30 years later, Glenn Denning reflects on Cambodia’s 1970s ‘Killing Fields’

MPA-DP Director Glenn Denning, who teaches Global Food Systems at SIPA, was recently interviewed by Rice Today. The international magazine is published by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on behalf of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP). IRRI is the world’s leading international rice research and training center. In the article, Professor Denning discusses his work with IRRI in the 1980s, in which he calls an “amazing story more people should know about because it is such a compelling example about how genetic conservation and human capacity are so critical,” according to the magazine. His work involved the follow-up to the genocide of the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia (1975-79). January 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of IRRI’s involvement in this part of agricultural history. Below is an excerpt of the interview.

On to Cambodia
In January 1986, I was invited by Dr. Swaminathan to be part of the team that he was about to send to Cambodia, then known as Kampuchea. The team included [future World Food Prize winner] Gurdev Khush, Don Puckridge author of the uplifting Cambodian story, The Burning of the Rice, and myself. We spent about 10 days there. The visit had been requested by the Kampuchea Ministry of Agriculture at the urging of some NGOs working in Cambodia (including Catholic Relief Services). They were asking IRRI to return some of the seeds lost in the conflict that the Institute had in the genebank. There was much interest to have the rice industry up and running again after a long period of a great disruption to rice farming in the country. Lots of interesting things came out of that first mission as a result.

At one point in the late 1960s, the country had an area of around 2 ½ million hectares of rice. They were exporting small amounts to other parts of the world, particularly Africa. But as the war spilled over, there was a very strong anti-government movement going on in the rural areas. More and more Cambodians fled the countryside and made their way into Phnom Penh where they sought refuge.It’s a remarkable story that I wish more people knew about. It is such a compelling example about how genetic conservation is so critical, particularly for countries like Cambodia that are so reliant on agriculture and, in this case, so reliant on rice production. Cambodia has had quite a checkered history. Leading up to the end of the Vietnam War, the country was actually very productive—not necessarily high-yielding, but Cambodian farmers were generating surpluses of rice, leading up to about 1972-73, as the Vietnam War was coming to an end (and then), spilling over into Cambodia and Laos.

The population of the city increased from about half a million to about 2 million people. At the same time, the area planted to rice decreased, decreased, and decreased. Large areas were affected by landmines as the conflict continued. So, Cambodia went from being a net rice surplus country to being a country that really couldn’t feed itself because everybody, or at least a big proportion of the population, was huddled into the capital city.

[Photo by Glenn Denning | Agricultural research facilities were damaged during the war in Cambodia.]

The Killing Fields begin
This leads us up to 1975. It was sometime in April that the Khmer Rouge actually took over the government. The nominal government disappeared and then we had a period of 3 ½, almost 4 years, of what’s known as “the killing fields”. The Khmer Rouge came in with a very unorthodox and brutal approach to development. Their view was to bring the whole country back to year zero. A way to do that in order to rid the country of all the ills that they saw had affected Cambodia over the years was to remove everybody from Phnom Penh. So, here we are. We have 2 million people essentially crowded into the city. Within a few weeks of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, the population went down to 10,000. Imagine from 2 million to 10,000!

And so where did they send the people? They basically redistributed them all over the country—and not necessarily back to the places where they came from. Part of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge—and a very interesting one—was that they recognized that rice was important to Cambodia. But they wanted to modernize it and their idea of modernization was to irrigate rice somehow, loosely using the rice-growing concept of the old Angkor civilization, i.e., using large grids of irrigation canals. And so now you can sort of conjure up those images of the killing fields of very large numbers of essentially slave laborers out there digging ditches and trying to create irrigation canals.

At that time, the Chinese government supported the Khmer Rouge and so, there were Chinese advisers helping to introduce rice varieties from China to plant in these areas. But with hindsight, the engineering was extremely faulty; very little of that infrastructure ever led to any increase in irrigated rice production. The Khmer Rouge did not allow farmers to plant traditional deepwater rice like they used to around Tonlé Sap Lake. So, over that period, production went right down to less than a million tons—some statistics show even a half million tons—which was way less than needed to feed a population, notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge killed upwards of 2 million people over that period—one of the greatest genocides in human history.

This went on for 3 ½ to 4 years. Finally, in January 1979, the Vietnamese came into Cambodia and installed a new government. They removed the Khmer Rouge partly because this government was launching attacks on Vietnam. Vietnam, of course, was a much more powerful force and, at that time, I think China had also reduced and eventually stopped supporting the Khmer Rouge because Vietnam had had its battles with China on the northern front as well. Anyway, Vietnam comes in and installs a new government led by Hun Sen, who is still the leader to this very day. That was 1979. NGOs began coming into the country, but slowly because for many years the Hun Sen government was considered illegitimate since it had been installed by an occupation force in which the Vietnamese had removed the Khmer Rouge.

Even when IRRI ultimately started working in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge occupied a seat in the UN. So, there was no UN presence. In fact, all through this period during the early days that we worked there, the only governments that recognized the Hun Sen government were the Soviet Union and the Soviet Block countries, including Cuba—and one other country not in that sphere of influence—India.

Okay, so you had all Soviet Block but no Western governments recognizing the government in Cambodia, including Australia. Several years passed and then, finally, in 1986, Dr. Swaminathan received the invitation; we went into the country. Production had crept back up to about 2 million tons. Yields were still very low but there had been land area expansion and some of the security problems had been solved. It wasn’t completely secure. There were still landmines everywhere, which seriously affected agriculture, particularly rice farming. People, as well as animals, were being blown up by stepping on landmines. But anyway, there was a bit of an increase in rice production.

Read the entire interview here.

[Main photo | Professor Denning in Cambodia.]