Cambodia Civil War, 1970s
By the mid-1960s, Sihanouk's delicate balancing act was beginning to go awry. Regionally, the presence of large-scale North Vietnamese and Viet Cong logistical bases on Cambodian territory and the use of Kampong Saom (then Sihanoukville) as a port of disembarkation for supplies being sent to communist troops, as well as the covert intelligence-gathering, sabotage missions, and overflights by South Vietnamese and United States teams had made a sham of Cambodian neutrality. Domestically, Sihanouk's sporadic harassment of the leftists and the withdrawal of his endorsement from all candidates in the 1966 elections cost the radicals their chance for victory and alienated them from the prince as well. Sihanouk also lost the support of the rightists by his failure to come to grips with the deteriorating economic situation in the country and with the growing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military presence in Cambodia. In addition to these regional developments and the clash of interests among Phnom Penh's politicized elite, social tensions also were creating a favorable environment for the growth of a domestic communist insurgency in the rural areas.
In early 1967, an insurrection broke out in the area around Samlot in Batdambang, a province long noted for the presence of large landowners and great disparities of wealth. Local resentment focused on tax collections and on the decision of the revenuestarved government to expropriate land to build a sugar refinery near Samlot. In January 1967, irate villagers attacked a tax collection brigade--an incident that recalled the 1925 murder of the French resident in the area. With the probable encouragement of local communist cadres, the insurrection quickly spread through the whole region. Sihanouk was on one of his frequent sojourns in France, and Lon Nol, the prime minister, responded harshly. After returning home in March 1967, Sihanouk personally supervised counterinsurgency measures. He later mentioned, in an offhand way, that the effectiveness of the royal armed forces had restored the peace but that approximately 10,000 people had died.
The insurgency was not suppressed completely. It spread rapidly from Batdambang to the southern and to the southwestern provinces of Pouthisat (Pursat), Kampong Chhnang (Kompong Chang), Kampong Cham, Kampong Spoe (Kompong Speu), Kampot, and the central province of Kampong Thum. By the end of 1968, unrest was reported in eleven of the country's eighteen provinces. The Khmer Loeu regions of Mondol Kiri (Mondolkiri) Province and Rotanokiri Province fell almost entirely under KCP control by the end of the decade.
In January 1968, the communists established the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK). During Sihanouk's last two years in power, the RAK obtained minimal assistance from the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the Chinese. Although North Vietnam had established a special unit in 1966 to train the Cambodian communists, it was extremely reluctant to alienate Sihanouk at a time when vital supplies were passing through the port of Kampong Saom and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Viet Cong bases along the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Beijing and Moscow also were providing Sihanouk with arms, many of which were being used against the insurgents. The indifference of the world communist movement to the Cambodian struggle from 1967 to 1969 made a permanent impression on Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders.
The 1970 coup d'état that toppled Sihanouk dragged Cambodia into the vortex of a wider war. The escalating conflict pitted government troops, now renamed the Khmer National Armed Forces (Forces Armées Nationales Khmères-FANK), initially against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, and subsequently against the old RAK, now revitalized and renamed the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces (CPNLAF).
As combat operations quickly disclosed, the two sides were mismatched. The inequality lay not so much in sheer numbers. Thousands of young urban Cambodians flocked to join FANK in the months following the coup and, throughout its five-year life, the republican government forces held a numerical edge over their opponents, the padded payrolls and the phantom units reported in the press notwithstanding. Instead, FANK was outclassed in training and leadership. With the surge of recruits, the government forces expanded beyond their capacity to absorb the new inductees. Later, given the press of tactical operations and the need to replace combat casualties, there was insufficient time to impart needed skills to individuals or to units, and lack of training remained the bane of FANK's existence until its collapse. While individual soldiers and some government units fought bravely, their leaders-with notable exceptions-were both corrupt and incompetent. Arrayed against an armed force of such limited capability was arguably the best light infantry in the world at the time-the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. And when there forces were supplanted, it was by the tough, rigidly indoctrinated peasant army of the CPNLAF with its core of Khmer Rouge leaders.
With the fall of Sihanouk, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong became alarmed at the prospect of a pro-Western regime that might allow the United States to establish a military presence on their western flank. To prevent this from happening, they began transferring their military installations away from the border area to locations deeper within Cambodian territory. A new command center was established at the city of Kracheh (Kratié). On April 29, 1970, South Vietnamese and United States units unleashed a multi-pronged offensive into Cambodia to destroy the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the headquarters for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat operations in South Vietnam. Extensive logistical installations and large amounts of supplies were found and destroyed, but as reporting from the United States MACV subsequently disclosed, still larger amounts of material already had been moved deeper into Cambodia.
The North Vietnamese army turned on the republican government forces, and by June 1970, three months after the coup, they and the CPNLAF had swept FANK from the entire northeastern third of the country. After defeating the government forces, they turned newly won territories over to the local insurgents. The Khmer Rouge also established "liberated areas" in the south and the southwestern parts of the country, where they operated independently of the Vietnamese. The KCP's debt to the North Vietnamese after March 1970 was one that Pol Pot was loath to acknowledge; however, it is clear that without North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assistance, the revolutionary struggle would have dragged on much longer than it did.
The United States moved to provide material assistance to the new government's armed forces, which were engaged against both the Khmer Rouge insurgents and NVA/VC forces. In April 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying NVA/VC base areas. Although a considerable quantity of equipment was seized or destroyed, NVA/VC forces proved elusive and moved deeper into Cambodia. NVA/VC units overran many Cambodian army positions while the Khmer Rouge expanded their small-scale attacks on lines of communication.
The Khmer Republic's leadership was plagued by disunity among its three principal figures: Lon Nol, Sihanouk's cousin Sirik Matak, and National Assembly leader In Tam. Lon Nol remained in power in part because none of the others was prepared to take his place. In 1972, a constitution was adopted, a parliament elected, and Lon Nol became president. But disunity, the problems of transforming a 30,000-man army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men, and spreading corruption weakened the civilian administration and army.
The insurgency continued to grow, with supplies and military support provided by North Vietnam. But inside Cambodia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their dominance over the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were purged. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge forces became stronger and more independent of their Vietnamese patrons. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge were fighting major battles against government forces on their own, and they controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia's territory and 25% of its population.
The government made three unsuccessful attempts to enter into negotiations with the insurgents, but by 1974, the Khmer Rouge were operating as divisions, and virtually all NVA/VC combat forces had moved into South Vietnam. Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities.
On New Year's Day 1975, Communist troops launched an offensive which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the Khmer Republic. Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route. A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia. Phnom Penh and other cities were subjected to daily rocket attacks causing thousands of civilian casualties. Phnom Penh surrendered on April 17--5 days after the US mission evacuated Cambodia.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|