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The Khmer Rouge, or the Communist Party of Kampuchea, used this flag:

enter image description here

It features the Angkor Wat, a famous Buddhist temple with a Hindu origin.

As far as I have been able to understand, the symbol was chosen as it was seen as a symbol of the nation. I find even this slighly unsual for a communist movement, as such entities often seemed to idealise international worker's fraternity rather than nationalism.

Communism traditionally viewed religion as something negative and dangerous. It seems that this is the only communist regime/party/nation to use a religious image in their flag? While many other communist entities have resided in areas with a history of religious symbolism in their flags, coat of arms, etc, most of the communist entities did not keep them.

For example, if the Russian SSR had used a church on their flag, I would find that strange.

What made the Khmer Rouge different? Are there any sources documenting a discussion, controversy or disagreement on this? Can we get any insight into their reasoning for using the temple in the flag? If the reasoning was something like the icon being a previous symbol of the nation, are there any sources showing why this was thought to be more important than communist ideals? Is there any research or sources showing how this case differed from other communist entities that did shun religious imagery?

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    I'd want to check local sources before putting this in an answer (and I most definitely don't speak Khmer), but my understanding is that the locals are (quite rightly) very proud of Angkor Wat, and consider it a part of their heritage even more than part of their religion. So it can probably be viewed more as a matter of nationalistic pride than any statement of faith. Also highly suspect a large part of the attraction of Communism in that part of the world wasn't the anti-religious aspect, and not its internationalism, but the anti-colonial aspect (again, supporting local nationalism)
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 22, 2023 at 23:14
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    Please note that despite communism in theory would be about international fraternity, in practice many communist countries were (and are) highly nationalistic. The centrally planned economy is always inefficient, people live in poverty compared to other (non-communist) countries, instead of the prosperity they were promised. Therefore the government inevitably has to keep up the nationalistic feelings to distract and placate the population, or at least to explain away why they are poorer than their neighbors (because of those evil other nations hoarding wealth, obviously!).
    – vsz
    Dec 24, 2023 at 10:45

3 Answers 3

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The Khmer Rouge were huge admirers of the medieval Khmer empire and its achievements. It became the centerpiece of the nationalist aspect of their ideology. Depicting the temple was therefore a reference to its capital city, whose dominant feature it is, not its religious role.

An article by Henri Locard, a French historian and former lecturer at Phnom Penh University, makes the point:

"Through rapid development, our country must surpass the Angkor era", that was one version of the way the Khmer Rouge expressed how they wanted to surpass not only the Angkor era, but also Mao's Great Leap Forward that became "The Super Great Leap Forward, the Prodigious Great Leap forward". Angkar (the Party Organisation) will endlessly repeat that message: "Just as Angkor Vat is a stupendous marvel, so is the KR revolution". If our people could build Angkor Vat, they can do anything, Pol Pot proclaimed in his famous speech of 27th September 1977. That axiom permeated all Khmer Rouge thinking...

To celebrate the first anniversary of their victory, Khieu Samphân, Democratic Kampuchea's newly appointed head of State, proclaimed on 16th April 1976:

"The great victory day of 17th April 1975 is the day of the greatest and most splendid victory in more than 2,000 years of Cambodian history. This great victory is even more brilliant than the Angkor era, which was truly a splendid era. Even today mankind admits that the Angkor temple is a splendid masterpiece of our labourers' ancestors. However, the victory that our people, workers and peasants of this era have scored over the most ferocious and most inhumane U.S. imperialist is even more brilliant and splendid that the Angkor temple" he trumpeted on the Democratic Kampuchea radio on 16th April 1976 (FBIS, H3)

The Khmer Rouge even put Angkor on their flag and in their national anthem:

Long live the dazzling victory of 17th April 1975!
More grandiose (glorious), more meaningful than the Angkor era!

The Myth of Angkor as an Essential Component of the Khmer Rouge Utopia, DOI:10.1007/978-3-319-13638-7_9, In Michael Falser: Cultural Heritage as Civilizing Mission. From Decay to Recovery, Heidelberg 2015, pp.201-222

The above citation is from an abstract found here.

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  • +1. Do you happen to know whether "Angkor" is related to "Angkar" or if that similarity is just a coincidence?
    – Jan
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:49
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    @Jan First, almost all other sources transcribe អង្គការ "the organisation" as angka. អង្គរ Angkor means city and is derived from នគរ nokor, kingdom. So there seems to be at least a relation on a sociological level.
    – ccprog
    Dec 23, 2023 at 12:54
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If you compare the flags of other countries before communists took power and afterwards, you actually see quite a bit of continuity. Yes, the Soviet Union and China conpletely changed their flags, but other countries just kept their old flags altogether (such as Poland or Czechoslovakia), or added some communist symbols (East Germany, Romania, Albania) or tried to at least re-use parts of the design (Afghanistan).

All previous Cambodian flags given at wikipedia show Angkor Wat. Under these circumstances, and since the colors were already changed to communist ones, it should not be surprising that the Angkor Wat symbol was retained for some sense of continuity.


There were other communist countries with IMHO more straightforward religious references in flags (in both cases also carried over from pre-communist flags):

Judging from other Afghan flags, the window/stairs symbol in the flags of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1992 seems to be a minbar.

Mongolia was the second communist country in the world and their flag (except from 1940 to 1945 apparently) contained a reference to their version of the Dalai Lama. They did however try to obscure the meaning and origin of that symbol when instructing children about their flag, at least in later years.

If you look into other important state symbols, you might find further religious references, e.g. in the Hungarian national anthem.

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    1. How do references to East Germany, Mongolia or Hungary explain anything about Kambodia? Their understanding of what communism entails was very different from Kampuchean ideology. 2. To call Thomas Müntzer "evangelical" reveals a profound misunderstanding about protestant movements. Müntzer saw the Bible as a non-neccessary tool for being devout, Evangelicism sees the Bible as the ultimate authority.
    – ccprog
    Dec 22, 2023 at 15:13
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    @ccprog removed the reference to Thomas Müntzer.
    – Jan
    Dec 22, 2023 at 16:37
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    @ccprog quoting OP: "It seems that this is the only communist regime/party/nation to use a religious image in their flag?" "What made the Khmer Rouge different?". My answer is that in this particular regard, they were actually not so different (with examples). One relevant common factor with Mongolia and Afghanistan might be that these were not really capitalist societies yet (in the Marxist sense) when they became communist. I.e. very traditional and also conservative societies.
    – Jan
    Dec 22, 2023 at 16:46
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First step would be to check what the Kampuchean government says.

The National Flag

Article 16

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 red background symbolises the revolutionary movement, the resolute and valiant struggle of the Kampuchean people for the liberation, defense, and construction of their country.

The yellow temple symbolises the national traditions of the Kampuchean people, who are defending and building the country to make it ever more prosperous. mekong.net

irony Only a bourgeois, incapable of understanding the revolutionary dialectic, would interpret this obvious symbol of the tradition and effort of the people of Kampuchea as a religious symbol /irony

Wikipedia notes:

This flag is similar to the flag of Vietnam. It was however, unusual among the communist state national flags without any symbolic red or gold star or hammer and sickle. Wikipedia

I think you're right, it would be interesting to explore why that choice was made.

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    "unusual among communist state national flags" - I can name at least six conmunist state national flags without red or yellow stars (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cuba, Nicaragua). Does that still count as unusual?
    – Jan
    Dec 22, 2023 at 14:26
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    @uhoh bourgeois is a typical (to the point of being stereotypical) communist term for complacent middle-class people. Which makes me believe MCW is (jokingly) speaking as a communist here.
    – Jan
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:53
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    @Jan got it - except beyond humor or toung-in-cheekness, where's the irony? I still think, being an unsophisticated person, I'm missing some of the fun...
    – uhoh
    Dec 23, 2023 at 12:07
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    @uhoh He's speaking ironically, in that he doesn't actually believe in what he's saying. Remember: sarcasm is a form of irony.
    – cmw
    Dec 28, 2023 at 3:13
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    Irony is sarcasm with an invitation to participate
    – MCW
    Dec 28, 2023 at 4:22

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