The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists: a history of their relations as told in the Soviet archives Dmitry Mosyakov




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The sense of this federation formation was in the unification of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in one state after the victory of the Indochinese revolution under the direction of Vietnamese communists as "the elder brothers". It is natural that all these plans of Hanoi leaders were well known in Cambodia and could not help raising certain animosity and mistrust among Khmer communists not taking into consideration their views on Cambodia’s future. Soviet representatives in Vietnam were well aware of the wary and even hostile attitude of Khmer and Lao communists to Hanoi’s plans on restriction of the independence of Laos and Cambodia and a new reorganization of the former territory of French Indochina. In the 1971 political letter, they noted that a “too narrow national approach of Vietnamese comrades towards the resolution of Indochinese problems, [and] noticeable attempts of submission of Laos and Cambodia problems to the interests of Vietnam, caused latent complaint of Lao and Cambodian friends” (RSAMH, Fund 89, list 54, document 10 (political letter) p.5).

This "latent" complaint is well visible in the correspondence of Pol Pot with Le Duan. In the letter of 1974, on the one hand he swore that “all our victories are inseparable from the help of our brothers and comrades-in-arms – the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese workers party” and on the other hand he quite definitely declared that “relations between our parties are based on mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s internal affairs” (On the History of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 20).

It is completely obviously that the Khmer Rouge party and military apparatus “became more and more forceful, the ambitions of their leaders, their genetic hostility and mistrust to the Vietnamese” (historically Khmers always disliked Vietnamese, considering them aggressors in relation to their home country) became more and more obvious: “The Khmer Rouge only searched an occasion to designate their own position, independent from the Vietnamese. In the liberated regions they prohibited the local population to come into contact with Vietnamese, attacked as if mistakenly separate Vietnamese groups, seized wagon-trains with food supplies, ammunition and military equipment” (On the History of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 7).

The possibility for "insult" and "divorce" from Hanoi was granted to them by destiny: in 1973, after the conclusion of the Peace agreement in Paris, Pol Pot turned from formal into real leader on the liberated territory of his country. The reason for this change was that the Vietnamese in Paris, as in 1954 at Geneva, again agreed on full withdrawal of their forces from Cambodia. Their withdrawal loosened the Khmer Rouge leadership’s dependence on Hanoi’s instructions, saved their party structures from dense political and ideological custody in Cambodia by numerous Vietnamese advisers, and in fact disrupted the positions of plainly pro-Vietnamese elements inside the CCP. Hem Samin, very friendly to Vietnam, a first member of the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea, recalled that since 1973 people who had only joined the party at military party meetings “freely came in for rude and groundless criticism of pro-Vietnamese veterans” (V. Skvortsov, Kampuchea: The saving of freedom, Мoscow, 1980, p.68). The year 1973 was marked by the first wave of cadre emigration, when along with Vietnamese forces the country was abandoned by future well known figures of post-Pol Pot Cambodia like Miech Somnang and Keo Chenda. Pen Sovan, who became the head of the Cambodian People’s Revolutionary Party reconstructed after 1979 by the Vietnamese, left the editorial committee of the Khmer Rouge radio station in 1973 and escaped into Vietnam. (V. Skvortsov, Kampuchea: The saving of freedom, Мoscow, 1980. p. 93.) The Vietnamese withdrawal of forces and the weakening of Vietnamese control allowed Khmer radicals to begin realization of their plans to toughen domestic policy in the spirit of “the Great Leap Forward” and “the Cultural Revolution”. A sharp transition towards mass socialization and a reorganization of entire Khmer village life in the spirit of China’s large communes started just after the Vietnamese withdrawal. Beforehand, it was a risky business, as it would inevitably have caused suspicions that the Cambodian communist leadership would not follow the Soviet-Vietnamese course, but would have more sympathy for the Chinese experience.

The Khmer Rouge position strengthened again after success on all fronts in their mass attack at the end of January and the beginning of February, 1973. Thus Pol Pot more or less demonstrated to all that the new Vietnamese “betrayal” (“Hanoi has left us” – thus Khieu Samphan in a conversation with Sihanouk evaluated the Paris Agreement) and the sharp aggravation of relations with the Vietnam Workers Party due to the Khmer Rouge refusal, despite insistent Vietnamese "recommendations," to enter into negotiations with the Lon Nol government (W. Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 281), had not affected the operations of the Khmer communists. Under his leadership the CPK, unlike in 1954, was ready for such a turn of events, and independently capable of a military victory in the country.

In the spring of 1973, in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador, Le Duan stated that “the initiative in Cambodian affairs is not in our hands” (Fund 5, inventory 66, file 782. Record of conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the VWP Central Committee Secretary Le Duan, April 19, 1973, p. 78.) This was a fair but late recognition by the Vietnamese leader. Pham Hung - the member of VWP Politbureau responsible for Cambodia - made unsuccessful attempts to act according to the Vietnamese script. It was clear to all that Pol Pot was waging his own war, independent of Hanoi. (Pham Hung held a few meetings with Pol Pot in January 24-26, 1973. Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy, N.Y., 1986, p. 68.)

In April 1973, Hanoi openly advised its Soviet allies that it had no real control of the situation in the Cambodian Communist Party. In the same conversation with the Soviet ambassador, Le Duan declared that “the Cambodian People’s Revolutionary Party has contentions both with Sihanouk and with its own members. Their organization is situated in Beijing. Even the Chinese embassy in Hanoi has more contacts with them than we have. However Khmer comrades are very careful. Our help to them is substantial. There is a possibility to get closer to them gradually” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 66, file 782. Record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the VWP Central Committee secretary Le Duan, April 19, 1973, p. 78).

Pham Van Dong told the Soviet ambassador about bitter alienation of the relations between Khmer and Vietnamese communists. In their conversation of April 14, 1973, the Vietnamese prime minister indicated that “our support and help to Cambodian friends is decreasing and its scale is now insignificant”. Pham Van Dong took a much more optimistic position, in comparison with Le Duan’s, when he was asked by the Soviet representative about the “presence of conspiracy in the Cambodian problem behind the Vietnamese back”. He said “we know that there are plans directed to the creation of difficulties in relations between the peoples of Indochina. We, however, have enough forces to resist these plans. The leadership of the DRV is constantly working on the Cambodian problem” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 66, file 782. Record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the VWP Politbureau member and prime minister of Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, April 14, 1973, p. 80.)

To all appearances, under the influence of Vietnamese leaders’ information on the significant independence of the Khmer leadership, Moscow officials came to a conclusion about the necessity of making their own contacts with the Khmer Rouge. In the same conversation with Pham Van Dong, the Soviet ambassador said that “comrades from the KPRP do not evaluate fairly enough their connections with the C.P.S.U., depending [the issue of] of recognition of Sihanouk by the USSR. We need their help to know the situation in Cambodia better.” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 66, business 782. Record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the VWP’s Politbureau member and prime minister of Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, April 14, 1973, p. 85.)

A little later, in June 1973, the envoy-counsellor of the embassy of the USSR in the DRV informed Moscow: “in accordance with the assignment of the Centre, I have passed the letter of the Central Commitee of the C.P.S.U. to the KPRP Central Committee. In the conversation with the VWP Central Commitee deputy chief of department Tran Khi Khien, he said that it was difficult to foresee a response of the Cambodian friends as to how they will consider the initiative of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U.” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 66, file 782. Record of the Soviet embassy to the DRV’s envoy-counsellor’s conversation with the VWP Central Committee deputy chief of department Tran Khi Khien, June 16, 1973, p. 132.)

Analysis of these documents proves, surprisingly, that Moscow’s attempts to create connections with the Khmer Rouge were undertaken indirectly, via its Vietnamese allies, in whom the Cambodian leadership had minimal confidence. The passing on of the official invitation for cooperation with the Khmers by means of the Vietnamese party worker ensured the blazing collapse of the whole project. As it now appears, Moscow, though wishing to establish direct ties with the Khmer Rouge leadership, at the same time did not want to complicate its relations with Hanoi by trying to approach the Cambodian leadership over Hanoi’s head.

At the same time the information provided to the Soviet side by Hanoi contained its own puzzles. In November 1973, the deputy chief of the socialist countries department of the VWP Central Committee, Nguyen Trong Thuat, in a conversation with a Soviet diplomat, asserted that “the latest information makes it clear that the process of the NUFC’s (National United Front of Cambodia – D.M.) and personally Khieu Samphan’s ruling roles are now strengthening” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 66, file 782. Record of the Soviet embassy first secretary’s conversation with the deputy chief of the socialist countries department of the VWP Central Committee, Nguyen Trong Thuat, November 13 1973, p. 185.)

Now in January, 1978, the information about Khieu Samphan was completely different. The first deputy chief of the external relations department of the Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee, Nguyen Thanh Le, told the Soviet ambassador that “in 1971-1972 Khieu Samphan was an ordinary member of the party and only in 1975 became a candidate member of the Central Committee” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory, 75, file 1061. Record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the first deputy chief of the external relations department of the Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee, Nguyen Thanh Le, January 14, 1978, p. 6.)

It is possible to explain this obvious inconsistency in two ways: either Hanoi really did not know Khieu Samphan’s actual place in the ruling hierarchy of the Cambodian Communist Party (he was always far from real leadership), or they knew but did not want to tell the Soviet side, wishing to put Moscow in contact not with the actual leaders, but with Khieu Samphan who was unable to make decisions. At least in 1973-1974, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sari were considered in Moscow as the most influential persons in the CPK, and Moscow officials tried several times to organize a meeting with him alone. Thus in April, 1974, the Soviet ambassador, in conversation with the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the DRV, Hoang Van Tien, “asked about the time of Khieu Samphan’s return to the DRV on his way to Cambodia. He said that he would like to meet with him” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 67, file 659. Record of the Soviet ambassador’s conversation with the Vietnamese deputy minister of foreign affairs, Hoang Van Tien. April 12, 1974, p. 59.)

In reply to this request, the chief of the USSR and East European countries department of the Vietnamese ministry of foreign affairs, Nguyen Huu Ngo, said that “in the morning of May 28, the protocol department of the ministry of foreign affairs, according to the request of the Soviet ambassador, has raised with Khieu Samphan the question of this meeting. In the afternoon, prime minister Pham Van Dong, in negotiations with the Cambodian delegation, has passed on fraternal greetings to Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sari from comrades Brezhnev, Podgorniy, and Kosygin, wishing them success in their struggle. The Soviet leaders asked Pham Van Dong about it during his recent visit to Moscow.”

It is clear now that Khieu Samphan, even if he was very keen on going to such meeting, would not have been able to do so without the approval of Pol Pot himself or the Politbureau of the Central Committee. A breakthrough in relations between Moscow and the Khmer Rouge could take place only if key figures of the Khmer leadership were involved in this process. But the Vietnamese tried to do their best to prevent direct contact between Moscow and the CPK authorities, wishing to avoid a situation in which someone else would take over their monopoly of relations with the Khmer Rouge. Being aware that Moscow could inevitably become suspicious as to the genuineness of Hanoi’s intent to assist in establishing contacts between the CPSU and the CPK, Vietnamese officials constantly declared that “the VWP exerts every effort to assist in the promotion of relations between Cambodian and Soviet comrades” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 67, file 659. Record of conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the Chief of the Department of the USSR and East European countries of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DRV, Ngyuen Huu Ngo. May 30, 1974. p. 85.)

It is widely believed that after 1973 relations between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists were gradually worsening until the beginning of the border war in April, 1977. The archival documents, which we possess, testify that the assumption is not correct and that their relations, after seriously cooling off in 1973, saw a marked improvement in 1974 up to the level of close cooperation.

In that year the CPK authorities seemed to have forgotten their accusations that the Vietnamese “have betrayed the interests of the Khmer people,” and they started to glorify again the combat friendship and solidarity of the liberation forces of Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, Pol Pot was compelled to recognize that he had been somewhat hasty to come up with accusations against the Vietnamese, because in the beginning of 1974 it became obvious that due to considerable casualties in the 1973 military campaign the Khmer Rouge were not able to take Phnom Penh without serious military and technical aid.

In his search for material assistance and arms, Pol Pot originally addressed China; however, the latter was deaf to all entreaties (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Record of the conversation of Deputy minister of Foreign affairs of the SRV, Nguyen Co Thach, with German comrades while staying for rest in the GDR on 1-6 August, 1978. August 17, 1978, p. 72.) Beijing played its own game and expected certain changes in the correlation of forces in the Vietnamese leadership and in its political course, which would deepen Vietnamese cooperation with China and slow the growing influence of the USSR. After receiving a refusal in Beijing, Pol Pot, who was frequently called “brother number one” in CPK documents, was compelled to soften his rhetoric and summon Hanoi for support once again. The archival documents testify to a softening of Khmer-Vietnamese relations. The political report of the Soviet embassy in the DRV for 1974 mentioned that while in the beginning of the year the Vietnamese friends in conversations with the Soviet diplomats referred to vast difficulties in cooperation with the Cambodian communists, at the end of the year they indicated an improvement of relations (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 67, file 655. The 1974 political report of the Soviet embassy in the DRV, p. 49). In March Pol Pot, in a letter sent to Le Duc Tho, a member of the Politbureau of the Central Committee of the VWP, went so far as to say that “sincerely and from the bottom of my heart I assure you that under any circumstances I shall remain loyal to the policy of great friendship and great fraternal revolutionary solidarity between Kampuchea and Vietnam, in spite of any difficulties and obstacles” (On the history of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi 1979, p. 20).

No doubt in 1974, Pol Pot was playing an ingenious game with Hanoi with far-reaching purposes. He exuded gratitude and swore his allegiance, because he had no better chance of receiving military and other aid from Vietnam. In 1978, the then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Ngyuen Co Thach, told German communists that in 1974 Cambodians had asked for assistance for the purpose of taking Phnom Penh. “But the Chinese did not provide such aid, then Pol Pot had approached Vietnam”. The new call for assistance, as in 1970, did not come from Pol Pot himself, but from his deputy within the party, Nuon Chea (Record of conversation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the SRV, Ngyuen Co Thach, with German comrades while staying for rest in the GDR in August 1-6, 1978. RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062, August 17, 1978, p. 72). There is nothing strange about Pol Pot’s compelled appeal to Vietnam for assistance. The strange thing was why the Vietnamese leadership, which was fully informed of the special position of the Khmer Rouge leader concerning relations with Hanoi, did not undertake any action to change the power pattern within the top ranks of the Communist Party to their own benefit. Apparently, the position of Nuon Chea, as the main person on whom Hanoi leaders put their stakes, proved to be decisive at that moment. Nuon Chea was already closely cooperating with Pol Pot. It was obvious that he consistently and consciously deceived the Vietnamese principals concerning the real plans of the Khmer leadership, pointing out the inexpediency of any replacement of the Khmer leader. As a result, in 1974 Vietnam granted military aid with no strings attached. Pol Pot was not toppled. There were not even attempts to shatter his positions or strengthen the influence of opposition forces. It is possible that Hanoi simply did not want undesirable problems in its relations with Phnom Penh at the moment of preparation for its own decisive assault in the South.

There is no doubt that the apparent desire of the Khmer leadership’s majority to govern Cambodia independently and without external trusteeship, was obviously underestimated in Hanoi. Vietnamese leaders confessed to this blunder later. A member of the VWP Politbureau and a long-term Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ngyuen Co Thach, for instance, in his 1978 conversation with German communists, told them that “in 1975 Vietnam evaluated the situation in Cambodia incorrectly” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Record of the conversation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the SRV, Ngyuen Co Thach, with German communists, while staying on rest in the GDR in August 1-6, 1978. August 17, 1978, p. 72).

Such an admission by an experienced Vietnamese minister was no wonder: 1975 became an obvious watershed in relations between Phnom Penh and Hanoi. After the seizure of Phnom Penh by the Khmer communists, and Saigon’s takeover by the Vietnamese, the situation in Indochina changed dramatically. North Vietnamese leaders successfully accomplished one of the main behests of Ho Chi Minh: they unified all Vietnam under the authority of Hanoi and came close to the realization of another item of his alleged will - formation of a federation of socialist states of Indochina under Vietnamese domination. But it came as a surprise that unlike the “Pathet Lao” and Kaysone Phomvihan, Pol Pot and the Khmer leadership categorically refused any form of “special relations” with Hanoi. Pol Pot’s visit to Hanoi in June 1975 was mainly a protocol event.

Pol Pot offered ritual phrases like “without the help and support of the VWP we could not achieve victory”; expressed gratitude to “brothers in North and South Vietnam”; took special note of the Vietnamese support in “the final major attack during the dry season of 1975, when we faced considerable difficulties” (V. Skvortsov. Kampuchea: Saving the freedom, Мoscow, 1980, p. 52). The Khmer leader did not mention the establishment of special relations with Vietnam as expected by the Vietnamese. Moreover, having returned to Phnom Penh, Pol Pot declared: “we have won total, definitive, and clean victory, meaning that we have won it without any foreign connection or involvement… we have waged our revolutionary struggle based on the principles of independence, sovereignty and self-reliance” (Ben Kiernan, ‘Pol Pot and the Kampuchean Communist Movement,’ in Kiernan and Boua, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942-1981, London, Zed, 1982 p. 233). Thereby the Khmer leader actually disavowed even the ritual words of gratitute for the Vietnamese people, which he had pronounced during his trip to Hanoi. In fact the only result of his trip was the agreement on holding a new summit in June, 1976. However, as Vietnamese sources testify, the meeting was never held (On the History of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 16).

In fact this Vietnamese does not say the whole truth. Such a meeting did take place in the first half of 1976. In 1978, the Chairman of the State Committee on Science and Technology of the SRV, Tran Quy Inh, told the Soviet ambassador about some details of the meeting. He said that during a personal meeting between Le Duan and Pol Pot in 1976, “Pol Pot spoke about friendship, while Le Duan called the regime existing in Democratic Kampuchea “slavery communism”. In the conversation with Pol Pot, the Vietnamese leader described the Cambodian revolution as “unique, having no analog” (Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with member of the Central Committee of the CPV, Chairman of Committee on Science and Technology of the SRV, Tran Quy Inh, March 24, 1978. RSAMH, Fund 5 inventory 75, file 1061, pp. 39-40.)

It appears from the archival documents that in the first half of 1976 Hanoi seriously expected positive changes in its relations with the Khmer Rouge. In February 1976, apparently on the eve of the summit, Xuan Thuy - one of the most prominent party leaders of Vietnam - told the Soviet ambassador that “the relations of Vietnam and Cambodia are slowly improving” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2314. Conversations of the Soviet ambassador with Xuan Thuy, February 16, 1976 p. 16). A little later, in July 1976, in conversation with the Soviet ambassador, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DRV, Hoanh Van Loi, declared that the Vietnamese leadership “deems it necessary to have patience and work towards gradually strengthening its influence in Cambodia” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2312. Conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DRV, Hoanh Van Loi, July 1976, p. 90).

Apparently the Vietnamese leaders considered the well-known Pol Pot interview, which he had given in 1976 to the deputy director-general of the Vietnamese Information Agency, Tran Thanh Xuan, as a proof of growing Vietnamese influence in Phnom Penh. Tran Thanh Xuan visited Cambodia at the head of a large delegation of Vietnamese journalists. In the interview Pol Pot said all the words which the Vietnamese had waited in vain to hear in June 1975. He said in particular, “we consider friendship and solidarity between the Kampuchean and Vietnamese revolutions, between Kampuchea and Vietnam a strategic question and a sacred feeling. Only when such friendship and solidarity are strong, can the revolution in our countries develop adequately. There is no other alternative. That is why, honoring these principles, we consider that both parties and we personally should aspire to maintain this combat solidarity and brotherhood in arms and make sure that they grow and strengthen day by day” (Nhan Dan. 29 VII, 1976).

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