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Insurrection and War, 1965-70

After the "armed struggle" kicked off in South Vietnam, Saigon's position grew progressively worse. Convinced that Hanoi would eventually win, Sihanouk looked the other way when the Viet Cong began to operate from Cambodian soil. Furthermore, he left the Vietnamese communist organization in Phnom Penh and elsewhere more or less alone. America's entry into the fray in 1965 did not change his mind about the final outcome of the war. In early 1966, Cambodia began to deliver rice to the Communists. With Sihanouk's permission, Viet Cong-bound munitions deliveries began to arrive in the port of Sihanoukville in December 1966.

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.

Just as Sihanouk was beginning to have doubts about the Communists ability to conquer the south -- Hanoi was laying plans to open a military front in Cambodia, using the native Cambodian Communist Party. The Communists started an armed rebellion in the Cambodian countryside. Although they did their best to keep participation a secret, it is still far from clear why they made the decision, which seemingly flew in the face of the Viet Cong need for Cambodian bases and for a continuing arms flow from Sihanoukville. Hanoi may have thought the time had come for a major step towards its long range goal of putting a Communist government in Phnom Penh.

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 revenue-starved 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 CambodiaVietnam 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.



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