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A Special Supplement: Cambodia


In 1947, commenting on the rising tide of “anti-Communist” hysteria in the United States, John K. Fairbank made the following perceptive observations:

Our fear of Communism, partly as an expression of our general fear of the future, will continue to inspire us to aggressive anti-Communist policies in Asia and elsewhere, [and] the American people will be led to think and may honestly believe that the support of anti-Communist governments in Asia will somehow defend the American way of life. This line of American policy will lead to American aid to establish regimes which attempt to suppress the popular movements in Indonesia, Indochina, the Philippines, and China…. Thus, after setting out to fight Communism in Asia, the American people will be obliged in the end to fight the peoples of Asia.

This American aggression abroad will be associated with an increasing trend toward anti-Communist authoritarianism within the United States, which its victims will call fascism and which may eventually make it impossible to have discussions like this one today. This American fascism will come, if it comes, because American liberals have joined the American public in a fear of Communism from abroad rather than fascism at home as the chief totalitarian menace.1

These remarks have proved to be accurate. The events of the past few weeks reveal, once again, how the American policy of “anti-Communism”—to be more precise, the effort to prevent the development of indigenous movements that might extricate their societies from the integrated world system dominated by American capital—draws the American government, step by fateful step, into an endless war against the people of Asia, and, as an inevitable concomitant, toward harsh repression and defiance of law at home.

The invasion of Cambodia by the United States and its Saigon subsidiary comes as no surprise, in the light of recent events in Southeast Asia. Since 1968, the United States has steadily escalated the war in Laos, both on the ground, as the CIA-sponsored Clandestine Army swept through the Plain of Jars in late 1969, and from the air. When the report of the Symington subcommittee on Laos was finally released on April 20, the Washington Post carried the front-page headline: US ESCALATES WAR IN LAOS, HILL DISCLOSES. The headline was accurate; other evidence, to which I shall return in a later article, shows that the subcommittee hearings seriously understate the scale, and the grim effects, of the American escalation. This American escalation provoked a response by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam, who now control more of Laos than ever before, and led to devastation and population removal on a vast scale.

the destabilizing event in Cambodia—assiduously ignored by President Nixon in his speech of April 30 announcing the American invasion2—was the right-wing coup of March 18 which overthrew Prince Sihanouk and drove him into an alliance with the Cambodian left and the mass popular movements of Laos and Vietnam, which are dominated by left-wing forces. The coup, and the events that followed, must be understood as a further step in the internationalization of the Vietnam war. However, the coup should also be seen in the context of developments internal to Cambodia over the past several years. These factors are, of course, inter-related.

Since early 1964 the United States has been conducting its war in Indochina from sanctuaries scattered from Thailand to Okinawa. The bombardment of Laos, which appears to have begun in May, 1964, and the intensive bombardment of North and South Vietnam that followed in February, 1965, make use of bases in Thailand, South Vietnam, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Guam, not to speak of the naval units that control the surrounding oceans. The control center for the bombing of North Vietnam and Northern Laos is in Thailand, presumably, at Udorn airbase. In 1968, the bombing of Laos greatly increased in intensity, when aircraft formerly employed against North Vietnam were shifted to the bombardment of Laos. In 1969, the bombing of Northern Laos was again greatly intensified as infiltration fell off on the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Most of this area has long been under Pathet Lao control.

As a glance at the map makes clear, the bombing of Northern Laos takes place in a region far removed from the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” and has no direct connection to the war in South Vietnam. It is, in fact, directed against civilian targets and has resulted in almost total destruction of most settled areas and forced evacuation of much of the population. Where people remain, they live, for the most part, in caves and tunnels. According to American Embassy figures, the population remaining in the Pathet Lao zones is over a million, well over a third of the population of Laos. There may be as many as three-quarters of a million refugees in the government-controlled areas. The planes that attack Northern Laos are based in Thailand, whereas the bombing of Southern Laos (including the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) originates from Danang, Pleiku, and the Seventh Fleet. Now the Thai bases are also being used to bomb Cambodia.3

The American escalation of the war in Laos provoked a response by the Communist forces, which now control more of Laos than ever before. (I shall return to the details in a later article.) Since this result was predictable, the question naturally arises: What was the American government hoping to accomplish by the 1968-9 escalation? Some regard this escalation as merely another major error of the Pentagon and the CIA, but there are grounds for skepticism. The objective of the bombing seems to be to destroy the civil society administered by the Pathet Lao. Quite possibly, the United States is pursuing in Laos the dual policy of massive destruction in areas that are beyond the reach of American-controlled armies, and removal of the population to refugee camps and urban slums wherever this is feasible. This has been the effect of the American escalation, and it is likely that it was the intended effect, as in Vietnam.

To facilitate the all-weather bombardment of North Vietnam, advanced navigational facilities were established in Northeastern Laos. One of these, at Phou Pha Thi, became known to the American public when it was overrun on March 11, 1968. It was seventeen miles from the border of North Vietnam, on a mountain peak. There were American casualties, but the number remains classified. The base had been established in 1966. Other such facilities were established, but information is classified. The CIA has also endeavored to maintain guerrilla bases in these territories, long administered by the Pathet Lao.4

The United States also has employed extensive mercenary forces—the term is precise—from South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as Chinese and Cambodian mercenaries. The number of these forces, taken together with the troops from Australia and New Zealand, over the years, has been about the same as that of the North Vietnamese claimed by the Americans to be in South Vietnam. Of course, all of these forces and their fire power are quite small as compared with the American occupying army, even apart from the Pacific Naval and Air Command operating from its privileged sanctuaries.

During the 1960s, Prince Sihanouk tried, with much success, to save Cambodia from the spreading Indochina war. Nevertheless, the war has spilled over into Eastern Cambodia. Those whose information is restricted to American government propaganda may have visions of an invasion of Cambodia by great North Vietnamese armies. The truth is rather different. As American ground sweeps and aerial bombardment devastated much of the Vietnamese countryside, Vietnamese resistance forces have taken refuge in sparsely inhabited areas of Eastern Cambodia, which have increasingly been used as rest-and-recreation areas and, conceivably, command posts. At the same time, the armed forces of the United States and its allies and collaborators have carried out substantial military attacks against Cambodia. Evidence is meager, but what there is supports these general conclusions.

The earlier stages are described as follows by the American journalist Michael Leifer:

From the early 1960’s charges had been levelled from Saigon and later from Washington that Cambodian territory was being used as an active sanctuary for Viet Cong insurgents. Prince Sihanouk had denied the charges consistently and the denials had always been substantiated as a result of inquiries by the International Control Commission for Cambodia, by Western journalists, and even by Western military attachés stationed in Phnom Penh.5

In July, 1966, an American study team investigated specific charges by the US government on the scene and found them to be entirely without substance.6 However, the team happened to be present immediately after an American helicopter attack on the Cambodian village of Thlok Trach, and its published report, relying on information supplied by Cambodian officials, also mentions other specific attacks on villages. The Thlok Trach attack was at first denied by the US, but was then conceded, since eyewitnesses (including a CBS television team) were present. (This, incidentally, is the usual pattern. To cite only the most recent case, the bombing of North Vietnam on May 1, 1970, was admitted by the US government, but, it appears, only after a report was filed by an American newsman, Robert Boyd, who happened to be present near the site of the bombing.7 )

The Cambodians report many other such incidents. For example, on 24 February 1967, “a large number of armed forces elements consisting of Americans, South Vietnamese and South Koreans entered Cambodian territory and fired heavily on the Khmer defenders of the village of Duan Roth…. On the same day…aircraft of the same armed forces heavily bombed the Khmer village of Chrak Krank…[which] was then invaded and burned by the United States-South Vietnamese troops” who occupied the village until March 3.8

According to official Cambodian statistics, up to May, 1969, the United States and its allies were responsible for 1864 border violations, 5149 air violations, 293 Cambodian deaths, and 690 Cambodians wounded.”9

In a review of events of 1967, Roger Smith writes that relations between Cambodia and the United States “were strained because of periodic South Vietnamese bombing of Cambodian villages along the South Vietnamese frontier, armed incursions from Thailand, and, late in the year, a reported South Vietnamese-inspired blockade of shipping to Phnom Penh via the Mekong River.”10 Additional problems were caused by the activities of the Khmer Serei (Free Khmers), which, in the beginning of 1966, “declared war on Cambodia and claimed responsibility for incursions across the border.”11

The Khmer Serei is led by an adventurer named Songsak, who fled Cambodia by bribing a pilot of an aviation club (taking with him all its funds), and the fascist Son Ngoc Thanh, who was the head of the Cambodian government under the Japanese, and then switched his allegiance to the CIA—not an unfamiliar pattern.12 This group is made up of Cambodians who were trained by the American Special Forces in South Vietnam and have carried out operations against Cambodia from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand.13 We shall return to this interesting organization and its recent activities in a moment.

  1. 1

    Cited by Jim Peck in an excellent discussion of postwar American Asian scholarship, forthcoming in the Bulletin of the Concerned Asian Scholars, 1737 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass.

  2. 2

    I will not discuss the content of this speech, which was an insult to the intelligence and an expression of contempt for Congress and the American people.

  3. 3

    Sidney Schanberg, New York Times, May 7.

  4. 4

    Much of this information is presented in the report of the Symington sub-committee: Hearings before the Sub-committee on US Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 91st Congress, first session, October 20-28, 1969, Government Printing Office, 1970. Other details come from interviews with refugees and on the scene reports by journalists and other visitors to the bombed areas.

  5. 5

    Michael Leifer, “Rebellion or Subversion in Cambodia,” Current History, February, 1969.

  6. 6

    Is Cambodia Next?, Russell Press, Washington, D.C., 1967. An ABC television crew had also been unable to substantiate the American charges. Both groups were free to travel anywhere in Cambodia and checked locations specifically alleged to be base camps and transit routes.

  7. 7

    Details are still obscure, but this appears to be the order of events, as well as I can reconstruct from the information in the Boston Globe and New York Times, May 3. In his statement of May 2, in which he discussed the possibility of a resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam, Secretary Laird made no mention of the attack that had already taken place. Later, the Pentagon admitted the raid (presumably after Boyd’s story was intercepted), but claimed that it was a “protective reaction” against anti-aircraft guns. Boyd reports that he heard several dozen explosions but heard no defensive fire and saw no smoke from anti-aircraft.

  8. 8

    UN Document s/7820 15/3/6, quoted in Is Cambodia Next?

  9. 9

    T. D. Allman, Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 26, 1970. Cited in an informative discussion of the Cambodian situation in Vietnam International, April, 1970, 6 Endsleigh St., London, WC1. Allman noted that the number has continued to rise, and that not all such incidents are reported. More details are given in a Cambodian Government White Paper, Jan. 3, 1970. The report also notes that not a single Viet Cong body has ever been found after US-Saigon bombardments or ground attacks.

    For evidence on American defoliation in Cambodia, see “Report on herbicidal damage by the United States in Southeastern Cambodia,” A. H. Westing, E. W. Pfeiffer, J. Lavorel, and L. Matarasso, Dec. 31, 1969, Phnom Penh, in T. Whiteside (ed.), Defoliation, N.Y., Ballantine, 1970. They note, incidentally, that “despite a week of free and unhampered travel by automobile, on foot, and by low-flying aircraft along hundreds of kilometers of the border, we could find no evidence of Viet Cong activity in Cambodia; nor did our repeated conversations with Cambodians and Europeans living along the border suggest any such activity.” But they do report extensive damage from defoliants, in direct and apparently deliberate over-flights.

  10. 10

    Cambodia: between Scylla and Charybdis,” Asian Survey, January, 1968.

  11. 11

    Michael Leifer, “Cambodia,” Asian Survey, January, 1967.

  12. 12

    For example, the dictator of Thailand under the Japanese, who had in fact declared war against the United States, was reinstalled by an American-backed military coup in 1948; the liberal Pridi Phanomyong, who had worked with the OSS against the Japanese during the war and later won easily in the only relatively free election in Thailand in 1946, soon found his way to Communist China, where at last report he still remains. It should, incidentally, be noted that the involvement of a Southeast Asian political leader with the Japanese in itself proves very little, since there were many possible motivations, including opposition to Western colonialism.

  13. 13

    This characterization of Son Ngoc Thanh and Songsak is given by Daniel Roy, “Le Coup de Phnom-Penh,” Le Monde diplomatique, April, 1970. Other sources indicate that Songsak was a millionaire who did not need to resort to petty theft, and that Son Ngoc Thanh is essentially an apolitical opportunist. For example, the English journalist Michael Field suggests in his book The Prevailing Wind (Methuen, 1965) that Thanh gravitated toward the South Vietnamese and the Thais (i.e., the American-supported right-wing dictatorships) only when he could receive no other support in his effort to oppose the far more popular Sihanouk. Those familiar with internal Cambodian politics regard the information that is available to Westerners as being of highly uncertain quality, and any effort at detailed interpretation must surely be taken with caution.

    CIA involvement with the Khmer Serei is not in doubt, however. Some details were publicly revealed during the recent appeal of Green Beret officer John J. McCarthy, Jr., who had been convicted for killing a member of Khmer Serei. See The New York Times, Jan. 28, 1970.

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