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Cambodia Table of Contents


The Second Indochina War, 1954-75

In May 1955, the United States and Cambodia signed an agreement providing for security assistance and for the establishment of a thirty-person MAAG. During the next eight years, until the assistance program was discontinued at Cambodian request in November 1963, FARK received from the United States supplies and equipment worth approximately US$83.7 million, in addition to military budget support. In the meantime, the French also retained a military training mission in Cambodia that was to remain until 1971. FARK traditions and doctrine remained French, and there was some incompatibility with United States military doctrine and outlook.

Although the United States undertook a substantial security- assistance program in Cambodia, and the kingdom was included as a "protocol state" in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), failure to obtain more concrete assurances of defense assistance motivated Cambodia to adopt a neutralist foreign policy. Subsequently adopted as law, this policy declared that Cambodia would "abstain from military or ideological alliances" but would retain the right to self-defense. Cambodia continued to be aware of the serious threat to its independence posed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

FARK's mission thus became a defensive one, that is, to insure Cambodia's territorial integrity within the framework of neutrality. The FARK high command remained fairly stable, staffed by a limited number of well-trained personnel, many of whom had been educated abroad. Ranking officers, however, became highly politicized, if not subservient, because they were more or less compelled by Sihanouk at his whim to perform active roles in national political life. Throughout the years that followed the Geneva Conference, Sihanouk, supreme commander of FARK, controlled national policies affecting the military establishment, and FARK's operational parameters were circumscribed by his frequent policy vacillations. Because of this, FARK never developed as an effective or viable military organization.

In addition to the Vietnamese threat, the Cambodian government perceived a menace to internal stability from Son Ngoc Thanh's resurgent antimonarchist Khmer Serei (see Appendix B). Although contemporary observers suggested that the Khmer Serei seemed "to be more of a nuisance . . . than a genuine threat," the group's insurgent activities and subversive efforts were viewed with increasing alarm by Phnom Penh. In March 1959, for example, the provincial governor of Siemreab, General Dap Chhuon, a former Khmer Issarak leader who once had fought alongside Sihanouk, was implicated in an attempted Khmer Serei uprising (known at the time as the Bangkok Plot) and was executed. Sihanouk believed the United States had been behind the plot, and his proclivity for assuming complicity between Washington and the Khmer Serei became a particularly significant factor a few years later. In approximately 1965 to 1966, the United States Military Assistance Command-- Vietnam (MACV) began recruitment for the Studies and Operations Group and civilian irregular defense groups of Khmer Krom (see Appendix B) living in the Mekong Delta, many of whom were Khmer Serei members. In his public pronouncements regarding Khmer Serei activity, Sihanouk charged that the group had originated in South Vietnam and Thailand, and had the backing of both governments. Over the years, there were countless Khmer Serei incidents, followed by amnesties, surrenders, executions, and acrimonious Cambodian charges against South Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States. After Sihanouk was deposed in 1970, the Lon Nol government pardoned some 500 political prisoners, the majority of whom were Khmer Serei. Charges surfaced in 1987 that during his rule Sihanouk had executed as many as 1,000 Khmer Serei suspects.

In the uneasy peace between the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War, a number of incidents occurred on Cambodia's border with South Vietnam. In June 1958, two South Vietnamese battalions briefly occupied a village in Stoeng Treng Province, and Sihanouk appealed for United States intervention. Receiving no response that satisfied him, Sihanouk established diplomatic relations with China and announced that this action was a direct consequence of South Vietnam's violation of Cambodian territory. Cambodia was also not silent during the early stages of border violations by North Vietnam. In 1959 Phnom Penh complained that North Vietnamese regulars were using northeastern Cambodia to infiltrate South Vietnam. Cambodia made concerted efforts to demonstrate that it was policing its eastern borders, but, although the incursions were publicly admitted, the existence of base areas was not. By the mid-1960s, sites along Cambodia's eastern borders were serving as bases for North Vietnamese and for South Vietnamese communist, or Viet Cong (see Appendix B) forces fighting the South Vietnamese government. FARK, restrained by Sihanouk's policies, which, in effect, constituted a modus vivendi with the intruders, could do little more than monitor these activities. The continuation of border incidents, and Sihanouk's repeated charges of United States complicity with the Khmer Serei, led to a steady deterioration in Cambodian-American relations.

In November 1963, after the clandestine Khmer Serei radio resumed anti-Sihanouk broadcasts that the Cambodian government alleged were beamed from Thailand and from South Vietnam with transmitters supplied by the United States, Sihanouk terminated the economic and security assistance agreements with Washington. He also demanded the departure from Cambodia of all non-diplomatic United States government personnel. The final rupture in diplomatic relations came two years later, after Cambodia filed a complaint in the UN Security Council against the United States and South Vietnam for their "repeated acts of aggression against Cambodia." Relations were formally terminated May 3, 1965.

Although still receiving French military assistance and training (a program that was to continue until 1972), Cambodia began soliciting and accepting military assistance from communist countries as well, after the termination of United States aid. In 1963 FARK received four Soviet MiG aircraft at the beginning of a program in which China also joined. The inevitable results of a variety of suppliers were mixed equipment inventories.

In 1966 Sihanouk secretly granted access to the deep-water port of Sihanoukville (later called Kampong Saom), in western Kampot Province, to the North Vietnamese. With the complicity of ranking FARK officers, Sihanoukville became a main entrepôt for North Vietnamese military supplies from China and from the Soviet Union. Armaments were then transported to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sanctuaries on the border with South Vietnam, ironically over the "Friendship Highway" built with United States aid and sometimes in FARK trucks supplied as part of the United States security- assistance program. This effective supply route enabled the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to stockpile substantial amounts of armaments and equipment for the 1968 Tet Offensive against the Saigon government. FARK profited from armaments pilfered from the Vietnamese shipments, and suborned FARK officers derived personal advantage from the Sihanoukville traffic through fees, bribes, and other special arrangements.

In 1967 a peasant uprising broke out in the Samlot district of Batdambang Province. Its significance was not appreciated immediately. At the time, Sihanouk attributed the attacks, which first occurred in about January, to "the Khmer Viet Minh" (see Appendix B), whom he also labeled "Khmer Rouge" (see Appendix B) to distinguish them from the "Khmer Bleu" (see Appendix B). Sihanouk vacillated in placing the blame for the unrest, however, and later charged the "Thai patriotic front" with being its instigators. Acting on his orders, FARK harshly suppressed the Batdambang insurgents, who had acted spontaneously, and not at Khmer Rouge direction. Although Sihanouk announced two months later that the Batdambang rebellion was "completely at an end," there were subsequent references to continuing Khmer Rouge activity in the countryside.

The uprising convinced the Khmer communists (including a former school teacher named Saloth Sar, later to emerge under the alias Pol Pot) who earlier had gone underground, that the time was at hand to escalate the armed struggle against the Phnom Penh government. Shortly thereafter, the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK--see Appendix B) came into being. The Khmer Rouge dated its own founding from January 17, 1968. RAK leaders, including Pol Pot, who had just returned from a prolonged visit to China, retreated to the jungle and mountains of Rotanokiri Province (Ratanakiri) in northeastern Cambodia. There they hoped to exploit the disaffection of the Khmer Loeu (see Appendix B) over the policies of the Phnom Penh government concerning taxation, corvée labor, and the resettlement of lowland Khmers in the Khmer Loeu areas. For the next two and one-half years, the newly formed RAK remained small (estimates varied from 400 to 2,000 personnel), and poorly equipped with captured weapons. The Khmer Rouge found that, in spite of the Samlot rebellion, discontent against the government in Phnom Penh was then insufficient to attract large numbers of people to the rigors of an armed insurgency. As for external support, there was no move on the part of Hanoi to provide military assistance to the Khmer Rouge because such action would have alienated Sihanouk's government and would have imperiled continued North Vietnamese and Viet Cong access to Cambodian territory as well as their use of the port of Sihanoukville.

In 1969 the United States undertook the first of two bombing campaigns against enemy targets in Cambodian territory. Code-named the Menu series, these air operations consisted of tactical strikes against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong base areas on the Cambodian- Vietnamese border. They partially dislodged the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong and drove them more deeply into Cambodia in quest of safer havens. This brought FARK elements into more frequent hostile contact with the communists, and there were reports of FARK forces' being involved in joint operations with South Vietnamese forces against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Sihanouk became increasingly distressed with these developments; his attitude toward the communist Vietnamese changed, and authorization for continued use of Sihanoukville was terminated. In April, speaking in Rotanokiri Province, Sihanouk stated that "to deal with the Viet Cong and Viet Minh," he had ordered General Lon Nol "to give up the defensive spirit and adopt an offensive spirit." Sihanouk announced during a press conference on June 11, 1969 that " . . . at present there is war in Rotanokiri [province] between Cambodia and Vietnam."

Sihanouk left Cambodia for medical treatment in France in January 1970. Citing disagreement over economic and administrative matters, after week-long anticommunist rioting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian National Assembly on March 18 passed a unanimous vote of nonconfidence in Sihanouk and replaced him as chief of state (see The March 1970 Coup d'Etat , ch. 1). Although Sihanouk's deposition was nominally a parliamentary action, the leaders of the participants consisted primarily of FARK officers, headed by Lon Nol, who had been the prime minister since the previous August (and who, Sihanouk had once suggested, would be his likeliest successor). The coup was bloodless, although FARK contingents were on the alert in Phnom Penh and took control of key installations, such as the airport and the radio station.

At the time Sihanouk was deposed, FARK, soon to be renamed the Khmer National Armed Forces (Forces Armées Nationales Khmères-- FANK--see Appendix B), had 35,000 to 40,000 personnel, organized for the most part as ground forces. The Lon Nol government repeatedly sought negotiations for a peaceful withdrawal of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces from its territory. These overtures were rejected, and in April the Vietnamese communists began moving out of their sanctuaries and deeper into Cambodia, in efforts to preserve their lines of communication and to maintain the corridor to the port of Sihanoukville. President Richard M. Nixon spoke on April 30, 1970 to the American nation, and said that "thousands of their [North Vietnamese and Viet Cong] soldiers are invading the country from the sanctuaries and they are encircling the capital." Lon Nol, in the meantime, had called up military reserves, had requested UN intervention, and, while reiterating Cambodia's position of neutrality, had issued a call for international assistance.

Between April 29 and May 1, 1970, South Vietnamese and United States ground forces drove into Cambodia's border areas in a determined bid to overrun and to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong logistical depots and sanctuaries. There also was hope at United States MACV headquarters that the offensive would result in the capture of the Central Office for South Vietnam, the Viet Cong headquarters for directing the war against the Saigon government. The operation resulted in the capture of vast quantities of enemy matériel and it bought time for Washington and Saigon to proceed with "Vietnamization," the process of turning over the conduct of the war to the South Vietnamese government. For the shaky Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh, however, the results of the incursion were destabilizing and far-reaching. In retreating before United States and South Vietnamese troops, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces penetrated farther west into Cambodian territory, overrunning government outposts as they went. Soon all of northeastern Cambodia had fallen to the North Vietnamese or to the Viet Cong, who then proceeded to turn the captured areas over to the Khmer insurgents and to forge them into a full-fledged revolutionary army.

To help hard-pressed FANK, Nixon laid down guidelines for United States assistance to Cambodia, promising, among other things, to turn over to the government in Phnom Penh equipment captured during the incursion, and to "provide military the form of small arms and relatively unsophisticated equipment in types and quantities suitable for their army." Thus began a structured military assistance program, supplementing the ad hoc support begun shortly before the incursion, that was to total US$1.18 billion by the fall of the Lon Nol government in April 1975. Although all United States troops were withdrawn from Cambodian territory, South Vietnamese forces were accorded "automatic authority" to operate in Cambodia in a sixteen- kilometer corridor along the frontier.

The Lon Nol government very shortly afterwards declared martial law and total mobilization, and it began expansion of its army. United States government studies conducted shortly before Sihanouk's deposition had expressed serious reservations about the capabilities of the government forces, noting the "lack of combat experience, equipment deficiencies, . . . . lack of mobility," and citing "incompetent and corrupt officers" as the "greatest shortcoming."

The same officers were, however, retained by FANK and their inadequacy rapidly became apparent as military rosters were padded with non-existent "phantom troops." United States advisers attempting to keep track of FANK's development were constantly hampered by the difficulty of accurately estimating the number of Cambodian troops. (Accurate numbers were important because the United States was then providing assistance for FANK's military pay and allowances.) United States Senate staff investigators reported that United States officials acknowledged in January 1972 that the Khmer Republic's military strength figures were "grossly exaggerated" by at least 10 percent. The Senate report concluded there was "no greater mystery in Cambodia than the size of the Cambodian Government's armed forces." In December 1972, the information minister of the newly proclaimed Khmer Republic announced that 100,000 troops were found to be "nonexistent." According to the United States secretary of state's report to the Congress for the years 1969 and 1970, FANK grew "from under 40,000 in March 1970 to some 200,000 in January 1971." In reality, FANK levels probably never reached such a high number, and many of its new soldiers were youthful and inexperienced.

Limited basic training of the inductees, some of it in Thailand and in South Vietnam, began almost immediately after the introduction of martial law. Such training, however, could not satisfy FANK's pressing need to teach peasant farmers to man the equipment provided by the United States, to fight effectively in sizable units, and to comprehend modern military doctrine.

In spite of a steady infusion of United States security assistance and the influx of new FANK personnel, the government forces were unable to hold their own against their adversaries. Because much of the country remained under North Vietnamese control after the withdrawal of United States and South Vietnamese troops, initial FANK strategy focused on holding the heartland of Cambodia south of a line of demarcation dubbed the "Lon Nol Line." This strategy conceded about half the country to the enemy, but it was the heavily forested, sparsely populated, northern half. If the Lon Nol Line could be held, the government would control the southern half with most of the population and all of the rich, rice-growing areas.

To defend this territory, FANK unleashed its two most ambitious offensives: Chenla I, in August 1970, and Chenla II, in August 1971. Both had as their objectives the reopening of Route 6 to Kampong Thum and the reassertion of government control over this fertile agricultural area. Both operations failed. Chenla I stalled short of its objective in the face of fierce resistance from the North Vietnamese Ninth Division. FANK units were then withdrawn to protect the capital from enemy commando teams. Chenla II was successful in securing its initial goals, and FANK columns from north and south met jubilantly on Route 6 along the way to Kampong Thum. As the government forces celebrated, however, their old nemesis, the North Vietnamese Ninth Division, tore into the extended FANK lines with ferocity, slaughtering many of them and leaving the rest cut off and compelled to fight their way back to their own lines as best they could. Former FANK commander General Sat Sutsakhan noted ruefully about Chenla II after the war that, "In this operation FANK lost some of its best units of infantry as well as a good part of its armor and a great deal of transport, both military and civil."

The North Vietnamese, however, were neither the only, nor the most determined adversary with whom FANK had to deal. A far more lethal threat was soon posed by a revitalized Khmer Rouge-dominated force that had evolved considerably since its days as the ragtag, poorly armed band of irregulars known then as the RAK. The development of the RAK had owed much to the opportunism of the Khmer Rouge leaders, who had been able to transform a forlorn communist insurgency with no chance of succeeding in the late 1960s, into a war of national liberation headed by the country's most eminent nationalist, Sihanouk.

From Beijing, where he had been stranded by the coup that deposed him, Sihanouk in 1970 announced the formation of a Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (Gouvernement Royal d'Union Nationale du Kampuchéa--GRUNK--see Appendix B). This government, he said, would be under the leadership of a broad umbrella organization, the National United Front of Kampuchea (Front Uni National du Kampuchéa--FUNK--see Appendix B). The prestige of Sihanouk's name thus helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment effort. Rural peasant volunteers believed they were joining a broad-based national resistance movement, headed by the prince, against an ineffectual puppet regime in Phnom Penh. Several groups also rallied to the broad appeal of the GRUNK/FUNK. Such groups included the pro-Sihanouk Khmer Rumdo (see Appendix B), the Khmer Viet Minh, and the Khmer Loeu.

To accommodate the disparate elements that were rallying to the resistance cause, the RAK was renamed the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces (CPNLAF--see Appendix B). As this force grew in size and in proficiency, it was able to relieve North Vietnamese units of their combat burden in Cambodia. By 1973 there were reportedly no more than 5,000 North Vietnamese combat troops in Cambodia, and of this number only 2,000 to 3,000 were deployed against FANK units.

After the Chenla campaigns, FANK was unable to regain the offensive, and its operations became a series of hard-fought defensive actions against an enemy whose momentum could not be stayed. Individual unit valor and fleeting tactical successes did little to relieve the unbroken string of FANK setbacks--overrun outposts, annihilated battalions, cut-off columns, plummeting morale, exhausted supplies, steadily shrinking government territory, and enemy units that were drawing ever closer around Phnom Penh. A harbinger of future trends was discernible as early as November 1972, two-and-one-half years before the final defeat. FANK strategists at that time acknowledged the waning capability of their armed forces and redrew the Lon Nol Line. The new line of demarcation signified a profound strategic realignment because it conceded most of the country, including the rich rice-growing areas around the Tonle Sap, to the enemy. In accordance with the redrawn Lon Nol line, FANK was committed to defend no more than the triangular corner of southeastern Cambodia, which held a majority of the population and was bounded generally by Route 4 from Phnom Penh to Kampong Saom on the west, and by Route 1 from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border on the east. The apex of the triangle passed just north of Odongk, the former royal capital that was to be the scene of heavy fighting later in the war. Even this retrenchment, however, turned out to be impractical, as successive engagements failed to dislodge the enemy troops south of the new defense line, and FANK increasingly found itself hard pressed from that direction as well.

By 1973 United States Department of State sources, possibly underestimating, noted that the Khmer Rouge-dominated CPNLAF controlled about 60 percent of Cambodia's territory and 25 percent of the population. Despite a sustained United States bombing campaign that year to blunt the steady advance of the CPNLAF and to relieve pressure on FANK, the Khmer Rouge insurgent forces were able to absorb their losses, to maintain the initiative, and to subject an increasingly demoralized and cornered FANK to unremitting pressure.

The denouement for FANK and for the Khmer Republic began on New Year's Day 1975 when the CPNLAF unleashed its final offensive. As winter turned into spring, the enemy battered the defenses of Phnom Penh from every direction. Routes into the city were cut, reopened, and cut again; river convoys were forced to run a gauntlet of hostile fire to reach the beleaguered capital and finally could no longer break through; United States aircraft, in a forlorn attempt to maintain a lifeline into the city, set up an airlift from bases in Thailand. The effort worked briefly, until the airport itself was interdicted by hostile rocket fire. By early April, Phnom Penh was surrounded on all sides, and its defenses were crumbling. FANK attempts to break out of the encircled city stalled in the face of intense Khmer Rouge firepower. Government units were decimated, exhausted, and out of supplies; finally, they were unable to hold out any longer. The fall of the capital on April 17, marked the demise of the Khmer Republic and the total defeat of FANK, which in the end had been totally outclassed and outfought, not by an army of guerrillas--that phenomenon so intensively studied during the period, but by a tough, disciplined, regular force in a conventional war of movement, by fire and by maneuver.

Data as of December 1987

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