New Internationalist

The Road to Kampuchea

Issue 084

Indochina has had one of the most tortured histories of any part of the world in the Twentieth Century. Its struggles for independence were thwarted first by the French and then by the Americans. But in the end the catastrophe turned out to be greatest for one of the countries that was initially the least involved. Peter Stalker looks at the forces that dragged Kampuchea into the Vietnam war and led to its present occupation by the Vietnamese army.

* For simplicity the country is referred to as Kampuchea throughout, although at this stage it is called Cambodia.

Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and the success of liberty’ - John F. Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961.

Kennedy’s words were to ring around the world and they were music in the ears especially of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in his struggle against Communist ‘subversion and infiltration’ from the North.

Later in the sixties the message was to become more muffled. As Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton said in 1966: ‘The present US objective in Vietnam is to avoid humiliation.’

Avoiding humiliation would be difficult and cost yet more American lives - in total, 50,000 were to be lost in Vietnam. And in the final months of US involvement in Indochina, ‘peace with honor’ would lead to the virtual destruction of one small nation, Kampuchea.*

America’s participation started seriously in the early fifties. The French were fighting a losing battle to keep their Indochina colonies against the nationalist and largely Communist forces of the Vietnamese. France’s ‘humiliation’ came with its disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva Conference on Indochina was convened shortly afterwards. The meeting was jointly chaired by Britain and the Soviet Union and it resolved that Vietnam should be ‘temporarily’ divided into North and South pending nationwide elections to be held in July 1956.

It was also agreed that there should be elections in neighbouring Kampuchea in 1955. The Kampuchean elections were duly held. The remarkable King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated so that he could take part in political activity and the new party he formed swept the board.

But in Vietnam there was a problem. America was not happy with the Geneva agreement, which looked like it gave too much away to Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. As President Eisenhower said in his memoirs, he ‘never talked or corresponded with anyone knowledgable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that in any elections while the fighting was on. possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh as their leader.’

For an America preoccupied with the thought of communist dominoes toppling across South east Asia such an outcome was unthinkable. The election never took place. America put its weight behind the South Vietnamese rulers, the Communists went on the offensive and the Vietnam war was on in earnest.

For years neighbouring Kampuchea miraculously escaped most of the death and destruction. The Khmer peasants could spend their time working peacefully in their fields. They had Prince Sihanouk to thank for this, his aggressive neutrality regularly infuriated both sides but it also managed to keep them at bay. But Kampuchea did not entirely escape contact. The North Vietnamese were all this time using their remote eastern border with Kampuchea to bring supplies and men down into the south -along the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. Sihanouk was resigned to this: there was little he felt he could do.

The American military felt very frustrated. Their failures against the Viet Cong were understandably causing them to look around for plausible excuses. And in the Vietnamese bases or ‘sancturies’ at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail they found them.

The Nixon and Kissinger White House agreed with the generals that the sancturies were undermining the war effort and decided to bomb them. But since Kampuchea was neutral such an action would be illegal, so the logs of the planes had to be falsified to make it look as though the attacks had taken place in South Vietnam. According to Kissinger’s recently published memoirs the attacks were undertaken ‘reluctantly, as a last resort, as a minimum response.’

Sihanouk, says Kissinger, tacitly approved of the bombings. In the end they contributed to the Prince’s downfall. His major claim to success was that he had kept Kampuchea out of the war. Now that achievement had gone as the bombing pushed the Vietnamese further into his country. As a memo from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff explained, the raids ‘forced them to disperse over a wider area.’

A few months later, in March 1970, the neutral Sihanouk was deposed in a right-wing coup when his prime minister, Lon Nol, seized power. America claimed to be as surprised at this as anyone else but very readily agreed to support the new anti-communist regime.

In fact they gave Lon Nol rather more support than he wanted. Not content with bombing, the Americans and the South Vietnamese followed up in April 1970 with a full-scale invasion of the sancturies which Lon Nol neither knew about in advance or wanted. The aim was to push the Communists away from the US troops in South Vietnam in one dramatic assault. ‘You have to,’ said Nixon, ‘electrify people with bold decisions. Bold decisions make history.’

The American people were not electrified by the invasion of neutral Kampuchea. They were outraged. One third of American colleges were closed during the protests. Four students were shot dead at Kent State, the protesters converged on Washington and Nixon was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

US troops were eventually withdrawn on June 30th. But the South Vietnamese were left behind and now able to give vent to their traditional contempt for the Khmers. Kampuchea had always been under threat from Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. Now the Vietnamese had invaded them yet again and were none to particular about whether the people they were killing were Communists or not. The Americans continued to bomb.

This holocaust was to transform the outlook of the Kampuchean people. As Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post Despatch wrote after spending 40 days as a prisoner of the Communists: ‘The borabing and the shooting were radicalising the people of Cambodia and turning the countryside into a massive, dedicated and effective rural base. American shells and bombs are proving to the Cambodians beyond doubt that the United States is waging unprovoked colonialist war against the people of Cambodia.’ By the end of 1970 the Vietnamese and the small Kampuchean Communist group, the Khmer Rouge, had taken half the country and 20 per cent of the population.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk

'He has a distinctive high-pitched voice . , , his delivery is punctuated by nervous laughter and marked by much repetition. At times of emotion his voice rises higher and higher and the nervous laughter seems as if it risks dominating the words as the Prince struggles to keep himself under control' - Prince Norodom Sihanouk as seen by Australian ex-diplomat Milton Osborne.

In most ways the Prince is an extraordinary character with a lifestyle pitched as high as his voice. Vain and self-centred he is almost entirely intolerant of criticism and when in power employed a whole team of sycophantic 'courtiers' to bolster his selfimage.

His passions are notorious, sexual and otherwise. He has turned his hand at one time or another to horse-riding, journalism and jazz all with great enthusiasm. And at his time of greatest government crisis in the late sixties he devoted himself almost entirely to the making of very bad films.

Yet for all his eccentricities and excesses, and the corruption that surrounded his administration in Phnom Penh, he had a massive popular following among the Kampuchean peasants. His leadership was based on no real ideology other then the necessity for his own and his country's survival.

Sihanouk started out as King. The French installed him in 1941 but in 1955 he abdicated in favour of his father so that he himself could become prime minister. From then until his downfall in 1970 he performed an extraordinary balancing act for Kampuchea, playing one nation off against the other in the mayhem that threatened to engulf his country. He screamed about 'American Imperialism' one minute and the next would be vigorously suppressing the left.

Somehow he managed to keep his country intact until 1970 when the bombing started and he was overthrown while out of the country by General Lon Nol in a rightwing coup. Almost in a fit of pique he immediately joined forces with tiis sworn enemies the Khmer Rougewho had previously taken to the jungle to escape his repression. He was set up in Peking as head of state of the government in exile but his power gradually diminished. The Khmer Rouge wanted to use his name because of his popular following, but by 1978 he was more or less under house arrest in Phnom Penh.

Afterthe fall of the city to the Vietnamese he returned to Peking and is once again attacking the Khmer Rouge. 'The people, he says, 'have irrevocably rejected the unacceptable and intolerable regime of the Khmer Rouge.' For all his apparent impotence today, many people still see Sihanouk as the one person around whom the people of Kampuchea can unite.

The North Vietnamese wanted to maintain their supply lines to the South no matter how circuitous they had to become. And they hoped that the Khmer Rouge would soon be strong enough to guard these routes for them.

They became strong very rapidly. Faced with the horrors of the bombing, people flocked to them, so that by the end of 1972 the ranks had swollen to 50,000. And what is more they were capable of getting by without the Vietnamese and by then some of the old bitterness between the two Communist parties had started to show through.

In January 1973 at the Paris peace talks Henry Kissinger managed to arrange a ceasefire with the Vietnamese. And he assumed that they could impose a similar agreement on the Kampucheans. He was very wrong. The Kampucheans thought that the Vietnamese had gained a great deal from the Paris talks and that they had gained very little. The Vietnamese had betrayed them and they resolved to fight on.

After a short lull America resumed the bombing of Kampuchea. Kissinger and Nixon were determined not to display any weakness. They wanted to show the North Vietnamese that they meant business and that any encroachments of the ceasefire would be similarly punished. By August 1973 when Congress managed to stop the carnage a total of 539,000 tons of bombs had crashed down on Kampuchea.

For the peasant boys and girls of the Khmer Rouge the experience was horrific and produced in them a frightening resolve and a fixity of purpose. Betrayed by the Vietnamese and pulverised by the Americans their hatred for the enemy intensified to the point that they were determined to sweep away everything the enemy stood for.

Finally in 1975 their war was won. A French priest, Francois Ponchaud, described their arrival in Phnom Penh: ‘These men in black moved along in indian file, treading softly, one exactly behind the other, their faces worn and expressionless, speaking not a word and surrounded by a deathly silence.’

They cleared Phnom Penh in a single day. A city that had swollen to about two million people disgorged one of the most pitiful exoduses in human history. Cripples limped by, weeping children were parted from their parents, hospital patients were pushed along in their beds. This was to be the start of the great social experiment.

Accused later of mass killings the then prime minister Pol Pot replied: ‘Our policy was to provide an affluent life for the people. There were mistakes made in carrying it out. Several thousand people may have died.’

In January 1979 the Vietnamese army moved in to depose Pol Pot. His ‘genocidal’ policies had given them an idealistic justification but they were infuriated too by his attacks on their borders. Vietnamese support of Heng Samrin now gives them a government in Phnom Penh they can deal with.

After the threat from the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese had receded, says Vietnamese Communist Party leader Le Due Tho, there will be no need for the Vietnamese army to remain ‘even for one more day.’ The Kampucheans are sceptical. They fear that the power balance in Indochina when it is finally reached will not amount to anything other then Vietnamese domination.

The rest of us might wonder what would have happened if those elections had taken place in Vietnam back in 1956, if the people of Indochina had been left to their own devices. The result might have been much the same, but it would have been reached by an altogether less painful route.

The Khmer Rouge

Khieu Samphan's doctoral thesis at the University of Paris in 1959 was called 'Cambodia's Economic and Industrial Development' It was his idea of how the country could be turned into a more selfreliant society. Rarely can an academic treatise have been so slavishly translated into action. He did in fact say that 'the peasants must be treated with patience and understanding' but that unfortunately was one of the few of his ideas which was not followed when the Khmer Rouge took power in Kampuchea in 1975.

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge developed their theories in the Paris of the 1950s. Their present prime minister Khieu Samphan was considered at the time 'pure, idealistic, thoughtful, remote from material contingencies.' He moved in the same circles as leng Sary, now his deputy, and Saloth Sar, who was later to take on the pseudonym Pol Pot.

Khieu Samphan was one ofthe moderates. He was more willing to compromise and to work with Prince Sihanouk when he returned to Kampuchea. The other two started out in Phom Penh but fled to the jungle in 1963 to become guerillas. By 1967 Khieu Samphan had become Minister of Commerce. But in that year there was an uprising of peasants in the north-west of the country and Sihanouk accused him, wrongly, of inciting it. Khieu Samphan then decided it was time for him to go too and disappeared.

But the revolutionaries had little success initially with the peasants. Life was hard but most of the people owned their own land and there was little discontent. They only started to make real progress after 1970 as the American bombing and invasion drew Kampuchea into the war and alienated the peasants from the government.

Finally in 1975 they were victorious and able to put the theories into practice. Agriculture they believed was of absolute importance. So much so that under the umbrella of the mysterious 'Angka', or organisation, they literally drove people out of the towns to work on the land. Within a short time the country had been transformed into one huge work camp.

They had the support of China and probably under their influence were very aggressive on the borders with Vietnam, which by 1978 was a very unfriendly neighbour. The Vietnamese took their opportunity and invaded.

In December 1979 Khieu Samphan, who was already President, also took on the job of prime minister, apparently in an attempt to remove from the limelight Pol Pot whose name is associated with the worst of the Khmer Rouge's violence.

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