Know Your History: Christmas Invasion of Cambodia, 1978

The beginning of the end of the dark periods of modern history began on December 25, 1978, when a sure-footed, well-oiled, Vietnamese fighting machine crossed the border, heading straight towards the nearly deserted Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The ramifications and irony of such an invasion were lost on many people at that time, and even today, it’s a period of Southeast Asian history which few people know much about.

Pol Pot, the enigmatic and dogmatic Communist leader of Cambodia, had created an illogical and frightening socialistic society. (We’ll have to deal with how he got there at another time.) His vision for Cambodia, inspired by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in China in the mid-1960s, was to create a completely agrarian society by removing every vestige of western, political, religious, and modern influences. This was cultural divergence on an unprecedented scale. Everyone was driven out of the cities and forced into labor camps, completed at the mercy of Anka, the all-knowing party. Kids were ripped away from their parents, taught to have allegiance only to Anka. And then the killing began. Elderly, educated, those with ties to Americans, those who spoke a foreign language, those who wore glasses, etc …  The hit list was long and brutal. Different factions of the party couldn’t be trusted, and purge after purge began, spilling blood on an unimaginable scale – eventually to be known as The Killing Fields. Upwards of two million, nearly 1/3 of the entire population of Cambodia was caught up in the unrelenting killing. This was the time period from 1975 – 1978.

But the Vietnamese did not cross the border on Christmas day in order to stop a humanitarian crisis. Something else had been brewing as well. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot turned his eyes towards southern Vietnam, claiming the entire delta as belonging to the Cambodian people. He severely resented  the Vietnamese and ordered cross the border raids, slaughtering entire Vietnamese villages.

The Vietnamese tried to bring international attention to these atrocities, but no one was interested and in fact hardly even believed them until a western journalist documented the case. Why were the Vietnamese being ignored? Much of the western world considered the communist Vietnamese government to be nothing more than a pariah, one who had reneged on the Paris Agreement on Vietnam, until they eventually overwhelmed the South Vietnam government in April 1975. The west had little interest in worrying about the border issues between two communist countries. It eventually began evident to the Vietnamese that if they wanted the Khmer Rouge to stop the attacks on the Vietnamese border, they would have to do it themselves.

So they did, starting Christmas 1978. So forceful and effective was the Vietnamese fighting machine, that they rolled through the countryside, pushing into Phnom Penh and liberating much of the country from the Khmer Rouge in a matter of weeks.

In a twist that is in hindsight quite ironic, the U.S. and other allies condemned the Vietnamese invasion, which, they thought, proved their point that the Vietnamese government was nothing more than a pariah state, wanting to conquer more lands.

On the ground, however, the reception was very different. The Cambodian people welcomed the Vietnamese, thanking them for overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.

Only after this invasion did word of the real extent of the Killing Fields begin to spread around the globe.

The ramifications of the invasion were great:

  • China retaliated against Vietnam in early 1979. (more on that later)
  • Vietnam (unwisely) outlived their welcome in Cambodia, putting a pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government in power and leaving their troops in Cambodia for a decade, further alienating them from the rest of the world.
  • The Cambodian people, dazed and desperate, began a long, long journey back to normality. For perspective, it took thirty years to have the first Khmer Rouge trial in Cambodia. It started in 2009. A whole generation of people were scarred beyond imagination – no family untouched.

For a fascinating read on this incredible topic, I especially recommend Nayan Chanda amazing book, “Brother Enemy.”

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