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The Third Indochina War

Communist Party Power in Kampuchea (Cambodia): Documents and Discussion Studies, Cornell University

compiled and edited with an introduction by Timothy Michael Carney
Data Paper number 106, Southeast Asia Program, Department of Asian, 76 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of Communist Genocide in Cambodia

by John Barron, by Anthony Paul
Reader’s Digest Press, 240 pp., $9.95


Two years ago I suggested that it was possible to see Cambodia only through the prism of propaganda.1 Since then the volume of the propaganda has swelled. But so has the body of evidence on which it is based. Consider the following letter published in the Vietnamese paper Nhan Dan and broadcast on Hanoi radio. It describes a midnight Khmer Rouge attack on a Vietnamese village last October, soon after the war between the two former allies began.

All of the houses were surrounded by Cambodian soldiers who immediately opened fire and used machetes, axes, sabers and sharpened sticks to slay the villagers…. A fleeing child was caught by a soldier who cut off his leg and threw him into the flames. All seven members of Mrs. Truong Thi Rot’s family were beheaded. Rot was disemboweled and had a seven-month fetus placed on her chest.

All the eight members of Nguyen Van Tam’s family were beheaded and the heads were put on a table for amusement. All eight persons in Nguyen Thi Nganh’s house were disemboweled, the intestines [piled] in one shocking heap. Mr. Quang’s wife was also disemboweled. The killers took out her five-month fetus, then cut off her breast and chopped her body in three parts. Her two-year-old boy…was torn in two and dumped into a well.2

And so on. Such an account is fairly characteristic of the way in which totalitarian governments speak of their enemies in wartime and it might easily be dismissed as mere hyperbole. If it seems more credible than other propaganda this is because it matches refugee accounts of Khmer Rouge behavior in Cambodia itself and the way in which the Khmer Rouge soldiers are known to have performed in the border villages where they have been fighting the Thais. With a few exceptions the stories which have emerged from Cambodia in the past two years have confirmed the impression, given by the early refugees, of a vast and somber work camp where toil is unending, rewards are nonexistent, families are separated, and murder is a constantly used tool of social discipline. Well before Hanoi published similar assessments, Democratic Kampuchea seemed to many in the West a uniquely atrocious experiment in human engineering conducted, in Hanoi’s words, by “infantile communists” who pursued “a consistent policy of national hatred” and were “deliberately turning young Kampucheans into medieval butchers” to indulge in “savage repressions” and “bloody massacres.”

When the French naturalist Henri Mouhot journeyed through Cambodia and Thailand in 1859 he rowed up the Great Lake in search of the ruins of Angkor. The lake he found exquisite. “The shore is low and thickly covered with trees which are half submerged; and in the distance is visible an extensive range of mountains whose highest peaks seem lost in the clouds. The waves glitter in the broad sunlight with a brilliancy which the eye can scarcely support.” The fish were so incredibly abundant that even when the “water is high they are actually crushed under the boat and the play of oars is hampered by them.”3

But although he was moved by the natural beauty of the country and by the splendor of the Angkor ruins, which had been lost for centuries, Mouhot was depressed by Cambodia. Once the Kingdom of Angkor had dominated the entire region and ruled much of Siam and the Mekong Delta. But after the Khmers abandoned Angkor in 1431 the nation disintegrated, as its Thai (i.e., Siamese) and Vietnamese neighbors encroached from both east and west, absorbing more and more of its peoples and its land. By the middle of the nineteenth century Cambodia was on the verge of disappearing altogether; Angkor itself was well inside Siam. As one scholar has noted, thousands of Khmers were being “killed and uprooted in a series of ruinous wars, carried on inside [their] territory by the Thai, the Vietnamese, and local factions.” 4

The Thais burned down the Khmer capital three times in the first half of the century; Vietnamese advisers kept the Cambodian monarch a prisoner for fifteen years; the chronicles are filled with references to plagues, famines, and floods. It was a very dark period. In 1840 the Cambodians mounted a rebellion against the increasing Vietnamese domination of Khmer life. The Vietnamese emperor, Ming Mang, characterized well Vietnam’s attitude to the Khmers in a letter to his general, Truong Minh Giang:

Sometimes the Cambodians are loyal; at other times they betray us. We helped them when they were suffering, and lifted them out of the mud…. Now they are rebellious: I am so angry that my hair stands upright…. Hundreds of knives should be used against them, to chop them up, to dismember them….

Elsewhere he ordered they be “crushed to powder.” The Cambodian view was expressed by an official who said simply, “We are happy killing Vietnamese. We no longer fear them.”5

The Khmer rebels used hit-and-run tactics against the better armed and organized Vietnamese, who were forced to withdraw from around Phnom Penh to the Delta. Nonetheless, in 1859 Henri Mouhot considered that “the present state of Cambodia is deplorable and its future menacing…. The population is excessively reduced by the incessant wars carried on against neighboring states.” He was sure that only government by France could guarantee the country’s survival.

And so it did. For almost a century the French ruled Cambodia and, for the most part, provided it with territorial security. In 1907 the western provinces of Siem Reap (which contains Angkor) and Battambang were returned by Thailand. (Ironically it was an American adviser to the Thai monarchy, Edward H. Strobel, who engineered the return of the two provinces. Strobel, a man of some wisdom, showed rather more understanding of the region than his successors half a century later.) 6 But definitive borders between Cambodia and its neighbors were never really agreed on; the French drew lines between Cambodia and Vietnam largely for their own administrative convenience. Siem Reap and Battambang were lost again to Thailand during the Japanese occupation; they were restored again after the end of World War II.

Territorial disputes began again in earnest after Indochina was granted independence in 1954. One consequence of the policy of neutrality that Sihanouk attempted to pursue through the Fifties and Sixties was that the regimes backed by the US in both South Vietnam and Thailand refused to recognize his frontiers. Border battles were a constant feature of the harassment he faced.

Less obvious at the time were the other tensions arising between the Vietnamese communists and the tiny band of Cambodian communists whom Sihanouk called the Khmer Rouge. Their quarrels began at the Geneva Conference in 1954 when Peking and Hanoi agreed that the Khmer Rouge should be disbanded and its cadres withdrawn to Hanoi. The Cambodians never forgave or forgot this betrayal. Last September, the prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot, declared in a long speech that as a result of it the “revolutionary struggle of our people…dissolved into thin air.” The problem, he said, was that the Cambodian communists did not have a proper “guideline,” did not know “which direction to follow, which goal to attain, which forces to rely on….”7 But Hanoi, clearly, was totally unreliable.

Pol Pot’s speech, together with his subsequent press conference in Peking, provide both a remarkably revealing assessment of Cambodia today and also a determined attempt to rewrite Cambodian communist history in the light of the struggle with Hanoi. Previously, for example, the Khmer Rouge had always claimed 1951—the year the Lao Dong Party was formed in Vietnam—as the founding date of the Cambodian Party. Now, in an obvious attempt to make it seem distant from any Vietnamese initiative, Pol Pot gave the year as 1960.

Until Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 the Vietnamese communists subordinated Khmer interests to their own. The prince was cooperative; in 1965 he allowed them to establish base camps just across the hazy border with South Vietnam and then permitted them to ship supplies through the port of Sihanoukville. At the same time he waged a continual and harsh war upon the tiny Khmer Rouge groups in the woods and the hills; they came to understand well the insubstantial nature of international solidarity. Only after the 1970 coup by Lon Nol did Hanoi finally, and for its own reasons, begin to help build a communist organization in Cambodia.

Hatred between the two peoples is an essential feature of the war that followed. It was most apparent in relations between Lon Nol’s government and the South Vietnamese. In the first few weeks after the coup hundreds of Vietnamese residents of Cambodia were slaughtered by Khmers inflamed by government propaganda that all Vietnamese were “VC.” When the South Vietnamese invaded with the Americans in April 1970 their revenge was bloody. They treated the country as a military playground, with any Cambodian fair game. There were almost no controls. South Vietnamese air force pilots, until then very lazy, actually paid bribes for the privilege of flying seven days a week—over Cambodia. For weeks the 495th ARVN battalion rampaged around Takeo Province and, according to one CIA report from Phnom Penh, its commander, Captain Le Van Vien, constantly called in airstrikes “to drive the people from their villages.” His men would then seize the livestock and force the villagers to buy them back.

Mike Rives, the US chargé d’affaires in Phnom Penh and an excellent reporter, warned Washington in August 1970 that even Lon Nol was “getting increasingly fed up” and was considering how to rid himself of this unfriendly new ally. But he could not, and Thieu actually began to demand that the Cambodians pay for the privilege of having the ARVN troops in their country. Kissinger’s response was to suggest that the Khmers’ other enemy, Thailand, also send troops to prey on the Cambodians. The anguish this aroused in Phnom Penh could probably have been understood anywhere else than in the Nixon-Kissinger White House. The Cambodian chief of staff, General Sak Sutsakhan, told a Filipino officer who was a CIA agent that his government was afraid that Thailand and South Vietnam now really did intend to swallow up Cambodia.

But the attitudes of the White House were contradictory and obtuse. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that those who fashioned “The Nixon Doctrine in Its Purest Form”—Kissinger, Haig, Admiral John McCain (commander in chief, Pacific Forces)—never entertained the idea in 1970 that the North Vietnamese would be able to create a Khmer communist army. Traditional antipathy between the Khmers and Vietnamese was thought to be too strong. And yet when the growth of the Khmer Rouge into main force units was finally recognized in Washington they were always considered in the White House to be the creatures of Hanoi. From Kissinger’s refusal to accept that the Khmer Rouge could seriously distrust the Vietnamese communists stems much of the subsequent, continuing disaster.

  1. 1

    The New York Review of Books, March 4, 1976.

  2. 2

    Hanoi radio in English, January 12, 1978. All quotations in this article from radio broadcasts and from the Vietnam News Agency are from the BBC’s “Summary of World Broadcasts.”

  3. 3

    Henri Mouhot, Travels in the Central Part of Indochina, two volumes (John Murray: London, 1864).

  4. 4

    David Chandler, “Cambodia Before the French: Politics in a Tributary Kingdom 1794-1848,” dissertation, University of Michigan, 1973.

  5. 5

    Quoted by Chandler in “Cambodia Before the French.”

  6. 6

    See “The First American Advisers in Thai History,” Journal of the Siam Society, July 1974, Vol.62, part 2.

  7. 7

    Phnom Penh radio, September 28, 1977. See also the report of his press conference in Peking, New China News Agency, October 3, 1977.

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