the Vietnamese at War, part 2- Cambodia

The Vietnam-Cambodia War isn't well known or particularly well documented. A researcher would find it difficult to find much about the conflict; despite being ruthless and bloody, it was overshadowed by the massacre the Khmer Rouge were conducting against their own people.


Following the Communist victory in Vietnam in 1975, the Vietnamese had few allies. Russia had provided a little support, as had Laos and Cambodia. It may seem strange then that fighting broke out between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge almost immediately.


The Khmer Rogue drew a lot of support from China, this put them at odds straight away with Russian backed Vietnam. Despite that they were all communist, Russia and China were deeply suspicious of each other. Like all despotic rulers, Pol Pot saw enemies everywhere and among the list of enemies of the state were ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. Having eliminated them, it wasn't long before Khmer Rouge soldiers were raiding across the border into Southern Vietnam, massacring the populations of small villages. The Vietnamese People's Army often pursued raiders back into Cambodia where sporadic fighting took place, allowing Pol Pot to declare the Vietnamese as expansionist.


The first massacre in Vietnam happened at Thổ Chu in 1975, but the most famous incident took place in 1978 at Ba Chuc. From a population of 3000 only twelve are known to have survived the Ba Chuc massacre. Horrific stories emerged of parents hiding from the Khmer Rouge smothering their children to stop their cries from alerting the raiders, and of the Khmer Rouge soldiers clubbing infants to death. At least one survivor claimed that the Khmer Rogue soldiers were directed by 'two beautiful Chinese speaking women in military uniform'. Today the massacre is remembered by a memorial displaying the skulls of the victims along with grisly photographs of the aftermath of the attack. The site has become a grim tourist attraction, albeit on a much smaller scale than the killing fields of Cambodia.


The assault on Ba Chuc was the last straw for the Vietnamese government and a full-scale invasion of Cambodia followed- but not before Vietnam had secured a promise of support from the Soviet Union that they would intervene should apply its vast military strength in support of the Khmer Rouge.


The invasion was swift and bloody. The Khmer Rogue couldn't stand up to the strength of Vietnamese forces who were battle hardened from almost constant conflict over the previous quarter century. Heavy casualties were suffered on both sides, but the Khmer Rouge were constantly pushed back until Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia's capitol, Phnom Penh in January 1979, just a few weeks after the start of the offensive. The following month China invaded Northern Vietnam.


Despite assurances from the Soviet Union, there was no intervention when the Chinese stormed across the border. PLA forces penetrated deep into Vietnamese territory but within a couple weeks they withdrew with heavy losses, allowing Vietnam to claim victory. The Khmer Rouge leadership fled with their tattered forces, leaving the Vietnamese military to rebuild Cambodia.


The assault of Phnom Penh, January 1979.


The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge were well known at the time. US personnel had been killed while coordinating the escape of international refugees from Phnom Penh, and any foreigner unfortunate enough to remain in or enter Cambodia after the rise of the Khmer Rouge was certain to face death. Despite this, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia received international condemnation. Vietnamese forces remained in Cambodia for over a decade to help rebuild the country, but it was too soon after 'Nam for them to get any credit for being the 'good guys' and the UN recognised the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate leaders of Cambodia (or Kampuchea as it was then known). The issue wasn't resolved until the Paris peace accords in 1991.


Outside of the memorial at Ba Chuc, there is little to remember the conflict by. Ordinary Cambodians would've for the most part been undertaking forced agricultural labour and may not have even been aware of the war until the Pol Pot regime was defeated. From the Vietnamese side, there must be thousands of first-hand accounts of this dark chapter of history which have yet to see the light of day.

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