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129 B -- The Cambodian Solution to the Third Indochina War, Cornell Review, Ithaca (n.y.), nº6, été 1979, p.35-41.

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THE CAMBODIAN SOLUTION TO THE THIRD INDOCHINA WAR

by Serge Thion

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The Third Indochina War, begun in 1977 with the Khmer-Vietnamese confrontation, is the continuation of the conflict that preceded it. In 1975 it might have been assumed that peace was at long last coming to that devastated peninsula. But such was not to be the case for a fundamental reason: the communists, who came to power as a result of military might, had not substantially widened their political base. Specifically, the enormous urban populations, composed in large part of uprooted peasants, while looking forward to peace had at the same time expressed serious reservations about the prospect of economic collectivization.

The problem of the division and exercise of power posed itself in terms which were sociologically new for the old-fashioned communist apparatuses: it was unquestionably necessary to innovate, to create political structures permitting the integration of the new social classes created by the decomposition of the traditional society. These new groups were not easily defined, however. The old landed bourgeoisie had been dispossessed while the modernization imposed by the American presence and its waves of dollars ruined, without replacing, the traditional means of production and increased tenfold consumer demand. The juxtaposition of this colossal social parasitism with the quasi--autocratic austerity of the society controlled up until then by the communists could only give rise to an explosive situation.

There were a few of us ten years ago in Indochina who worried about this. The political leaders of the Vietnamese insurrection seemed aware of the extent of the problems. It sometimes even seemed that the tripartite solution envisioned by the opening of negotiations with the Americans had, in their eyes, the advantage of creating a buffer authority during the transitional phase. Since it was apparent that any government that inherited the legacy of the war would have to endure its consequences, the communists felt that it was preferable to share this burden.

The critical international situation and above all the refusal by the Americans to accept the emergence of a Third Force in Indochina caused the purely military solution to prevail in the end. This sort of outcome to the thirty-year-old conflict was to confer a permanent political pre-eminence upon the authoritarian tendencies of the various Indochinese communist parties. As early as 1976, different observers had remarked that the party in Vietnam was not able to impose all of its views on the army with respect to certain problems. The question of what to do with members of the former regime interned after the fall of Saigon pointed up the contradictions that existed between the military officials obsessed with the problems of security and the operatives of the party more concerned with political administration.

The Vietnamese, in order to excuse somehow the enormous difficulties encountered by their administration, especially in the South, sought to explain them away by pointing to the lack of indigenous administrators, a situation created by the massacres perpetrated by such accelerated pacification programs as Phoenix and the like. This fact is undeniably true. But it is hardly pertinent. The overriding feature of the policy carried out since 1975 has been the all but total seizure of power to the sole advantage of the party. The vast majority of the population of the South, which had not actively participated in the struggle within the framework defined by the communists, has been excluded from the decision-making process. Its disillusionment is great. The stock of sympathy that the new communist regime possessed in April 1975 has been seriously diminished because of its ovn narrownesss of view.

As Paul Mus had already remarked in the 1950s, in Vietnam it is not the men who win the war who are most apt to win the peace. In order to bring about the latter, the older generation formed during the Thirties and the Forties would have to hand over power to younger men who have risen through the ranks of both the party and the numerous groups that had secretly resisted the American hold on their country. But the party's encrusted Stalinist shell and its sluggish bureaucratic ways have not been called into question. Imagination, in other words, did not come to power. Even if great care has been taken in the establishment of new political and economic institutions, it remains no less true that the country's future course, as it has been traced by the party, has not varied one iota. The transformation of Vietnamese society over the past`twenty years has been arrogantly ignored. A high price has been paid for this political rigidity: a weakened regime, economic impotence, and international isolation. Although Vietnam requests outside aid, it has done very little to help itself.

In this respect, the Cambodian model, put in place in 1975, is not unlike that of Vietnam, even though its structures are not altogether the same, mainly because of a very different historical context. Still, even in Cambodia the communist apparatus that seized the reins of power refused to make allowance for the social transformations bequeathed by the war. Instead of simply leaving in place the newly urbanized classes which, given the confused state of affairs at that time, could not be subjected to systematic control, the new regime decided to do away with them by dispersing them throughout the countryside. It is known that this operation, carried out against a population already weakened by the scarcity of food during the final months of the Lon Nol regime, caused a great number of victims, probably some tens or hundreds of thousands, though not the millions cited by naive or partisan propagandists.

A lengthy analysis of Cambodian society would be required in order to point out the structural weakness of the commercial and administrative Sino-Khmer bourgeoisie, to explain the immobilization of a rural society placed in the position of trying to develop itself by vainly drawing upon its meager resources. At the same time, however, all that is really needed to understand the situation there is to explode the widespread myths which portrays Cambodia as a "blissful" country. Rural Cambodia before the war existed amidst severe material deprivation, accompanied by an almost total cultural isolation. To be sure, any backward peasantry, provided that it is viewed through the windows of a comfortable limousine, does not lack charm. Unfortunately, there are more news commentators captivated by the exotic than one might be led to believe.

When it came to power the Khmer Communist Party was almost completely unknown, even in Cambodia. It had never published either its program or its views. Its leaders were for the most part equally unknown. Indeed, its very existence was not to be officially made known until September 1977. Hence, in order to attempt to analyze its policy, one must resort to a detailed examination of the rare documentary sources that are available.

The most important fact about the Khmer Communist Party is certainly its heterogeneity. The party, which is, it should not be forgotten, quite small in size (several hundred members prior to 1970, several thousand since then), is composed of groups with different backgrounds: veterans of the first Indochina War who collaborated with the Viet Minh, some of whom remained in Cambodia while others left for North Vietnam, not to return until 1970; intellectuals educated in Paris within the framework of a French Communist Party then in the heyday of its great Stalinist period; young intellectuals unemployable in Phnom Penh and attracted by the Chinese Cultural Revolution; peasants who had fled into the bush, victimized by the exactions of local officials; lastly, mention should be made of the young, uncultured peasants drafted into the armed forces of the resistance movement from 1970 onward, who were given extensive local responsibilities.

The hardships of the Sihanouk repression, the illiteracy of the peasant society and the slowness of communication came together to make of the communist movement a juxtaposition of poorly coordinated groups. In one area the active party members carried on electoral campaigns within the scarcely democratic framework of the Sihanouk regime. Elsewhere others had initiated guerrilla warfare and, although they were not able to win over the mass of the peasantry, succeeded in gaining the support of the more rebellious elements. Still other members of the party served as auxiliaries ofthe Viet Cong forces operating in the frontier regions. Each group defined itself in its own way. Questions of strategy with respect to the Phnom Penh regime or concerning relations with the Vietnamese, Chinese or Soviet communist parties received different responses. There was not even agreement on the origins of the movement itself; there are three distinct dates given in different documents for the founding of the Khmer Communist Party -- 1951, 1960 and 1966.

The struggles among these different factions began to intensify in 1970 when the stakes became the leadership of the guerrilla war against the Americans and their local accomplices . Although little was known at the time about the existence of these rivalries, their consequences have not gone unnoticed.

In a manner certainly too schematic, it can be said that the Khmer Communist Party is composed of three major factions. The first, the most moderate in revolutionary terms, consists of those members who share the views of the Vietnamese party on how to defeat American imperialism and on the necessity for a broad-based political movement and for a gradual phasing in of socialism. Products for the most part of the teachings and the organizational traditions of the Indochinese Communist Party, they are naturally suspicious of nationalist or Maoist "deviations." On the other hand, they themselves are easy targets for attacks which label them as "lackeys of the Vietnamese," particularly those among them who lived for more than fifteen years in North Vietnam.

A second faction, the most radical, is also the most recent. It is this wing of the party which saw in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Little Red Book the alpha and the omega of all political action. In this respect, incidentally, it should not be forgotten how the channels of cultural communication function in Cambodia; since almost all communication is oral, simplification and memorization are widespread. It is therefore a simplified version of Maoism, if such a thing is possible, which serves as a guide to these individuals. They are ultra-nationalists who consider the Vietnamese to be dangerous revisionists intent on "swallowing up" Cambodia. All that matters to them is the strict application of their radical principles, which they have consistently carried out to the extreme, without any consideration whatsoever for opponents who are doomed to be crushed by force. This attitude was apparent as early as 1971-72 with the initial liquidations of their Sihanoukist allies and supposedly pro-Vietnamese comrades, with the launching of accelerated agrarian reform programs in those areas where they were strongly entrenched, and again in 1973 with the suppression of religious and minority groups (Buddhism, Islam, the Chams, the demolition of the Phnom Penh cathedral, etc.). It is clearly evident that the radicals, in alliance with the third faction mentioned below, dominated the Khmer Communist Party until 1976. Since then they seem to be on the wane, and it is likely that the Vietnamese invasion will hasten their decline.

The third and principal faction within the party did not seek to play the role of arbiter between the violently antagonistic moderate and radical wings. Animated by a haughty nationalism that all but borders on racism, this group staked out for itself an independent course which was destined to assure its eventual control of the Khmer communist movement by accepting only those obligations of anti-imperialist solidarity from which it could directly benefit. An example of this policy was its de facto alliance with the Vietnamese communist troops, which was undertaken without any reciprocal political commitment on its part. At the same time, however, its longer and more varied political experience unquestionably caused it to perceive the limits of Maoist dogmatism.

The crisis between the moderate and radical factions erupted in 1976 after a number of revolts had shaken the politicomilitary apparatus that had emerged from the war and after the cost of the ultra-radical policy of 1975 had begun to make itself felt: the mediocre economic results obtained in comparison to the hopes of the preceding year, the deterioration of the population's state of health, the international isolation, and the need to rely more and more on Chinese aid. It would take too much space to reconstitute here in detail the chronology of events in Cambodia, but the period from September 1976 to January 1977 seems crucial, particularly since it was during this same period that the death of Mao Tse-tung and the arrest of the "Gang of Four" occurred. It was at that moment that Pol Pot, who had been excluded from power up until then, returned to the forefront and, with his brother-in-law, Ieng Sary, assumed control of the party machinery. There then followed a series of purges. The pro-Vietnamese elements, including those who, like Koy Thuon, sat on the Central Committee, were eliminated, initially one by one and then by groups, from the positions they held. This was the beginning of the covert war with Vietnam.

A showdown now became virtually inevitable. The moderates, feeling themselves threatened, requested the assistance of the Vietnamese who, for their part, were scarcely pleased with the recent turn of events in Phnom Penh. Relations had in fact been rather good in 1976, and the Vietnamese press not only did not print a word about the Cambodian atrocities (about which it would regale its readers in 1978) but also sang the praises of the regime. To bring about a total rupture with Vietnam was imperative for the survival of the Pol Pot faction; it would allow it to isolate and to destroy one by one the bastions where the moderates conserved their influence. These operations would reach a crescendo in April 1978 with the attack by forces loyal to Pol Pot against the headquarters of the Eastern Region where So Phim, vice-president of the Presidium and probably a member of the Political Bureau, was killed. This was undoubtedly for Hanoi the end of any hopes it may have had for seeing the Khmer Communist Party evolve internally toward more conciliatory positions. War therefore became the number one priority.

Why? First, there are the motives of the Cambodians. In my opinion, it was the only means the Pol Pot regime had at its disposal to unite the party and the country. As for the Vietnamese, their motives were intemational in scope. To begin with, one must dispose of those sweeping geo-political-historical generalizations which seek to explain present-day conflicts in terms of wars that occurred centuries and even millennia ago. According to this sort of reasoning, each country has attacked its neighbor so often in the past that what is amazing is the fact that warfare has not become more prevalent. With all due deference to the image that the Vietnamese have of themselves, the age of Lê Loi is long past and Teng Tsiao-peng is not the Son of Heaven. As for the Cambodians, it ought to be kept in mind that they attacked Tonkin in the twelfth century and that more recently they have had to endure as many or worse insults at the hands of the Siamese than from the Vietnamese. If need be, a settlement can be worked out with hereditary enemies.

For the Vietnamese, the end of the war against the Americans also brought to an end the perilous task of trying to uphold their independence in the midst of the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Having indicated by their policy since 1956 that they did not subscribe to the Maoist version of Asian socialism, they nonetheless felt compelled to maintain a certain balance in their relations between the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon since that sort of foolishness was in vogue at that time. The Chinese meanwhile had substantially changed the direction of their foreign policy. As early as 1972 the Sino-American rapprochement was appearing on the horizon. The Chinese scarcely approved of the 1973 Paris accords and even less of the American rout of 1975. From that moment onward the American presence in Asia was viewed by Peking as an indispensable element of the strategic equilibrium necessary to enable China to meet the Soviet challenge which was concentrated in a massive and menacing manner on her borders. The Vietnamese realized very early that their independence and the ties that they could not break with the Soviet bloc -- lest they be asphyxiated economically -- would not be tolerated for long by a China in the process of raising itself to the rank of a world power.

Let us put aside the traditions of the system of tributary states cherished by Old Regime China. Viewed from Peking, a powerful Vietnam must be a part of a security system which protects China or be neutralized, be it economically or militarily. Viewed from Hanoi, an attempt was first made to avoid this choice by seeking a rapprochement with the West, but the Europeans were evasive, especially the French. They can never forgive Dienbienphu. The Americans vacillated for a while and then ended up coming to an agreement regarding all the outstanding problems between the two countries in September 1978. By that date there remained nothing more to do than to re-establish diplomatic relations. (This information, which has not been made public, was given to me at the State Department.) But the Chinese stepped up the pressure. They were terribly anxious to see their new policy take shape. The Americans, sensing the need to choose, decided that the diplomatic recognition of Peking took precedence by far over that of Hanoi. The Vietnamese overture, like that of Ho Chi Minh in 1945-46, had failed.


The Vietnamese now saw appearing on the horizon a confrontation with China, a perception that was not due solely to a theoretical analysis of the situation. When they attempted to strike out against the Cambodian forces that had been harassing them and carrying out a scorched earth policy in the Mekong Delta, they ran up against unexpected resistance. The Khmer army they had known in 1975 was no longer the same; it had doubled or tripled in size and was armed with entirely new heavy equipment. Chinese advisors seemed to be everywhere, moreover. They were in the process of doubling the capacity of the port of Kompong Som, of rebuilding the road from Kompong Som to Phnom Penh and of constructing a new railway line designed to run less closely to the Vietnamese frontier. Clearly, Pol Pot and Teng Tsiao-peng had concluded a far-reaching military alliance while the Vietnamese envoys in Peking at the same time had had to cool their heels without the slightest sign of encouragement. Si vis pacem, para bellum. This Latin maxim must now be understandable in several Asian languages.

The Chinese might well try to confound the Western press by letting it be unofficially known that they did not have much liking for the Pol Pot regime. In point of fact, however, they made use of the Cambodians without the slightest compunction. They played the Sihanouk card as well, pulling it out of their hat (and him out of Phnom Penh) despite the opposition of the Khmer communists who would have preferred to keep that card up their sleeve. A Chinese attack being in the cards, the Vietnamese struck first in Cambodia so as not to have to maintain two fronts equipped with heavy weapons.

The Vietnamese cannot be unaware that it is impossible for them to control Cambodia completely. They know the terrain and the men who oppose them. But by destroying one of the jaws of the Chinese pincer, they will reinforce their position. Any Indochina settlement must necessarily include a Cambodian formula which eliminates all threats to Vietnam's security. The same holds true for Laos. Call that "Vietnamese imperialism" if you will, but in the world in which we live, under the dictatorship of statist controls, there are few governments that do not demand the same thing. The Khmers, the Chinese and some Parisians might inveigh against something called the "Indochinese Federation," but this is a term that totally ceased to have any meaning between 1951 and 1978. Moreover, it can be pointed out that the Vietnamese communists already had almost complete control of Cambodia in 1970-72 as a result of the American intervention there. But, at the end of 1972, they withdrew back behind their borders. This, in any case, is what the reports of the CIA at that time affirmed. Nothing would have been easier for Hanoi than to have occupied all of Cambodia at that moment and to have installed their own men in power.

In order to avoid being forced to submit to the Chinese conditions, the Vietnamese have had to make commitments to the Soviets. But their love for the Soviets is far from being excessive, and they certainly harbor no illusion regarding the supposedly disinterested motives of their big Russian brother.

What then are, within this context, the conditions for a settlement? The Chinese, while not wanting to control everying in Cambodia, don't want to be without any influence there. They want guarantees that will assure them that their interests will be taken into account. The Vietnamese, for their part, insist that the countries which surround them be neutral or friendly toward them. The Soviets, finally, have nothing to gain by a crisis which risks to take on greater proportions. An agreement can therefore be worked out, and the key to it is certainly the composition of the future Cambodian regime. Sihanouk is acceptable to the Chinese because they know him to be a nationalist and acceptable to the Vietnamese because they know him to be a neutralist. On the other hand, he is scarcely acceptable to the Khmer communists if he has real power because they know him to be an anticommunist. If an agreement is reached on the role of Sihanouk, the Khmer communists realize that they will have arrayed against them a coalition of Buddhists, pro-Vietnamese communists, former supporters of Lon Nol, etc.

The Khmer communists must therefore bend their policy so as to deprive this potential coalition of its partners and its cohesion. Early in January 1979 a general meeting of the Khmer Communist Party was held in Phnom Penh. It was this congress that decided upon a return to guerrilla warfare. All of its resolutions are not known, but it is likely that this reversion to past tactics will be analyzed as the consequence of a too obstinate and too rigid policy. The effects of this political decision will make themselves slowly felt. In the meantime, will the frightful suffering now undergone by the Cambodian population be alleviated by it?


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