Famine in Cambodia

Authors: John Li and Sarah Rothstein
World Information Transfer UN Intern, fall 2011

Rise of the Khmer Rouge
As the Vietnam war ended in 1975, a US AID report observed that the country faced famine,  with 75% of its draft animals destroyed by the war, and that rice planting for the next harvest would have to be done “by the hard labor of seriously malnourished people.” Out of this social and economic unrest emerged the Khmer Rouge Regime (the Communist Party of Kampuchea), which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. It strove to create an agriculture-based proletariat class, collectivizing family farms and forcing city dwellers into the country. Thousands of families were displaced and made to live in makeshift villages, where they farmed virgin soil. The goals of this reform were food self-sufficiency, the reconstruction of the production of the vital rice crop, and greater equality of food distribution. However, despite the employment of slave labor in farming and irrigation, flooding was so great that rice yields were insufficient to feed Cambodia’s population. Anticipating war with Vietnam, the government stockpiled rice to trade with China in exchange for munitions, further escalating the food deficit. Austere rations were imposed, with the daily ration of rice per person ranging between 250 and 500 grams per day. Children, the sick, and the elderly were the most directly affected by malnutrition and starvation.

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978, much of the fighting took place in the countryside, destroying Cambodia’s agrarian economy. This war was extremely disastrous to the overall welfare of the country. The Cambodians were already suffering from a lack of food, but the situation worsened with the destruction of the agricultural infrastructure. The ensuing economic turbulence, as well as the continued preaching of the gospel of self-sufficiency by the Khmer Rouge, escalated the food crisis into full-blown famine.

Western media reaction
The onslaught of media attention from Western news sources was immediate. A 1979 issue of Time Magazine featured a host of articles recounting the suffering of the Cambodian people in its historical and economic context. It even went so far as to compare the situation to that of Auschwitz, which is regarded as the international symbol of genocide and other such heinous human rights abuses. This parallel has been commonly drawn by the media and official institutions. Furthermore, the cover issue did not fail to acknowledge the obstacles posed by bureaucratic red tape in sending aid to Cambodia. By calling attention to the immediacy of this issue and the relative slowness of the response of the major world powers, media attention mobilized many private individuals and institutions as well as NGOs to aid Cambodia.

NGO Reaction
There was a strong NGO reaction towards the suffering in Cambodia. Most NGOs wanted to aid in the relief of the country. The international Red Cross had supplied emergency rations to the refugees. Also in 1975, the NGO Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) established its first large-scale medical program during the famine, providing medical care for waves of Cambodians seeking sanctuary from Pol Pot’s rule. MSF has been in the country and has continued to provide medical support. Since Cambodia’s change of power, there has been a strong emphasis on aid to reinvigorate the country after decades of warfare. With regard to the human rights abuse issues intertwined with the larger food security question, Amnesty International has been actively persecuting Khmer Rouge officials charged with committing war crimes, and calling for an end to impunity.


    Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program
    The CIA World Factbook
    Timeline – Doctors Without Borders
    Amnesty International
    “Cambodia: And Now the Horror of Famine.” Time Magazine 22 Oct. 1979. Web.
    “World: Racing to Save the Hungry.” Time Magazine 12 Nov. 1979. Web.