Cambodia Table of Contents
The Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), the military component of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), was formed in March 1979 from various anticommunist groups concentrated near the Thai border with Cambodia, which were opposed to Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea. Many had become essentially warlord bands, engaging more in trade and in internecine fighting than in combat operations. They were brought together by General Dien Del, a former career officer of the Khmer Republic, who became chief of the KPNLAF General Staff.
The KPNLAF was loyal to Son Sann, a former Sihanouk minister and the founder of the KPNLF political movement. Because of Son Sann's noncommunist credentials, the KPNLAF offered an alternative to those Cambodians who could support neither Hanoi nor the Khmer Rouge, and it quickly became the second largest guerrilla force in the country. By mid-1981, with about 7,000 personnel under arms, it was able to protect its refugee camps and occasionally to conduct forays into Cambodia.
Two developments in the mid-1980s, however, greatly diminished KPNLAF capabilities as a fighting force. The first of these was the Vietnamese dry-season offensive of 1984 to 1985, which dislodged these guerrillas from their havens on the Thai-Cambodian border. All three insurgent forces were affected by this setback, but the KPNLAF proved less able than the others to sustain the reversal and less flexible in adapting to new conditions. Critical sources noted that the KPNLAF had "made no significant contribution to the [1984- 85] dry season fighting against the Vietnamese" and that its combatants had been "virtually immobilized by the loss of their camps." The second development, equally harmful to the KPNLAF cause, was the dispute that broke out among the top leaders. Following the loss of the border camps, contemporary reports noted that "open revolt" had broken out among guerrilla commanders over the "dictatorial ways" of Son Sann, who had continued as president of the KPNLF, and his "interference in military matters." The crisis resulted in the virtual paralysis of the KPNLAF, and the Thai military, presumably on a temporary ad hoc basis, took over the overall management of the insurgent force.
Observers also reported that, as a result of the KPNLAF leadership dispute, members of guerrilla units had returned to the Thai border from the Cambodian interior to await the outcome of the controversy. There were desertions, and discipline became an increasingly serious problem. KPNLAF soldiers became suspect when it was reported that gangs of Khmer bandits had attacked Thai vehicles and buses, and had sometimes abducted or abused passengers. There had long been allegations that Khmer insurgents on the border engaged in black marketing and in other criminal activity.
In 1987 estimates of KPNLAF strength varied widely. At the upper limit, a widely quoted total was 14,000 personnel. In view of the leadership dispute that debilitated the movement in 1985 and in 1986 and prevented its subsequent growth, this figure probably was a considerable exaggeration. A more realistic total was about 8,000 combatants, and KPNLAF leaders expressed the hope that an earnest recruitment drive then beginning might increase the movement's strength to 18,000 by the end of the year.
In accordance with its recruitment and reorganization plans, the KPNLAF divided Cambodia into nine military regions, or operational zones. The force's chain of command was headed by a general officer (in 1987, by General Sak Sutsakhan) who functioned as commander in chief. Reporting to him was a chief of staff, who exercised responsibility over four deputy chiefs of staff. Each of these latter officers was in charge of one of four sections dealing respectively with military operations, general administration, logistical affairs, and planning/psychological operations. At the next subordinate echelon were two or three assistant chiefs of staff, whose functions were undefined. Military units of the KPNLAF were described as battalions, regiments, and brigades, operating presumably from semi-permanent camps in inaccessible areas. Combat elements reportedly, were operating in three provinces of western Cambodia: Batdambang, Siemreab-Otdar Meanchey, and Pouthisat. Actual deployment in the latter province, long a Khmer Rouge stronghold, however, was in question.
The KPNLAF, like the NADK, received most of its military assistance from China. Some aid and training was granted by ASEAN nations, however, especially by Singapore and by Malaysia. In late 1986, the Chinese reportedly delivered a shipment of rocket launchers; this was the first time the KPNLAF was equipped with effective antitank weapons.
KPNLAF combatants sometimes were garbed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots, both probably of noncommunist origin. At other times, they were observed, while on operations, to be wearing merely odds and ends of clothing, gleaned in refugee camps, rather than uniforms. No rank or branch insignia were discernible, but KPNLAF troops frequently wore plastic-laminated chest pocket badges with a photo of Son Sann and the noncommunist Cambodian flag.
Data as of December 1987
Cambodia Table of Contents