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Cambodia: 1980

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1998: Pol Pot Dies at 73
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Archives consist of articles that originally appeared in Collier's Year Book (for events of 1997 and earlier) or as monthly updates in Encarta Yearbook (for events of 1998 and later). Because they were published shortly after events occurred, they reflect the information available at that time. Cross references refer to Archive articles of the same year.


1980: Cambodia

Internal war.

With the onset of the dry season at the end of 1979, heavy fighting returned to Cambodia (Kampuchea), especially in the western provinces close to the thai border. Guerrillas loyal to the former Pol Pot regime were unable to loosen the military grip of Vietnam and the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh, installed early in 1979 after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. At the same time, the Vietnamese proved unable to pin down their insurgent adversaries in order to deal them a knockout blow.

By the end of the dry season in June, the Pol Pot resistance had undoubtedly survived as a viable military force, with an estimated strength of between 25,000 and 50,000. Its resilience had been sustained by access to rice and medical supplies from across the Thai border, while China served as the source of military assistance. Its numbers were augmented in the middle of the year, when several thousand pro-Pol Pot refugees who had sought sanctuary during the dry season in Thai refugee camps were repatriated.

The Heng Samrin government strongly criticized the Thai policy of repatriation, and on June 23 the Vietnamese launched an armed incursion into Thailand from Cambodia. Three villages and two refugee camps were seized in two days of heavy fighting; there were hundreds of civilian and military casualties. The raid was justified in Phnom Penh as an act of self-defense and was represented as a Cambodian counterattack to punish Thai violations of its sovereignty.

At the onset of the monsoon, the Pol Pot resistance mounted new challenges to the Vietnamese hold on Cambodia. Sporadic guerrilla raids were launched, and there were unconfirmed claims that Phnom Penh had been penetrated. One rocket attack in June destroyed the Phnom Penh-Batdambang train at a point only 43 miles from the capital, with heavy loss of life. In the fall, major military encounters took place in the Phnom Malai mountain range, close to the Thai border.

Khmer Rouge changes.

In December 1979, Pol Pot formally relinquished the post of prime minister in the ousted (Khmer Rouge) Cambodian government in favor of Khieu Samphan, its president. This transfer of power appeared to be a cosmetic exercise, however, since Pol Pot remained as army commander in chief and as secretary-general of the Khmer Rouge. China's approval of the formal change of leadership was demonstrated in March, when Khieu Samphan paid an official visit to Peking.

Khieu Samphan publicly acknowledged this summer that the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia had made "some big mistakes." He asserted to Western correspondents that the Khmer rouge no longer adhered to Communism and now sought the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and the installation of a democratic government.

Government and politics.

It appeared increasingly likely that the formal position held by Heng Samrin as prime minister did not correspond to the realities of power in the Phnom Penh government. In visits to the Soviet Union and Vietnam, Heng Samrin was clearly held in lesser standing than his accompanying minister for defense, Pen Sovan. There were rumors that Heng Samrin was being replaced by Pen Sovan, but close identification of the latter with the Vietnamese apparently served to discourage any change in the official status quo.

During the first half of the year, many parts of Cambodia appeared to be returning to some semblance of normality. Refugees were moving back to their home provinces in large numbers, not only from camps on the Thai border, but also from camps in Vietnam and Laos. Relief agency field-workers reported food shortages and widespread hunger, but no signs of actual famine. The presence of journalists from reputable Western newspapers also indicated the growing self-confidence of the Phnom Penh administration. The Vietnamese were reportedly withdrawing a considerable number of middle-level advisers, because of the government's increased stability, and currency was reintroduced into Cambodia this March, after a hiatus of five years. A constitution has been drafted and elections were to be held early in 1981, the government said.

Captured members of the anti-Communist Khmer Serei resistance group were put on trial in June, on charges of treason, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 20 years. This move apparently indicated the end of any prospect of accommodation between the Heng Samrin government and the exiled Khmer People's National Liberation Front, based on a common repudiation of Pol Pot.

Politics of aid.

Alarming reports in late 1979 led international relief agencies to reexamine their emergency aid programs in Cambodia. In January, the executive director of the World Food Program threatened to suspend aid, because it was not being adequately distributed within the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross took a similar position, noting that large quantities of rice and medical supplies were lying untouched in warehouses in the port of Kampong Sam and in Phnom Penh. Cambodian refugees who crossed the Thai border also reported that very little relief aid was reaching the rural areas. It appeared that the administration was using rice as an instrument of political control, giving it to supporters and stockpiling it to back its new currency.

In March, a United Nations-sponsored meeting of donor countries raised only $30 million out of $262 million required to provide both seed rice for planting and food grains for subsistence for the remainder of the year. Western relief aid missions in Phnom Penh issued a strongly worded letter of protest to the Heng Samrin government in May, and a positive response from Phnom Penh helped a subsequent conference of aid donors in Geneva to raise substantial additional pledges.

Foreign affairs.

The anniversary of Vietnam's victory in Cambodia was celebrated this January at a meeting between the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, held in Phnom Penh. In July, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hun Sen and his counterparts in Laos and Vietnam met again, in Vientiane (Laos), to discuss ways of securing international recognition for the Phnom Penh government and neutralizing Thai support for the Pol Pot resistance. The foreign ministers endorsed a four-point proposal from the Cambodian government, involving the establishment of a demilitarized zone in the Thai-Cambodian border area, to be supervised by a special joint commission; Cambodian-Thai cooperation in solving the refugee problem; discussions between Cambodia and the international humanitarian agencies to ensure effective relief aid on Cambodian soil; and negotiations between Cambodia and Thailand to resolve other differences. The initiative was rejected by the Thai government.

The Heng Samrin administration achieved a major international success in July, when the foreign minister of India announced that his government would establish diplomatic relations immediately. However, other governments not closely allied with the Soviet Union and Vietnam continued to withhold recognition. In October the UN General Assembly voted against ousting the Pol Pot representative from Cambodia's UN seat and adopted a resolution calling for an international conference to set a timetable for a total withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and UN-supervised elections.

Area and population.

Area, 69,898 sq. mi. Pop. (1980), variously estimated at 4-9 million.


Socialist state. Pres. of People's Revolutionary Council, Heng Samrin.


Official monetary unit, riel; no official exchange rate.


Main partners: Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Armed forces (est. 1980).

Made up, in the main, of Vietnamese units, with a strength of 200,000.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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