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

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It is quite obvious that only extremely serious circumstances could have made Pol Pot demonstrate anew this adherence to Vietnam. “Brother No 1” indeed experienced tough pressure inside the CPK from a group of party leaders, rather numerous and influential, especially on the regional level, who were opposed to breaking off relations with Vietnam. In September, 1976, due to their pressure, Pol Pot would even be temporarily removed from his post. To relieve this pressure and to gain time, he was simply compelled to make statements expected by his enemies. Surprisingly enough he managed to fool them again, to create the illusion of his surrender and readiness to go hand in hand with Vietnam. Even in March 1977, when the anti-Vietnamese campaign in Cambodia was rapidly escalating, Truong Chinh, member of the VWP Politbureau and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly of the SRV, in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador, made the point that “Democratic Kampuchea is also generally building socialism, but the leaders of Kampuchea are not clear enough as to forms of socialist construction. There is no unity in the Kampuchean leadership and much depends on which line will win” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 73, file 1409. Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with Truong Chinh, March 15, 1977 p. 34).

There is no doubt that in 1976 in spite of some improvement in relations with Phnom Penh, Hanoi actually lost not only control (that had happened long before), but even sources of authentic information on the situation in the Khmer leadership. At least this fact was recognized by Vietnamese leaders. In July 1976, according to the Soviet ambassador’s information, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the SRV, Pham Vam Dong, “informed confidentially that the present situation in Cambodia is not clear enough to Hanoi, which has difficulties in following developments there”. Pham Van Dong also said that it was necessary to show patience and that reality itself should teach the Khmers some lessons” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2314. Conversation of the Soviet ambassador with prime minister Pham Van Dong, July 13, 1976, p. 72). The Vietnamese leadership’s poor understanding of current political struggle in Cambodia could also be seen from the fact that back on November 16, 1976, Le Duan had told the Soviet ambassador that Pol Pot and Ieng Sari had been removed from power, that they were “bad people”. Le Duan added that “everything will be all right with Kampuchea which will be together with Vietnam sooner or later, there is no other way for the Khmers. We know how to work with them, when to be resolute or soft” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2314. Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the VWP, Le Duan, November 16, 1976, p. 113).

In fact the report that Pol Pot and Ieng Sari had been removed from power, which was now in the hands of the "reliable" Nuon Chea, totally misinterpreted the situation in Phnom Penh by the middle of November 1976. Pol Pot’s opponents - such well-known Khmer communists long time connected with Vietnam, Keo Muni, Keo Meas and Nei Sarann - were already imprisoned and exposed to severe tortures. Agriculture Minister Non Suon and more than two hundred of his associates from various ministries, the army and the party apparatus had already been arrested by November 1 (Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime: Race, power and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996, p. 335). While Le Duan was informing the Soviet ambassador that Pol Pot and Ieng Sari had been ousted, in reality they were firmly in power, wielding full authority in Phnom Penh.

Generally speaking, the circumstances of the coup attempt have until now been insufficiently investigated. It is known that in September 1976, under pressure from the anti-Pol Pot opposition (Non Suon was one of the leaders and an old Vietnamese protegé), Pol Pot was compelled to declare his temporary resignation from the post of prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea due to ‘health reasons.’ The second-ranking person in the party hierarchy, Nuon Chea, was appointed acting prime minister (Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p. 331). At the same time “Tung Krohom” (Red Flag) magazine, an official organ of the Communist Youth League of Kampuchea, ran an article affirming “that the CPK was founded in 1951” when it was assisted by the VWP (On the History of the Vietnamese-Kampuchean Conflict, Hanoi, 1979, p. 8). Such a statement contradicted Pol Pot’s directives claiming that the CPK emerged in 1960 and had not received any help from the VWP. In September 1976 a regular air route between Hanoi and Vientiane was also established. A natural rubber consignment was sold to Singapore and attempts were made to accept humanitarian and medical aid from the U.N. and some American firms. All these events testified to a weakening of the radical group’s positions, to an obvious change of the political line and to a certain modification of the Cambodian authorities’ attitude towards Vietnam and the VWP.

A turnaround in Phnom Penh like this encouraged the Vietnamese leadership, which advised its Soviet friends that “the situation in Cambodia is not clear, but it is easier to work with Nuon Chea, than with Pol Pot and Ieng Sari” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 69, file 2314, p. 88. October 15, 1976. Conversation of the Soviet ambassador with Ngyuen Duy Trinh). Soviet friends in their turn had sent the new Khmer leadership an important sign: at the October 1976 Plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the CPSU, L.I. Brezhnev suddenly declared that “the path of independent development was opened among other countries before Democratic Kampuchea (“Pravda”, October 26, 1976). However, the hopes for stability or positive changes in Cambodia soon dimmed, as Hanoi did not make any appreciable attempts to support Pol Pot’s opponents. It is difficult to determine the reason for such passivity. Was it because the Vietnamese considered the changes irreversible, or were they afraid to compromise “their people” in Phnom Penh, or did they not quite clearly realize how to help them, or did they not have actual possibilities to provide such help ? In any case the attempt at Pol Pot’s removal from power ended extremely pitiably for Hanoi: thousands of “brother number one’s” opponents were imprisoned and executed, and the winner having regained his power, could now openly conduct his anti-Vietnamese policy.

The “cat and mouse” game between Pol Pot and Hanoi ended after the Vietnamese Deputy minister of Foreign Affairs Hoang Van Loi’s confidential visit to Phnom Penh in February 1977. Pol Pot declined his proposal of a summit of Vietnamese and Cambodian leaders (Chanda, Brother Enemy, New York, 1986, p. 186). After the obvious failure of this visit, Hanoi, apparently, was finally convinced that it was impossible to come to terms with the Cambodian leadership. Gone were the hopes that Nuon Chea could change the situation for the benefit of Vietnam. At least during the Soviet ambassador’s meeting with the deputy minister of Foreign affairs of the SRV, Hoang Bich Son, on December 31, 1977, the Vietnamese representative said that “during the war with the United States, Nuon Chea’s attitude towards Vietnam was positive and now in his personal contacts with Vietnamese leaders he is to a certain extent sympathetic to Vietnam, but the current situation in Kampuchea makes such people unable to do anything” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1061. Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs of the SRV, Hoang Bich Son. December 31, 1977. p. 10).

Vietnam’s decision to take a tougher stand on relations with Democratic Kampuchea was also motivated by the endless border war, started by the Khmer Rouge in the spring of 1977, and the appearance of Chinese military personnel backing the Khmer Rouge training and arming their troops, building roads and military bases. Among such bases was an Air Force base at Kampong Chhnang, which made it possible for military planes to reach the South Vietnamese capital Hochiminh City (Saigon) in half an hour’s time. The situation developed in such a manner that Hanoi had to think of the real threat to its national security rather than about an Indochinese federation. New circumstances required new approaches. In this connection the following information received by Soviet ambassador from his Hungarian colleague in Vietnam deserves attention. “As a Hungarian journalist was informed, on September 30, 1977, the Politbureau of the CPV met in Saigon for an extraordinary session, under Le Duan’s chairmanship, to discuss when to publish information on the Kampuchean reactionary forces’ aggression" (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 73, file 1407. Hungarian ambassador’s information on Vietnamese-Cambodian relations. November 1, 1977. p. 99.) The very term “Kampuchean reactionary forces” meant a radical turnaround of the Vietnamese policy. Hanoi had a new plan of operations to deal with situation in Cambodia.

The first element of this plan was the change in Vietnam’s border war strategy. While the year 1977 had seen the Vietnamese troops mainly defending, now they dealt a powerful direct blow against Cambodian territory which came as a surprise to the Khmer Rouge. In December-January 1977-1978, Vietnamese troops destroyed Cambodian units and pursued Khmer Rouge combatants. For different reasons the Vietnamese did not occupy the country, but quickly withdrew their forces. (Bulgarian news agency correspondent I. Gaitanjiev was told that “the Vietnamese troops were deployed some 35 kilometers away from Phnom Penh but occupation of all Kampuchea was politically impossible” (RSAMH, Fund 5 inventories 75, file 1062. Record of the conversation of the Soviet embassy minister in Beijing with the BNA correspondent I. Gaitanjiev, Beijing, April 4, 1978 p. 23). This successful invasion made it possible for Hanoi to make a detailed appraisal of the situation in Cambodia and the mood of the majority of its population. When the Vietnamese forces entered Khmer territory, the local population, as a high-ranking Vietnamese diplomat informed the Soviet ambassador, “met the Vietnamese well” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1061, Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the chief of the consular department of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vu Hoang, February, 1978, p.15-16). Moreover, when the Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodian territory, thousands fled following them to Vietnam (Chanda, Brother Enemy, New York, 1986, p. 213).

At that time, Hanoi considered only two ways of solving the Cambodian problem. According to the chief of the consular department of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vu Hoang, “one option is a victory for “healthy” forces inside Democratic Kampuchea; another – is compelling Pol Pot to negotiate in a worsening situation” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file1061. Record of the conversation of the Soviet ambassador with the chief of the consular department of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vu Hoang. February, 1978, p. 15-16).

As we see, Hanoi put its stakes either on a coup d’etat and a victory of “healthy forces,” or on the capitulation of Pol Pot and his acceptance of all Vietnamese conditions. But its leaders miscalculated. Attempts to organize Pol Pot’s overthrow by a mutiny of the Eastern Zone military forces ended in a complete disaster for the anti-Pol Pot rebels in June 1978. Thereby the first option could be discarded. The second one appeared equally unrealistic, as the Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge sharply increased in 1978 and eased the difficulties experienced by the regime.

It appeared that the Vietnamese leadership did not limit itself to the two scenarios for Cambodia introduced by Vu Hoang to the Soviet ambassador. They had the third choice: deposition of the Pol Pot regime by a massive military invasion and the introduction of a new administration in Phnom Penh controlled by Hanoi. So in the middle of February 1978, Vietnamese party leaders Le Duan and Le Duc Tho met with, firstly, a small group of Khmer communists remaining in Vietnam, who had regrouped there in 1954 (most of the other regroupees had returned to Cambodia in the beginning of the 1970s, and were soon killed in repressions), and, secondly, with former Khmer Rouge who had sought refuge in Vietnam from Pol Pot’s repressions. The purpose of these meetings was to form an anti-Pol Pot movement and political leadership. It would include Vietnamese army major Pen Sovan, a Khmer who had lived in Vietnam for 24 years, and the former Khmer Rouge Hun Sen, who had escaped to Vietnam only in June 1977. At that time “a chain of secret camps” for guerrilla army induction and training appeared in South Vietnam” (Chanda, Brother Enemy, New York, 1986, pp. 217-218). Former American military bases in Xuan Loc and Long Chau were the main camps. In April 1978 the first brigade of the anti-Pol Pot army was secretly administered an oath; later some other brigades manned at batallion level or below, were formed on the territory of Vietnam.

Provision of proper diplomatic background for the operation to overthrow Pol Pot was considered of utmost importance. In June 1978, the Politbureau of the VWP Central Committee took a decision on the expediency of a trip by Le Duan to Moscow. A Soviet diplomat reported in June 1978 that “according to the Vietnamese the trip should have a confidential status. Le Trong Tan, deputy chief of the Joint Staff, will accompany Le Duan” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062, Record of a Soviet diplomat’s conversation with the member of the Politbureau of the VWP Central Committee, minister of foreign affairs of the SRV, Ngyuen Duy Trinh, June 15, 1978, p. 35).

By securing initially informal, and after the conclusion of the friendship and cooperation treaty between the USSR and the SRV, official support from Moscow, the Vietnamese began to talk quite clearly that “the forthcoming dry season can be effectively used for powerful attacks on the Phnom Penh regime” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Record of conversation of a Soviet diplomat with Nguyen Ngoc Tinh – deputy chief of South East Asian communist parties sector of the CPV Central Committee’s foreign relations department. October 20, 1978. p. 1). An interesting thing was that the Vietnamese firmly assured Soviet representatives, who were concerned about the Chinese response to the prospective invasion, that “China will not have time to dispatch large military units to Phnom Penh to rescue the Kampuchean regime”. (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062. Record of the conversation of the Soviet diplomat with Nguyen Ngoc Tinh, deputy chief of the communist parties sector of the CPV Central Committee’s foreign relations department. October 20, 1978, p. 109).

Generally speaking, on the eve of the invasion, the Vietnamese rather explicitly and frankly told their Soviet allies what they knew about the situation in Khmer headship. In October 1978, according to a high-ranking Vietnamese party official “responsible for Cambodia”, Hanoi still believed that “there were two prominent party figures in Phnom Penh, who sympathized with Vietnam - Nuon Chea and the former first secretary of the Eastern Zone, So Phim”. Friends were aware, a Soviet diplomat reported, that “Nuon Chea opposes Pol Pot’s regime; he deeply sympathizes with the CPV, but fearing reprisals, he can not speak his mind”. Trying to save Nuon Chea from reprisals, the Vietnamese had severed all their contacts with him. They knew nothing about So Phim’s fate but believed that he had escaped and hidden in the jungles. According to the CPV Central Commitee’s opinion, CPK Politbureau members Nuon Chea and So Phim were widely known political figures in Kampuchea who “under favorable circumstances could become leaders of bona fide revolutionary forces in this country” (RSAMH, Fund 5, inventory 75, file 1062, p. 108, October 20, 1978. Record of conversation of a Soviet diplomat with Ngyuen Ngoc Tinh – deputy chief of the Southeast Asia Communist parties sector of the CPV Central Commitee’s Foreign relations department).

True enough, if So Phim and Nuon Chea had joined forces to head the resistance, the expulsion of Pol Pot from Phnom Penh and a transition of power to more moderate and pro-Vietnamese forces would not have been accompanied by such fierce fighting and destruction as that of 1979. Both leaders controlled a significant part of the military and party apparatus and could have promptly taken main regions of the country under their control. Nevertheless, Vietnamese hopes that these figures would head an uprising against Pol Pot turned out to be groundless: So Phim perished during the revolt in June 1978, while Nuon Chea, as it is known, turned out to be one of the most devoted followers of Pol Pot - he did not defect to the Vietnamese side. Moreover, the situation around Nuon Chea until these days generally remains extremely vague. It is difficult to understand why until the end of 1978 it was believed in Hanoi that Nuon Chea was “their man” in spite of the fact that all previous experience should have proved quite the contrary. Was Hanoi unaware of his permanent siding with Pol Pot, his demands that “the Vietnamese minority should not be allowed to reside in Kampuchea”, his extreme cruelty, as well as of the fact that, “in comparison with Nuon Chea, people considered Pol Pot a paragon of kindness” ? (Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p. 58). Either he skillfully deceived the Vietnamese, explaining his cruelty and anti-Vietnamese activity by the constraints under which he acted, or the Vietnamese were fooling themselves, failing to believe that a veteran communist who had once worked side by side with them in a united Indochina Communist Party and who was totally obliged to Hanoi, could become a traitor. By the way, the Vietnamese were deceived not only by Nuon Chea. Other veterans of the ICP, such as Ta Mok and So Phim were also bitterly anti-Vietnamese.

In this connection Hanoi, preparing the invasion and establishing a new Cambodian power, was compelled to rely on little-known figures from the mid-level Khmer Rouge echelon such as Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, and Hun Sen, complemented by characters absolutely trustworthy after living for many years in Vietnam, like Pen Sovan and Keo Chenda. These two groups formed the core of the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea (UFNSK), founded in December 1978, and the Peoples’s Revolutionary Party, reconstructed a little later, at the beginning of January 1979. In this case former Khmer Rouge assumed control over the UFNSK, whose Central Committee was headed by Heng Samrin, while longtime Khmer residents of Vietnam took the key posts in the PRPK, where Pen Sovan was put at the head of the party construction commission, later transformed into the PRPK Central Committee.

As we see, Hanoi learned proper lessons from the mistakes it committed in respect of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and decided not to put “all its eggs in one basket” anymore.

Phnom Penh’s seizure by the Vietnamese forces on January 7, 1979 and the declaration of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea meant that it was all over for the Khmer Rouge as a ruling political organization in the country. Remnants of the Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves in the border areas adjacent to Thailand, conducting protracted guerrilla war. But they never managed to restore their former might and influence. Political power in Cambodia was transferred to the PRPK, reconstructed by the Vietnamese. As to the history of relations between that organization with the VCP, and the attitudes of Vietnamese leaders to Hun Sen, who became prime minister in 1985 and was nicknamed “the man with plenty of guts” – that is a subject for another study.

 An earlier version of this paper appeared in the Russian journal Vostok (‘Orient’), no. 3, August 2000. This English translation has been made possible through the support of Ben Kiernan and Yale University.

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