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Vietnam: Was It Liberation or Invasion?

by Ronnie Yimsut

January 7, 1979: was it "liberation" or "invasion" of Cambodia by the Vietnamese Arm Forces? This simple question has been a very divisive issue for many in Khmer community across Cambodia and overseas in the past 22 years. What is the correct answer? Was it "liberation" or was it "invasion" by Vietnam? The answer to this simple question can be very complicated.

Depending upon which "camp" one asks, the answer can very well go either way. For many of the Khmer who survived Pol Pot's Killing Fields regime after January 7, 1979, the answer was not at all complicated. To these people, without the Vietnamese Arm Forces entering Cambodia's soil, they and their love ones may have been just another statistic, simply fall victim to the Khmer Rouge's genocidal policy. In this sense, the Vietnamese were in fact "liberators" and even a "Godsend" to some.

However, for many other Khmer who managed to escape Cambodia before and right after April 17, 1975 (or those who were living abroad at that time), their view is the complete opposite. The Vietnamese were simply "invaders" to them. Their view is based on historical perceptions that Vietnam has always been the "take over or thief of Khmer land" and/or "committing genocidal policy against the Khmer people."

These perceptions about Vietnam are also quite valid, historically speaking. The so-called "Kampuchea Krom" (area in today southern Vietnam-including Ho Chi Min City and the Mekong delta region), and the former "Kingdom of Champa" (area in today northern Vietnam) are two historical examples of successful Vietnamese annexation and expansionism. Vietnam's policy in SE Asia, specifically toward Laos and Cambodia, continue to be one of territorial expansion or annexation. Do not expect Vietnamese government to admit to this policy; actions speak louder than word in this case.

The truth to the matter is, to some Khmer people, Vietnam "liberated" Cambodia on January 7, 1979. In this sense, the Khmer people should and must express their deep appreciation to Vietnam for kicking the Khmer Rouge regime from Phnom Penh, while at the same time saving many Khmer in the process. To some Khmer, especially those who had survived the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields regime, this is no doubt a matter of fact.

On the flip side of the coin, to some other Khmer people, Vietnam became "invader" when it occupied Cambodia for 10 years after the so-called "liberation" was full and complete. Vietnam became an "invader" when its true motive and subsequent policy, including the installation and domination of a puppet regime, led to the destruction of Cambodia's territorial integrity and the Khmer people. This is where Vietnam had failed in Cambodia until the withdrawal in 1989. To many Khmer, in both Cambodia and overseas, this is also a matter of fact.

As the old Khmer saying goes, "to go in the water there is the alligator (Vietnam), and to go on land there is the tiger (Khmer Rouge)." The " tiger" had already killed an estimated 1.7 million Khmer by the time Vietnam arrived in Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The "alligator," on the other hand, has mostly historical record of oppression and perhaps limited genocide. The two choices are just as evil and there was no third choice for the Khmer people. Those who survived after the Khmer Rouge's regime opted for the lesser of the two evils. They chose the Vietnamese for a chance to survive just a little longer. People in the right mind would have done the same, should they were facing similar situation and circumstance.

For me personally, I prayed very, very hard for a savior to rescue myself, my family, and other Khmer from the misery, the suffering, constant starvation, and the daily fear of being butchered by the Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese "liberation" of Cambodia came much too late for many. As a result, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge managed to wipe out nearly my entire family and an estimated of 1.7 million others. I alone miraculously survived the botched execution of my family and hundred others on December 30, 1977. To be honest, I would have personally handed Cambodia to Vietnam (or any other country for that matter) on a platter in order to save my family and my people from the jaws of the Khmer Rouge's regime, a regime that ended up killing millions of their own kind. Like many others, I would have also chosen the lesser of two evils, which is Vietnam, in order to survive.

In conclusion, for many (not all) of those who have lived through and managed to survive the Khmer Rouge's regime between 1975 and 1979 certainly share my personal feeling about Vietnam's role as "liberator" of Cambodia. Understandably, for some who have not personally suffered under the Khmer Rouge's regime may think otherwise. Again, depending upon whom you ask this simple question, Vietnam can be either a "liberator" or an "invader" of Cambodia.


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