Cambodian Civil War
Cambodian Civil War was a conflict that pitted the forces of the Communist
Party of Kampuchea (known as the Khmer Rouge) and their allies the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam)
and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or, derogatively, Viet Cong) against the
government forces of Cambodia (after October 1970, the Khmer Republic), which were supported by the United States
(U.S.) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The struggle was exacerbated by the influence and actions of the allies of the two warring
sides. People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) involvement was designed to protect its Base Areas and
sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, without which the prosecution of its military effort in South Vietnam would have
been more difficult. The U.S. was motivated by the need to buy time for its withdrawal from Southeast Asia and to
protect its ally, the South Vietnamese regime. American and both South and North Vietnamese forces directly
participated (at one time or another) in the fighting. The central government was mainly assisted by the
application of massive U.S. aerial bombing campaigns and direct material and financial aid.
Meeting in Beijing: Mao Zedong (l), Prince Sihanouk (c), and Liu Shaoqi (r)
After five years of savage fighting that brought about massive casualties, the destruction of the
economy, the starvation of the population, and grievous atrocities, the Republican government was defeated on 17
April 1975 when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea. Thus, it has been
argued, that the US intervention in Cambodia contributed to the eventual seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge, that
grew from 4,000 in number in 1970 to 70,000 in 1975. This conflict, although an indigenous civil war, was
considered to be part of the larger Vietnam War (1959–1975) that also consumed the neighboring Kingdom of Laos,
South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. This civil war led to the Cambodian Genocide, one of the bloodiest in
Setting the stage (1965–1970)
For more details on the rule of Prince Sihanouk, see Cambodia under Sihanouk (1954-1970).
During the early to mid-1960s, Prince Norodom Sihanouk's leftist policies had protected his
nation from the turmoil that engulfed Laos and South Vietnam. Neither the People's Republic of China (PRC) nor
North Vietnam disputed Sihanouk's claim to represent "progressive" political policies and the leadership of the
prince's domestic leftist opposition, the Prachea Chon Party, had been integrated into the government. On 3 May
1965, Sihanouk broke diplomatic relations with the U.S., ended the flow of American aid, and turned to the PRC and
the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance.
By the late 1960s, Sihanouk's delicate domestic and foreign policy balancing act was beginning
to go awry. In 1966, an agreement was struck between the prince and the Chinese, allowing the presence of
large-scale People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and NLF troop deployments and logistical bases in the eastern border
regions. He had also agreed to allow the use of the port of Sihanoukville by communist-flagged vessels delivering
supplies and materiel to support the PAVN/NLF military effort in Vietnam. These concessions made a sham[citation
needed] of Cambodia's neutrality, which had been guaranteed by the Geneva Conference of 1954.
Meeting in Beijing: Mao Zedong (l), Prince Sihanouk (c), and Le Duc Tho (r)
Sihanouk was convinced that the PRC, not the U.S., would eventually control the Indochinese
Peninsula and that "our interests are best served by dealing with the camp that one day will dominate the whole of
Asia – and coming to terms before its victory – in order to obtain the best terms possible."
During the same year, however, he allowed his pro-American minister of defense, General Lon Nol,
to crack down on leftist activities, crushing the Prachea Chon by accusing its members of subversion and
subservience to Hanoi. Simultaneously, Sihanouk lost the support of Cambodia's conservatives as a result of his
failure to come to grips with the deteriorating economic situation (exacerbated by the loss of rice exports, most
of which went to the PAVN/NLF) and with the growing communist military presence.
On 11 September, Cambodia held its first open election. Through manipulation and harassment (and
to Sihanouk's surprise) the conservatives won 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Lon Nol was chosen
by the right as prime minister and, as his deputy, they named Sirik Matak, an
ultraconservative member of the Sisowath branch of the royal clan and long-time enemy of Sihanouk. In addition to
these developments and the clash of interests among Phnom Penh's politicized elite, social tensions created a
favorable environment for the growth of a domestic communist insurgency in the rural areas.
Revolt in Battambang
The prince then found himself in a political dilemma. To maintain the balance against the rising
tide of the conservatives, he named the leaders of the very group he had been oppressing as members of a
"counter-government" that was meant to monitor and criticize Lon Nol's administration. One of Lon Nol's first
priorities was to fix the ailing economy by halting the illegal sale of rice to the communists. Soldiers were
dispatched to the rice-growing areas to forcibly collect the harvests at gunpoint, and they paid only the low
government price. There was widespread unrest, especially in rice-rich Battambang Province, an area long-noted for
the presence of large landowners, great disparity in wealth, and where the communists still had some influence. On
11 March 1967, while Sihanouk was out of the country in France, a rebellion broke out in the area around Samlaut in
Battambang, when enraged villagers attacked a tax collection brigade. With the probable encouragement of local
communist cadres, the insurrection quickly spread throughout the whole region. Lon Nol, acting in the prince's
absence (but with his approval), responded by declaring martial law. Hundreds of peasants were killed and whole
villages were laid waste during the repression. After returning home in March, Sihanouk abandoned his centrist
position and personally ordered the arrest of Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim,
the leaders of the "counter government", all of whom escaped into the northeast.
Simultaneously, Sihanouk ordered the arrest of Chinese middlemen involved in the illegal rice
trade, thereby raising government revenues and placating the conservatives. Lon Nol was forced to resign, and, in a
typical move, the prince named new leftists to the government to balance the conservatives. The immediate crisis
had passed, but it engendered two tragic consequences. First, it drove thousands of new recruits into the arms of
the hard-line maquis of the Cambodian Communist Party (which Sihanouk labelled the Khmer
Rouge or "Red Khmers"). Second, for the peasantry, the name of Lon Nol became associated with ruthless
repression throughout Cambodia.
For more details on this topic, see Khmer Rouge.
While the 1967 insurgency had been unplanned, the Khmer Rouge tried, without much success, to
organize a more serious revolt during the following year. The prince's decimation of the Prachea Chon and the urban
communists had, however, cleared the field of competition for Saloth Sar (also known as Pol Pot), Ieng Sary, and
Son Sen—the Maoist leadership of the maquisards. They led their followers into the highlands of the northeast and
into the lands of the Khmer Loeu, a primitive people who were hostile to both the lowland Khmers and the central
government. For the Khmer Rouge, who still lacked assistance from the North Vietnamese, it was a period of
regroupment, organization, and training. Hanoi basically ignored its Chinese-sponsored allies, and the indifference
of their "fraternal comrades" to their insurgency between 1967 and 1969 would make an indelible impression on the
Khmer Rouge leadership.
On 17 January 1968, the Khmer Rouge launched their first offensive. It was aimed more at
gathering weapons and spreading propaganda than in seizing territory since, at that time, the adherents of the
insurgency numbered no more than 4–5,000. During the same month, the communists established the Revolutionary Army
of Kampuchea as the military wing of the party. As early as the end of the Battambang revolt, Sihanouk had begun to
reevaluate his relationship with the communists. His earlier agreement with the Chinese had availed him nothing.
They had not only failed to restrain the North Vietnamese, but they had actually involved themselves (through the
Khmer Rouge) in active subversion within his country. At the suggestion of Lon Nol (who had returned to the cabinet
as defense minister in November, 1968) and other conservative politicians, on 11 May 1969, the prince welcomed the
restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and created a new Government of National Salvation with
Lon Nol as his prime minister. He did so "in order to play a new card, since the Asian communists are already
attacking us before the end of the Vietnam War."Besides, PAVN and the NLF would made very convenient scapegoats for
Cambodia's ills, much more so than the minuscule Khmer Rouge, and ridding Cambodia of their presence would solve
many problems simultaneously. The Americans took advantage of this same opportunity to solve some of their own
problems in Southeast Asia.
Although the U.S. had been aware of the PAVN/NLF sanctuaries in Cambodia since 1966, President
Lyndon B. Johnson had chosen not to attack them due to possible international repercussions and his belief that
Sihanouk could be convinced to alter his policies. Johnson did, however, authorize the reconnaissance teams of the
highly-classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (SOG) to enter Cambodia and
gather intelligence on the Base Areas in 1967. The election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and the introduction of his
policies of gradual U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and the Vietnamization of the conflict there, changed
everything. On 18 March 1969, on secret orders from Nixon, the U.S. Air Force carried out the bombing of Base Area
353 (in the Fishhook region opposite South Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province) by 59 B-52 Stratofortress bombers. This
strike was the first in a series of attacks on the sanctuaries that lasted until May 1970. During Operation Menu,
the Air Force conducted 3,875 sorties and dropped more than 108,000 tons of ordnance on the eastern border areas.
During this operation, Sihanouk remained quiet about the whole affair, possibly hoping that the U.S. would be able
to drive PAVN and NLF troops from his country. Hanoi too, remained quiet, not wishing to advertise the presence of
its forces in "neutral" Cambodia. The Menu bombings remained secret from the U.S. Congress and people until
Overthrow of Sihanouk (1970)
Lon Nol coup
For more details on this topic, see Cambodian coup of
While Sihanouk was out of the country on a trip to France, anti-Vietnamese rioting (which was
semi-sponsored by the government) took place in Phnom Penh, during which the North Vietnamese and NLF embassies
were sacked. In the prince's absence, Lon Nol did nothing to halt these activities. On the 12th, the prime minister
closed the port of Sihanoukville to the North Vietnamese and issued an impossible ultimatum to them. All PAVN/NLF
forces were to withdraw from Cambodian soil within 72 hours (on 15 March) or face military action.
Sihanouk, hearing of the turmoil, headed for Moscow and Beijing in order to demand that the
patrons of PAVN and the NLF exert more control over their clients. On 18 March 1970, Lon Nol requested that the
National Assembly vote on the future of the prince's leadership of the nation. Sihanouk was ousted from power by a
vote of 92–0. Heng Cheng became president of the National Assembly, while Prime Minister Lon Nol was granted
emergency powers. Sirik Matak retained his post as deputy prime minister. The new government emphasized that the
transfer of power had been totally legal and constitutional, and it received the recognition of most foreign
governments. There have been, and continue to be, accusations that the U.S. government played some role in the
overthrow of Sihanouk, but conclusive evidence has never been found to support them.
The majority of middle-class and educated Khmers had grown weary of the prince and welcomed the
change of government. They were joined by the military, for whom the prospect of the return of American military
and financial aid was a cause for celebration. Within days of his deposition, Sihanouk, now in Beijing, broadcast
an appeal to the people to resist the usurpers. Demonstrations and riots occurred (mainly in areas contiguous to
PAVN/NLF controlled areas), but no nationwide groundswell threatened the government. In one incident at Kompong
Cham on 29 March, however, an enraged crowd killed Lon Nol's brother, Lon Nil, tore out his liver, and cooked and
ate it. An estimated 40,000 peasants then began to march on the capital to demand Sihanouk's reinstatement. They
were dispersed, with many casualties, by contingents of the armed forces.
Massacre of the Vietnamese
Most of the population, urban and rural, took out their anger and frustrations on the nation's
Vietnamese population. Lon Nol's call for 10,000 volunteers to boost the manpower of Cambodia's poorly-equipped,
30,000-man army, managed to swamp the military with over 70,000 recruits. Rumours abounded concerning a possible
PAVN offensive aimed at Phnom Penh itself. Paranoia flourished and this set off a violent reaction against the
nation's 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese.
Lon Nol hoped to use the Vietnamese as hostages against PAVN/NLF activities, and the military
set about rounding them up into detention camps. That was when the killing began. In towns and villages all over
Cambodia, soldiers and civilians sought out their Vietnamese neighbors in order to murder them. On 15 April, the
bodies of 800 Vietnamese floated down the Mekong River and into South Vietnam.
The South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and the NLF harshly denounced these horrendous actions.
Significantly, no Cambodians—not even those of the Buddhist community—condemned the killings. In his apology to the
Saigon government, Lon Nol stated that
it was difficult to distinguish between Vietnamese citizens who were Viet Cong and those
who were not. So it is quite normal that the reaction of Cambodian troops, who feel themselves betrayed, is
difficult to control.
FUNK and GRUNK
From Beijing, Sihanouk proclaimed that the government in Phnom Penh was dissolved and his
intention to create the Front Uni National du Kampuchea or FUNK (National United Front of Kampuchea). Sihanouk
later said "I had chosen not to be with either the Americans or the communists, because I considered that there
were two dangers, American imperialism and Asian communism. It was Lon Nol who obliged me to choose between
The prince then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese, the Laotian Pathet
Lao, and the NLF, throwing his personal prestige behind the communists On 5 May, the actual establishment of FUNK
and of the Gouvernement Royal d'Union Nationale du Kampuchea or GRUNK (Royal Government of National Union of
Kampuchea), was proclaimed. Sihanouk assumed the post of head of state, appointing Penn Nouth, one of his most
loyal supporters, as prime minister.
Khieu Samphan was designated deputy prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief
of the GRUNK armed forces (though actual military operations were directed by Pol Pot). Hu Nim became minister of
information, and Hou Yuon assumed multiple responsibilities as minister of the interior, communal reforms, and
cooperatives. GRUNK claimed that it was not a government-in-exile since Khieu Samphan and the insurgents remained
inside Cambodia. Sihanouk and his loyalists remained in China, although the prince did make a visit to the
"liberated areas" of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat, in March 1973. These visits were
used mainly for propaganda purposes and had no real influence on political affairs.
For Sihanouk, this proved to be a short-sighted marriage of convenience that was spurred on by
his thirst for revenge against those who had betrayed him. For the Khmer Rouge, it was a means to greatly expand
the appeal of their movement. Peasants, motivated by loyalty to the monarchy, gradually rallied to the FUNK cause.
The personal appeal of Sihanouk, the overall better behavior of the communist troops, and widespread allied aerial
bombardment facilitated recruitment. This task was made even easier for the communists after 9 October 1970, when
Lon Nol abolished the loosely federalist monarchy and proclaimed the establishment of a centralized Khmer Republic.
Widening war (1970–1971)
In the wake of the coup, Lon Nol did not immediately launch Cambodia into war. He appealed to
the international community and to the United Nations in an attempt to gain support for the new government and
condemned violations of Cambodia's neutrality "by foreign forces, whatever camp they come from."His hope for
continued neutralism availed him no more than it had Sihanouk.
As combat operations quickly revealed, the two sides were badly mismatched. Government troops,
were now renamed the Forces Armees Nationales Khemeres or FANK (Khmer National Armed Forces) and thousands of young
urban Cambodians flocked to join it in the months following the removal of Sihanouk. With the surge of recruits,
however, FANK expanded well beyond its capacity to absorb the new men. Later, given the press of tactical
operations and the need to replace combat casualties, there was insufficient time to impart needed skills to
individuals or to units, and lack of training remained the bane of FANK's existence until its collapse.
During the period 1974–1975, FANK forces officially grew from 100,000 to approximately 250,000
men, but probably only numbered around 180,000 due to payroll padding by their officers and due to desertions. U.S.
military aid (ammunition, supplies, and equipment) was funneled to FANK through the Military Equipment Delivery
Team, Cambodia (MEDTC). Authorized a total of 113 officers and men, the team arrived in Phnom Penh in 1971, under
the overall command of CINCPAC Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. The attitude of the Nixon administration could be summed
up by the advice given by Henry Kissinger to the first head of the liaison team, Colonel Jonathan Ladd: "Don't
think of victory; just keep it alive."Nevertheless, McCain constantly petitioned the Pentagon for more arms,
equipment, and staff for what he proprietarily viewed as "my war".
There were other problems. The officer corps of FANK was generally corrupt and greedy. The
inclusion of "ghost" soldiers allowed massive payroll padding; ration allowances were kept by the officers while
their men starved; and the sale of arms and ammunition on the black market (or to the enemy) was commonplace.
Worse, the tactical ineptitude among FANK officers was as common as their greed. Lon Nol frequently bypassed the
general staff and directed operations down to battalion-level while also forbidding any real coordination between
the army, navy, and air force.
The common soldiers fought bravely at first, but they were saddled with low pay (with which they
had to purchase their own food and medical care), ammunition shortages, and mixed equipment. Due to the pay system,
there were no allotments for their families, who were, therefore, forced to follow their husbands/sons into the
battle zones. These problems (exacerbated by continuously declining morale) only increased over time.
At the beginning of 1974, the Cambodian army inventory included 241,630 rifles, 7,079 machine
guns, 2,726 mortars, 20,481 grenade launchers, 304 recoilless rifles, 289 howitzers, 202 APCs, and 4,316 trucks.
The Khmer navy had 171 vessels; the Khmer air force had 211 aircraft, including 64 North American T-28s, 14 Douglas
AC-47 gunships and 44 helicopters. American embassy military personnel – who were only supposed to coordinate the
arms aid program – sometimes found themselves involved in prohibited advisory and combat tasks.
Initially arrayed against an armed force of such limited capability was arguably the best light
infantry army in the world at the time – the People's Army of Vietnam. When their forces were supplanted, it was by
the tough, rigidly indoctrinated peasant army of the Khmer Rouge with its core of seasoned leaders, who now
received the full support of Hanoi. Khmer Rouge forces, which had been reorganized at an Indochinese summit held in
Conghua, China in April 1970, would grow from 12–15,000 in 1970 to 35–40,000 by 1972, when the so-called
"Khmerization" of the conflict took place and combat operations against the Republic were handed over completely to
The development of these forces took place in three stages. 1970 to 1972 was a period of
organization and recruitment, during which Khmer Rouge units served as auxiliaries to PAVN. From 1972 to mid-1974,
the insurgents formed units of battalion and regimental size. It was during this period that the Khmer Rouge began
to break away from Sihanouk and his supporters and the collectivization of agriculture was begun in the liberated
areas. Division-sized units were being fielded by 1974–1975, when the party was on its own and began the radical
transformation of the country.
With the fall of Sihanouk, Hanoi became alarmed at the prospect of a pro-Western regime that
might allow the Americans to establish a military presence on their western flank. To prevent that from happening,
they began transferring their military installations away from the border regions to locations deeper within
Cambodian territory. A new command center was established at the city of Kratié and the timing of the move was
propitious. President Nixon was of the opinion that:
"We need a bold move in Cambodia to show that we stand with Lon Nol...something
symbolic...for the only Cambodian regime that had the guts to take a pro-Western and pro-American stand."
For more details on the incursion, see Cambodian
On 29 April 1970, South Vietnamese and U.S. units (also alarmed by the prospect of Cambodia
being overrun by the communists) unleashed a limited, multi-pronged Cambodian Campaign that Washington hoped would
solve three other problems: First, it would provide a shield for the American withdrawal (by destroying the PAVN
logistical system and killing enemy troops); second, it would provide a test for the policy of Vietnamization;
third, it would serve as a signal to Hanoi that Nixon meant business. Despite Nixon's appreciation of Lon Nol's
position, the Cambodian leader was not even informed in advance of the decision to invade his country. He learned
about it only after it had begun from the head of the U.S. mission, who had himself learned about it from a radio
Extensive logistical installations and large amounts of supplies were found and destroyed, but
as reporting from the American command in Saigon disclosed, still larger amounts of material had already been moved
deeper into the countryside. According to Republican General Sak Sutsakhan, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, after
only a 30-day campaign, created "a void so great on the allied side that neither the Cambodian nor the South
Vietnamese armies were ever able to fill it."
On the day the incursion was launched, the North Vietnamese reacted by launching an offensive
(Campaign X) of its own against FANK forces in order to protect and expand their Base Areas and logistical system.
By June, three months after the removal of Sihanouk, they had swept government forces from the entire northeastern
third of the country. After defeating those forces, the North Vietnamese turned the newly won territories over to
the local insurgents. The Khmer Rouge also established liberated areas in the south and the southwestern parts of
the country, where they operated independently of the North Vietnamese.
During the night of 21 January 1971, a force of 100 PAVN/NLF commandos attacked Pochentong
airfield, the main base of the Republican Air Force. In this one action, the raiders destroyed almost the entire
inventory of government aircraft, including all of its fighter planes. This may have been a blessing in disguise,
however, since the air force was composed of old (even obsolete) Soviet aircraft. The Americans soon replaced the
airplanes with more advanced models. The attack did, however, stall a proposed FANK offensive. Two weeks later, Lon
Nol suffered a stroke and was evacuated to Hawaii for treatment. It had been a mild stroke, however, and the
general recovered quickly, returning to Cambodia after only two months.
It was not until 20 August that FANK launched Operation Chenla II, its first offensive of the
year. The objective of the campaign was to clear Route 6 of enemy forces and thereby reopen communications with
Kompong Thom, the Republic's second largest city, which had been isolated
from the capital for more than a year. The operation was initially successful, and the city was relieved. The PAVN
and Khmer Rouge counterattacked in November and December, annihilating government forces in the process. There was
never an accurate count of the losses, but the estimate was "on the order of ten battalions of personnel and
equipment lost plus the equipment of an additional ten battalions." The strategic result of the failure of Chenla
II was that the offensive initiative passed completely into the hands of PAVN and the Khmer Rouge.
Agony of the Khmer Republic (1972–1975)
Struggling to survive
From 1972 through 1974, the war was conducted along FANK's lines of communications north and
south of the capital. Limited offensives were launched to maintain contact with the rice-growing regions of the
northwest and along the Mekong River and Route 5, the Republic's overland connections to South Vietnam. The
strategy of the Khmer Rouge was to gradually cut those lines of communication and squeeze Phnom Penh. As a result,
FANK forces became fragmented, isolated, and unable to lend one another mutual support.
The main U.S. contribution to the FANK effort came in the form of the bombers and tactical
aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. When President Nixon launched the incursion in 1970, American and South Vietnamese
troops operated under an umbrella of air cover that was designated Operation Freedom Deal. When those troops were
withdrawn, the air operation continued, ostensibly to interdict PAVN/NLF troop movements and logistics. In reality
(and unknown to the American Congress and public), they were utilized to provide tactical air support to FANK. As a
former U.S. military officer in Phnom Penh reported, "the areas around the Mekong River were so full of bomb
craters from B-52 strikes that, by 1973, they looked like the valleys of the moon."
Memorial in Cambodia: a Soviet-built T-54
On 10 March 1972, just before the newly-renamed Constituent Assembly was to approve a revised
constitution, Lon Nol announced that he was suspending the deliberations. He then forced Cheng Heng, the chief of
state since Sihanouk's deposition, to surrender his authority to him. On the second anniversary of the coup, Lon
Nol relinquished his authority as chief of state, but retained his position as prime minister and defense
On 4 June, Lon Nol was elected as the first president of the Khmer Republic in a blatantly
rigged election. As per the new constitution (ratified on 30 April), political parties formed in the new nation,
quickly becoming a source of political factionalism. General Sutsakhan stated: "the seeds of democratization, which
had been thrown into the wind with such goodwill by the Khmer leaders, returned for the Khmer Republic nothing but
a poor harvest."
Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia visiting Communist Romania in 1972.
In January 1973, hope sprang into the breasts of the Republic's government, army, and population
when the Paris Peace Accord was signed, ending the conflict (for the time being) in South Vietnam and Laos. On 29
January, Lon Nol proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire throughout the nation. All U.S. bombing operations were halted
in hopes of securing a chance for peace. It was not to be. The Khmer Rouge simply ignored the proclamation and
carried on fighting. By March, heavy casualties, desertions, and low recruitment had forced Lon Nol to introduce
conscription and, in April, insurgent forces launched an offensive that pushed into the suburbs of the capital. The
U.S. Air Force responded by launching an intense bombing operation that forced the communists back into the
countryside after being decimated by the air strikes.
By the last day of Operation Freedom Deal (15 August 1973), 250,000 tons of bombs had been
dropped on the Khmer Republic, 82,000 tons of which had been released in the last 45 days of the operation. Since
the inception of Operation Menu in 1969, the U.S. Air Force had dropped 539,129 tons of ordnance on Cambodia/Khmer
Shape of things to come
As late as 1972–1973, it was a commonly held belief, both within and outside Cambodia, that the
war was essentially a foreign conflict that had not fundamentally altered the nature of the Khmer people. By late
1973, there was a growing awareness among the government and population of the fanaticism, total lack of concern
over casualties, and complete rejection of any offer of peace talks which "began to suggest that Khmer Rouge
fanaticism and capacity for violence were deeper than anyone had suspected."
Reports of the brutal policies of the organization soon made their way to Phnom Penh and into
the population foretelling a violent madness that was about to consume the nation. There were tales of the forced
relocations of entire villages, of the summary execution of any who disobeyed or even asked questions, the
forbidding of religious practices, of monks who were defrocked or murdered, and where traditional sexual and
marital habits were foresworn. War was one thing, the offhand manner in which the Khmer Rouge dealt out death, so
contrary to the Khmer character, was quite another. Reports of these atrocities began to surface during the same
period in which North Vietnamese troops were withdrawing from the Cambodian battlefields. This was no coincidence.
The concentration of the PAVN effort on South Vietnam allowed the Khmer Rouge to apply their doctrine and policies
without restraint for the first time.
The Khmer Rouge leadership was almost completely unknown by the public. They were referred to by
their fellow countrymen as peap prey – the forest army. Previously, the very existence of the communist party as a
component of GRUNK had been hidden. Within the "liberated zones" it was simply referred to as "Angka" – the
organization. During 1973, the communist party fell under the control of its most fanatical members, Pol Pot and
Son Sen, who believed that "Cambodia was to go through a total social revolution and that everything that had
preceded it was anathema and must be destroyed."
Also hidden from scrutiny was the growing antagonism between the Khmer Rouge and their North
Vietnamese allies. The radical leadership of the party could never escape the suspicion that Hanoi had designs on
building an Indochinese federation with the North Vietnamese as its master. The Khmer Rouge were ideologically tied
to the Chinese, while North Vietnam's chief supporters, the Soviet Union, still recognized the Lon Nol government
as legitimate. After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, PAVN cut off the supply of arms to the Khmer Rouge,
hoping to force them into a cease-fire. When the Americans were freed by the signing of the accords to turn their
air power completely on the Khmer Rouge, this too was blamed on Hanoi. During the year, these suspicions and
attitudes led the party leadership to carry out purges within their ranks. Most of the Hanoi-trained members were
then executed on the orders of Pol Pot.
As time passed, the need of the Khmer Rouge for the sinecure of Prince Sihanouk lessened. The
organization demonstrated to the people of the 'liberated' areas in no uncertain terms that open expressions of
support for Sihanouk would result in their liquidation. Although the prince still enjoyed the protection of the
Chinese, when he made public appearances overseas to publicize the GRUNK cause, he was treated with almost open
contempt by Ministers Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. In June, the prince told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that
when "they [the Khmer Rouge] have sucked me dry, they will spit me out like a cherry stone."
By the end of 1973, Sihanouk loyalists had been purged from all of GRUNK's ministries and all of
the prince's supporters within the insurgent ranks were also eliminated. Shortly after Christmas, as the insurgents
were gearing up for their final offensive, Sihanouk spoke with the French diplomat Etienne Manac'h. He said that
his hopes for a moderate socialism akin to Yugoslavia's must now be totally dismissed. Stalinist Albania he said,
would be the model.
Fall of Phnom Penh
For more details on Cambodia under Khmer Rouge
rule, see Cambodia under Pol Pot.
By the time the Khmer Rouge initiated their dry-season offensive to capture the beleaguered
Cambodian capital on 1 January 1975, the Republic was in chaos. The economy had been gutted, the transportation
network had been reduced to air and water systems, the rice harvest had been reduced by one-quarter, and the supply
of freshwater fish (the chief source of protein) had declined drastically. The cost of food was 20 times greater
than pre-war levels and unemployment was not even measured anymore.
Phnom Penh, which had a pre-war population of around 600,000 was overwhelmed by refugees (who
continued to flood in from the steadily collapsing defense perimeter), growing to a size of around two million.
These helpless and desperate civilians had no jobs and little in the way of food, shelter, or medical care. Their
condition (and the government's) only worsened when Khmer Rouge forces gradually gained control of the banks of the
Mekong. From the riverbanks, their mines and gunfire steadily reduced the river convoys bringing relief supplies of
food, fuel, and ammunition to the slowly starving city (90 percent of the Republic's supplies moved by means of the
convoys) from South Vietnam. After the river was effectively blocked in early February, the U.S. began an airlift
of supplies. This became increasingly risky, however, due to communist rocket and artillery fire, which constantly
rained down on the airfields and city.
Desperate, yet determined, units of Republican soldiers, many of whom had run out of ammunition,
dug in around the capital and fought until they were overrun as the Khmer Rouge advanced. By the last week of March
1975, approximately 40,000 communist troops had surrounded the capital and began preparing to deliver the coup de
grace to about half as many Republican forces.
Lon Nol resigned and left the country on 1 April, hoping that a negotiated settlement might
still be possible if he was absent from the political scene. Saukam Khoy became acting president of a government
that had less than three weeks to live. Last-minute efforts on the part of the U.S. to arrange a peace agreement
involving Sihanouk ended in failure. When a vote in the U.S. Congress for a resumption of American air support
failed, panic and a sense of doom pervaded the capital. The situation was best described by General Sak Sutsakhan
(now FANK chief of staff):
"The picture of the Khmer Republic which came to mind at that time was one of a sick man
who survived only by outside means and that, in its condition, the administration of medication, however efficient
it might be, was probably of no further value."
On 12 April, concluding that all was lost (and without notifying the Khmer government), the U.S.
evacuated its embassy personnel by helicopter during Operation Eagle Pull. The 276 evacuees included U.S.
Ambassador John Gunther Dean, other American diplomatic personnel, Acting President Saukam Khoy , senior Khmer
Republic government officials and their families, and members of the news media. In all, 82 U.S., 159 Cambodian,
and 35 third-country nationals were evacuated. Although invited by Ambassador Dean to join the evacuation (and much
to the Americans' surprise), Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, Long Boret, Lon Non (Lon Nol's brother), and most members
of Lon Nol's cabinet declined the offer. All of them chose to share the fate of their people. Their names were not
published on the death lists and many trusted the Khmer Rouge's assertions that former government officials would
not be murdered, but would be welcome in helping rebuild a new Cambodia. Later, they were all executed by the Khmer
After the Americans (and Saukam Khoy) had departed, a seven-member Supreme Committee, headed by
General Sak Sutsakhan, assumed authority over the collapsing Republic. By 15 April, the last solid defenses of the
city were overcome by the communists. In the early morning hours of 17 April, the committee decided to move the
seat of government to Oddar Meanchay Province in the northwest. Around 10:00, the voice of General Mey Si Chan of
the FANK general staff broadcast on the radio, ordering all FANK forces to cease firing, since "negotiations were
in progress" for the surrender of Phnom Penh. The war was over but the terrible dreams of the Khmer Rouge were
about to come to fruition in the newly-proclaimed Democratic Kampuchea. Khmer Rouge troops immediately began to
forcibly empty the capital city, driving the population into the countryside and killing thousands in the process.
The Year Zero had begun.