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A Special Supplement: Cambodia

Repression of pro-Sihanouk demonstrations among the peasants toward the end of March in the wake of the coup could only have served to swell the small bands of insurgents generally referred to, rightly or wrongly, as “Red Khmers.” Many peasants, fearful of arrest after the demonstrations, took to the jungle rather than return to their homes. And today the Red Khmers are in a position to exploit the discontent in the country areas where the army opened fire on the peasants. The conditions for an active rebellion have been fulfilled one by one.37

Pomonti continues:

Information coming in from the provinces early last week seems to confirm that Khmer peasants in Viet Cong areas are now armed and trained. The nucleus of a “liberation army” is very probably being constituted, and the Phnom Penh government could find itself in a more precarious position before long, particularly if it fails to reassert its authority in the areas abandoned for more than two weeks by the central government.

He quotes a diplomat who says:

It did not surprise me in the least to hear announcements of liberated zones being established…or of a “liberation army” being formed. It would not surprise me either if the Viet Cong say they are pulling out of certain zones and that from now on dealings should be with the “new Khmer authorities.” Then they might well announce the return of Prince Sihanouk to one of these zones—armed with a powerful radio transmitter.

Le Monde comments editorially that “the ‘Red Khmer’ movement is led by able men, and now that it has some support in the countryside, it can no longer be dismissed—as Washington tends to do—as a mere appendage of the North Vietnamese Communist Party.” The new government in exile announced by Sihanouk from Peking will probably include the three delegates to the Cambodian parliament mentioned earlier, who were elected with “overwhelming majorities” in the last (1966) elections and “can hardly be considered ‘Vietnamese agents.’ “38 They are generally regarded as the only delegates elected who represented something other than the feudal and wealthy elements in Cambodian society (see Roy, op. cit.), and they appear to have a reputation for honesty and integrity that is rare among Cambodian politicians.

Among those who have joined Sihanouk in China are Huot Sambath, Cambodian delegate to the United Nations, Penn Nouth, one of his long-term associates and advisers. (Field describes him as “a close collaborator of Sihanouk and with him an architect of Cambodian neutrality”), and Chau Seng, formerly Minister of Education and Minister of National Economy and editor of the leading left-wing journal, one of the outstanding personalities and political figures of Cambodia until his exile, to Paris, in 1967, during the early stages of preparation for the takeover by the right.

On departing from Paris to join Sihanouk, Chau Seng said that the coup has advanced the revolutionary cause by five years. Commenting, Lacouture writes:

Has anyone ever seen such incompetent sorcerer’s apprentices as the plotters of Phnom Penh who, in less than a month, have thrown their country into a civil war and brought it to the edge of an international war, and who have made the most important and prestigious personality of their country the unconditional ally of the revolutionary movement?39

Lacouture, who sees the hand of the Americans behind the coup, describes it as “a suicide operation for the American party, who have offered their enemies an opportunity to deploy themselves, with a popular base, over the whole Indochina theatre.”

As already noted, the view that the perpetrators of the coup “may have ensured their own doom” is shared by Allman. Henry Kamm of The New York Times notes further that, among foreign observers in Phnom Penh, disenchantment with the new regime “has set in with a vengeance”:

The uncharitable feelings of most observers toward the Lon Nol government are compounded of evidence of their military futility, revulsion over atrocities and callousness toward the large Vietnamese minority, scorn for the political naïveté that led the leaders to put real faith in the possibility of help from the International Control Commission or the United Nations to drive out the Vietcong, and impatience with a cacophony of blusterous and chauvinistic talk and empty mock-martial gestures such as putting high school girls in khaki shirts to cover an air of feckless irresolution. 40

He also notes that the US government seems to share this contempt, as one must conclude from the manner in which it has carried out the invasion, hardly bothering even to inform the Cambodians:

Whatever the reason, America seems clearly to have decided to make war in Cambodia without the Cambodians. And it is a measure of the low morale of Cambodia that she accepted this without immediate outcry as though, like the Vietnamese Communist incursion, it is a fact of life beyond her control.

A diplomat in Phnom Penh stated recently that “We probably shall look back on these days as the opening phases of the Cambodian civil war.” Citing this observation, T. D. Allman writes:

…for the first time since independence in 1953, Cambodians were killing Cambodians…the Phnom Penh government’s hold on the rural population was in doubt.

The average Cambodian wants most of all to live in peace, but already he is being urged to choose sides. On the government side are the army, most of the business class, the aristocracy, the intellectuals and government functionaries. Ranged against the new government are some 40,000 Vietnamese troops [i.e., NLF and North Vietnamese]—who so far have taken only a small role in the anti-government movement—the tiny Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement, and most importantly, a sizable but unknown proportion of Cambodia’s six million peasants who still see Sihanouk as a god-king and the nation’s only leader.41

Speculating a year ago about the prospects of the Cambodian rebels for success, Michael Leifer wrote that these prospects “will depend (discounting external factors) not only on the exploitation of genuine grievances but also on an ability to identify with the nationalist cause for which Prince Sihanouk has been the most ardent and passionate advocate. This would seem unlikely.”42 Before March 18, this was a reasonable assessment. Now, however, Sihanouk, the “most ardent and passionate advocate” of the national cause, the person whom one American expert described as being “a significant expression of the Cambodian people’s will,”43 has identified himself with the rebels. It is doubtful that the right-wing Lon Nol government, with its narrow urban base, can counter this popular force or win it over.

The March 18 coup reflects a split within the Cambodian elite, the exact nature of which is not entirely clear. However, two things do seem clear. First, the best known members of the Cambodian left are now aligned with Sihanouk. Second, the Cambodian left is now in a position to mobilize the peasantry, capitalizing on Sihanouk’s personal prestige and with the backing of the Vietnamese resistance forces; while the Lon Nol government, isolated from the peasantry, will increasingly be driven into an alliance with the extreme right-wing forces in Indochina, the Saigon authorities, and the Americans.

The bankruptcy of the elite that managed the coup is reflected clearly by its resort to terror against the Vietnamese minority, reported in ample detail in the press. The reports of Cambodian military operations fortify this impression of weakness and ineptitude. We know what to expect when we read the description of the commanding officer who sent Cambodian peasants, ethnically Vietnamese, who were described as “volunteers,” to be mowed down by a cross-fire, in a well-publicized story:44

The Cambodian commandant, an elegant youngish man, shirtless and wearing a heavy gold necklace, lay like a sultan on an army bed in a clearing among the bamboo trees…. [He] lounged on his bed, coolly talking into the field telephone. Then he asked whether there was news in Phnom Penh of help from the Americans.45

It is interesting to observe the Viet Cong strategy in the same incident. According to a detailed report by Allman46 the Viet Cong captured the village of Saang, killed eight soldiers, and then “distributed arms and ammunition to the villagers in the name of the ‘Sihanouk’ army.” Three Cambodian spies reported that “the Viet Cong were backed by local Khmer and Cham villagers, who had joined the Communist forces.”

More generally, Le Monde reports that “the NLF in Cambodia is not trying to capture the capital, but to establish ‘freed zones’ where the ‘Red Khmers can build up their own armies…they would rather arm the peasantry than establish a puppet regime.”47 Jean-Claude Pomonti reports, after the American invasion, that the aim of the war

…is no longer to push [the Viet Cong] out of Cambodia but to prevent their gaining enough local support and power to sooner or later threaten General Lon Nol’s government. On one side, an embryonic Khmer Communist Party, backed by active and vital support from the Viet Cong, has temporarily allied with Prince Sihanouk to organize a liberation army. On the other, a large segment of the upper class has called for foreign aid in order to build up its authority throughout the country.48

Pomonti’s report has a familiar ring to it.


The Viet Cong strategy of establishing freed zones in which the Red Khmers can build up their own armies, based on the peasantry, no doubt explains Stanley Karnow’s observation that “the Communists have carefully refrained from moving against towns they could probably capture without firing a shot.”49 As he also notes, they have not even attempted “to prompt uprisings in areas like western Battambang Province, where a local left-wing dissident movement has been implanted for years.” They appear fully confident that, without the commitment of major forces,50 they can create a peasant-based guerrilla force loyal to Sihanouk that will restore him to power, this time in a firm alliance with the Cambodian left and a peasant-based popular movement. Reports from the field support this judgment. No doubt the Americans agree as well. This is surely one major reason for the invasion of Cambodia during the last week of April.

There were, no doubt, other supporting reasons. Nixon implied in his April 30 speech announcing the invasion that the alternatives were escalation or defeat. That seems a not unreasonable assessment. The invasion may indicate that “Vietnamization” is so fragile that even reduction of American forces to a quarter of a million men is regarded as unfeasible in Washington—that it is feared that to secure this immense army of occupation much wider areas of Indochina must be turned into free fire zones, empty and desolate.

However, it is hardly clear that there are “reasons,” in any serious sense, for the new escalation, any more than one can hope to construct a sensible and reliable explanation for the thinking, such as it was, that led to the unprovoked bombardment of North Vietnam in 1965. Shortly after the anti-Sihanouk coup in 1958, the Saigon government diplomatic representative in Phnom Penh (later a minister under Diem), who appears to have been implicated in the coup, told a reporter:

  1. 37

    Le Monde Weekly Selection, April 22, 1970. Pomonti is one of the very few correspondents to have reported in depth from Cambodia.

  2. 38

    Ibid. Assuming, that is, that they are alive. After their disappearance, during the general purge of the left several years ago, they were rumored to have been assassinated. Recently, the Cambodian and French press have stated that they are alive and with the guerrillas, and I was given the same information in Hanoi a few weeks ago, but I do not know how firm the evidence is. Added in proof: the new government has since been formed and the three are listed with major ministerial posts (national defense, information and propaganda, and interior communal reforms and cooperatives). Tillman Durdin, New York Times, May 6.

  3. 39

    Lacouture, le Nouvel Observateur, 20 April, 1970.

  4. 40

    New York Times, May 3. A former American teacher in Cambodia informs me that such “mock-martial gestures” involving students were common practice under Sihanouk.

  5. 41

    Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9.

  6. 42

    Current History, Feb., 1969.

  7. 43

    Roger Smith, “Prince Norodom Sihanouk,” Asian Survey, June, 1967.

  8. 44

    See Le Monde, April 23.

  9. 45

    Victoria Brittain, “Cambodia’s Grim Lesson,” New Statesman, May 1, 1970.

  10. 46

    Washington Post, April 22.

  11. 47

    Le Monde Weekly Selection, April 29.

  12. 48

    Le Monde Weekly Selection, May 6.

  13. 49

    Washington Post, April 24.

  14. 50

    According to well-informed sources there are about 24,000 Communist troops in Cambodia or on the border.” (Ian Wright, London Guardian, April 27). Other estimates go as high as 50,000. As noted earlier, prior to the coup they remained in uninhabited areas. Wright reports that American military sources give little credence to Cambodian army reports of VC and NVA military action. Actually, official American government statements are almost worthless unless subject to independent check. I shall return to this matter, in connection with Laos, in a later article.

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