Domestic and International Postal Services of Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1991

Many people have wondered what happened to the postal system in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge (KR) came to power in mid-April 1975 and subsequently renamed the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea’. With Pol Pot at the centre of power, the ultra-Maoist regime that is thought by many to have caused the death of around two-to-three million Cambodians until the KR were overthrown in late 1978 by Vietnamese military force.

It is generally accepted that no postage stamps were issued by the Government of Democratic Kampuchea for domestic or international use during their control over Cambodian territory from 1975 to late-1978. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was ‘disbanded’ by the KR and no official of Democratic Kampuchea was assigned to oversee the tasks of post and communications during those years of abject terror.

Collectors of Cambodian philately will be only too familiar with the gap in stamp catalogues for this period. Stanley Gibbons includes three small paragraphs headed, ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, and reference to,

“…the discontinuance of postal and telegraphic services. In these circumstances no stamps were issued. Five pictoral stamps inscribed “Kampuchea” without indication of currency were publicised early in 1978; if they exist their status would be propaganda labels.” (Source: South-East Asia Stamp Catalogue, Part 21, Stanley Gibbons, 4th Edition, August 2004, p53)

The Scott Catalogue provides even less information. Its introduction for ‘Cambodia’ only states, “From 1978 to 1980 money was abolished.” (Source: 2004 Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, Cambodia, Scott Publishing Co., 2003, p1)

The Michel catalogue provides the most detailed information of any catalogue with an entry for 1976, rather than for 1975 when the KR took complete control of Cambodia, in German. The entry states that it maybe the case that the Khmer Rouge had some stamps issued on April 1, 1978, inscribed, ‘Kampuchea’ – as also referenced by Stanley Gibbons – for propaganda purposes rather than for postal usage and that they came in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 90 denominations; the currency used is not indicated in Michel. (Source: Michel Sud- und Sudostasien 2003, Ubersee-Katalog Band 8, Schwaneberger Verlag GmbH, 2003, p564)

In Chapter 7 of the French-language work of the late-Jacques Desrousseaux, Section 7-4 also makes reference to the April 1, 1978 issue with all five shown (as Fig. 56 on p358). Descrousseaux suggests that these stamps were probably printed in Japan. (Source: Postes et courriers francais d’Extreme Orient, Jacques Desrousseaux, 1984, p358; with thanks to Thierry Wiart)

An interview with a former mid-ranking officer of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Samay Meav (family name, Meav), based in the Municipality of Pailin, in the north-west of Cambodia, has helped shed some light on the basic day-to-day domestic communication system used by the KR.

Based on information gathered to-date, only very senior members of the KR regime were allowed, or able, to undertake any kind of communication beyond the immediate commune or district.

Consequently, the domestic communication system utilised by the KR elite was primarily between provincial centres and Phnom Penh, the capital, and took the form of coded wireless teletype messages. Each provincial centre in Democratic Kampuchea had a 15kW transceiver radio linked to a teletype machine. A dynamo linked to a simple bicycle was connected to the radio transceiver.

In order to send or receive the coded messages, it was necessary to have a minimum of two staff present: one to cycle and thereby create power through the dynamo, and a second person to operate the radio transceiver and type on the teletype machine. From the information currently available, the Khmer Rouge code for domestic communications was based on a numerical system.

However, written domestic communications did take place in Democratic Kampuchea. Such correspondence was, once again, limited to the senior hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. Written communications were hand-carried and no postmark or postage stamp was necessary, nor used, as far as is known at present.

Figure 1 shows an example of a report dated September 13, 1977 from the political section of the western division of the Khmer Rouge military based in Koh Kong Province to the leadership in Phnom Penh concerning intermittent fighting along the Cambodian border with Thailand.

Communications from Democratic Kampuchea to any person or agency outside of the country was only undertaken, as far as is know at present, by Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. No other people within the country were allowed to enter into any form of communication with the outside world.

Following their ousting by military forces from Vietnam in late December 1978 and into early 1979, the Khmer Rouge (KR) fled to the more remote areas of Cambodia, primarily in the north and north-west of the country bordering Thailand.

The KR remained in most of these locations until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 and some sanctuaries continued in existence until the mid-1990’s when the remnants of the KR finally defected to the central Government in Phnom Penh.

But how did the KR communicate with its remaining diplomatic outstations and, in particular, with its representatives to the United Nations (UN) in New York who, from 1979 to 1991, continued to be recognised by the world body as the official government of Cambodia?

Samay Meav has commented that owing to their proximity to Thailand, as well as certain local relationships developed with Thai authorities, it was possible for the Khmer Rouge leadership to use the Thai postal system to mail correspondence and documents to and from their remaining diplomatic posts in countries such as China and elsewhere. This was particularly the case vis-a-vis written communications with the KR representatives to the UN.

Further research will be required to identify how exactly the Thai postal system was used by the KR and whether, for example, Thai post office boxes in different towns or provincial centres bordering Cambodia were utilised. In addition, the UN may have a record of ‘official’ Democratic Kampuchea government mail sent from the HQ in New York to KR diplomatic entities around the world as well as to the KR leadership based on the Thai-Cambodian border.

As many collectors of Cambodian stamps know, the UN issued stamps in the name of Democratic Kampuchea as part of their ‘flag series’ in 1989, including First Day Covers (FDCs), as shown in Figure 2 and 3 below.

The UN’s children’s fund – UNICEF – also issued a FDC that recognised the Pol Pot regime’s official status as the formal Government of Cambodia within the UN as seen in Figure 4, below.

A lot more research is required before a clearer picture can be drawn of the methods of postal communication utilised by the Khmer Rouge and the alleged issue of April 1, 1978.

By Graham Shaw.