Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Jan. 7 'liberation' was day of infamy

By A. Gaffar Peang-Meth • For Pacific Daily News • January 6, 2010

(CAAI News Media)

Tomorrow is the 31st anniversary of the Vietnamese army's takeover of neighboring Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. The event prompted controversy; debates and discussion about the ramifications of that takeover continue today.

In 14 days of 1978, Hanoi's army, backed by aircraft, moved swiftly across the Cambodian border, sending Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fleeing towns and cities. The Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh Jan. 7, 1979. Hanoi's troops remained in Cambodia for the next 10 years, until December 1989.

For the victims of Pol Pot's genocidal rule, which began April 17, 1975, and resulted in the deaths of upwards of two million people, destroying a culture and a society, Jan.7, 1979 was the day of deliverance by Vietnam. Surely, Vietnam was their "savior" and their "liberator" at a time when the world watched the horrors of the killing fields.

But others -- Cambodians and a host of foreign governments -- worried.

The world was still governed by the well-specified rule of law founded on the principle of absolute, comprehensive, permanent and inviolable sovereignty and independence. As Singapore argued before the international community at the United Nations, the world is no longer safe, and peace and security are no longer assured, if a more powerful state is allowed to invade a weaker one like Vietnam had done. The Association of South East Asian Nations spearheaded calls for Vietnam to withdraw its troops from Cambodia.

As a result, the United Nations and other international organizations became a political-diplomatic battleground for many years between proponents and opponents of Vietnam's invasion.

And it was so that the anti-Vietnamese Khmer Resistance was born, first as separate armed bands with similar goal and, later, as a loose coalition of Cambodians of the fallen Khmer Republic, Cambodians of the monarchy, and the leftovers of the Khmer Rouge, in spite of their differences, to pressure Vietnam to withdraw, and to seek Cambodians' self-determination.

Unfortunately, the Paris Peace Accords, concluded in 1991, weren't implemented according to the agreements' stipulations and spirit by participating parties, including Cambodians.

Cambodian nationalists asked, since 1979, if Vietnam's goal was to "save" and "liberate" the Cambodian people from Pol Pot, what prevented it from surrendering a freed Cambodia and her people to work with the world community to build a new government and social order? Wouldn't Vietnam have received gratitude so profound by ceding to the United Nations the role of assisting Cambodians' self-determination?

For many Cambodians, Jan. 7 was a day of infamy. Pol Pot was replaced by those referred to as Cambodians with Khmer bodies but Vietnamese heads, the Khmer Viet Minh. This cohort, created by the Vietnamese Communist Lao Dong, trained at the Son Tay Military Academy and at the Nguyen Ai Quoc political school, led by a disgruntled regional field commander, Hun Sen, who sought Hanoi's support to return to power. It was, they felt, like replacing cholera with the plague.

Cambodian opponents assert that Vietnam attacked Pol Pot in 1979 because he became too independent of Hanoi. The invasion was initiated to bring the insolent back into line.

As French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," or, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Look at the history of relations between Cambodia and Vietnam for affirmation.

The Vietnamese southward expansion after Nam Viet freed itself in 939 from Chinese bondage was described by Vietnamese scholar Nguyen The Anh in "Le Nam Tien dans les textes Vietnamiens," as a centuries-long phenomenon called "Nam Tien" (progression southwards), "one of Vietnam's history's constants." Anh described the "sparsely populated and accessible land available for (Vietnamese) rice growers" to the south as "favorable for encroachment."

Vietnamese "Confucian persuasion" was abandoned in favor of "an action resolutely imperialistic" to grab land and impose Vietnamese "administrative and cultural practice ... to better integrate (the new area) into the Vietnamese space."

Very briefly, historical records reveal that until the French protectorate was established in 1863, Cambodia was a battlefield for Thai and Vietnamese armies that fought on Khmer soil. Khmer dynastic quarrels led each Khmer side to seek support from Bangkok and Hue. Cambodia was known as a "two-headed bird" -- a tributary state to both foreign capitals.

In 1833, after Annam defeated the Thais in Cambodia, the Annamization began: Annam installed teenager Ang Mey as queen, Cambodia's capital was renamed "Nam Viang," Cambodia's reorganization followed Vietnamese administrative lines, authorities adopted Vietnamese names, customs and dress. In 1840, the Cambodian government was seated in Saigon, and Cambodia's name was changed to "Tran Tay" -- or western commandery.

Opponents of Vietnam's 1978 invasion see Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party as a force seeking integration of Cambodia into the late Ho Chin Minh's dream of a federation of former French Indochinese states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The recently revealed "classified" contingency plan by Thailand for military action against Cambodia, should the Thai-Khmer dispute escalate, is seen by Professor Naranhkiri Tith as "exactly what Hun Sen wanted."

Logically, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between Sen's Cambodia and Vietnam is an important instrument for Sen to invite Hanoi's troops -- the "liberators" against Pol Pot -- to help fight the Thais on Khmer soil, a repeat of history.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at

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