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Cambodia

MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE

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KPNLAF insurgents cross a stream in northwest Cambodia
Courtesy Frank Tatu

Khmer Rouge Armed Forces

The 68,000-member Khmer Rouge-dominated CPNLAF force that completed its conquest of Cambodia in April 1975 was a highly dedicated and disciplined peasant army, trained in the rigors of guerrilla warfare as well as in full-scale combat. Its shadowy intellectual leaders, adhering to the Maoist principles of guerrilla warfare, had taken their core "fish" from only three scattered companies, when optimum conditions had been presented to them in 1970, and had propelled them through the "water" of the people in the countryside, while collecting thousands of proselytes on the way. These leaders were fiercely independent, at first grudgingly accepting training and arms from the Vietnamese--the hated traditional enemy--while on occasion violently turning on these nominal allies, behavior that presaged the fatal conflict that was to come. When most North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat divisions had withdrawn from the field in Cambodia at the end of 1972, the RAK had experienced phenomenal growth, reaching an estimated 50,000. Its personnel continued to arm themselves by capturing or purchasing weaponry from FANK. The insurgents marched under the banners of nationalism, of legitimacy, and of national preservation--the escutcheon of Sihanouk. In the end, they defeated an army which had a strength on paper of 230,000, but which possibly numbered as few as 150,000. FANK had been armed by the United States with military weaponry and equipment worth $US1.18 billion, an abundance of matériel that now fell into the hands of the CPNLAF.

At the beginning of the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, the CPNLAF--now renamed the RAK once again, under its long-time commander and then Minister of Defense Son Sen, had 230 battalions in 35 to 40 regiments and in 12 to 14 brigades. The command structure in units was based on three-person committees in which the political commissar ranked higher than the military commander and his deputy. The country was divided into zones and special sectors, the boundaries of which changed slightly over the years. Within these areas, the RAK's first task upon "liberation," as a calculated policy, was the peremptory execution of former FANK officers and of their families, without trial or fanfare.

The next priority was to consolidate into a national army the separate forces that were operating more or less autonomously in the various zones. The Khmer Rouge units were commanded by zonal secretaries who were simultaneously party and military officers, some of whom were said to have manifested "warlord characteristics." Troops from one zone frequently were sent to another zone to enforce discipline. It was such efforts to discipline zonal secretaries and their dissident or ideologically impure cadres that gave rise to the purges that were to decimate RAK ranks, to undermine the morale of the victorious army, and to generate the seeds of rebellion. As journalist Elizabeth Becker noted, "in the end paranoia, not enemies, was responsible for bringing down the regime."

Data as of December 1987