U.S. intelligence agents described Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1986 as unpredictable, hotheaded and “wary of strangers,” predicting that Vietnam would maintain a hold on Cambodia once they had pulled troops out of the country, according to declassified files.
The 1986 intelligence assessment, “Cambodia: ‘How Viable the Heng Samrin Regime?’” is part of more than 12 million pages of documents the CIA released online on Tuesday, which were previously available only at the U.S. National Archives in Maryland.
Written seven years after Vietnamese troops and a small group of Cambodian rebels including Mr. Hun Sen overthrew the Pol Pot regime, the assessment gives insight into how the CIA viewed Vietnam’s plans to fully hand over power to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), led by the same CPP leaders who still rule the country today.
The report says that Vietnam realized its 1985 public pledge to withdraw its forces—estimated at 130,000 to 140,000—from Cambodia by 1990 was “unrealistic” due to the ineptitude of their Cambodian counterparts.
“Development of PRK institutions has been slow and erratic,” the assessment says. “The government is still dominated by Vietnamese advisers, the Army remains politically unreliable and tactically inept.”
As a result, the Vietnamese would have to take covert measures in order to conceal its influence after its withdrawal, it says.
“Hanoi appears to recognize that the PRK’s weakness renders its withdrawal timetable unrealistic, and we believe it will have to use subterfuges, such as incorporating Vietnamese troops into Cambodian units, to conceal its presence beyond 1990,” it says.
“In the meantime, we expect Vietnam to promote aggressively an image that the PRK is making rapid progress toward internal self-sufficiency in hopes of eroding international support for the Cambodian resistance,” it says.
The issue of Vietnamese influence over Cambodian affairs continues to be among the most sensitive topics for the ruling CPP, with opposition figures long labeling the government as a “puppet” of Hanoi due to its perceived failure to break the shackles of those who placed them in power.
Deep-seated anti-Vietnamese sentiment among the Cambodian people—and within the PRK itself—was described in the CIA assessment, which noted the “dilemma” it posed to the Cambodian leadership. Despite this, the PRK “grudgingly” conceded that a premature Vietnamese pullout would risk the return of the Khmer Rouge, which was waging an insurgency from the west.
The influx of Vietnamese immigrants was only fanning the flames of anger among Cambodians, the report says.
“There is no credible evidence of an official Vietnamese policy to move settlers into Cambodia, and much of the migration appears to be individually motivated,” it says. “Hanoi has done little to halt it, however, and Vietnamese settlers often receive preferential treatment such as immunity from some PRK laws.”
The CIA later provides an assessment of the PRK leaders, including Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Samrin, in the report’s appendix.
Mr. Hun Sen, then chairman of the Council of Ministers—who was made prime minister in 1985 —was recognized as “probably the most powerful official in the PRK government,” but received a less than glowing appraisal from the Americans.
It says the then-35-year-old former Khmer Rouge military commander, who rose from peasant origins, “can be unpredictable and easily angered” and is a “private person wary of strangers.”
Despite being president,
Mr. Samrin was described as the top Cambodian leader “in title but not in reality,” while Bou Thang, the longtime governor of Ratanakkiri province, was known as “the bulldozer” for his heavy-handed management style.
Vietnamese troops officially left Cambodia in 1989, paving the way for the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and general elections in 1993, which led to a power-sharing agreement between Mr. Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. By 1997, however, Mr. Hun Sen had ousted his Funcinpec counterpart and was again alone at the helm of the country.
The conclusion of the CIA report offers some “alternate scenarios” to that of Vietnam withdrawing from Cambodia, but maintaining a significant amount of control. It puts forward the prospect of the “emergence of a competent PRK regime able to stand largely on its own and resistant to Hanoi’s dominance.”
“This is a far less likely prospect, in our view,” the report states. “Despite the visceral anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia, we see no current evidence that it can be channeled into the type of opposition that would loosen Vietnam’s basic control.”
David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, said the CIA’s assessment would likely have been different had it known of the pending collapse of the Soviet Union, a major backer of efforts to spread socialism in Indochina.
“In 1986, the CIA was not in a position—who was?—to predict the collapse of the USSR three years later,” Mr. Chandler said in an email.
“But yes, all things being equal—which they never are—I think in 1986 Vietnam hoped to retain a key influential place in Cambodian political life, similar to the position that they enjoyed in Laos.”
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