Vietnam’s Invasion of Cambodia, Revisited

40 years after the invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge, it’s clear China emerged the ultimate winner.

On the morning of January 7, 1979 a small unit of the Vietnamese army swept into Phnom Penh virtually without firing a shot and ended the violent reign of the Khmer Rouge. It also dealt a heavy blow to China. The Vietnamese victory, however, turned out to be hollow, literally and metaphorically.

Hours earlier, the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea had fled the capital’s wide coconut tree-lined boulevards. The rumble of Vietnamese tanks and jeeps echoed from the abandoned buildings forcibly evacuated four years before when the Khmer Rouge had swept into power. Small numbers of Khmer Rouge cadres, soldiers, and families who camped out in the ghost city had been rushed to the station to cling to a train leaving for Battambang. The train carried Pol Pot’s brother-in-law Ieng Sary and other senior officials. There were decomposing bodies on the street but most overpowering was the stench of rotting fish. Residents would have no chance to savor the precious catch, piled high and abandoned, from the annual fishing season on the Tonle Sap.

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