It’s more than a century and a half since German antiquarian Adolf Bastian identified the Hindu roots of the Angkor civilisation in 1863. John Clamp looks at the history of relations between the European manufacturing powerhouse and the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Relations between Cambodia and Germany have an interesting history, despite the Southeast Asian nation having been firmly in the French colonial sphere of influence.
West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany or BDR, short for Bundesrepublik Deutschland) normalized diplomatic relations with Cambodia in 1967. In those days the Cold War was in full swing, with the Vietnam War starting to heat up in earnest as U.S. president Lyndon Johnson kept upping the ante with the North Vietnamese regime by sending ever larger numbers of troops to the divided nation.
The German Democratic Republic (or DDR, otherwise known as East Germany), sent their first embassy-level diplomatic mission to the Kingdom in 1969, so in a sense Germany’s history of relations with Cambodia is bifurcated, with parallel missions in Phnom Penh from both East and West Germany. The DDR had established contacts with the Sihanouk regime in the 1950s, and in 1960 signed a trade and financial treaty with Cambodia. A consulate followed in 1962.
East Germany’s relations with Cambodia are perhaps more interesting than those of its Western Bloc counterpart. Democratic Kampuchea (DK, as the Khmer Rouge regime called itself) broke off diplomatic relations with the Warsaw Pact nations during its tenure, because its closeness to China meant it followed Beijing’s anti-Comintern line. As photojournalist Al Rockoff recalled of events in 1975, “The East Germans were forced out of their embassy at gunpoint by the Khmer Rouge, sent to the French Embassy and they were very upset at the conditions. They were very, very bitter. I remember how angry the East Germans were because they flew in specifically for the victory, [but] they were not invited.”
Once the Vietnamese invaded, however, the East Germans’ close ties to Hanoi meant that after the USSR, they were one of the most influential allies of the newly minted People’s Republic of Kampuchea, as the nation was dubbed after 1978.
This was because the PRK was almost as isolated under the Vietnamese as it had been under the Khmer Rouge. Memories of the Vietnam War were still fresh in the minds of U.S. policymakers, and the superpower strained every sinew to make life difficult for the Vietnamese occupation forces.
In one of the most cynical geopolitical flip-flops of the twentieth century, the American Central Intelligence Agency began secretly funding and arming the Khmer Rouge, now confined to the PRK’s fringe provinces close to the Thai border. In fact, support for the Khmer Rouge was ‘bipartisan’, with the Chinese also weighing in on the side of the mass-murdering millenarians.
The Khmer Rouge’s deep unpopularity and systematic corruption meant that apart from millions of land mines received from the Americans and Chinese, their half-hearted guerilla operations were never enough to topple the Vietnamese-backed PRK.
Instead, they remained a major irritation to the government and the Vietnamese, just as the KR’s international supporters wished. KR commanders got rich selling vast quantities of the arms they’d been given back to the Royal Thai Army, which had been the original conduit for their supply. They then transported them across Thailand to the northwest, where they sold them on at a huge profit to Burmese rebel groups such as the Karens. They also denuded large swaths of Cambodia’s western provinces of teak and other hardwoods, which they also sold to the corrupt Thai army.
Once the Vietnamese had installed Hun Sen and a slew of other former Khmer Rouge commanders in power in the PRK, the government began pestering the East Germans to help them out with their internal security. Such was the notoriety of the East German’s Stasi state security organisation that the PRK regime believed there was no one better to train their secret police and security forces.
However, they were knocked back every time by the East Germans, who didn’t want to muddy the waters with their Vietnamese allies. The DDR did, though, play host to thousands of Kampuchean students, who traveled to the Eastern Bloc nation to study favored Communist subjects such as engineering and hydrology. “To them [the Kampuchean guest students], the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was paradise,” said Nico Mesterharm, director at the Phnom Penh Meta House, who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain in West Berlin. “In East Germany you had to queue for toilet paper, but at least they had toilet paper.”
German historian Christian Oesterheld has researched PRK/East German relations in the archives of the old Communist state. He said: “Together with other countries of the socialist bloc the GDR was among the first to extend full political recognition to the newly formed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Economic, socio-cultural and educational cooperation resumed swiftly and the GDR provided various avenues of assistance in the PRK. East German jurists, health professionals and technicians worked as advisors in the PRK.”
Diplomats from the newly united Germany didn’t establish an embassy in Phnom Penh until 1993, but Germany had supported the UN’s transitional UNTAC mission in the Kingdom from 1991 to 1993, sending army medics in support of the operation. It was the first foreign deployment of German army units since the Second World War.
Since then, the united Federal Republic of Germany has taken an active role in the reconstruction of normal life in Cambodia. German conservators took the lead in the restoration and preservation works at Angkor Wat itself (the French and others worked elsewhere at the ancient site). German aid has supported the Southeast Asian nation’s War Crimes Tribunal and worked on a range of social and economic issues (see our piece on GIZ, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für InternationaleZusammenarbeit, or German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation, elsewhere in this issue).
These days, the German government focuses through GIZ on three key issues, health and social security, rural development, and governance. In the last 15 years, Germany has granted $320 million in aid to Cambodia in these sectors, with a current annual budget of $23.6 million. German embassy staff also point out that their country provides a fifth of the European Union’s annual budget, and the EU has set aside almost $500 million for aid to Cambodia over the period 2014 to 2020.