A Flag With A Tortured Past
By Siegfried Ehrmann
When Cambodia's civil war ended in 1975, the lights were turned off: the country changed its name to Democratic Kampuchea, and for almost four years there was very little information of what was going on inside. When the light came back, more than 1.8 million people were dead. The organization responsible was a group of Stone Age communists known as the Khmer Rouge. The man behind this ludicrous scheme turned out to be a man named Saloth Sar, who was to become known as Pol Pot or Brother Number One.
Most of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime have been revealed over the years - historians have analyzed the political systems, the key players and their reasons; some victims have reported their stories in books, and some will have a chance to do so at the forthcoming trial; and for a broader audience the movie The Killing Fields portrayed the time after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, and then enslaved the entire country and its people.
Even now, however, very little is known about the flag that represented the country during those fateful years.
Democratic Kampuchea and its Flag
On January 5, 1976, roughly nine months after the country was conquered by the Khmer Rouge, the government of Democratic Kampuchea promulgated a new constitution and declared in Chapter Eleven:
The National Flag
The design and significance of the Kampuchean national flag are as follows:
The background is red, with a yellow three-towered temple in the middle.
The yellow temple symbolises the national traditions of the Kampuchean people, who are defending and building the country to make it ever more prosperous.
With that declaration in hand the United Nations in New York on April 6, 1976 accepted the change, and Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea.
That same year historian David P. Chandler mentioned in his article "The Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia): The Semantics of Revolutionary Change" that "the new flag closely resembled the flag of the so-called Khmer Viet Minh movement of the early 1950s".
Although the Khmer version of the constitution contains without any doubt the word "temple", it has also been reported that a French language version of the new constitution was supposedly handed out by the Pol Pot government in which the term "temple" was replaced by the word "monument", however, a copy of the document supporting that version has not been found.
After the defeat of the Pol Pot regime in 1979, Cambodia went through major political turmoil, with numerous political parties, government coalitions, and foreign powers struggling for dominance, and some flag changes went along with it. The new government -- de facto arranged by Vietnam and generally opposed by most other countries -- never made it to the UN. As a precedent it was not to be accepted for fear of future repetition by others countries. "The Vietnamese had violated one of the few rules that virtually all the states accepted: it was fine to murder your own people, as the Khmer Rouge had done... but crossing a border and overthrowing your neighbor's government? You just didn't do that." (Cambodia expert Bruce Sharp)
In practice, this meant that the Khmer Rouge effectively remained the official government. In his 1999 article Cambodia's Twisted Path to Justice historian Ben Kiernan writes that "from 1979 to 1982 the Khmer Rouge continued to hold Cambodia's seat alone, using the name 'Democratic Kampuchea.' Then two smaller non-communist parties joined them in a 'Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea' -- in fact neither a real coalition, nor a government, nor democratic, nor in Cambodia!"
And so, at the United Nations in New York, the flag of Democratic Kampuchea kept flying.
It was not until the early 1990s that the impasse came to an end. Representing the coalition opposed to the Vietnamese-installed regime, Norodom Sihanouk sought to downplay the significance of the Khmer Rouge faction with a declaration on February 3, 1990:
- 3 February 1990 -
As from today, Democratic Kampuchea, a full-fledged member of the United Nations is called "Kampuchea" in Khmer, "Cambodge" in French and "Cambodia" in English, and no longer "Democratic Kampuchea."
The national flag of Cambodia is no longer the red flag of Pol Pot - Khmer Rouge, but the centuries-old traditional flag of the Cambodian nation. Its drawing in miniature is as follows:
(Silhouette of Angkor War in front view, the 3 towers of which are visible. The silhouette is in white and not in yellow.)
Henceforth, the national anthem of Cambodia (Kampuchea-Cambodge) is the old anthem of our Fatherland: the NOKOREACH (lyrics: the old 2nd verse only.)
My official title, as legal Head of the Cambodian State, recognized as such by the United Nations, is "President of Cambodia."
The Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) becomes henceforth "National Government of Cambodia (NGC).
The regime of Cambodia is the same as that of the 5th Frech Republic (political, economic and social regime, press, etc.).
It was not until October 1991 that the peace agreement was formally accepted by all sides. While neither the UN nor their official flag contractor were able to provide any records as to the exact time frame the flag of Democratic Kampuchea was actually in use at the UN, Kiernan's article states that "the Khmer Rouge flag flew over New York until 1992."
In Search of a flag
During a recent visit to the War Museum in Siem Reap the author noticed some small red and yellow flags with a stylized Angkor Wat design that reminded him of the Khmer Rouge, and a museum guide volunteered that they were surely from that period, without providing any additional information.
However, a quick search on the internet revealed various flag depictions but no images of an original Democratic Kampuchea flag. (Various examples can be seen at flagspot.net, or Wikipedia, or the BBC.)
Some of the internet flags feature either some rendition of "a yellow temple with three towers on a red background" with little or no resemblance of Angkor Wat, or show a flag in either red/black or red/blue with a so called white crutch cross - the latter version belonging to the Mouvement National (Monatio), a small obscure political faction that enthusiastically welcomed the Khmer Rouge upon their arrival in Phnom Penh (the Monatio flag can be seen here in a photo by Christoph Maria Fröhder), but were quickly eliminated in the process.
Because the commonly featured yellow temple internet flags are graphically created postmortem renditions and not a document, a major research project was started to find a photo of the actual flag of Democratic Kampuchea.
Very few foreign journalists were invited by the Khmer Rouge regime, and not too many photos have survived that period, except for the many thousands that were taken at the S-21 Toul Sleng detention center.
Occasionally black/white photos would surface that feature a red flag, but due to the bad quality of the image it could not be determined if it contained the Angkor Wat design, if it had a hammer and sickle on it, or if it was simply just that, a red flag.
The first breakthrough came with the discovery of a postage stamp. It turned out that on September 22, 1989 the Postal Administration of the United Nations (UNPA) had issued as part of their flag series a stamp featuring the flag of Democratic Kampuchea (in a block together with those of Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, and Cyprus).
The UN stamp features a flag depicting Angkor Wat with pointed towers, and according to sources at the United Nations, the same flag design used to fly there in New York.
Ultimately, the only confirmation of the actual Angkor Wat design on the flag of Democratic Kampuchea was discovered on a photo in the book A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) by Khamboly Dy (Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2007).
This answers the question what the flag of Democratic Kampuchea actually looked like.
A few questions remain. It is not known if those flags were initially manufactured by friendly socialist states, or if they were made within the country. It can possibly be assumed that they were made locally, the colors might have varied according to what kind of dye was available at the time, or the colors might have faded, and in addition some variations might have occurred as well. Also, it will never be learned how many of those national flags were ever made.
For sure, the Khmer Rouge were not design-minded and used very rudimentary depictions that would not conflict with their anti-bourgeoisie agenda as is reflected in the design of their national emblem or their bank notes, and since they did not have to show off the flag it is quite possible that a simple red flag would have sufficed most of the time.
So where does the flag from Siem Reap's War Museum fit in? This flag shows widely spaced, pointed towers, and three instead of two tiers. It could be a fake, or it could have been used prior to 1975, it could be a variant used between 1975 to 1979, or even after 1979 by some of the Khmer Rouge's remaining followers.
Perhaps historian Steve Heder has the best explanation by saying that "the differences reflected mainly the skill and ambition of the tailor or seamstress."
© 2008 by Siegfried Ehrmann
Thanks to Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia for permission to include images from DC-Cam's archive.
A version of this article is also available in German at http://einestages.spiegel.de/static/authoralbumbackground/1691/flagge_mit_vergangenheit.html.