That One Time Pol Pot Blew Up The Central Bank

“Money, money, money…” — said ABBA. “Nope, nope, nope” — replied the Khmer Rouge, abolishing the Value-Form.

A Khmer Rouge member posing with unissued stacks of Kampuchan currency

“The abolition of money was linked at its origin to urgent needs of our national liberation war.”

Pol Pot in an interview given to the delegation of the “Association Belgium-Kampuchea” in Phnom Penh, August 5, 1978

Introduction

Pol Pot (originally named Saloth Sâr) has become an object of ridicule, mockery and humour in Communist spaces, and fairly so — the chaotic 4-year reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea can hardly be celebrated as a positive occurrence or the triumph of the labor movement. However, the scope of this article is much narrower than the overall appraisal of the Khmer Rouge and this tragic part of Cambodian history. Here, we are specifically concerned about the role of money in Democratic Kampuchea and if it was truly done away by the regime.

So, did Pol Pot really abolish the value-form?

The Value-Form

There is a lot of mythology that surrounds the Khmer Rouge, such as the classic “everyone who wore glasses was killed” trope. Another one of such myths is repeated in a semi-ironic fashion, arguing that Pol Pot “abolished the value-form.” To decipher this sarcasm-ridden expression, we must first identify the connection between money, the value-form and Pol Pot.

In the preface to the First German Edition of Capital Volume I, Marx writes:

“The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very simple and slight in content. Nevertheless, the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it.”

We find that money is nothing but the highest form and the most developed expression of the value-form. Thus the apparent abolition of money by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (referred to as CPK from now on), a decision which even had a de jure status, became the abolition of the value-form. Of course, for most people who employ this joke, it stays a joke and rarely do we find anyone seriously debating that the eradication of value actually took place in Democratic Kampuchea.

But what is the actual historical reality behind this ridicule? How did the CPK authorities initiate this decision, what were its effects and how has it impacted the future of Cambodia?

The Doubters

During and after the revolution in Cambodia (1975), the Khmer Rouge (a name given to the movement by Prince Sihanouk) seized power and declared the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea. The ruling body of Kampuchea was known as “Angkar,” which comes from the Khmer “angk” meaning structure or a limb of a body. For most people in Kampuchea, it was unclear if this Angkar was a person, a group, or an organization. Its usage was always ambiguous, and some speculate that this was precisely the point. It was clear that Angkar represented power, the authority that directed all. All slogans or orders were issued in the name of “Angkar Padevat” (Revolutionary Organization). The existence of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and Pol Pot himself was only officially acknowledged halfway through its reign (1977), when his speech “Long Live the 17th Anniversary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea” was broadcast throughout Democratic Kampuchea.

This secretive and conspiratorial nature of revolutionary events made it harder for anyone on the outside, including both the supporters and the opposition, to clearly state what was going on. One such example was Noam Chomsky, who voiced a somewhat supportive opinion of the Khmer Rouge on June 6, 1977 in an article for The Nation:

“We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered.”

Naturally, Chomsky was just trying to emphasize that the US media and its narratives weren’t to be trusted, but retrospectively, it became a sort of apologetic, culminating in Chomsky claiming much lower numbers of Khmer Rouge victims long after the large number of dead was proven by mass graves. Overlooking many indirect comments he also made in an attempt to cast a shadow of doubt on the refugees with horrifying testimonies, we only took Chomsky as an example to show that everyone — even the “intellectuals,” were basically left in an informational vacuum until the fall of the CPK regime.

The 1975 Congress

The decision to abolish money was officially debated during the 1975 CPK congress. There was great confusion regarding this matter even in the highest ranks of the Party: there was no coherent line on what was to be done about currency, and not every leading member agreed to its elimination. This led to a chaotic policy, which shifted around frequently, until being cemented during the said congress.

The banknotes the Khmer Rouge printed but never put into circulation

Initially, the Khmer Rouge declared that they intended to do away with all money. After this was done, unsurprisingly a new set of currency popped up; but this happened way faster than anyone expected — in less than three weeks. These banknotes were much more “revolutionary” than their predecessors, depicting toiling peasants and Kampuchean women holding rocket launchers. The newly established currency disappeared into the night as quickly as it appeared — Pol Pot and Co. collectively and finally decided that Kampuchea would be de jure moneyless at the February 1975 party congress and adjusted their theoretical justification respectively.

Here is how one (anti-Communist) account summarizes the events:

“[The CPK] led by Pol Pot, decided at a February 1975 party congress to abolish money, markets, and private property. At first Pol Pot had planned to introduce money, as indicated by printed but never-issued notes found after the regime fell. He then changed his mind, leaving no historical record as to why. […] His Four-Year Plan read: ‘If we are individualists, imperialism can enter the country easily. Thus eating will be collectivized and clothing, welfare and housing will be divided up on a collective basis.’” [1]

This demonstrates the changing and abstract approach the CPK had towards money. But what really hit the nail on the head was an event so mind blowing (no pun intended) and unexpected, that it still remains the only one of its kind to this day.

The Central Bank Says ‘Boom’

As we saw, most of the printed banknotes stayed within the enclosed walls of the National Bank of Cambodia located in Phnom Penh — the walls, which were not as enclosed after the Red Khmers decided to blow it up. Without any exaggeration, the Kampuchean troops planted dynamites inside the building and detonated them, after which cash literally flooded the streets and filled the gutters. The gaping hole left after the explosives went off marked the first “victory against the evils of money.” Starving peasants used the unissued cash to start fires, and the invading Vietnamese took handfuls home as trophies.

The Central Bank before and after the explosion

This event had a few eyewitnesses who later remembered how bizarre the whole situation really was. Cambodian prisoner, Bou Meng, when asked about this period after being liberated from the S-21 torture center, recalled Riel banknotes being “scattered on the ground like pieces of litter.” [2] The detonation of the dynamites didn’t go unnoticed by Francois Bizot either, who was at the French Consulate a mile away. According to him, there was a “fearful explosion shaking the air followed by huge column of smoke climbing into the sky.” [3]

Some scholars have suggested, that it wasn’t actually the CPK who ordered the destruction of the central bank:

“The likeliest explanation is that it was pillaged by men from Chakrey Eastern Zone headquarters. The perpetrators allegedly made off with 200 kg of gold and then blew up the building to make the theft appear to be the work of gangsters profiting from the confusion. After this incident coordination improved and open clashes between troops from different units ceased. […] The one certainty is that the bank was not deliberately blown up by the new regime itself. Not only were other more visible symbols of capitalism like the Central Market left untouched, but in April 1975 the Khmer Rouge leadership had every intention of issuing currency and establishing a banking system of its own month later when the preparatory team started work it was based in an undamaged area of the bank premises.” [4]

However, this may be the result of the informational vacuum we spoke of, birthing multiple interpretations and reports of events.

The Consequences

It soon became clear, that without the money-commodity to trade other commodities with, everyday life became more and more difficult. It is true, that the value of rice, salt and some other products was much higher than that of gold, diamond etc., backed up by Pol Pot’s saying: “If we have rice, we have everything.” But rice itself had to be purchased through gold or other exchange mediums. The CPK took the word “dollar” out of circulation in official accounting to signify hostility towards imperialism, replacing it with “nominal pound sterling.” However, this had nothing to do with the actual British sterling:

“But Pol Pot found that trade — a necessity because Cambodia did not have its own petroleum and needed gasoline to transport food — was not possible without a measurement of value. So the Cambodians made one up: they quantified import-export receipts in what can be termed “nominal pound sterling” — perhaps to avoid denominating in the currency of American “imperialists.” Khmer Rouge account books that were discovered in 1994 at the Ministry of Commerce listed an export to North Korea of 5,000 “units” of rubber each valued at £1,000 in exchange for 2,800 “units” of steel and a quantity of machinery, tools, chemical products, cloth, and minerals valued at £5 million. The pound sterling measurement apparently had nothing to do with its London value.” [5]

Thiounn Chhum, an intellectual whose three brothers had long worked for the revolution, and who in August 1978 was taken from a rice field near Oudong to reorganize the finances of Democratic Kampuchea, recalls:

“[P]roduction had increased to such a degree that barter no longer sufficed. […] [W]e were going to have a market economy, and for that we needed both coins and banknotes […] which were already ordered and printed.” [6]

But Democratic Kampuchea scholar Michael Vickery points out:

“This is somewhat disingenuous. Banknotes had indeed been printed, but already in 1975 when a bank was part of the original revolutionary plan, the idea was later dropped. The record on production is mixed, and no figures are available. In some places, such as forest regions which had never before produced food, there was indeed an increase; but elsewhere, and inexcusably, it had declined. If reintroduction of a market economy was really being planned, it was probably less for the economic reason alleged by Thiounn Chum than for the political goal of rallying the surviving urban evacuees to a solid front against Vietnam.” [7]

Once again, we see contradictory accounts and conflicting reasoning, for the reasons we have already discussed. One thing worth mentioning is the dismal state of Democratic Kampuchea scholarship: the “foremost” and “authoritative” voices in this tradition, such as Vickery, Kiernan, Chandler, etc., worked a few decades ago, majorly with fresh and scant information. This could explain why modern CPK researchers (such as James A. Tyner) present different narratives than that of their predecessors, as they have wider access to Kampuchean archives and utilize freshly unearthed data.

The Angkar Celebrates

Needless to say, “abolition” of money was a positive occurrence for the Party. In their minds, they had eliminated one of the main causes of poverty and corruption in the country. Pol Pot, in his lengthy 1977 speech declared:

“Apart from the aforementioned questions, we continue to operate without the use of money, with no daily salary. Our entire people, our Revolutionary Army, all our cadres and all our fighters live in a collective system through a communal support system, which is being improved with every passing day. This is a successful step toward the solution of the contradictions between the cities and the countryside…” [8]

According to the official narrative, money did indeed stop functioning in Kampuchean society, which alleviated the urban and rural divide in the region. The same year, Pol Pot criticised China for not undertaking the same task:

“Looking at Socialist countries that have had their evolutions already and examine their ways of living, we see that there is collectivism, but not in ways of living, which remain individualistic in many cases. For example… [the Chinese] still have monthly salaries; they still have money to spend. In this way, every person thinks only of saving money to spend on food to eat his fill, to buy clothing and so on. […] Standing on these observations, we will not follow this path at all. We will follow the collective path to Socialism.” [9]

But for the regime, the possibility of reintroducing money wasn’t out of the question. As it was becoming more and more apparent, people resorted to bartering and using gold, silver and other precious metals to trade. They utilized dollars and Vietnamese currency in exchange, which shows how false it is to claim that the Khmer Rouge came anywhere near abolishing the value-form. Money still existed, value still operated, and people were suffering as a consequence of doctrinarian bureaucratism preferring to speak from ideology rather than the materially given reality. Pol Pot claimed:

“In our liberated area, the role of money had rapidly reduced. In 1974, it reduced by 80 per cent. Just before the liberation, money has [sic] completely stopped to be legal tender. This practice led us to do away with the use of money up to now. What will be the situation in the future? That would only depend on our people. If the people judge it is necessary to go back and use money, we shall do so. But up to now, our people have not yet seen the necessity of going back to the use of money.” [10]

The leading members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea posing in front of the Angkor War — Pol Pot in the middle

The Fall And Aftermath

The unprecedented project to de jure remove money from circulation had obvious physical and psychological consequences. The older generations in Cambodia are still distrustful towards banks and money, preferring to keep their wealth in gold, and at home, waiting for the Central Bank to boom like that fateful day in 1975 again. The currency was only reissued in March of 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Rice was still the most common medium of exchange and the revival of markets was spontaneous and inconsistent.

The experience of the Khmer Rouge certainly holds many lessons for modern Communists, and one of them is that it’s impossible to “abolish the value-form” willingly, with a Party decree, especially on such a small scale. Until the international Proletarian Revolution sweeps the world and frees us from the shackles of Capitalist tyranny, value is here to stay.

Footnotes

[1] Sheridan T. Prasso — The Riel Value of Money

[2] Huy Vanna — Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

[3] Philip Short — Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

[4] Ibid

[5] Sheridan T. Prasso — The Riel Value of Money

[6] Michael Vickery — Cambodia 1975–1982

[7] Ibid

[8] Pol Pot — Long Live the 17th Anniversary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea [speech]

[9] David Chandler, Ben Kiernan, Chantou Boua — Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea 1976–1977

[10] Talks with the delegation of the “Association Belgium-Kampuchea,” in Phnom Penh, August 5, 1978

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The Acheron In Motion

The Acheron In Motion

The Acheron In Motion is run by a passionate Communist from a post-Soviet state, publishing about revolutionary history and the fundamental theses of Marxism.