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1967-1972 - Khmer Communists (KC)

Vietnamese Communist involvement in Cambodia dated back at least to 1947, when the Viet Mirth made contact with rebel Khmer elements fighting against the French and persuaded them to accept Communist backing and sponsorship. Over the next six years the Viet Minh steadily increased their political and military support to the expanding rebellion. In 1953, however, Vietnamese fortunes in Cambodia began to decline as Sihanouk's "crusade" for independence gathered momentum. Following the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954, the Vietnamese - mindful of Sihanouk's strong domestic position - adopted a low profile in Cambodia that was to last for over a decade.

Hanoi began sending cadres from the old Khmer Viet Minh down the trail towards southern Cambodia, with the first such infiltrators, few in number, arriving in the COSVN area in 1962. The trickle widened into a small but steady stream in 1965. The regroupees who came down the trail between 1962 and late 1967 -- characterized as "Phase one" infiltrators -- were mostly civilian cadres. With few exceptions the early infiltrators were members of the Cambodian Communist Party or its Youth Group. Many later held senior positions in the the Khmer Communist structure.

In 1967 the Vietnamese became more active when they began exploiting local dissidence in northeastern Cambodia and - to a lesser extent - in the western part of the country as well. The Viet Cong were well on their way in early 1967 to recovering from the initial shock of the American intervention. By mid-year, they were planning the Tet offensive of January 1968. The plans called for a change in Communist policy towards Cambodia. In essence, Hanoi decided to begin actively supporting a rebellion in Cambodia, using the native Cambodian Communist Party. The decision provided for a large-scale increase in the number of Khmer infiltrators from North Vietnam, and the start of guerrilla warfare in the Cambodian countryside. Above all, the policy was designed to be carried out covertly, and in such a way that Hanoi could plausibly disavow it.

Hanoi -- sanguine over the prospects for success of the Tet offensive in Vietnam -- may have decided the time was ripe for a major step towards its long range goal of putting a Communist government i n Phnom Penh. Thus the decision may have represented a shift of revolutionary phases in Cambodia in the direction of armed rebelion, a shift from "Phase One" to "Phase Two" infiltration. Starting in January 1968 the annual rate of Khmer infiltration to the COSVN area increased sharply, and there after the large majority of infiltrators were soldiers rather than civilians. Serious fighting broke out in the southwest in February 1968; in the northeast in March 1968.

Since Hanoi controlled the infiltration pipeline and had trained most of the Khner Communists, it clearly made the major decisions. But the Cambodian Communist Party was far from being Hanoi's puppet.

The arrival of Hanoi-trained cadres in the Cambodian interior led to unrest which local authorities found increasingly hard to contain. By late 1969 the rebellion had reached a point where it seemed an eventual threat to Phnom Penh. Fear of its unchecked growth was a major contributing factor to Sihanouk's overthrow. Although not unexpected, Sihanouk's overthrow was for Hanoi premature, and forced it to change its plans regarding Saigon.

When the war came to Cambodia directly in March 1970, the Vietnamese Communists reacted quickly by launching a crash program to build a viable Khmer Communist movement. They developed a regular Cambodian combat force that grew from a few thousand to between 50,000 and 60,000 men by the end fo 2003. They concurrently laid the foundation for a Khmer Communist-dominated political structure in all sections of the country.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese were also doing all of the major fighting in Cambodia. The miltary teacher-pupil relationship between the Vietnamese and Khmer Communists reached a significant turning point in the spring of 1972, however, when the bulk of the North Vietnamese / Viet Cong main force combat units in Cambodia became involved in the Communist offensive in South Vietnam. Although the insurgents remained heavily dependent on the Vietnamese for arms and ammunition and for some limited advisory support, they shouldered the tactical load and soon proved that they were a match for the demoralized Cambodian Army.

Initially dependent on the North Vietnamese for practically everything, the KC at the outset were not able to exercise much control over their strategy or operations. Since the spring of 1972, however, the KC had been making most of their own tactical decisions, and became increasingly independent on strategic questions. Just how much military - and political - influence the Vietnamese exercised over the KG was unclear, but it is clear that the KG were not as responsive to Hanoi as they once were.

From Hanoi's perspective, Cambodia was not a major target. Its role was seen primarily in terms of the North Vietnamese effort against South Vietnam. And in this regard, the Vietnamese Communists al ready had what they needed in Cambodia to support whatever strategy they opted for in South Vietnam. Given this, a stalemate in Cambodia did not appreciably affect North Vietnamese objectives, and Hanoi might, in fact, see some problems with a nationalistic KC leadership in Phnom Penh. In short, Hanoi did not have a vested interest in a quick KC victory in Cambodia.

Although Hanoi founded and nurtured the Khmer Communists (KC) movement, the relationship has never been an easy one. It has not overcome the deep historical animosity between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese. The fighting around Kampot and Takeo between KC and Vietnamese Communist forces was only the most obvious manifestation of difficulties between the KC and the North Vietnamese.

One of the most important factors bearing on the Khmer-Vietnamese relationship was the tension that existed between their respective forces, particularly in Cambodia's south ern border areas. In the summer of 1973, local frictions - fueled by traditional racial animosity - led to some sporadic and relatively large-scale fighting between insurgent and North Vietnamese Viet Cong troops, primarily in Kampot and Takeo Provinces. The seeds of conflict in this region were sown early in 1972, when the insurgents began moving to undercut Vietnamese military, political, and economic jurisdiction over areas near the southern border.

By mid-August 1973, senior officials on both sides who had become alarmed over the fighting reportedly agreed to a truce and to several agreements covering such controversial issues as territorial and population control. Neither side complied fully with the truce or the agreements, but, they had some calming effect on the situation.

The major impediment to negotiations was the KC, who had no interest in negotiating with Lon Nol's Government of the Khmer Republic [GKR]. While there were elements in the insurgency which backed Sihanouk and probably favored opening a dialogue, they were not the controlling force in the movement. The KC leaders believed that they could win militarily, and they made it clear that they did not intend to go along with any advice from Sihanouk or Peking and Hanoi that a negotiated settlement might be desirable.

The Khmer Insurgency of the early 1970s was far from being a monolithic movement. Its makeup ranged from hard-core Communists trained in Hanoi who were determined to install a Communist regime in Phnom Penh to nationalists who prefered a more neutral, balanced government. The Communists, however, were the controlling factor. A central point in the differences within the insurgency was the question of Sihanouk's role in any future realignment of political forces in Cambodia.

The KC suspected the motives of their allies, and they were particularly leery of Sihanouk. Despite lip service to Sihanouk's leadership, the KC privately told their adherents that the Prince was not the real leader of the movement, that his value was only tactical as a rallying point, and that he would not be permitted to play a significant or lasting role in any KC-dominated government.

The anti-Sihanouk forces in the insurgency were led by the powerful and shadowy leaders of the Khmer Communist Party, most of whom - as members of the old "Khmer Rouge" political faction in Phnom Penh - were opposed to the Prince well before his ouster in March 1970. Since that time, they had recognized him as their nominal "commander-in-chief" only because he was useful as a rallying point for people in the Cambodian countryside and as an international mouthpiece. This cynical exploitation was only barely disguised, however, and Sihanouk himself was well aware of it. He admitted openly that his relations with the indigenous Communists, "Stalinists," were very poor, and claimed that it is thus unlikely that he would ever return to Cambodia.

The longstanding ideologically committed Khmer Communists who controlled the insurgency were but a fraction of the total number of military and political cadre within the insurgency's military and po litical apparatus. The political structure and front organizations in insurgent-controlled areas of Cambodia had drawn heavily on displaced bureaucrats of the old Sihanouk regime, schoolteachers, merchants, and Buddhist clergy. Most of these were not outright Communists, and many were recruited with the explicit understanding that Sihanouk's restoration was the objective of the movement.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:33 ZULU