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A Special Supplement: Cambodia

The Cambodian Government White Paper of January, 1970 (see note 9) covers events up until May, 1969. Since then, there have been many further incidents. The American biologist Arthur Westing, who was investigating American defoliation in Cambodia (see note 9), inspected the site of one such incident shortly after it occurred last November. He describes this as a “particularly vicious” case. A village was attacked, and houses, a school, livestock, a hospital marked with a giant red cross on its roof, and a well-marked ambulance trying to retrieve wounded were all destroyed by bombs, rockets, and napalm. The ICC reported no evidence of the presence of Viet Cong, nor could the US produce any photographic (or other) evidence, despite daily reconnaissance flights. The US chargé suggested that “our pilots must have lost their cool”—for about forty-eight hours.

Westing speculates that the attack may have been “a punitive or retaliatory measure following the destruction of a US helicopter last October 24 and particularly of a US F-105 on November 14, both shot down in the course of attacking Dak Dam in casual and callous disregard of Cambodian neutrality.”14 The American government apologized and paid $11,400 in reparations. I shall return below to other recent incidents reported by Americans present at the scene.

As in the case of Laos, it may be asked what the United States hoped to achieve by these repeated attacks on Cambodia, in which, so far as is known, no Viet Cong or North Vietnamese was ever killed and no damage was done to any Vietnamese military site. Again, it is possible that “faulty intelligence” is to blame. I suspect, however, that the aerial, naval, and ground attacks were for the most part capricious or vengeful, as appears to have been the case in the incident that Westing reported. The American military does not recognize the right of others to defend their own territory from American attack or overflight, or to interfere with American plans by inhabiting areas that the US government feels should be cratered or defoliated. And when such people aggressively insist on these rights, the US authorities feel free to react as they choose. Where we have evidence at all, it appears that the American attacks on Cambodia were governed by such assumptions, though it is possible that in some cases it was believed (apparently falsely) that Vietnamese military targets were being attacked.

A European resident of Phnom Penh described to a reporter a visit, before the recent coup, to Svay Rieng town in the “Parrot’s Beak” area, five kilometers from the closest border point:

During lunch, an American plane came over and looped the loop over the governor’s house. The plane kept diving at a Cambodian flag which was flying in the front garden. A policeman took out his pistol and fired a few shots at the plane. I suppose if he had hit it, the Americans would have come in and napalmed the whole town.15

An exaggeration or a joke? One can hardly say so, given what evidence we have regarding American military actions.16 Very likely something of the sort accounts for many, perhaps most, of the attacks on Cambodia.

The first attested case of a Viet Cong installation within Cambodia was in November, 1967, when American journalists claimed to have found a Viet Cong campsite four miles within Cambodian territory (see Leifer, op. cit.). Since that time, Viet Cong and NVA forces have taken refuge in Eastern Cambodia after intensive bombardment and American ground sweeps in South Vietnam, using these territories much as the United States makes use of Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii, and the oceans of Asia and the Pacific. (The analogy is, of course, inexact, since the Vietnamese obviously do not dispose of anything like the resources that the United States employs for its war against the people of Vietnam, Laos, and now Cambodia.) T. D. Allman, one of the most knowledgeable and enterprising of the American correspondents now in Cambodia, describes the situation as follows:

…although tens of thousands of Vietnamese Communist troops have been for long on Cambodian soil, they have been lying low in the border regions and causing little trouble…. The arrangement has meant the presence of foreign troops on Cambodian soil, but it has also allowed Cambodia, alone among its neighbors, to pass through the dangers of the Vietnam war without having its countryside ravaged and its population brutalized.17

I will not take the space to comment on the hypocrisy of the reference to “sanctuaries” by the American government and its propagandists and apologists. Perhaps the most appropriate remark, in this connection, was made by Prince Sihanouk after the coup:

The cynicism of the United States executive reached its peak when he demanded that the resistance forces of our three peoples [i.e., of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia] evacuate their own countries in response to the withdrawal of a part of the United States forces, and especially when our resistance has become “foreign intervention” on our own soil. Where then should our liberation armies go? To the United States?18

Sihanouk is quite correct. When President Nixon refers to the lack of sincerity on the part of the “North Vietnamese” (an expression now used by American propaganda as a cover term for Cambodians, Lao, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese who obstinately refuse to obey American orders) in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, to their continued aggression in the face of American withdrawals which now leave in South Vietnam a force considerably larger than the entire North Vietnamese Army, the meaning of his words is, plainly, that these “aggressors” have refused to surrender to the right-wing governments that the United States has installed and the native military forces that it organizes, trains, supplies, pays, and “advises.” With equal justice, Hitler might have spoken of the aggressiveness of the French Maquis, who were of course supplied and advised by the Anglo-Saxons, and Tojo of the lack of sincerity of the Chinese bandits, who refused to accept the rule of Wang Ching-wei, whom the Japanese installed as a puppet ruler in 1940.

But Wang Ching-wei had at least been a leading Chinese nationalist, not a General Thieu. Nor did the Germans deploy an expeditionary force on anything remotely approaching the American scale to ensure the rule of the Vichy government. It cannot be stressed too strongly that what is remarkable about the Indochina war is the inability of the American invaders to establish indigenous governments that can rule effectively and control their societies with their own means. In this respect, the United States in Indochina still falls short of its distinguished predecessors, though the American White House easily matches them in cynicism and mendacity, and surpasses all current competitors in its reliance on violence and terror.


To return to Cambodia: the country was, then, partially drawn into the Indochina war, though Prince Sihanouk managed to maintain neutrality by a delicate balancing act and to save it from the terror that ravaged Vietnam and Laos. The contrast between Cambodia and its immediate neighbors was described by T. D. Allman, just a few months ago, as follows:

A few days later, in a commercial plane, I flew over Svay Rieng province. From the air the frontier is now clearly defined: beyond the parrot’s beak peninsula of neat Cambodian rice fields and villages the land is pitted by literally hundreds of thousands of bomb and shell craters. In some cases the years of day-and-night bombing have changed the contours of the land and little streams form into lakes as they fill up mile after square mile of craters. Above this desolation and along and just across the Cambodian frontier, the American helicopters and planes whirr continually, firing their guns and cannon, dropping their bombs.19

The March 18 coup against Sihanouk marked the end of this period of fairly effective neutrality. It is safe to predict that the frontier will no longer be so clearly defined.

Evidently, it was the coup of March 18 that destabilized the Cambodian situation. It created an entirely new situation within Cambodia, and may also prove to have affected significantly the long-term relations among the peoples of Indochina. Cambodia, like the other states of the region, is a mélange of ethnic groups. The large majority of its population of about 7 million is Khmer (the term is often used as synonymous with “Cambodian”), but there are substantial Chinese and Vietnamese minorities of perhaps about half a million each, in addition to mountain tribes. Many Vietnamese were brought to Cambodia (as to Laos) by the French to work in rubber plantations (in Laos, in the mines), but also to serve as administrators for the colonial government and private businesses. They also succeeded in taking over a large share of local commerce.

The French capitalized on feelings of inferiority toward the Vietnamese among the native Khmer and Lao, and by so doing, no doubt intensified these feelings, which remain an important factor in current politics. They adopted the standard colonialist policy of using minorities or outsiders to help control native populations. Jean Lacouture describes the French colonial system as one of “double domination: that of the [French] administration over the three Vietnamese regions and that of the Vietnamese cadres over the two small countries of the west [Laos and Cambodia].”20 The French scholar Jean Chesneaux writes:

If the popular movements of Cambodia were repressed by “Annamite riflemen,” it was the “Cambodian riflemen” who were brought in to restore order among the Vietnamese of the lower Mekong.21

(The Americans do much the same, relying on Khmer mercenaries in South Vietnam—see note 32—and using the Saigon Army to restore order in Cambodia.)

At the same time, there is a Khmer minority of about 700,000 in the western part of South Vietnam. According to Chesneaux, the Khmer minority, oppressed by Saigon’s policies of racial discrimination, gave “massive support” to the NLF.22 He also reports that the Khmer peasants in Cambodia took no part in the recent pogroms initiated by the Lon Nol government against the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia.

Such observations suggest that there has always been a possibility of peaceful cooperation among the peoples of Indochina—the Viet, the Lao, the Khmer, the Chinese, and the mountain tribesmen—if the Western imperialists, whose presence has exacerbated all potential conflicts, were to depart. It is interesting, in this connection, that the 1962 Congress of the NLF of South Vietnam called for a neutralist bloc including South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The United States, hoping to convert South Vietnam into a permanent base for its colonial operations, showed no interest in this idea (if, indeed, it even took official notice of it).

In 1965 Prince Sihanouk convened a “Conference of the Indochinese People” in Phnom Penh. It brought together representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the NLF of South Vietnam, the Pathet Lao, the ruling Sangkum party of Cambodia, and other South Vietnamese “opposed to American hegemony.”23 It was able to achieve very little, coming, as it did, immediately after the initiation of the intensive and regular bombardment of South and North Vietnam in early February, 1965.

  1. 14

    Letter, New Republic, March 28, 1970.

  2. 15

    Allman, Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 26, 1970.

  3. 16

    For innumerable examples taken from the press see In the Name of America, Turnpike Press, 1968. Capricious terror bombing of civilians has been reported even from sources highly sympathetic to the Pentagon, for many years. See, for example, Richard Tregaskis, Vietnam Diary, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.

  4. 17

    Far Eastern Economic Review, “Anatomy of a Coup,” April 9, 1970, an excellent analysis of the immediate background of the March 18 coup. A more far-reaching analysis of the events leading up to the coup appears in the article by Daniel Roy cited above. These events are placed in the relevant historical context by Jean Lacouture, “Opération-suicide.” Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 April. For additional background, see the articles by Michael Leifer cited above, and also Roger M. Smith, “Prince Norodom Sihanouk,” Asian Survey, June, 1967, and the articles already cited.

  5. 18

    Speech to the closing session of the Summit Conference of Indochinese Peoples, which took place at an unidentified location in South China on April 25, 1970, translated and slightly shortened by Maria Jolas. I use her translation, and a few sentences quoted by Stanley Karnow, Washington Post; May 1.

    Prince Sihanouk goes on to ask: “Have the US aggressors, through some operation of the Holy Ghost become pure-blooded Indochinese? Who escalated the war in Laos and Cambodia? From which airfield (certainly not from Gia Lâm) do the one thousand daily air-raids over Laos take off? Do the ‘Columbia Eagle’ and the ‘Caribou’ planes that are flying an entire arsenal of weapons for Lon Nol and Sirik Matak and their mercenaries come from General Giap? And the hundreds of CIA ‘special advisers’ who have arrived in Vientiane, are they a ‘present’ from Premier Pham Van Dong?”

  6. 19

    Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 26.

  7. 20

    Lacouture, op. cit.

  8. 21

    Le Monde diplomatique, May, 1970.

  9. 22

    One of the vice-presidents of the NLF is a Buddhist monk of the Cambodian minority, who joined the NLF after a destructive Saigon Army sweep through his province in 1961. See George M. Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, Dial Press, 1967.

  10. 23

    Lacouture, op. cit.

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