Remembering the Vietnamese

Twenty years ago today, the last contingent of soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam officially left Cambodia, bringing to an end a decade-long occupation. On September 26, 1989, the last 26,000 Vietnamese soldiers departed the country, driving their trucks south down National Road 1 back to Ho Chi Minh City, the last phase of a pull-out after Vietnam announced the unconditional withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia five months earlier.

The Vietnamese army entered Cambodia in December 1978 to topple Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea regime, after months of Khmer Rouge forces launching bloody raids into Vietnam border villages.

By the time the Vietnamese troops left in 1989 their intervention in Cambodia had cost the lives 55,300 Vietnamese soldiers, a Vietnamese Ministry of Defense spokesman told the German news agency Deutsche Press Agentur at the time-a number only slightly lower than the number of American soldiers who died fighting in Vietnam.

Those casualty figures had some describing the intervention in Cambodia as “Vietnam’s Vietnam.”

The events in Cambodia were part of wide global changes occurring in 1989. In the course of that year the Soviet Union’s power started to unravel rapidly and a revolutionary wave of political and economic change swept across Central and Eastern Europe.

The ripples started first in Poland where political reforms brought the independent trade union, Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, to power in September 1989. The Berlin Wall came crashing down in Germany in November and the Velvet Revolution swept to power in Czechoslovakia with Vaclav Havel being appointed as president in December.

In Southeast Asia, the decline of the Soviet Union meant the drying up of support for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, developments that created the opportunity to end the geopolitical stand-off that had protracted the civil war in Cambodia, and which pitted China, the US, Western powers and ASEAN against Vietnam, its acolytes in Phnom Penh, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, writes Evan Gottesman in his book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge.”

The end of Soviet support left the Cambodian government in 1989 “more impoverished then ever,” writes Gottesman, explaining that Cambodia had lost some 100 million rubles ($140 million according to 1986 exchange rates) in commercial credit and a loss of imports of crucial supplies such as fuel, vehicles and machinery, while hundreds of Soviet and Eastern Bloc advisers returned home as the money that had kept them in Cambodia dried up.

Ahead of the withdrawal in April 1989, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea had amended the constitution and renamed the country the State of Cambodia. The leaders in Phnom Penh also changed the national flag and anthem, removing the word “revolutionary” from the names of administrative bodies and made Buddhism the state religion.    Some foreign observers referred to the moment as the “Phnom Penh Spring,” writes Gottesman.

In 1989 communist Cambodia also started to open up to Westerners.

Belgian photographer John Vink visited Cambodia from May 18 to June 4 that year, together with a group of foreign reporters. Mr Vink said government minders closely monitored him during his visit and he was carefully kept away from Vietnamese military facilities.

Within Phnom Penh, however, he said he was free to move.

“People were overall very happy to see us, but very careful not show it. People would not dare talk to us,” Mr Vink said.

French historian Henri Locard, currently a professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, visited the capital in June 1989 on the invitation of a Cambodian friend he had thought was long dead.

“The summer of 1989 was abuzz with the first Paris peace conference that had raised hopes among Cambodians that at long last the international community would come to the rescue of the Khmers to save them from misery,” Mr Locard wrote in an e-mail.

Mr Locard pointed out that the departure of Vietnamese and Eastern Bloc academics had left the higher education institutions severely understaffed. The dean of Lycee Decartes, he said, “was somewhat desperate, as all his Vietnamese lecturers had gone,” adding that the dean asked him to stay and teach at the Lycee and also to request the French government to urgently send some new lecturers.

On the Thai-Cambodian border three resistance groups were united in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, established in 1982. In the CGDK, Prince Sihanouk’s Armee Nationaliste Sihanoukienne and Son Sann’s Khmer People’s National Liberation Front were backed by the West and ASEAN nations, while China backed the most militarily powerful Khmer Rouge faction.

The Phnom Penh government was led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had been promoted to the position in 1985 after the then-Prime Minister Chan Si died from an illness. As support for the Hun Sen government and the resistance groups began to decline in 1989, all four Cambodian parties were forced to the negotiating table, leading to peace meetings in Indonesia and Malaysia and eventually the Paris Peace Agreement that was signed in 1991.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who became Prey Veng’s provincial governor and National Assembly member in 1981, claimed the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the reason for Vietnam’s withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia.

The withdrawal, Mr Yeap said last week, was the consequence of the increased strength of the Cambodian government and its military. According to Mr Yeap, the Cambodian government had in fact proposed to Vietnam and the Soviet Union that all troops and advisers be withdrawn.

“At the time we were getting stronger, we had our officials in all levels,” he said.

Son Soubert, the son of KPNLF leader Son Sann, remembers the joy of the front’s leaders when it was announced that the Vietnamese Army had finally decided to pull out. Mr Soubert, who is now a member of the Constitutional Council, said that for the resistance and its international supporters, a Vietnamese withdrawal had been the key condition for the start of peace talks with the government of Mr Hun Sen.

“It was imperative that they withdraw,” Mr Soubert said. But like many he remained skeptical about the Vietnamese claim that all its soldiers left in 1989. The UN had not been able to verify the Vietnamese troop withdrawal, which lead him to believe that the Vietnamese military had simply “demobilized their troops on the spot,” implying that PAV soldiers had stayed behind as civilians and that they continue to help the Cambodian military to this day.

Mr Soubert, who stayed at a KPNLF base in the Dangrek Mountains in Preah Vihear province in 1989, said informal talks between the resistance groups and the Hun Sen government had started as early as 1985, and that the initiative had in fact came from Cambodians themselves.

“This is not well known,” he said.

“The agenda of the big powers was not our own [agenda],” Mr Soubert added.

Before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR, Western politicians were pessimistic about the conflict in Cambodia, calling it “a lost country” because, as Mr Soubert recounted, China had spoken of “hundreds of years of warfare” in order to wound Vietnam on Cambodian territory.

Lu Laysreng, former deputy prime minister for the Funcinpec party and a senior leader in Prince Sihanouk’s ANS military faction, said that the ANS leadership was not surprised when Vietnam announced it would withdraw its forces. The US Central Intelligence Agency had regularly supplied the resistance groups on the border with satellite images of Vietnamese military weaponry and positions in Cambodia, and it was the CIA that first broke the news that Hanoi had ordered its war-weary troops home.

“We knew this from the CIA in Bangkok, they let us know,” Mr Laysreng said. “We usually got a lot [of information] from the CIA. They told us two, three months ahead of time the Vietnamese would withdraw in the near future,” Mr Laysreng said.

“The political situation forced the Vietnamese to withdraw, the Soviet Union, their greatest backer, collapsed,” he said, adding that the withdrawal of the mighty and experienced PAV was a psychological victory for the resistance troops over Phnom Penh’s forces.

“That gave us the opportunity to put a lot of pressure on the border,” he said, adding that after 1989 the war had become much easier for the CDGK and the resistance was able conquer large areas of terrain.

When the Vietnamese soldiers left there was an initial fear among the Cambodian population inside the country that Pol Pot would return, but the government in Phnom Penh had by now built up a strong army of around 110,000 young soldiers in 1989, Mr Yeap said, recounting that a conscription law was in effect that forced men between the age of 17 and 25 to fulfill five years military service. Mr Yeap, however, said the troops fought willingly.

“They participated voluntarily. The important thing was that they were angry with the Khmer Rouge who killed their family, so it [conscription] was not difficult,” he said.

The resistance fighters in 1989 numbered around 90,000 troops, and consisted of 20,000 ANS fighters, 12,000 KPNLF troops, while the majority were battle-hardened Khmer Rouge guerillas, which received direct military support from China, Mr Soubert said.

By 1989 the military situation was very much “a status-quo,” Mr Soubert said, explaining that the Vietnamese regulars attacked during the dry season when it was able to move its trucks, tanks and artillery over the dirt roads in the west and north of the country, while the resistance, armed with light battlefield weapons, launched assaults on Vietnamese and Phnom Penh government bases and infrastructure during the rainy season.

“Sometimes it’s very desperate…. In the rainy season we had the initiative, we attacked the Phnom Penh and Vietnamese side, and in the dry season it was their turn. Every year it was repeated like that,” he said.

This seasonal war of attrition in the 1980s involved an estimated 180,000 Vietnamese troops, most of whom hailed from southern Vietnam, specifically from areas near Ho Chi Minh City, according to Gottesman.

In the intense 1984-85 dry season offensive, the Vietnamese launched their biggest operation and drove CGDK forces from all but one of their bases in the Dangrek Mountains, forcing the resistance to flee into Thailand and to then resort to hit-and-run warfare throughout the country. The offensive also forced an estimated 230,000 refugees to cross into Thailand.

“In 1985 they overrun all our bases inside Cambodia, except the Sok San base at Phnom Kravan in the Cardamom Mountain [in Pursat province],” Mr Soubert said.

Mr Laysreng, who said he spent 14 years in the western border jungles, recalled the Vietnamese dry season offensive of 1985 which first wiped out KPNLF and Khmer Rouge bases, and then focused on the ANS base at Tatum in the Dangrek Mountains, starting on March 5 until the base fell on March 11.

“We fought seven days with the Vietnamese. We received 50,000 artillery shells,” he claimed of the number of incoming rounds.

“That time we lost 153 fighters and have 200 wounded, but almost 2,000 Vietnamese died there. This battle made our army get a very strong moral.”

Sam Bopharoth, deputy RCAF commander in Preah Vihear province and a lieutenant in the Phnom Penh’s government army based in Kompong Thom province in the 1980s, said heavy fighting and deaths and injuries were common during the civil war.

“Death and injury were normal for us, at the time were not thinking about it. Malaria and mines were normal issues, but we just wanted to protect our people, our nation” from the Khmer Rouge, he said.

Mr Bopharoth also said that recruiting soldiers in Kompong Thom province was not difficult, in fact it was a sought after job at the time. “Many people volunteered to be soldiers because people thought it was the best job at that time and the government paid a lot of attention to the military sector,” he said, adding there very few defections to the Khmer Rouge in his area.

Others have different memories of the period, and their part in the conflict.

Phnom Penh resident Chan Vanna, 48, said he was forced to join the government army in 1982 when he was living in Kdol Tahen commune, Battambang province. Mr Vanna said that when he was conscripted he had no choice but to join, as the area where he was living was remote and dangerous because of fighting and so he could not flee his village in the hope of avoiding the war.

“In my generation, no one wanted to join the army, but we cannot run when we got selected,” he said, adding that recruits were often told they had to go to “a meeting” in a different village, which turned out to then be a military camp that they could not leave from.

Mr Vanna, who is a short, heavy-set man, who drives a tuk-tuk and whose arms are covered magical tattoos for protection, said his unit was usually ordered to protect his village, or, if the Vietnamese launched an offensive, to stay behind and guard the supply routes to the frontline.

One day in December 1987 his 30-man platoon was sent to clear and guard a road in Bavel district in Battambang when they were ambushed by Khmer Rouge fighters.

“I didn’t see anyone, we were just walking and suddenly we heard shouting from the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Then they opened heavy fire on us with grenade launchers, we didn’t have time to take shelter,” he recalled.

“In that one attack we suffered a lot of casualties. Seven of our best soldiers died that day and I was severely injured,” he said, while lifting up his shirt to reveal a huge scar running down his stomach. The initial attack lasted three hours and the survivors of the platoon had to then spend another day and night in the jungle before they were picked up by reinforcements.

Mr Vanna was brought unconscious to a Siem Reap hospital where he spent one week with an injury that has left him with a limp in his left leg.

Defections to the Khmer Rouge were common in the army in the 1980s, he said, adding, “I don’t know why a lot of people went to the Khmer Rouge. In my unit I knew a few people [who defected], I never saw them again.”

Mr Yeap and several other government and military officials said they were unable to give estimates of how many Cambodian soldiers died during the civil war. Mr Laysreng said the ANS suffered 2,452 deaths and many more wounded and disabled during the civil war, adding he estimated the total loss of the three resistance factions to be no less 10,000 dead.

The Cambodian government and the Vietnamese army had been preparing for the Vietnamese withdrawal since the mid 1980s by constructing a massive defensive wall, the notorious K-5 project, along the Thai-Cambodian border, Mr Yeap said. The “Wall of Bamboo,” as foreign journalists called it, was intended to prevent, or at least hinder, the resistance from infiltrating the Cambodian interior.

According to Gottesman, the K-5 project, running for about 1,000 km along the border, was “the single most resented policy of the PRK”- the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. From 1984 to 1987, hundreds of thousands of civilians were conscripted to chop down forests, build roads and construct hundreds of kilometers of high earthen walls and other defense structures and to either plant or remove minefields near resistance bases on the border, he writes.

“People were actually angry [because of K-5], but it was necessary to prevent Pol Pot from coming back and starting a big offensive,” Mr Yeap said.

“It was really difficult, but we had to prevent Pol Pot from coming back,” he said, recounting how those working in K-5 accidentally stepped on landmines, suffered malaria, and suffered from a lack of food and medicine. Mr Yeap said the project mobilized 40,000 to 50,000 civilians to serve for three months at a time in K-5, adding that Prey Veng provincial authorities alone selected more than 10,000 people per rotation.

According to Gottesman, the number of K-5 workers grew to 150,000 in 1985, with the project expanding in the years after.

Corruption and theft, transport problems and inefficiency caused a chronic lack of food, shoes, medicine and mosquito nets, he writes, adding that Western health professionals who visited K-5 areas observed large numbers of malaria cases with a high mortality rates. Gottesman writes that estimates of deaths from malaria at K-5 “run into the tens of thousands” and that “if the mortality rate was a conservative 5 percent and if half a million Cambodians participated in K-5, then 25,000 died.”

Mr Soubert said the resistance was shocked at what they saw in the K-5 areas.

“For us it’s another kind of genocide because they sent the people to the malaria-infected area without proper medicine, food supply and so on,” he said, adding the Vietnamese also took advantage of all the timber that was cut down in the clearing of forests.

“The Vietnamese sent in the Khmers to plant mines and then sent in the next group of Khmers who stepped on the mines,” Mr Laysreng said of the project, adding that the unpopularity of the forced work program gave the resistance a huge propaganda advantage.

“K-5 gave us a lot of ways to make propaganda” against Vietnamese forces, he said.

To this day the “K-5 belt”-running 1,000 km long and 500 meter wide and containing an estimated 2,400 anti-personnel mines per kilometer-“remains the heart of the challenge” of Cambodia’s landmine problem, according to an August report from the Cambodian Mine Action Authority.

Chea Vannath, former director of the Center for Social Development, said the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia reminded her of the legacy of the French colonial administration.

“Without France Cambodia would have been wiped out [by Thailand and Vietnam], without the Vietnamese the Cambodian people would have been wiped out by the Khmer Rouge,” she said.

As with the French period, she said, the questions about the Vietnamese period remained: “Was Cambodia protected/liberated or occupied?”

Historian David Chandler wrote in a recent e-mail: “[U]nder the Vietnamese there was no attempt to allow or encourage political pluralism, and this mindset suited the people the Vietnamese had placed in power.” But the ideological aspects of the Vietnamese period “faded pretty quickly after 1989,” he added.

“I think that most Khmer are reluctant to admit the benefits that accrued to them from the Vietnamese period-namely that the Khmer Rouge were prevented from returning to power,” he said.

Comparing the events of 1989 in Cambodia with the dramatic changes that year in Central and Eastern Europe, Gottesman writes in the concluding chapter of his book: “No Berlin Wall ever fell in Cambodia. No Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa came to power. The regime did not collapse; it negotiated the terms of its own survival.”

Mr Yeap, when asked why so many people in the current government have continuously held high positions since the 1980s, remarked: “these people have the skill, capacity and experience required” to govern Cambodia.

“If you have played football you would understand. Good players stay longer in the team, like Samdech Hun Sen. In the CPP no one wants to be prime minister because the people and the military love him and he can achieve any goal,” he said.

Mr Yeap added that relations with Vietnam have changed little since 1989: “Our relations have not changed we are still strengthening our relationship and unity in any sector, such as economic, cultural and social affairs.”

Mr Soubert said the Hun Sen government has been able to retain its hold on power since 1989 because the UN failed to control the key government ministries-foreign affairs, defense, finance, public security and information-during the UN-organized election of 1993, as had been agreed on in Paris Peace Agreements.

Mr Laysreng said he was “not jealous” that the CPP had prevailed over the resistance groups as they transformed to political parties after the peace accords and that his old foes in the 1980s are still in power to this day.

“At least Hun Sen made peace; we can develop,” he said.

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