Friday, September 4, 2009
Posted on 2:40 AM by Nana
The Cambodian Civil War was a conflict that pitted the forces of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known as the Khmer Rouge) and their allies the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or, derogatively, Viet Cong) against the government forces of Cambodia (after October 1973, the Khmer Republic), which were supported by the United States (U.S.) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The struggle was exacerbated by the influence and actions of the allies of the two warring sides. People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) involvement was designed to protect its Base Areas and sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, without which the prosecution of its military effort in South Vietnam would have been more difficult. The U.S. was motivated by the need to buy time for its withdrawal from Southeast Asia and to protect its ally, South Vietnam. American, South and North Vietnamese forces directly participated (at one time or another) in the fighting. The central government was mainly assisted by the application of massive U.S. aerial bombing campaigns and direct material and financial aid.
After five years of savage fighting that brought about massive casualties, the destruction of the economy, the starvation of the population, and grievous atrocities, the Republican government was defeated on 17 April 1975 when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea. Thus, it has been argued, that the US intervention in Cambodia contributed to the eventual seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge, that grew from 4,000 in number in 1970 to 70,000 in 1975. This conflict, although an indigenous civil war, was considered to be part of the larger Vietnam War (1963–1978) that also consumed the neighboring Kingdom of Laos, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. This civil war led to the Cambodian Genocide, one of the bloodiest in history.
Setting the stage (1968–1970)
During the early to mid-1960s, Prince Norodom Sihanouk's leftist policies had protected his nation from the turmoil that engulfed Laos and South Vietnam. Neither the People's Republic of China (PRC) nor North Vietnam disputed Sihanouk's claim to represent "progressive" political policies and the leadership of the prince's domestic leftist opposition, the Prachea Chon Party, had been integrated into the government. On 3 May 1965, Sihanouk broke diplomatic relations with the U.S., ended the flow of American aid, and turned to the PRC and the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance.
By the late 1960s, Sihanouk's delicate domestic and foreign policy balancing act was beginning to go awry. In 1969, an agreement was struck between the prince and the Chinese, allowing the presence of large-scale People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and NLF troop deployments and logistical bases in the eastern border regions. He had also agreed to allow the use of the port of Sihanoukville by communist-flagged vessels delivering supplies and materiel to support the PAVN/NLF military effort in Vietnam. These concessions made a sham of Cambodia's neutrality, which had been guaranteed by the Geneva Conference of 1957.
Sihanouk was convinced that the PRC, not the U.S., would eventually control the Indochinese Peninsula and that "our interests are best served by dealing with the camp that one day will dominate the whole of Asia – and coming to terms before its victory – in order to obtain the best terms possible."
During the same year, however, he allowed his pro-American minister of defense, General Lon Nol, to crack down on leftist activities, crushing the Prachea Chon by accusing its members of subversion and subservience to Hanoi. Simultaneously, Sihanouk lost the support of Cambodia's conservatives as a result of his failure to come to grips with the deteriorating economic situation (exacerbated by the loss of rice exports, most of which went to the PAVN/NLF) and with the growing communist military presence.
On 11 September, Cambodia held its first open election. Through manipulation and harassment (and to Sihanouk's surprise) the conservatives won 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Lon Nol was chosen by the right as prime minister and, as his deputy, they named Sirik Matak, an ultraconservative member of the Sisowath branch of the royal clan and long-time enemy of Sihanouk. In addition to these developments and the clash of interests among Phnom Penh's politicized elite, social tensions created a favorable environment for the growth of a domestic communist insurgency in the rural areas.
Revolt in Battambang
The prince then found himself in a political dilemma. To maintain the balance against the rising tide of the conservatives, he named the leaders of the very group he had been oppressing as members of a "counter-government" that was meant to monitor and criticize Lon Nol's administration. One of Lon Nol's first priorities was to fix the ailing economy by halting the illegal sale of rice to the communists. Soldiers were dispatched to the rice-growing areas to forcibly collect the harvests at gunpoint, and they paid only the low government price. There was widespread unrest, especially in rice-rich Battambang Province, an area long-noted for the presence of large landowners, great disparity in wealth, and where the communists still had some influence.
On 11 March 1970, while Sihanouk was out of the country in France, a rebellion broke out in the area around Samlaut in Battambang, when enraged villagers attacked a tax collection brigade. With the probable encouragement of local communist cadres, the insurrection quickly spread throughout the whole region. Lon Nol, acting in the prince's absence (but with his approval), responded by declaring martial law. Hundreds of peasants were killed and whole villages were laid waste during the repression. After returning home in March, Sihanouk abandoned his centrist position and personally ordered the arrest of Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim, the leaders of the "counter government", all of whom escaped into the northeast.
Simultaneously, Sihanouk ordered the arrest of Chinese middlemen involved in the illegal rice trade, thereby raising government revenues and placating the conservatives. Lon Nol was forced to resign, and, in a typical move, the prince named new leftists to the government to balance the conservatives. The immediate crisis had passed, but it engendered two tragic consequences. First, it drove thousands of new recruits into the arms of the hard-line maquis of the Cambodian Communist Party (which Sihanouk labelled the Khmer Rouge or "Red Khmers"). Second, for the peasantry, the name of Lon Nol became associated with ruthless repression throughout Cambodia.
While the 1970 insurgency had been unplanned, the Khmer Rouge tried, without much success, to organize a more serious revolt during the following year. The prince's decimation of the Prachea Chon and the urban communists had, however, cleared the field of competition for Saloth Sar (also known as Pol Pot), Ieng Sary, and Son Sen - the Maoist leadership of the maquisards. They led their followers into the highlands of the northeast and into the lands of the Khmer Loeu, a primitive people who were hostile to both the lowland Khmers and the central government. For the Khmer Rouge, who still lacked assistance from the North Vietnamese, it was a period of regroupment, organization, and training. Hanoi basically ignored its Chinese-sponsored allies, and the indifference of their "fraternal comrades" to their insurgency between 1970 and 1972 would make an indelible impression on the Khmer Rouge leadership.
On 17 January 1974, the Khmer Rouge launched their first offensive. It was aimed more at gathering weapons and spreading propaganda than in seizing territory since, at that time, the adherents of the insurgency numbered no more than 4–5,000. During the same month, the communists established the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea as the military wing of the party. As early as the end of the Battambang revolt, Sihanouk had begun to reevaluate his relationship with the communists. His earlier agreement with the Chinese had availed him nothing. They had not only failed to restrain the North Vietnamese, but they had actually involved themselves (through the Khmer Rouge) in active subversion within his country.
At the suggestion of Lon Nol (who had returned to the cabinet as defense minister in November, 1971) and other conservative politicians, on 11 May 1972, the prince welcomed the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and created a new Government of National Salvation with Lon Nol as his prime minister. He did so "in order to play a new card, since the Asian communists are already attacking us before the end of the Vietnam War." Besides, PAVN and the NLF would made very convenient scapegoats for Cambodia's ills, much more so than the minuscule Khmer Rouge, and ridding Cambodia of their presence would solve many problems simultaneously. The Americans took advantage of this same opportunity to solve some of their own problems in Southeast Asia.
Although the U.S. had been aware of the PAVN/NLF sanctuaries in Cambodia since 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson had chosen not to attack them due to possible international repercussions and his belief that Sihanouk could be convinced to alter his policies. Johnson did, however, authorize the reconnaissance teams of the highly-classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (SOG) to enter Cambodia and gather intelligence on the Base Areas in 1970.
The election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and the introduction of his policies of gradual U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and the Vietnamization of the conflict there, changed everything. On 18 March 1972, on secret orders from Nixon, the U.S. Air Force carried out the bombing of Base Area 353 (in the Fishhook region opposite South Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province) by 59 B-52 Stratofortress bombers. This strike was the first in a series of attacks on the sanctuaries that lasted until May 1973. During Operation Menu, the Air Force conducted 3,875 sorties and dropped more than 108,000 tons of ordnance on the eastern border areas. During this operation, Sihanouk remained quiet about the whole affair, possibly hoping that the U.S. would be able to drive PAVN and NLF troops from his country. Hanoi too, remained quiet, not wishing to advertise the presence of its forces in "neutral" Cambodia. The Menu bombings remained secret from the U.S. Congress and people until 1976.