Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 17, 1975 From Bloody War to Killing Fields and Vietnamese Invasion

Khmer Rouge Soldiers enter Phnom Penh as Khmer Republic soldiers lay down their arms (Image RNBKK archives)

After a peaceful coup on March 18, 1970, Cambodia plunked into the most bloody war in history followed by a killing field.  The following day after Sihanouk's plane landed in Beijing, Sihanouk told Premier Zhou Enlai, " I'm going to return home and fight."  Nonetheless, Zhou Enlai did not impress with his words; instead he warned the prince that a war would be long, hard, dangerous, and sometimes discouraging.  Then a blue print for the war was created in Beijing when Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Dong flew to Beijing to meet Zhou Enlai and Prince Sihanouk.  Pol Pot was secretly in Beijing but avoided to see Sihanouk.  Now Phan Van Dong and Zhou Enlai arranged Sihanouk to work with the Khmer Rouge, creating the United Front of Kampuchea to appeal all Cambodian peoples to launch a war campaign and civil disobedience against the new Khmer Republic Government.  Through Radio Beijing, Shihanouk denounced the coup and called for the people to join him to fight for justice, by which he meant revenge.  Then the brutal war was enraged after Vietnam had failed to strike a deal with Marshal Lon Nol's new government to reopen a supplies line through Cambodia.

Sihanouk's appeal from Beijing amounted to declaration of war; every Khmer now was forced to take sides--the Khmer Republic or Sihanouk's government-in-exile.  To attract more international supports, a new Cambodian Royal Government of National Union (CRGNU) was established under a leadership of Sihanouk, composing of famous members from the Khmer Rouge and the former Sihanouk's government.  The following list are some key cabinet posts in the CRGNU:
-Prime Minister: Mr. Pen Nouth
-Minister of Prime Minister Office: Mr. Keat Chhun (a current deputy prime minister)
-Foreign Minister: Mr. Sarin Chhack
-Defense Minister: Mr. Khiev Samphan (currently put on trial of genocide)
-Interior Minister: Mr. Hou Yuon
-Minister of Economy: Mr. Thioun Mumm
And so on (source : Philip Short Anatomy of a Nightmare).  The new government proclaimed on May 5, 1970, and immediately recognized by China, North Vietnam, Cuba, and many other communist countries around the world.  The new government fully funded by China at least $5 millions annually.  Sihanouk was assigned to conduct diplomatic battle for international recognition while Pol Pot elusively conducted policy at home and executed a war plan.

This two- head government covertly had different agenda: Sihanouk needed the Khmer Rouge to seek immediate vengeance while Pol Pot needed Sihanouk's popular name and reputation to gain strong support from the grass root people and international community.  However, such an alliance was not apparently even a marriage of convenience since they shared different bed in different dreams.  Sihanouk desired to be reinstated as a head of state while Pol Pot wanted to grab power, introducing communism that totally contradicted to Sihanouk's feudalism and progressive economic policy.  The two groups had no alternative choices but to work together as had arranged by Beijing and Hanoi in order to unseat the US-backed government in Phnom Penh.
Khmer Republic soldiers fought fierce battle with Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops
After Sihanouk's appeal, North Vietnam, which already had stationed tens thousands of its troops in Cambodia, approached the new government in Phnom Penh to negotiate reopening a supplies line through Cambodia but strongly rejected by the Khmer Republic as it had expected.  However, the Vietnamese had completely drawn its own plan to launch a military offensive against the new Lon Nol's government on a pretext to restore Sihanouk's power.  On March 27, all Vietnamese diplomats were flown out to Hanoi, opening for the first and fierce battle directly with the Khmer Republic army.  The 40,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia reinforced by additional units launched a fierce co-ordinate attack on the Lon Nol's small inexperienced army in all fronts.  On April 20, 1970, the Vietcong units were within 15 miles away from Phnom Penh before being beaten back by the Khmer republic resilient troops, supporting by the US and South Vietnamese troop incursions on May 12.   Nonetheless, by 1973, the Vietnamese troops seized nearly 70 percent of the country and controlled one-third of Cambodian population.

the fast capture of  territories by the Vietnamese troops had posed a real dilemma for Pol Pot and his colleague since the Khmer Rouge did not have enough troops and civilian administrators to run a wast liberated zone.  As result, the Vietnamese built their administrative offices, hospitals, military and political training schools, bringing their own officers to train people along their occupied forces; such actions became Hanoi's official policy all over the liberated zone.  Pol Pot privately accused the Vietnamese of setting up a " parallel state power" inside Cambodian territory without the Khmer Rouge's knowledge.  Now the Khmer Rouge leadership was torn apart, fearing that they did not have enough troops to protect the large liberated zone and their most fearful thought is the Vietnamese troops might not leave Cambodia.  Such an ancestral dread of Vietnamese domination was also strongly shared by the Khmer Republic though they are the Khmer Rouge's bitter enemies.

Prince Sihanouk and his Khmer Rouge colleague
Despite the Khmer Rouge had worried about Cambodian sovereignty in the future, in a short term, the Vietnamese had done a great job for them to win the war.  In 1971, the Vietnamese commandos from elite Dac Cong Brigade blew up the whole Khmer Republic air force, according to Philip Short's account, at least 10 Mic-17s, 5 T-28, 8 helicopters, 10 transport air crafts, and two ammunition dumps were completely destroyed along with 40 dead soldiers.  This elite Dac Cong Brigade later destroyed nearly 60 percent of Cambodia's fuel depots in  another raid in Sihanoukville.  This is a severe blow to the young Khmer Republic which had never had a chance to build its own military strength since it came to power.  Though Marshal Lon Nol launched the twin-military offensives called Chenla I and II in 1970-71, to reopen a national route 6 toward Kompong Thom province, those operations were severely smashed by a joint battle between the Khmer Rouge fighters and the Vietcong troops when they tricked the Khmer Republic columns driving deep into their front line then opened fire from all directions forcing the Khmer republic Soldiers fled in disarray and killing them all over the road.  Despite Lon Nol declared a limited success, later on the Khmer Republic soldiers were forced back to the cities' walls until their final day.

By 1973, the Khmer Rouge army grew up to 35,000 combat troops backed by over 100,000 guerrillas, more than enough to defeat the low morale Khmer Republic troops on their own when the Vietnamese troops were forced to withdraw by Paris Peace Treaty in 1973 and the Khmer Rouge's enforcement.  As the Vietnamese troops started to leave, the Khmer Rouge gradually inserted its
power across the liberated zone.  Before, most local administrators were Hanoi returnees and pro-Sihanouk group trained by the Vietnamese officials.  Lives in the liberated zone were remarkably normal as the previous regime: people were allowed to own private properties, sold foods and products on open markets; religious practices, basic education, and marriage, family lives, travel from place to place,were not restricted.  Then the Khmer Rouge inserted their power all over the liberated zone, appointing new local administrators, stripping all private properties, banning all religious practices, marriages, markets, schools, and forcing people dressed in black, worked and ate in cooperative farms. Such a model of living was re-introduced throughout the country after the Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17, 1975.

Khmer Rouge Troops enter the City Center
 As the Khmer Rouge power gradually re-asserted over the liberated zone, all Vietnamese both civilians and military personnel were told to leave Cambodia sometimes in forceful ways.  All Vietnamese troops left behind were forced to move away from the villages, and they were required to carry ID or pass if they went through the villages.  All Hanoi returnees were demoted or stripped off power and sent to re-education camps.  Pol Pot viewed them as the Vietnamese spies or the " Vietnamese-head and Khmer- body people; they lost national character as the true Khmer."  Fearing of persecution, some of them fled to the Khmer Republic side, and the others made their way back to Hanoi.  The Khmer Rouge lost faith with Vietnam was echoed by the Soviet diplomat in Hanoi that the Vietnamese leaders still spoke of their old dream of a "Socialist Indochina Federation."  The Vietnamese intentional plan that most Khmer people had a reason to fear.  Hanoi's narrowly nationalistic approach and its attempts to subordinate the problems of Cambodia and Laos to the interest of Vietnam risked alienating the communist movements in those countries.

On the front lines, the Khmer Rouge stepped up military campaigns in all directions--the river convoys supplying Phnom Penh came under sustained attacks and all routes in and out of the Capital City were insecure or cut.  Phnom Penh increasingly relied on US's air lifts for foods to feed over 2 millions people who had fled from the countrysides living in a dire condition.  Along with supplies routes cuts, the Khmer Rouge rockets started to fall in random targets in the crowded city killing and injuring countless civilians.  On February 25, 1975, the Northern Zone troops under Keo Pauk's Command, captured a strategic town, Oudong, while the Southwest troops under Ta Mok advanced along route 4.  In a next few weeks, Pol Pot moved his headquarter to Oudong to command the troops from the maintain, watching his troops fiercely battled the entrenched Lon Nol's troops on Phnom Penh vicinities.

A pile of weapons abandoned by the Khmer Republic Soldiers
 Along with a steady advance of their troops to Phnom Penh Center, the Khmer Rouge radio announced that the seven arch traitors would be executed: Lon Nol, Sarik Matak, Cheng Heng, Sosten Fernandez, Lon Non, In Tam, and Long Boreth.  On April 1, Lon Nol left the country in tear for the US, transferring his power to Gen. Sokam Koy to oversee the last two weeks of the Khmer Republic's life.  By April 1, most foreign embassy staffs were evacuated, and on April 17, the black uniformed troops marched into Phnom Penh from all directions encountering with cheering crowds who had expected peace has come at the end.  People began kissing, hugging each other, and some singing and dancing in the streets expressing physical sense of relief and hope--no more rockets to fear, no more military conscription, and no more bloodshed.  After a five-year bloody war in which half a million people had died, people felt so relieved that they would have done anything the new government demanded.  But they never thought that the new regime would force them out of their homes in such a dreadful way.

A harsh colossal scale of evacuation from Phnom Penh
 By early afternoon, the Khmer Rouge soldiers went from house to house, telling people that they must leave their homes just for two or three days, on the pretext that Americans to bomb the city.  The evacuation of Phnom Penh was a real shamble; to move more than two millions people at a few hour's notice with no government transportation, food, and no choice of destinations-- wherever they went no return.  The entreaties of husbands and wives or parents and children who happened to find themselves in different part of the city were ignored: they must go the same direction as everyone else, and searches were stepped up for those trying to stay behind if found they were simply killed.  At least 15,000 to 20,000 patients in the city were forced to leave from hospital beds to die on the way or left to die in place since all nurses and doctors were gone.  An estimated number up to 20,000 deaths during an evacuation on the hot and dry weather of April; most people died from heat exhaust  and hunger: no food and water for the people who had no transportation and separated from families.  However, this great suffering was just a beginning; when they reached their destinations in rural and jungle areas, they faced a reality of the killing field.

Daily work of people in the Khmer Rouge  regime

The victory of the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975 did not end suffering that Cambodian people had endured over the past five-year bloody war but pushed the country further into the killing fields where all people had lived in a labor camp or in the prison without a wall.  Nearly two millions people died from starvation, overwork, sickness, and random executions.  For Pol Pot and his colleagues, a victory did not bring them to show up in front the cheering crowds, instead they were still hiding until April 20 when Pol Pot came in the city escorted by his powerful zone commanders and colleagues.  His present in Phnom Penh was secret; there was no announcement, no ceremony, nothing to show he was there.  Thus the coerced evacuation of millions of people in a short period of time may indicated Pol Pot's pre-plan; firstly, he feared the Vietnamese spies and the CIA disguising with people; secondly, he may want to eliminate a frontier between the city dwellers and the rural people who were the grassroots of the revolution; and thirdly he may concern about food shortage.  Nonetheless, there is no justification for his actions since there were no CIA or Vietnamese spies, US's bombing, and food shortage would be less severe If he let people to move out of the city voluntarily since most of them wanted to leave the crowded city anyway, so there would be no such a human disaster.

The Vietnamese invaders
In Vietnam and Laos, the communist victory did not affect much of people's lives since they did not strip off people's private properties and let the people moving out of the cities to do farming voluntarily, so they had enough time to prepare for their lives.  In Laos, the US embassy still opened when the Communist Pathet Laos marched on the streets in Vientiane.  In contrast, all foreign embassies in Phnom Penh were closed except the French embassy staffs were later deported to Thailand.  The brutal killing of the Khmer Republic leadership, soldiers, government officials and the forceful evacuation all the city dwellers on the first day of their victory had previewed the Khmer Rouge's brutality in the next four years of their rule.   The killing fields had reigned all over the country until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.  Though Hanoi had its own agenda to conquer Cambodia rather than to save Khmer lives, its invasion stopped Pol Pot's killing, but it installed another brutal communist puppet regime to rule Cambodia until present day-- the situation that Cambodian people called, " when you step down in the water you face crocodile while step up to the ground you face the tiger."  In this metaphor, the Khmer Rouge is a tiger and the Vietnamese is a crocodile; no one is better than the other.

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