Seeing the ruins of Angkor, built in the 12th century by the Khmer civilization of southeast Asia, is an experience that has always remained with me. I remember walking alone at night through the temples, staring up at the gigantic carved stone face of the gate at Angkor Thom bathed in moonlight. During the day, I would visit Buddhist sanctuaries and shrines nearby and talk to the monks, with their shaved heads and their bright saffron robes that contrasted so sharply with the ancient grey stone of Angkor and the dark green jungle of Cambodia. The year was 1961, and I was 17 years old.
Cambodia was then a land of serenity, with a gentle and tranquil people who were at peace with themselves and the world. No one, I think, could have guessed what indescribable tragedies awaited it and all of Indo-China.
In July 1984, as the start of a second tour of anti-Soviet resistance movements around the world, I was on my way to Indo-China once again. The Thai Airways flight from Manila to Bangkok crossed the Vietnamese coast at an unmistakable location: Da Nang. It was eerie seeing the coastline appear—recognizing with a start the straight line of beach, the sandy spit and sugarloaf next to the river—then continuing smoothly at 35,000 feet over the land where the Vietnam war was fought.
The eeriness was intensified by the luxury of the Thai "Royal Executive Class": lobster and champagne seven miles in the sky, the suffering and anguish down below, so distant and unreal. I had to remind myself that all those people—the brutalized villagers and farmers, the Montagnard tribesmen with whom I once lived and hunted tigers in the Central Highlands, the thousands of wretched prisoners in the concentration camps, the Communist dictators and the guerrillas who are fighting them—were actually down there.
The plane passed imperceptibly into Laos, then over the Mekong River, wide and muddy, forming the Lao-Thai border, and we began our descent to Bangkok. From there I traveled to the Cambodian border, passing through the various Thai military checkpoints on the way, and finally met with those I had come to see: guerrillas of the KPNLF—the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. With KPNLF escorts, I went inside Cambodia and for 10 days in mid-July observed their impressive fight against Cambodia's Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupiers.
The story of Cambodia's nationalist resistance is an extraordinary one of tattooed guerrillas, their bodies covered with magical words in Khmer script to protect them from harm. Of motocross guerrillas, charging off to attack and harass the enemy on Enduro dirt bikes. Of Robin Hood guerrillas like Rem Saroum, fast becoming a legend among villagers for protecting them from raping and pillaging Vietnamese soldiers. Of anti-Marxist guerrillas, whose leaders, with romantic names like Chia Chhut and Sak Sutsakhan, admire America and envision a liberal democracy for Cambodia. It is also a story of hope for the 70,000-square-mile former French protectorate, which has endured a ghoulish nightmare for the past decade and is now a part of Soviet Indo-China.
The kingdom of Kambuja, anglicized to Cambodia, arose along the southern Mekong and the Tonle Sap lake in the seventh century. Its kings claimed descent from the deity Kambu and his mistress Mera, eponym of the Khmer people. Over the centuries, its fortune and territory expanded and receded variously according to struggles with such neighbors as the Chams, the Annamese, and the Siamese.
In the 19th century, the Siamese (Thai today) overran so much of Cambodia that King Norodom I chose to make Cambodia a French protectorate in 1863. Remaining a part of French Indo-China (along with Laos and North and South Vietnam) until after World War II, Cambodia was recognized as an independent state in 1949 within the French Union. It took the 1954 Geneva Convention, however, to rid the country of both French and Vietminh (Ho Chi Minh Communist) troops.
In 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk, who had ruled since 1941, abdicated his throne and was subsequently elected prime minister, promptly leading his government into a formal secession of Cambodia from the French Union. There followed a few precious years of peace and calm. But while the 1960s ticked by, Sihanouk, a vacillating ruler who played all sides, could not prevent his country from being slowly and relentlessly sucked into the maelstrom of the terrible war developing to his east, in South Vietnam.
In 1970, a group of officers in the Cambodian military led by General Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk. For the next five years, the Lon Nol regime, enmeshed in a hopeless welter of corruption, became increasingly incapable of fighting off a ferociously determined army of guerrillas led by Marxist revolutionaries. From the mid to late '60s, these revolutionaries had all vanished into the jungles of eastern Cambodia after having been trained and armed for guerrilla warfare by North Vietnam and China. Their leader, Saloth Sar, assumed the revolutionary name Pol Pot, and while they called their movement Angka Loeu, the "Organization on High," the world was to know them as the Khmer Rouge, the Red Khmers.
Darkness descended on Indo-China in 1975. On April 30, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. On August 23, the capital of Laos, Vientiane, fell to the Laotian Communists, the Pathet Lao. But April 17 was the worst of all. At 7:00 A.M., Khmer Rouge troops entered the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. By 9:00 A.M. they were forcing hospital patients out into the streets, demanding the entire city be evacuated. Ten days later, Phnom Penh was a ghost town, its 3 million inhabitants (and several hundred thousand more from other evacuated cities) thrust out into the jungles without food, clothing, or shelter, and told: "Everything, all property of any kind, now belongs to Angka. Cities are evil. Everyone is now equal and must work in the fields." Anyone who protested in the slightest way was immediately killed.
Perhaps only those who personally experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps or the Soviet Gulag can fully grasp what the Khmer people suffered under Pol Pot. Almost half of the country's entire population perished from execution, starvation, and disease—2 to 3 million, perhaps more, annihilated in a frenzy of Marxist, envy-fueled fanaticism. Descriptions from Khmer men and women who survived Pol Pot's three years and nine months in power leave one stunned and silent. A typical story is that of Lavi Son, from Battambang.
"I had been a major in the Lon Nol army," Lavi Son told me last July, "but I pretended to be nothing more than a janitor and factory worker during the Khmer Rouge years. I had to be very careful not to speak too intelligently and to use poor grammar. The Khmer Rouge killed all the school teachers, all the high-school students, all the college students, all the doctors, businessmen, shopkeepers, monks, and nuns. They would tell the illiterate and poor: 'You must kill all who think they are smarter or better than you, or else they will end up being your boss someday and exploit you.'
"Everyone, from small children to the oldest man or woman," Lavi Son recounted, "had to work hard all day every day—365 days a year, no days off, no holidays ever. If you refused or they thought you weren't working hard enough, you must be an imperialist trying to sabotage the revolution: bang, they shoot you dead. The Khmer Rouge seemed to get a special pleasure from beating children to death with bludgeons and clubs, to see if their parents cried. The parents had to watch while their babies were murdered before their eyes, and if they cried, it was proof they were counterrevolutionary—any tears, any tears at all, and they were beaten to death too."
Although the Khmer Rouge were trained and armed by the North Vietnamese, a comradely alliance did not develop between them after their respective victories. Hanoi, as close as "lips and teeth" with Peking during the Vietnam war, spurned China after conquering South Vietnam and aligned itself with the Soviet Union. The Khmer Rouge, however, remained tied to the Red Chinese.
An increasing truculence developed between Hanoi and Phnom Penh, occasionally breaking out into open hostility and artillery exchanges. The denouement came in January 1979. Financed, armed, and sanctioned by Moscow, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia with 60,000 troops. Pol Pot and his followers fled into the jungles, Hanoi installed a client regime in Phnom Penh led by Heng Samrin (a former Khmer Rouge commander who decamped to Vietnam after helping to lead a failed coup attempt against Pol Pot in 1978), and the Cambodian people welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators. Today, six years later, the Khmer people no longer see the Soviet-backed Vietnamese as liberators.
Popular support within the country has yet to be achieved by the Heng Samrin regime. Diplomats on the scene have recently observed that the regime's political base is "virtually nonexistent"—not surprising, since at least one-third of its leaders (including Heng Samrin) were once Khmer Rouge. (An interesting parallel is in Nicaragua, where most of the local officials of the Sandinista "Defense Committees" are former Somoza officials: instead of joining the Contra guerrillas, the "Somocistas" form the bureaucratic backbone of the Sandinista government.)
The Hanoi satellite regime has gained no diplomatic recognition outside the Soviet Bloc, with the single exception of India. It exercises no civil or military authority independent from Vietnamese cadres and advisors. The Heng Samrin "government" in Cambodia is a facade for the Vietnamese in the same way that the Moscow-installed Babrak Karmal regime in Afghanistan is for the Soviets.
Rather than liberators, the Vietnamese, backed and funded by the Soviets, are today increasingly seen by the Khmers as imperialist aggressors and colonialist exploiters. There are now about 180,000 Vietnamese military and civilian personnel inside Cambodia, perhaps as many as 200,000. And some 700,000 Vietnamese settlers have appropriated much of the best land. According to refugees from Cambodia's interior with whom I spoke, only Vietnamese are now allowed to fish commercially in the Tonle Sap, and they are taking everything that swims out of Cambodia's great lake, upwards of 100,000 tons of fresh fish a year.
Once, much of the world admired the followers of Ho Chi Minh for heroically resisting the onslaught of a mighty superpower. Once, they were lionized at diplomatic receptions around the globe as anti-imperialist champions of the Third World. But all that has changed with the international condemnation that followed Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, condemnation that comes from the great majority of nonaligned states, too. As the Vietnamese refuse to discuss a negotiated withdrawal, their diplomatic isolation increases—especially from their neighbors in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) alliance: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Once, the followers of Ho Chi Minh were hailed as guerrilla geniuses whose armed liberation movement prevailed against the French and the Americans. But today, although they possess the world's fourth-largest army (after China, the Soviet Union, and the United States), the Vietnamese cannot defeat the 12,000 lightly armed guerrillas of the KPNLF, who have become an effective, well-trained, and organized military force determined to rid Cambodia of imperialist-colonialist invaders. Today, for Hanoi and the followers of Ho Chi Minh, the shoe is on the other foot.
Though Cambodian armed opposition to the Khmer Rouge developed during the Pol Pot years and received some encouragement and material support from the Thai military, it was confined to the Thai-Cambodian border area and never numbered more than a few hundred men. In February 1979, shortly after the Vietnamese invasion, a respected general from the Lon Nol years, Dien Del, came from France to visit the border. By March, he had five anticommunist resistance groups coalesced into the KPNLA—the Khmer People's National Liberation Army—which professed its allegiance to a former prime minister of Cambodia and founder of the Cambodian Democrat Party, Son Sann.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1911, Son Sann had been a cabinet member 17 times, beginning in 1935, and was the president of the Council of Ministers under Sihanouk in 1968. After the Lon Nol military coup, Son Sann moved to France and gathered around him a number of Khmer exiles who were committed to achieving a multiparty parliamentary democracy for Cambodia. In October 1979, Son Sann's and Dien Del's followers merged to form the KPNLF—the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. Son Sann became its president and the KPNLA its military force, with Dien Del as chief of staff.
Since early 1979, recruits had been pouring in from the interior of Cambodia and from the border refugee camps. Neither the Thai, French, US, nor any western government was able or willing to sufficiently arm and supply the fledgling resistance organization. The only offer of aid came from Peking, which was resupplying the Khmer Rouge at their guerrilla hideouts in the Malai mountains, in southwest Cambodia.
In the fall of 1979, Son Sann and Pol Pot agreed not to fight each other. Shortly thereafter, in November, a shipment of 3,000 Chinese weapons arrived at the KPNLF headquarters of Banteay Ampil.
In March 1981, another shipment of 3,000 weapons arrived from China. The KPNLF now had 7,000 men under arms, most of them protecting the refugee camps in static defensive positions, and had started guerrilla forays from military camps along the northern and southern sectors of the Thai-Cambodian border.
By mid-1982, the Chinese pressured the KPNLF to join the Khmer Rouge and the followers of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in forming the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). (Kampuchea is the name the Khmer Rouge gave to Cambodia.) With Sihanouk as president, Khieu Samphan of the Khmer Rouge as vice-president, and Son Sann of the KPNLF as prime minister, the CGDK is currently recognized as the legitimate government of Cambodia by the United Nations, which, since 1983, has refused to acknowledge the credentials or seat the ambassador of Heng Samrin's PRK (People's Republic of Kampuchea).
Also in 1982, Dien Del was replaced as head of the KPNLA general staff by General Sak Sutsakhan, minister of defense under Sihanouk and military chief of staff under Lon Nol. From late '82 to early '83, with Sak Sutsakhan in command, four dozen KPNLA commanders went secretly to Malaysia for three months of intensive guerrilla-warfare training. A new emphasis was placed on guerrilla operations, trickles of weapons and supplies from Singapore and other ASEAN countries supplemented the little aid from Peking (compared to what was being given to the Khmer Rouge), and slowly the KPNLA grew to its current strength of 12,000 under arms.
Chia Chhut looks younger than his 42 years. He is taller than most Khmers, sinewy and trim, with an angular face of clean, straight lines, a wide, thin mouth, and high, smooth forehead. Tattoos of Cambodian script cover his feet, and there is a huge tattoo of the temple Angkor Wat on his chest. We were astride a log at the Tuorpchoek forward camp of the KPNLF, several kilometers inside Cambodia, and he was regaling me with stories of how he came to be a guerrilla commander. Several of his men had fanned out into the surrounding forests for security—the nearest Vietnamese-Heng Samrin position was only 500 meters away.
Chia Chhut had resigned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Lon Nol army, disgusted with its ineffectiveness. When the Khmer Rouge seized power, he hid in the jungle along the Thai border. With two friends, he stole three rifles and began sniper attacks against Khmer Rouge soldiers in the area, slowly capturing more weapons and acquiring more followers. By the time of the January '79 Hanoi invasion, Chia Chhut had a force of 150 men. His group was one of the original five forming the nucleus of the KPNLA under Dien Del.
As president of the Nong Chan refugee camp and military commander of KPNLA Zone 205, Chia Chhut now is responsible for the care and protection of more than 20,000 refugees and for the operations of some 4,000 guerrillas.
"Our men are divided into three forces," he explained. "Most of our men are deployed in a defensive line guarding the Nong Chan camp, as our primary obligation is the safety of our refugees. Next, we have special teams continually probing and harassing the Yuen [an extreme Khmer pejorative applied to the Vietnamese] and Heng Samrin bunker line and positions in the area. Finally, we have a number of deep penetration teams, which operate all the way to south of Battambang and around the Tonle Sap. They recently blew up a large ammo dump of 10 tons, a warehouse with 6,000 sacks of rice for the Yuen soldiers, and 20 PRK trucks at a fuel dump—all in the Battambang area."
As Chia Chhut and I were talking, two young boys came by, having walked since midnight from Sisophon 19 miles away, to sell dried fish at the Nong Chan market. Civilians are allowed to go back and forth as long as they pay taxes to the Vietnamese-Heng Samrin forces on the way. These boys both paid the equivalent of about 10 cents at each of the four Heng Samrin positions they passed. One of the boys, named Kim Poy, told us that a few days before at Tmosan village near Sisophon, Heng Samrin soldiers killed two Vietnamese soldiers who had robbed some villagers. There was a growing hatred between the Heng Samrin and Vietnamese troops, he related, and a growing hope among the villagers that the KPNLF could give them peace and freedom.
After charging back to his headquarters with his men on their Yamaha dirt bikes and offering me the rare luxury of a Thai beer chilled with ice, Chia Chhut displayed his briefing map. The KPNLF has eight camps along the border but all wholly inside Cambodia: at Sok Sann, Nong Chan, Rithysen, Ampil, Sam Lor, Dong Rek, Obuk, and Namyun. The Obuk and Namyun locations are military only, the others having large refugee populations as well (although the refugees at Ampil had been temporarily moved some distance north due to recent shelling by Vietnamese artillery). According to the KPNLF, of a half-million Cambodian refugees now living along the border (most in UN camps in Thailand), 160,000 were in KPNLF camps, the largest population, at 54,000, being at Rithysen.
The KPNLF reports that it has 20,000 trained soldiers but that only 12,000 have weapons. Of the 4,000 under Chia Chhut's command, 2,100, he said, were armed. The ANS (Sihanouk National Army), with whom the KPNLF is closely aligned, operates one camp at Tatum (plus a small battalion near Nong Chan), with some 5,000 men under arms and some 3,000 more trained but lacking weapons. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, has over 30,000 fighters, all well-armed and supplied by China, in three camps: one east of Tatum, one near the Thai-Lao-Cambodia triangle, and one in the Malai mountains, with another single battalion at Phom Chat, between Rithysen and Ampil.
Colonel Pann Thay, commander of the KPNLF Red Beret Special Forces, whose officers were the fellows trained in Malaysia, joined Chia Chhut and me at lunch—a delicious affair with small fried birds, fish (smuggled from the Tonle Sap) poached in coconut milk, roasted corn, and Thai whiskey. Pann Thay had undergone extensive military training in the '60s and early '70s in both France and the United States, but he had worked as an electrician in San Jose, California, for seven years before returning in 1981 to join the KPNLF. He now had a force of 1,100 red berets. Mostly operating in six-man teams throughout all of western Cambodia, these berets conduct raids, ambushes, sabotage, and long-range reconnaissance, as well as inform civilians about the KPNLF and occasionally fight armed Vietnamese settlers.
Pann Thay took me to his special-forces camp, where he arranged for me to interview, with himself as interpreter, a Heng Samrin defector. Thong Sarain, 29, had just defected from his post as deputy commander of the 73rd engineering battalion in the Heng Samrin army. He had joined the Heng Samrin army, he told me through Pann Thay, because he "hated what the Khmer Rouge did to my country." But eight months of political training in Vietnam in 1979 and nine months of school in Moscow in 1980 gave him unintended insights. "They [the Vietnamese and the Soviets] treat you like children," Thong Sarain said. "All they want is your obedience. If you do nothing but repeat their childish propaganda like a parrot, they smile and are friendly. But if you criticize and try to think for yourself, they frown and get suspicious. The Vietnamese and the Soviets are Communists just like the Khmer Rouge. They have no love for the Cambodian people and have no wish to see them free and independent."
Until mid-1983, Thong Sarain revealed, the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin forces had cooperated. But now, as dissension increases within the Heng Samrin regime, there is little else but mistrust and resentment. There are two to five Vietnamese advisors for every Heng Samrin company (100 or so soldiers), often one or two for platoons of 30 men. "All Heng Samrin officers must ask permission from their Vietnamese advisor for everything," Thong Sarain said. "There is no mingling, they eat and live separately. Civility is maintained, but all the Heng Samrin soldiers I know hate the Vietnamese now, and every so often, kill them."
Thong Sarain's words were to mirror those of several Heng Samrin army defectors I was to interview. They all talked of growing cooperation between Heng Samrin and KPNLF units, of a growing knowledge of the KPNLF as a noncommunist, democratic alternative for Cambodia. But they, like all Khmer people, were terrified of Pol Pot coming to power again, and many were not sure if the KPNLF is strong enough to prevent that ultimate nightmare should the Vietnamese withdraw.
A jovial man who likes wearing a colorful ascot to set off his camouflage fatigues and his red beret at a jaunty angle, Pann Thay was clearly in his element as he showed me around the camp and introduced me to his men, all of whom had that characteristic bearing of an elite military unit. Late in the afternoon one day we climbed aboard his Yamaha DT-125 motorbike and took an exceedingly muddy trail to Rithysen.
The next morning, Rithysen's governor, Thou Thon, a graduate of the Phnom Penh Law School, took me on a tour. Rithysen's population, Thou Thon told me, was 54,000 and growing every day, with, on average, 300 Khmer refugees arriving from the interior each week. "The Yuen send young boys to school in Vietnam, force them to join the Heng Samrin army, and 'mobilize' people to cut wood, build roads, work away from home," Thou Thon explained. "And if one person escapes, the rest of the family is put in jail, so the entire family must come. We are averaging about 100 South Vietnamese civilian refugees a week now, some all the way from South Vietnam. But most were sent to Cambodia as cadres or settlers, and they just keep going until they reach here."
I had read in descriptions of a few years before about the desperate conditions of the refugee camps, with the horror of the Khmer Rouge years emanating from refugees' faces. All that now seemed clearly in the past. I saw people dressed well, no rags; well-fed, no emaciated Auschwitz look-alikes. The obvious pride the people took in their camp was evidenced by its cleanliness and orderliness—everything swept, little garbage or litter to be seen.
Every family at Rithysen has a small individual thatch hut on a vast grid of dirt streets. Most huts have a postage-stamp garden growing corn, tomatoes, manioc, or papayas; many have a vine-covered trellis in front for shade. There are schools, bakeries, churches, mosques, and Buddhist temples.
But the most thrilling sight of all are the scores and scores of tiny stalls and stands in the markets selling food, vegetables, cloth, smoked fish, sandals, batteries, soap, cigarettes—a welter of goods and merchandise either from Thailand or smuggled from the Cambodian interior. There are bicycle repair shops, tailors, doctors, and dentists—anyone who has anything to sell or a service to offer has hung out his shingle on the dirt streets of Rithysen. It is real capitalism in action.
This is where a new Cambodia can arise from the ashes, I said to myself as I got something to eat at one of the many food stalls. The vision of the future that the KPNLF holds out to the Khmer people was already here at Rithysen—and the contrast between it and Vietnamese-occupied Marxist Cambodia could not be, for these prospering refugees, more stark.
At the Nong Chan refugee camp, the Vietnamese-Heng Samrin forces had built a long bunker just a few kilometers away to try and block off the camp from the interior. But at Rithysen, a liberated area extending some 19 miles inside had been swept fairly clean of enemy presence. I went on a lengthy patrol through this area, first by bicycle, then on foot, with Rithysen's military commander, Sanh Ne, and a team of his men. Ploughing through shoulder-high elephant grass, we climbed to the top of a hill that overlooked Route 69. We could see Sisophon in the distance, and on the horizon were the Malai mountains, the lair of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
"The situation is very different from last year," Sanh Ne said as he surveyed the flat, forested terrain beneath us. "Everywhere our men go, they have success now. The villagers feed and help our teams in the interior. Heng Samrin forces are collaborating with us more and more. If only we had more weapons and ammunition—and malaria pills."
On the way back, I was constantly greeting young camouflaged and armed KPNLF guerrillas making their way deeper into Cambodia. "We can only give them enough ammunition to get them started," Sanh Ne noted. "After that, they must capture what they need from the enemy." As you pass them by, the guerrillas and the civilians on the trails to the front lines stare at you with wonderment and passivity. But once you smile at them, immediately off come the hats and out come the broad smiles in return.
The KPNLF General Staff is at Ampil. It operates a Political Warfare School, with 6,000 graduates and 410 current enrollees studying ideology, intelligence gathering, strategy and tactics, civilian recruitment and organization, KPNLF structure and policy, geography, history, Cambodian culture, and first aid.
There is also a Military Training School instructing platoon leaders, company commanders, and officers, as well as an Applied Practice School, which teaches engineering, communications, logistics, and infantry and guerrilla tactics.
It was at Ampil that I met General Dien Del—flamboyant, gregarious, with a thin mustache that makes him look like a Chinese warlord and an unctuous smile that makes him look as if he is about to have you executed—and General Sak Sutsakhan, whose quiet authority and patrician demeanor make him the antithesis of Dien Del.
While remaining replaced by Sak Sutsakhan as chief of staff, Dien Del now had overall authority for KPNLF military strategy and policy. It was Dien Del who had directed a successful repulse of the Vietnamese at Ampil in April.
I spent several long and enjoyable hours talking with Dien Del, who, like Chia Chhut, is an unabashed admirer of America. "You Americans are smart," he said with an impish grin. "You are rich, because you understand that Marxism is stupid. Singapore understands this, and that is why it is rich as well." I had noticed several books on the Singapore economy in the general's room. "This is what we want for Cambodia"—the grin had turned into the killer smile—"an economy like Singapore's, like America's!" The smile vanished and was replaced with a fiery look of deadly anger. "But, you know, Marxism is worse than stupid, much worse. It turns men into criminals, into monsters like the Khmer Rouge, filling them with a crazy hatred."
Now he looked me in the eye, and the look was serious and earnest. "Let me tell you, though, the enemy isn't the Khmer Rouge any more. It isn't even the North Vietnamese. Our real enemy is the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that is behind Vietnam, gives Vietnam the money and power to try and colonize us. That is why I look up to America and President Reagan. In the end, only America and President Reagan can protect us, or anyone else, from the Soviets."
It is a common observation of ASEAN diplomats that Vietnam's dependence on the Soviet Union is almost total. Without Soviet economic and military aid—estimated to be around $3 millon a day—the Vietnamese economy would crumble, it is widely agreed, and supplies to the Vietnamese occupational forces in Cambodia would disappear almost instantly. Still, even if the United States and ASEAN were able somehow to pressure Moscow into acquiescing to a negotiated withdrawal of the Vietnamese, that would nonetheless leave the Khmer Rouge.
"But only China can protect you from the Khmer Rouge," I responded. "It is China which supplies them like the Soviets supply the Vietnamese. Aren't you being caught in the middle?" I asked.
The general's eyes opened wide, then narrowed to slits. "It is true that of all the money and supplies our Chinese friends give to the [CGDK] coalition, 90 percent goes to the Khmer Rouge," he explained. "Some think this is because of an ideological bond between them. But the Chinese are not Maoists themselves any longer. My opinion is that, up until recently, we were not strong or capable enough to be a real threat to the Yuen colonialists, while"—his voice became hard and bitter—"the Khmer Rouge have shown they are just as efficient at killing Vietnamese as they were at killing their fellow Khmers."
I had a chance to discuss this further with Sak Sutsakhan and members of his general staff. "When the KPNLF was formed, old cadres and army people joined with old ideas—they wanted a real army," Sak Sutsakhan pointed out to me. "It takes time to adapt to guerrilla fighting, to recruit and train good, effective fighters. We have come a long way in less than four years. Our successful repulse of the Vietnamese attack on our headquarters here at Ampil last April certainly surprised a lot of people. Perhaps now China—or America and ASEAN—will give us the weapons and supplies we need so desperately."
Colonel Ea Chuor Kim Meng, Sak Sutsakhan's chief of military operations, added, "We have stopped recruiting because we cannot arm and feed new men. If we had sufficient materiel and financial support, we could put 10,000 more men and officers to lead them in the field immediately, and within six to nine months, have another 20 to 25,000 men trained and fighting.
"You must understand that thousands of Khmer Rouge would defect to us if we could feed and equip them," the colonel continued, "particularly their recent recruits who have joined them to fight the Vietnamese, not out of any Communist sympathies. We know that America has been, how do you say—'traumatized?'—by its war with Vietnam. But the last thing we want or need is American 'advisors' telling us what to do or American troops fighting for us. All we need is an adequate amount of light arms, ammunition, medicines for fever, diarrhea, and malaria, first aid supplies, hammocks, boots, radios—and we can quickly become far stronger than the Khmer Rouge."
"Most of the Vietnamese soldiers facing us are from South Vietnam," Sak Sutsakhan's deputy chief of staff, Prum Vit, emphasized. "They—although not their North Vietnamese officers, I must admit—are becoming more demoralized as the fighting drags on. We are starting to get Vietnamese defectors now—you just interviewed one the other day, I believe—and dozens of Heng Samrin soldiers defect to us every week. The Heng Samrin forces, we have noticed in the past few months, seem to be losing their capacity and will to fight."
It was a young Annamese (from South Vietnam, that is) named Van Tui, from Saigon, whom I had interviewed earlier. Tui, 22, had been a platoon leader in Battalion 416 of the Vietnamese 5th Division before he defected on July 19. He had been drafted into the Hanoi army at age 18, as is every Vietnamese, and was sent to Cambodia two years later, in October 1982. According to Tui, so many South Vietnamese are not willing to fight, so many are deserting and returning home—or, now, starting to defect to the KPNLF and trying to get to the West—that Hanoi is replacing them more and more with North Vietnamese (with Tonkinese, that is, not Annamese) soldiers, whose morale remains higher. But even some of these are deserting, especially over disputes with their commanders. Tui no longer considered Vietnam his home: "My country has been conquered by North Vietnam and Communism. Vietnam has no freedom any more."
"We realize," Sak Sutsakhan concluded for me, "that it is unrealistic for us to aim for a total military victory over Hanoi. Our major priority is to create an effective organization among the Cambodian people, to gain their support and their confidence that we can protect them from both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.
"For there to be a free and peaceful Cambodia," he observed, "it will take a coordinated effort of guerrilla action; propaganda, both domestic and international; underground activities in the cities; civilian assistance; and diplomatic pressure on Vietnam and the Soviet Union by ASEAN, Japan, the United States, France, and others in the international community for a negotiated withdrawal of Hanoi's forces and free, UN-supervised elections. It is necessary for the diplomats to realize, however, that negotiations will be fruitless unless we are effective militarily."
The forward line of trenches the KPNLF dug at Ampil to fight off the Vietnamese offensive last April were, in July, still very much in place and manned. The forests had been felled from the camp out to the trenches and beyond for about 100 yards: no-man's land. A few hundred yards past the start of the forest were the Vietnamese army and artillery positions. As I made my way out to the trenches with a detachment of KPNLA soldiers, I reflected on the dilemma the KPNLF was in.
Days later, in Bangkok, I would have a meeting with Prince Ranaridth, the gracious and charming son of Norodom Sihanouk, in which the prince would speak about this dilemma. "One cannot trust Communists of any stripe," he said, but he emphasized that "we must be grateful to China for their help—and for holding down so many Vietnamese troops on [Vietnam's] northern border. Both the KPNLF and our ANS [Sihanouk's army] get their weapons and ammunition only from China, nothing any more from ASEAN or the US. Thailand and the other ASEAN nations are putting diplomatic pressure on Hanoi to withdraw, but that is all.
"So, again, the answer to our 'dilemma,' as you say, is China. China's ultimate goal," Prince Ranaridth explained, "is the overthrow of the present government in Hanoi. A Vietnam aligned with and armed to the teeth by the Soviets, with the Soviet navy off Vietnam's coast, is intolerable to them.
"The Chinese," the prince told me, "train and equip Hmong, Lao-teung, and other Laotian tribespeople from a base south of Kunming to conduct guerrilla operations against the 80,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Laos. At this base the Laotians are given no lectures on Marxism or socialism whatever. The only propaganda they are given by the Chinese, which they are taught to deliver to the people of Laos, consists of denouncing Soviet-Vietnamese imperialism. The message is one of Lao independence and nationalism—of anticolonialism. Marx and Mao are missing altogether. [This was later confirmed to me personally by the leader of the Hmong insurgents in Laos.]
"China is also funneling aid to several small guerrilla organizations in Vietnam itself," Prince Ranaridth continued, "the most active being the Montagnard group called Dega Phulro, in the Central Highlands, and Le Quoc Thuy's people in the Mekong Delta. I do not think the Chinese today have any great love for the Khmer Rouge. Of course, it makes Son Sann and my father sick to their stomachs to be aligned with Khieu Samphan and his Angka filth. But Peking has recently promised an increase in its assistance to us [both the KPNLF and the ANS], making us stronger. And when elections are held, as they will be someday, there is little doubt the Cambodian people will choose Son Sann and my father, who is still only 62, to lead them."
We had only been at the trenches for a few minutes when the Vietnamese laid down a mortar barrage. Most of the two dozen or so shells landed some 20 to 30 yards out in front of us in the no-man's land, but more than a few landed uncomfortably close, spraying us with dirt and debris. As the ordnance whistled in, I commented to the forward base commander huddled next to me in the trench, "This is a hell of a way to welcome a guest to your camp."
"It's just a little harassment," he assured me with a shrug. "Nothing to worry about. Sometimes the Yuen keep this up for hours. I only wish we had some ammunition for our mortars so that we could fire back."
The explosions of the shells made contemplation difficult, yet I couldn't help thinking about something I had seen on our way out to the trenches. It was the corpse of a young Vietnamese soldier, lying where he had fallen in the April offensive. His body was decomposing in the sandy Cambodian soil, and his skull, with its death grin, still had a thatch of black hair attached.
Hanoi calls anyone who opposes their occupation of Cambodia a Khmer Rouge. This kid, most likely a conscript from the South, was undoubtedly told he was in Cambodia to protect the Cambodian people from the forces of Pol Pot. And, admittedly, that is just what the Vietnamese army did in 1979. But that was six years ago, and they and their Soviet patrons have used their rescue as an excuse to colonize the country. (They have used a similar excuse—to help the communist Pathet Lao government fight the ethnic resistance—to colonize Laos).
So as Cambodians become more resistant to their presence, the Vietnamese soldiers, I was told, have become more brutal. Robbing and raping are occurring with increasing frequency, refugees informed me, especially in the more isolated villages. For these villages, their only succor lies in KPNLF commanders like Rem Saroum, who leads three 50-man commando teams in the area between Battambang and Seam Reap. I was told about one incident, for example, that occurred at the village of Kamping Puoy just weeks before I arrived in Cambodia, in which four Vietnamese soldiers repeatedly raped a 15-year-old girl until she was unconscious. Villagers ran to tell Rem, who, with 15 of his men, laid an ambush the following morning for the soldiers returning to the base of their battalion. Two of the soldiers were killed, the other two wounded, with two rifles and 250 rounds of ammunition captured.
But although the Khmer people suffer under the yoke of Hanoi, they fear a possible return of the Angka far more. The Vietnamese must stay as long as the Khmer Rouge are the alternative—that is the trap in which the Cambodian people find themselves.
As I recalled the putrefying carcass of the dead Vietnamese boy, the dark, empty sockets where once had been his eyes, I thought of the millions of other corpses that have rotted into the ground of Cambodia for the past 10 years. It is time, I thought, for this to end.
I recalled the words, spoken to me some days before, of Vora Huy Kanthoul, Son Sann's personal assistant, whose father was prime minister of Cambodia in the 1950s. "The KPNLF is the last, best hope for Cambodia. Our goal is not to seize political power. But we have seen what Marxism has done to our country. We want a real democracy, not some 'democratic people's republic' fraud, and real elections, not Soviet-style ones. We personally think Prince Sihanouk would be the overwhelming choice, but that is for voters, not us, to decide.
"Now, however, just as we have proven ourselves capable of repulsing major Vietnamese attacks, of creating a powerful guerrilla force and liberation movement, we urgently need the support of America and the West. We think we have earned it."
Jack Wheeler has previously reported in REASON on Third World anti-Soviet insurgents in Angola (April 1984), Nicaragua (June-July) and Afghanistan (Sept.). This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.
The New Anticolonialism
It is perhaps not surprising that, in the struggle to throw off Western colonialism, so many of the Third World's "national liberation movements" have embraced the anticapitalist, anti-Western ideology of Marxist-Leninist socialism. And they often have had the backing—military, economic, and rhetorical—of the Soviet Union.
Today, however, this association is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. What is emerging might be called "the second stage" of post–World War II anticolonialism.
My first investigation of this new phenomenon of anti-Soviet liberation movements, in 1983, took me to southwestern Asia, Africa, and Central America, where I went clandestinely into freedom fighters' territory. Then, in the summer of 1984, I made a second foray to anti-Soviet resistance movements around the world, which included 10 days with the Khmer People's National Liberation Front in Cambodia. This second tour also took me into Laos, among the Hmong guerrillas who are fighting the Vietnamese and Soviets, and into Burma, where tribal rebels are resisting the Marxist regime of Ne Win. From there I went back to Afghanistan, then to Africa (where I met and interviewed Mozambique resistance leader Alfonso Jacama), and from there I ventured on to Central America and clandestinely inside Nicaragua, to meet again with various rebel groups battling Sandinista tyranny. Each case was different, but I found a growing rejection of Soviet imperialism throughout the Third World.
There are wars of liberation in eight parts of the Soviet Empire right now—in Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The emergence of these anti-Soviet armed insurgencies may point to the end of Soviet expansionism and the start of its contraction.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Fighting the Soviet Imperialists: The Khmer in Cambodia".