did not set out to simply help the people of Cambodia. They, like any country, we’re self interested in their invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia.
I am not saying this was Vietnamese aggression, the case can certainly be made that it was self-defence, but how much it can be called a humanitarian intervention is not settled. Was the US invasion of Iraq that removed a terrible dictator a humanitarian intervention? Could be apples and oranges there but again the argument can be made that it had that effect, considering how terrible the respective leaders of Iraq and Democratic Kampuchea were.
For example, Gary Clintworth’s ‘Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia in International Law’, argues the case that it can and should be considered as such. Others are less convinced of the altruistic intent of the invasion. For instance, Philip Short in ‘Pol Pot’ writes:
“To the overwhelming majority of Cambodians in January 1979, the Vietnamese appeared as saviours. Hereditary enemies or not, Khmer Rouge rule had been so unspeakably awful that anything else had to be better. Vietnamese propagandists exploited this to the full. Vietnam’s army, they claimed, had entered Cambodia not to occupy it but to deliver the population from enslavement by a fascist, tyrannical regime which enforced genocidal policies through massacres and starvation. That was of course untrue. The Vietnamese leaders had not been bothered in the least by Khmer Rouge atrocities until they decided that Pol Pot’s regime was a threat to their own national interests.”
This is emphasised by the actions of the Vietnamese in the spring of 1979 when Phnom Penh was systematically looted and aid which was eventually delivered to the Cambodians by international organisations was also taken, in part, by Vietnam.
This answer should not be misconstrued as a defence of the Khmer Rouge, nor a condemnation of the Vietnamese. I am thankful and glad that the invasion occurred, as were the millions that were able to survive the torment and nightmarish conditions of Democratic Kampuchea.
That being said, I think it is wise to assume a level of political realism in regard to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that incorporates their national interest being the first and foremost goal.