The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists:
A history of their relations as told in the Soviet archives
To this day, the real history of relations between the Khmer communists and their Vietnamese colleagues is enclosed in a veil of secrecy. Despite extensive research on this theme in Russia and abroad, there are still no reliable answers to many key questions. The history of relations between Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is construed in Vietnam in a way which sometimes has nothing to do with the story told in the West. Statements of some Khmer Rouge leaders like Khieu Samphan or Ieng Sari, who have recently defected to the governmental camp in Phnom Penh and say what people want to hear, are not to be trusted either. All this supports the assumption that analysis of relations between Hanoi and the Khmer Rouge is not only a historical problem. There is still a political component, which encumbers its objective study.
The author endeavours to tackle this problem and to present to the reader an objective and impartial picture of what was happening. The research is based on a study of the former USSR’s archival materials (diaries of Soviet ambassadors in Vietnam, records of conversations with ranking members of the Vietnamese government, analytical notes, political letters of the Soviet embassy in the SRV, and other documents) deposited in the Russian State Archive of Modern History (RSAMH). Along with other sources, such as the French colonial archives and interviews with Vietnamese and Cambodian participants (see Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975, London, Verso, 1985), this work allows us to give objective and reasonably complete answers to the question at issue.
Relations between Khmer and Vietnamese communists have passed through some major periods of development. In the first period, which can be determined to span from 1930 to 1954, a small Khmer section of the Indochina Communist Party (ICP), was under full ideological and organizational control of the Vietnamese communists. During the years of struggle for liberation from the governance of France (1946-1954), the strength of this section grew continuously due to ICP recruitment of the most radical participants in the anti-colonial struggle. The Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was founded in June 1951 on this basis. The leaders of this party, Son Ngoc Minh, Sieu Heng, and Tou Samut, acted hand in hand in the anti-colonial war with the Vietnamese and were truly valid allies and strict executors of all the plans drafted by the ICP.
The 1954 Geneva Agreements on Indochina drastically changed relations between Khmer and Vietnamese communists. The Vietnamese withdrew their forces from Cambodia in accordance with the Agreements, but as distinct from Laos (where the so-called free zone in the region of Sam Neua was controlled by the communists), Hanoi could not ensure the same conditions for their Khmer allies. The Vietnamese, under pressure from the Sihanouk regime and its Western allies, did not even let the Khmer communists participate in the Geneva negotiations, and by the end of 1954 had withdrawn their combat forces from the regions of Cambodia which were under their control. Hereupon Khmer Royal Forces entered all zones that had been under KPRP authority, which forced the party underground. The consolation offered by Hanoi - granting two thousand of their allies the possibility of taking cover in the territory of North Vietnam (Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy, N.Y., 1986, p. 59) - was obviously disproportionate to their contribution to a joint struggle. Therefore among the Khmer communists remaining in Cambodia the story gained currency that Hanoi had simply betrayed them, used them as hostages for the sake of reaching the agreement with the then leader of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk. The evaluation of the Vietnamese operations of those days as an “unrighteous betrayal of the Cambodian revolution” (W. Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, N.Y., 1987, p. 238) was later more than once reproduced in official documents of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot himself claimed it many times. Interestingly, Hanoi’s decision was remembered in Phnom Penh even in the eighties, when such a high-ranking official in the Phnom Penh hierarchy as the executive secretary of the pro-Vietnam United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea, Chan Ven, was of the opinion that in 1953, “the Vietnamese had acted incorrectly by leaving us alone to face with the ruling regime” (conversation with Chan Ven, Phnom Penh, July 15, 1984).
The events in Indochina in 1954 marked the beginning of a new period in relations between the Khmer and Vietnamese communists. The close partnership of 1949-1953 promptly came to naught, and the KPRP, which had lost a considerable number of its members, went underground and fell out of the field of vision of Hanoi for many years. The North Vietnamese leaders who were preparing for a renewal of armed struggle in the South, found in Sihanouk, with his anti-imperialist and anti-American rhetoric, a far more important ally than the KPRP. Moreover, Sihanouk had real power. Hanoi placed its bets on the alliance with Sihanouk, who was not only critical of the United States but also granted North Vietnam the possibility to use his territory for creating rear bases on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail and even to deliver ammunition and arms for the fighting in the South through the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. (However, the Khmers retained approximately 10 % of all deliveries - see Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy, N.Y., 1986, pp. 61, 420). The Vietnamese did their best to strengthen this regime, and went out of their way to scrap any plans of the local communists to fight Sihanouk. Hanoi believed that “the armed struggle with the government of Sihanouk slackened it and opened a path to the intrigues of American imperialism against Kampuchea" (On the History of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 9). The Vietnamese even tried not to allow Khmer communists to leave Hanoi for Cambodia to carry out illegal work in their home country, and tried to have them keep different official positions in Vietnam (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 50, file 721: Document of the USSR embassy in the DRV, April 1, 1965, p. 142).
As to the communists, operating on the territory of Cambodia, their underground organization had broken up into rather isolated fractions under heavy pressure from the authorities, and its illegal leaders wandered through the country from one secret address to another at the end of their tether. Authentic documents of this epoch were not saved. However, according to the evidence of such an informed person as Tep Khen - a former ambassador of Heng Samrin’s regime in Phnom Penh, all documentation of the party fitted into a schoolbag, which general secretary Tou Samut and his two bodyguards carried while travelling through the country. (Conversation with Tep Khen, Moscow, March 10, 1985). The treachery of Sieu Heng - the second most important person in the KPRP - dealt a heavy blow against the underground organization. This party leader, who had been in charge of KPRP work among peasants for several years, secretly cooperated with the special services of the ruling regime and during the period from 1955 to 1959 gave away practically all communist activists in the country to the authorities.
The prevailing obvious chaos inside the party and the absence of serious control from the Vietnamese party presented Saloth Sar (later he took the revolutionary pseudonym Pol Pot) who arrived home from France, and his radical friends who had studied with him there, with huge possibilities for elevation to the highest positions in a semi-destroyed, isolated organization. The treachery of Sieu Heng did not affect them seriously, because they belonged to an urban wing of the party, headed by Tou Samut. The career growth of Pol Pot was vigorous: in 1953 he was secretary of a regional party cell, while in 1959 he made it to the post of the secretary of Phnom Penh city committee of CPRP (Conversation with Chan Ven, Phnom Penh, July 15, 1984).
When in 1962, the Sihanouk secret police laid its hands on and killed Tou Samut at a secret hide-out in Phnom Penh (four years before - in 1958 - another prominent leader of the KPRP, editor of the party newspaper Nop Bophan had been shot and killed), Pol Pot and his friends got the unique chance to actually head the party or, more precisely, what was left of it. As early as 1960, Pol Pot had managed to assure that his evaluation of the situation in the country and his views on the tactics and strategy of political struggle were accepted as a basis for drafting a new program of the KPRP. It declared as the main cause of the party the realization of a national-democratic revolution, that is to say the struggle for the overthrow of the regime existing in the country, a policy that went counter to the interests of Hanoi. The congress approved a new Charter and formed a new Central Committee, where Pol Pot assumed the responsibilities of deputy chairman of the party.
The prevalence of new personnel was consolidated at the next Party congress which took place in January 1963. It was also held underground at a secret address and according to veteran communists there were not more than 20 persons at it (conversation with Chan Ven, Phnom Penh, July 14, 1984). During this meeting a new Central Committee, wherein young radicals held one third of all 12 posts, was elected. Pol Pot himself took up the post of the general secretary, and Ieng Sari became a member of the permanent bureau (To Kuyen, ‘The CPRP as avant-garde of the Kampuchean people’, Cong Shang, 1983, N11-12. Cited from the Russian translation, "Questions of the history of the CPSU," N10, 1984, p. 68). Unexpectedly for the Vietnamese, Pol Pot then renamed the party: from the People’s Revolutionary Party to the Communist Party of Kampuchea or CPK (conversation with Tep Khen, Moscow, March 10, 1985). Much later, explaining the reason for changing the name, Pol Pot claimed that "The Communist Party of Indochina and consequently its successor the KPRP was in due course created by the Vietnamese to occupy Cambodian and Lao lands" (Provotesat songkhep nei pak protiatyun padevoat Kampuchea – ‘A Brief history of the KPRP – The vanguard of the working class and all the people of Kampuchea,’ Phnom Penh, 1984, p. 7).
Vietnamese for a long time calmly watched the changes in Khmer communist underground, practically not interfering into its business, unaware of the fact that with their involuntary help an evil, dictatorial bunch led by Pol Pot and Ieng Sari was emerging. In January 1978, the first deputy chief of the external relations department of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Central Committee, Nguyen Thanh Le, told the Soviet ambassador: "There were contradictions between Pol Pot and Ieng Sari before, so in 1963-1964 Ieng Sari left Pol Pot in the underground and went to Phnom Penh. Then Pol Pot persuaded Vietnamese friends to help him to return Ieng Sari" (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1061, record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the Vietnamese communist party Central Committee’s first deputy chief of the external relations department, Nguyen Thanh Le, January 14, 1978, p. 6). It is hard to tell if this information provided by Ngyuen Thanh Le recalls actual events. Pol Pot always was an "alien" for the Hanoi leaders and it is difficult to imagine that for the sake of repairing his relationship with Ieng Sari, who was no less "alien" to Hanoi, Pol Pot needed Vietnamese assistance. Most likely, high-ranking Vietnamese officials tried to persuade their Soviet allies that Vietnam had the Khmer communist leaders under firm control.
This neglect of the Khmer communists began to change in the mid-sixties, when Hanoi realized that Sihanouk’s support of North-Vietnamese policy was becoming more and more frail. The positions of opponents of friendship with Hanoi on behalf of the powerful authoritative generals Lon Nol and Sirik Matak became more and more stronger in Phnom Penh. Under such conditions, the Vietnamese again recalled their natural allies – the Khmer communists. However there they had to confront a lot of unexpected problems. The main one was that due to obvious oversight there were people in the highest posts of the Khmer Communist Party little-known to the Vietnamese, and inevitably suspect because they were educated in France, instead of in Hanoi. Besides, the majority of them had not participated in the anti-colonial war and were not checked for allegiance “to the elder brother.” But the most important reason was that they quite openly criticised North Vietnamese policy towards the Cambodian ruling regime. Pol Pot, unlike his predecessors in the highest party post, rigidly defended the line that Khmer communists should act independently, fulfilling their own purposes and interests first of all, and “should carry out independent, special policy on basic matters of revolutionary struggle, theory and tactics”. (Provatesat songkhep nei pak protiatyun padevoat Kampuchea, p. 6). And Hanoi should take into consideration that the young radicals had managed to win certain popularity and support in party circles by their activity and independence. The point of view of the new general secretary that “the political struggle won’t bring any results” was regarded with understanding (Provatesat songkhep nei pak protiatyun padevoat Kampuchea, p. 7). That’s why the foreground task of the Khmer communists should be the one of capturing power in Cambodia; interests of “Vietnamese brothers” should not dominate in the determination of CPK policy. Also important was that for the first time since the Geneva agreements, the Khmer communists, despite instructions to support the anti-imperialist policy of Sihanouk received by Pol Pot during his secret stay in Hanoi in the summer of 1965, were prepared to move to real actions. (Chanda, Brother Enemy, N.Y., 1986, p. 62).
In 1966, the Soviet embassy in Phnom Penh began to receive messages that “the Communist Party is preparing the masses for an armed revolt” (Fund 5, inventory 58, file 009540, dossier 324, p. 340). In December 1966, the journal “Somlenh polokor” (Workers’ Voice), closely connected to the communist underground, published an article stating: “Brother workers and peasants should be united by all means to destroy feudal and reactionary governors and their flunkeys in the territory of Cambodia” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 58, file 009540, dossier 324, p. 341).
Anxious that “the younger brother” was actually getting out of control and putting North Vietnamese interests aside, Hanoi decided to act in two directions: the first one was to redeploy and introduce necessary people into the CPK – Khmer communists who had studied and lived in Vietnam. They should be introduced into Cambodian party organizations with the purposes of party personnel consolidation. According to the archival documents dated 1965 for the first time after many years “the group of Cambodian communists was transfered to Southern Vietnam for outbreak of hostilities in Cambodia. (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 50, file 721, Document of the Soviet embassy to the DRV, April 1, 1965, p. 142). The other direction was not to be involved in conflict with the new communist party administration in Phnom Penh, but to demonstrate a certain support to a ruling group in the CPK. Unlike previous years nothing was said about the progressive role of Sihanouk. The statement that “the struggle of the Khmer communists will be victorious” was also a surprise. (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 50, file 721. Documents of the Soviet embassy to the DRV, April 1, 1965, p. 142). Hanoi faced a difficult dilemma: either to create a new communist organization in Cambodia with personnel trained in northern Vietnam, or to introduce “necessary people” in basic posts in the existing Communist Party and to recognize even temporarily a not very reliable Pol Pot as the legitimate communist leader of the fraternal party. The Vietnamese politicians chose the second, as their purpose was to strengthen communist forces in Cambodia, instead of making them weaker by an internal split.
Furthermore there were no warranties that the pro-Vietnamese organization led by Son Ngoc Minh -- a person compromised by full subordination to Hanoi -- would be more powerful and numerous than Pol Pot’s party. One well-known episode shows how unpopular Son Ngoc Minh was among Khmer communists. Keo Meas, one of the veterans, publicly accused Son Ngoc Minh of ‘becoming fat in safety while the party faithful were being liquidated’ (Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981, ed. by Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, London, Zed, 1982, p. 194).
In addition to the above and as some further events have shown, the policy of a new party leadership evidently was supported by other authoritative veterans of the KPRP. Among them was So Phim, future chief of the Eastern Zone and the fourth-ranking person in the party, and Ta Mok, future chief of the Southwest Zone and one of the most severe and loyal Pol Pot supporters. So it became obvious that Hanoi did not have any other special choice. (Nguyen Co Thach, in his conversation with the Soviet ambassador in January, 1978, said that So Phim and Ta Mok were former members of the Communist Party of Indochina. (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Record of Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the deputy minister of Foreign affairs of the SRV, Nguyen Co Thach, 21.01.1978, p. 20).
It was possible to assume that the Vietnamese decided to strike a bargain by “marriage of convenience” at this time, hoping to remove Pol Pot gradually from leadership. The radicals, in their turn also agreed on compromise, as only Vietnam could have given them the assets for the armed struggle and on party needs.
It is well known, that at that time Pol Pot was looking for support both among Soviet and Chinese communists. According to some sources he visited Beijing in 1965 and, as archival data indirectly testify, gained support for his revolutionary plans from the Chinese leadership (On the history of the Vietnam-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 9.)
At least, according to the information of the Soviet embassy in Hanoi in a document dated February 19, 1968, it was pointed out that "using the critical economic situation of the peasants in the number of provinces, Chinese, based on pro-Maoist and pro-Vietnamese elements of the left–wing forces, rouse actions of the so-called Khmer Rouge in the Northern and Northwest provinces, smuggle weapons, and create small armed groups of rebels (‘Subversive activities of Chinese in Cambodia’ (reference). RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 60, file 36. February 19, 1968, p.4).
Ung Khon San, the Deputy Chairman of Internal affairs at the Council of Ministers of Cambodia, told Soviet representatives about Beijing’s active participation in the rousing of rebel activities. He said that “rebels are armed with modern Chinese-made weapons (automatic rifles, grenade launchers, and 81 mm. mortars)...these weapons were found in boxes addressed to the textile factory in Battambang where Chinese experts were working” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 60, file 365. ‘Subversive activities of Chinese in Cambodia’ (reference), Phnom Penh, February 19, 1968 p. 9-10).
One cannot but admit that besides his trip to Beijing in 1966, Pol Pot expressed a desire to meet representatives of the Soviet embassy in Phnom Penh, expecting to receive support from Moscow. The meeting took place; however, Pol Pot was dissatisfied that a non-senior embassy official was sent to the meeting with him (as the former ambassador in Cambodia, Yuri Myakotnykh, told me in Barvikha on the 14th of August 1993, it was a conversation with only the third secretary of the Soviet embassy).
The CPK’s hopes for Soviet aid were not justified and could not be justified because the Soviet representatives had practically no serious information about the CPK (conversation with Yuri Myakotnykh, Barvikha, August 14, 1993). The most the Soviet embassy could do at that time "was to send a lecturer to the representatives of the left-wing forces for a course of lectures on the socio-economic problems of Cambodia” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 58, file 324. Economic problems and escalation of the domestic situation in Cambodia (the political letter of the embassy of the USSR in Cambodia, second quarter 1966, p. 84).
The failure to establish contacts with Moscow did not weaken the position of Pol Pot, as he had Beijing and Hanoi behind him. To strengthen his support from Hanoi he even showed readiness for close union and “special solidarity” with the DRV: Pol Pot introduced Nuon Chea – a person trusted in Hanoi, whom Le Duan, leader of the Vietnamese communists, in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador, called a politician of “pro-Vietnam orientation” as the occupant of the second most important post in the party. Speaking of Nuon Chea, Le Duan literally emphasized “he is our man indeed and my personal friend" (Record of conversation of the Soviet ambassador with Le Duan, first secretary of the Vietnamese communist party Central Committee, RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2314, November 16, 1976, p. 113).
The compromise with Hanoi allowed Pol Pot to reserve to himself authority in the party leadership, to provide the material and military aid for fighting groups, which he called the Revolutionary Army. In the period 1968-1970 this army conducted unsuccessful operations against the forces of the ruling regime, sustaining heavy losses, and did not have the slightest hope of coming to power.
A great chance for Pol Pot and Khmer communists came in March, 1970. Their long-term enemy - Cambodian leader prince Sihanouk - was overthrown in the military coup d’etat of March 18, 1970. He had to enter into a military-political union with the communists to get back to power. It became a turning point for the communists: in the eyes of thousands of peasants, they turned from enemies of Sihanouk into his protectors. The revolutionary army started growing as on yeast, and the mass base of the communists considerably increased. In this case the goals of purely communist reorganization obviously were set aside for the moment, and the slogans of protection of the legal chief of state and of national independence came to the fore.
In April-May 1970, significant North-Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in response to the call for help addressed to Vietnam not by Pol Pot, but by his deputy Nuon Chea. Nguyen Co Thach recalls: “Nuon Chea has asked for help and we have liberated five provinces of Cambodia in ten days.” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Information on the conversation of the German comrades with the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the SRV Nguyen Co Thach, who stayed on a rest in the GDR from the 1st to the 6th of August, 1978. August 17, 1978, p. 70). In 1970, in fact, Vietnamese forces occupied almost a quarter of the territory of Cambodia, and the zone of communist control grew several times, as power in the so-called liberated regions was given to the CPK. At that time relations between Pol Pot and the North Vietnamese leaders were especially warm, though one could not tell that the Vietnamese aroused obvious hostility among the communist Cambodian leadership by their frank “elder brother” policy towards the Khmers.
The Vietnamese leadership did not even hide the fact that the Cambodian Communist Party, in assocation with the Vietnamese Workers Party (VWP), was given the role of the “younger brother”, obliged to follow the directions of the “elder brother”. The secretary of the VWP Central Committee, Hoang Anh, for instance, in his speech on the twentieth VWP Central Committee plenary meeting held in January, 1971, declared: “We should strengthen the revolutionary base in Cambodia and guide this country along the path of socialism. Here is the policy of our party” (RSAMH, Fund 89, list 54, document 3, p. 21). Moreover, Soviet diplomats working in Hanoi noted: “Vietnamese comrades last year carefully raised one of the clauses of the former Indochina Communist Party program concerning creation of the socialist Federation of Indochina” (RSAMH, Fund 89, list 54, document 10. About VWP policy in determination of Indochinese problems and our goals implying from the decisions of the ХХIV Congress of the C.P.S.U. (political letter) May 21, 1971, p. 14.)