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The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History

Part Four: Twists and Uncertainty

For many Cambodians, the early months of 1979 were marked by chaos and confusion. In many areas, no one knew about the fighting with Vietnam; in some towns villagers awoke one morning to find that the Khmer Rouge had suddenly vanished in the night. Others, less fortunate, found themselves caught, literally, in the crossfire of battle. Still others were held captive as slaves and porters by the retreating Khmer Rouge. All semblance of order vanished.

Junked automobiles in central Phnom Penh, 1981. Photo by Milton Osborne.As the Khmer Rouge withdrew, they often confiscated and destroyed rice to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Vietnamese. In some areas, the Vietnamese, too, were accused of having confiscated much of the existing harvest. Much more simply rotted in the fields as liberated Cambodians abandoned their collectives en masse. Some returned to their homes from the days before the revolution. Hundreds of thousands of others fled toward Thailand. By October and November 1979, what had been a trickle of refugees became a torrent. The terrible mismanagement by the Khmer Rouge, the war and the dislocation had suddenly brought a new agony to Cambodia: Famine.

The refugees who poured into Thailand were a testimony to the torment: skeletal apparitions cloaked in tattered rags; children with brittle limbs and distended stomachs; weary mothers, their breasts dry from malnutrition, clutching starving infants who had not the strength to lift their heads. Witnesses to the exodus grappled for a way to describe what they saw. They could only invoke the names of Auschwitz, of Dachau, of Belsen. A brace of crude, fetid refugee camps sprung up along the Thai border. Hundreds died in the first horrid weeks, their bodies laid to rest in mass graves.

A massive campaign to aid the Cambodians took shape. The United Nations, the Red Cross, and a brace of smaller organizations began providing food and medical assistance to the refugees at the border. But inside Cambodia, providing aid was more difficult. Despite the appalling brutality of Pol Pot's regime, the international community still considered the Khmer Rouge to be the legitimate government of the country. Heng Samrin was seen as a puppet, brought to power by an invading foreign army. The U.N. refused to confer recognition on the new government.

The Phnom Penh government's bitterness toward the U.N. was compounded by the fact that the relief efforts along the Thai border were clearly aiding the Khmer Rouge. Some of the refugee camps, in fact, were under direct control of the Khmer Rouge. Civilians trapped in those camps were in desperate need of food, but there was no way to insure that any aid they received would not ultimately fall into the hands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Similarly, there were also concerns that aid sent to Phnom Penh might wind up in the hands of Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese often seemed to be deliberately hampering efforts to provide aid. The few relief officials who were allowed into Phnom Penh were not allowed to set up radio communications, and since there were no working telephone lines out of Phnom Penh, the only outside contact was through the daily Red Cross flight to Bangkok. They were instructed not to speak to anyone in the street, and the government's propaganda radio accused them of being spies. The government also insisted that the distribution of aid be handled not by international personnel, but by their own officials. The government also refused to allow any aid to be shipped overland from Thailand.

Refugees carrying rice in a Thai refugee camp, 1983. Photo by Dave Hillman.Ultimately, much of the aid that did reach the interior of the country was distributed along the Thai border to Cambodians who carried it back into their own country in oxcarts and on rickety bicycles. While malnutrition continued to be a problem, by the end of 1979 the worst of the food shortages had passed.

As the months passed, the Vietnamese consolidated their hold on Cambodia. By the end of the year, there were nearly 225,000 Vietnamese troops occupying the country. But as time passed, many Cambodians began to suspect that the Vietnamese had no intention of ever leaving. Others noted bitterly that many, if not most, of the officials of the new government were former Khmer Rouge; the new government even continued to celebrate the anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover as a national holiday. And while conditions inside the country had improved infinitely since the horrors of previous years, Heng Samrin's government was frequently accused of widespread human rights violations.

Along the Thai border, the remaining Khmer Rouge forces soon regrouped and stepped up guerrilla attacks against the Vietnamese. Prince Sihanouk, meanwhile, withdrew from the Khmer Rouge and announced the formation of his own resistance group, and Son Sann, a former Prime Minister under Lon Nol, formed a third group. The Khmer Rouge, with extensive support from China, were the strongest of the three groups militarily. But they could scarcely hope to win much support diplomatically. The United States and other Western nations were determined to keep the Vietnamese isolated politically, but to do so by supporting the Khmer Rouge was virtually unthinkable. The solution ultimately reached by the West was scarcely better. Under unrelenting pressure from the United States, the three groups banded together into a single coalition in 1982 -- with Sihanouk once again serving as the titular head.

As the Third Indochina War dragged on, a pattern soon became apparent. During the rainy season, the guerrillas would step up their activity, only to be driven back by Vietnamese offensives during the dry season. The refugee camps, often used as bases by the guerrillas, frequently came under artillery fire from the Vietnamese; once again innocent women, men, and children were caught in the middle.

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