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The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History

Part Two: Descending

Lon Nol's position was a difficult one. By 1970 there were believed to be some 40,000 Vietnamese troops in the sanctuaries. Furthermore, many of the weapons and supplies for communist troops in South Vietnam came through Cambodia. The Vietnamese would not abandon the sanctuaries willingly.

An American helicopter takes off in the Fishook area of Cambodia, May 1970. Photo courtesy of Donald Kirk Once Lon Nol had effectively ended Cambodia's neutrality and cast his lot with the Americans, both the Americans and the Vietnamese discarded their last vestiges of restraint. On April 30, American and South Vietnamese government troops invaded southeastern Cambodia. But the elusive communist "headquarters" were not found, and the communist troops simply retreated deeper into Cambodia. As they did, the Vietnamese communists were cast in the role of surrogates, fighting Lon Nol's troops while the Khmer Rouge grew in strength.

Lon Nol soon proved to be incompetent both as a military leader and as a chief of state. The corruption within his administration was worse than that under Sihanouk, and many Cambodians began to believe that the country would be better off under the Khmer Rouge. Many of the peasants detested Lon Nol; they believed that Sihanouk - the onetime King - was Cambodia's rightful ruler. Relatively few people understood that the Khmer Rouge had no intention of allowing Sihanouk to wield any real power. The real leader of the Khmer Rouge was a failed electronics student who had become a communist while studying in Paris. His name was Saloth Sar, and he would later become known under his nom-de-guerre: Pol Pot.

As the fighting began to spread throughout Cambodia, North Vietnamese troops consistently routed the inexperienced Cambodian army. In August of 1971, Lon Nol mounted an ambitious offensive -- "Chenla II" -- in an attempt to regain lost territory. It was a poorly conceived campaign, and the result was a crushing defeat from which the Republic's forces never recovered. It soon became apparent that without massive American aid the government would collapse. That assistance came in the form of military hardware and air support.

Lon Nol in 1970. Photo courtesy of Marc Cameron. American bombing quickly became the centerpiece of Lon Nol's defense. Before Congress brought the bombing to a halt in August 1973, more than 2 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Cambodia.

Although the exact number of deaths caused by the bombing is unknown, there is no question that civilian casualties were numerous. In one instance, the government-held town of Neak Luong was inadvertently bombed because of an error by the bomber's crew. One hundred thirty-seven people were killed, and more than 205 were wounded. On another occasion, near the village of Saang, peasants in a funeral procession unknowingly walked into a B-52 target area. Hundreds were killed. The incident underscored the tragedy of the bombing campaign: even when the strikes were on target, civilian deaths were inevitable.

Most of the Cambodians who witnessed such carnage place the blame squarely upon the Americans and Lon Nol. Their anger led many of them to join the Khmer Rouge, and by late 1972 the Khmer Rouge army had grown to some 50,000 soldiers.

As the Khmer Rouge grew, they became increasingly independent of their Vietnamese allies. Relations between the two groups had often been strained; aside from historical animosities, the Cambodian communists greatly resented the Vietnamese for not having actively supported their bid to overthrow Sihanouk in the late Sixties.

When the Vietnamese and the Americans signed the Paris Peace agreement in 1973, the Vietnamese quickly began to withdraw their troops from Cambodia. At the same time, shipments of Chinese arms destined for the Khmer Rouge failed to arrive, and the Khmer Rouge may have believed that the weapons had been stolen by the Vietnamese. Additionally, under the terms of the Paris accords, American air raids in Laos and North Vietnam were halted; and since the Khmer Rouge had refused to negotiate at Paris, there were now more U.S. aircraft available for strikes in Cambodia. To the Khmer Rouge, the increased bombing was the result of a betrayal by the North Vietnamese: the Vietnamese had bought a reprieve for themselves by sacrificing their allies.

It scarcely mattered. The Khmer Rouge continued to make gains on the battlefield. Government forces were beset not only by incompetence, but by corruption as well. Many of Lon Nol's officers sold materials, supplied by the U.S., to the Khmer Rouge: gasoline, medicine, even ammunition. In one incident in 1973, mortar rounds from Kompong Cham were sold to the communists, who then used the shells in an attack which virtually destroyed the town. Another common practice among corrupt officers was to pad the payroll by exaggerating the number of soldiers in their unit and pocketing the excess pay. Other officers went still further: they kept the salaries of the real soldiers as well.

Ethnic Vietnamese refugees with dead and wounded, April 9, 1970. Photo courtesy of Donald Kirk The country spiraled toward destruction, its people trapped between the two armies. Both sides sent children, barely in their teens, into combat. Lon Nol had already displayed his brutality in pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, killing thousands and sending 200,000 others into exile. The Khmer Rouge were rumored to be even more savage; tales from villages captured by the communists spoke of old women being nailed to the walls of their houses and burned alive, of children being torn limb from limb. One of the few detailed accounts of the Khmer Rouge policies and strategies came from Ith Sarin, a Khmer Rouge defector, in a book called Regrets For The Khmer Soul. In typical fashion, Lon Nol responded to the book's dire warnings by jailing its author.

As the war raged on, the Khmer Rouge began to seem invincible; their troops fought with a relentlessness and tenacity that amazed even seasoned veterans. Lon Nol's demoralized army shrank before the onslaught. The bravery of individual soldiers could not compensate for their army's ineffective and corrupt leadership. The territory held by the Republic was reduced to little more than a handful of enclaves around the major cities.

With the Khmer Rouge clearly holding the upper hand, they rebuffed attempts to end the war through negotiations. By 1975, the situation for the Khmer Republic was clearly hopeless. Finally, on April 1, as insurgent rockets burst within a few hundred yards of his plane, Lon Nol fled the country. The U.S. embassy was closed and evacuated on April 12. From within the besieged capital, Premier Long Boret offered to surrender on the sole condition that there be no reprisals against those who had been loyal to the Republican government. The Khmer Rouge refused, and the government finally surrendered unconditionally on April 17, 1975.

As the first Khmer Rouge troops entered the capital, they were greeted by crowds waving makeshift white flags. The war was over.

The cheering crowds could not know that the next three years of "peace" would lead to more deaths than the last five years of war.


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