Identifying local approaches to peacebuilding in Cambodia is complicated not only by the extraordinary violence of the war but also by the specific targeting of social, cultural and economic relations for eradication. The most violent part of the decades of upheaval from 1965 to 1996 was the infamous Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea) regime from April 1975 to January 1979. This regime implemented an extreme form of collective production, banning nearly all previous social associations in favour of agricultural communes in which discipline was terrifying, food inadequate and violence ubiquitous. During this time alone, around 1.7 million people, out of a population of seven million, died of causes ranging from execution and genocide to overwork and unaddressed famine.
Before this, Cambodia had endured a decade of unprecedented bombing by the United States, making Cambodia one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. This not only killed thousands but also prompted massive internal displacement, further exacerbated after 1975 by the Khmer Rouge's repeated forced relocation of entire villages and towns. The latter included the forced evacuation of three million people from Phnom Penh in 1975, an event which alone ranks as one of the largest population movements in history and is thought to have caused 20,000 deaths.
Following the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, the country was plunged into chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people, who had been forcibly relocated and separated from their families, took to the roads, searching desperately for lost family members, leaving perhaps half the villages in the country deserted. In the chaos, a further famine broke out and around half a million refugees crossed into Thailand, giving rise to a border network of refugee camps that was to remain in place for more than a decade. More than 350,000 of these camps’ inhabitants were repatriated to Cambodia by the United Nations during the peacekeeping mission of 1991–93. Some of these camps were controlled by, and housed, Khmer Rouge and other resistance fighters who continued the war against the Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Throughout these years, local agency was evident in efforts by Cambodian people to cope with the immensity of the events overwhelming them.