Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Richard Fleming and Elizabeth Erlich

Kampuchea: UNITY report from behind the lines

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 15, August 8-21, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

UNITY recently visited a liberated zone in Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and Kampuchean refugee camps in Thailand.

* * *

After crossing the border from Thailand in the back of a pick-up truck, we traveled five or six miles into Kampuchea on dirt roads that had been turned into ribbons of mud by the monsoon rains. Looking out over the jungle, we saw no villages and no obvious signs of life.

Suddenly we were mired in a mud pit, the truck’s wheels spinning uselessly. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, ten Khmer Rouge soldiers appeared in crisp green uniforms and pushed us out onto firmer ground. This was our introduction to Democratic Kampuchea.

For two days in late July, we visited a liberated zone in the jungles of Kampuchea to learn about the conditions of life and the state of the resistance to Viet Nam’s year-and-a-half occupation. We saw two villages, a company of the liberation army in training and talked with a number of government leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, including Prime Minister Khieu Samphan.

What we saw stood in sharp contrast to what has been widely reported in the Western and Soviet press – that Viet Nam is on the offensive and is closing in on the headquarters of Democratic Kampuchea. Instead we saw a viable and well-organized resistance that is making significant headway against the Vietnamese invaders.

Village life

The two villages we visited in the liberated zone were set up seven and nine months ago. Each had about 1,000 inhabitants, people who fled their homes when the Vietnamese invaded.

As we neared the village of Le Phnom, we were met by the village committee, the village leadership. They accompanied us along a narrow dirt path, arid as we drew closer to the village, the first thing we heard was school children chanting their grammar lessons. The school, like all the structures in the village, was made of bamboo with a thatched roof to keep out the rains. Throughout the liberated zones, children attend schools like this until age 16. They learn reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic and other skills, and some get further training to become teachers themselves.

The students were writing with chalk on pieces of bark, since paper and pencils are not available. Thiounn Mumm, Minister of Science and Technology, told us that a Japanese humanitarian aid organization was giving the Democratic Kampuchea Red Cross a large supply of paper and pencils, which he hoped to receive in early August.

The village itself is composed of dispersed clusters of bamboo houses, separated by well-tended fields of corn, tapioca, squash and eggplant. Le Phnom village has 17 acres of fields that are farmed collectively. Each family also has a private plot where it grows food for its own use. Because the soil is not very fertile, the village is not fully self-sufficient in food, and it relies on some outside grain purchased by the government.

We talked to a number of villagers and were struck by their serious support for the war effort. A proportion of the food grown is transported to the front for use by the soldiers, and the village also produces 10,000 punji sticks a day. These are sharp bamboo stakes that are imbedded in the jungle soil to prevent Vietnamese troops from moving on foot.

Health care

In each village, we saw small hospitals called “sanitation stations” set up to take care of 30 to 40 patients. They are staffed by nurses and nurse practitioners. The major medical problem is malaria, which afflicts almost every villager at one time or another. The supply of anti-malarial drugs is only barely adequate, so the disease remains a serious problem. We were impressed by the quality of medical care, particularly considering the poor conditions the villagers face.

When patients get too sick, they are taken by sling to a hospital six miles away, which has more sophisticated equipment and is staffed by doctors. The hospital can do routine surgery, as well as more complicated operations such as removing bullets from head wounds. According to Thiounn Mumm, there are 40 such hospitals throughout the liberated areas.

While the general health and nutritional situation in the liberated zones is marginal, it is improving, and conditions are better than a year ago. The nutritional and health situation for those Kampucheans living in the Vietnamese-controlled zones is worse. Anti-malarial drugs are hard to come by and often must be purchased with gold. Food rations are far lower, as little as 100 grams of rice over a ten-month period.

At present, approximately one million people live in villages like Le Phnom in the liberated zones under the administration of Democratic Kampuchea. In the Vietnamese-controlled areas, there are one to two million people. An additional two million people live in areas that are controlled by Viet Nam during the day and by Democratic Kampuchea at night.

Our impression is that life in the liberated areas is quite difficult but is stabilizing, and the widespread disruption following the Vietnamese invasion of December 1978 is slowly easing. We were also struck by the impact outside assistance can have – even such a seemingly small thing as pencils and paper can make a big difference in people’s lives.

United front program

An important factor behind the stabilization and improvement in the liberated zones is the new united front program, issued by the government of Democratic Kampuchea last fall. The united front program guarantees a wide range of political rights, including freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion and the right to own private property.

The new united front program is already being implemented in the liberated zones and will be the guiding perspective for the country as a whole once Viet Nam is forced to withdraw.

The united front program was developed to win the support of the widest number of the Kampuchean people in the struggle against Viet Nam. Prime Minister Khieu Samphan told us the United Front is not just a temporary or tactical measure, but is a long-term strategic policy and the government would not return to the policies of the 1975-1978 period. In the prime minister’s words, “The line of our policy from 1975 to 1978 turned out, unfortunately, as unfeasible.”

In the village we visited we could see the implementation of the united front program. Where before, families were oftentimes separated, and cooking was only done collectively, now each family has its own house and kitchen. Now each family can farm its own private plot of land, where before this was not allowed.

The united front program is being widely publicized by cadres doing underground work in the Vietnamese-controlled areas to win support of people throughout the country. The government of Democratic Kampuchea sees the implementation of the United Front as one of its chief tasks and is striving to win over all political forces opposed to the Vietnamese. We were told that several previously independent armed groups have linked up to the United Front, and that negotiations are taking place to unite with a wide range of patriotic forces.

Military situation

The military situation for the resistance forces has also been improving in recent months according to Khieu Samphan. Since last summer the military strategy was shifted to focus on guerrilla warfare. Previously the Democratic Kampuchean forces concentrated on conventional warfare with large units, but they sustained significant losses due to Viet Nam’s superior numbers – Hanoi has 250,000 troops in Kampuchea – and superior firepower.

We saw first-hand how effective the guerrillas were when we observed Company No. 207 of the Kampuchean 912th Division in training. The soldiers move through the jungle grasses without being seen, in order to strike the enemy by surprise.

In an impressive demonstration, we were taken to a hill overlooking a field of grass, broken by occasional bushes, tree and outcroppings of rock. Sao Tern, the company chief, asked us if we could see anyone in the field. As hard as we looked we could see no one. But Sao Tern told us to look harder, because 36 guerrillas wen moving towards us, ready to strike. We finally saw the soldiers, but by then it was too late, as we were well within range o the guerrillas’ AK-47’s.

Booby traps are one of the effective tactics used widely in the countryside. We saw many along the dirt paths and would undoubtedly have experienced them directly without the assistance of our guides.

The most devastating traps are deep pits in the ground filled with sharp bamboo stakes. When covered with grass, the pits are impossible to see. Half of Viet Nam’s casualties are sustained by such booby traps. We were greatly impressed with the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the guerrillas. They have little in the way of modern arms, so they have developed weapons from materials that are readily available.

The goal of the Kampuchean forces is to inflict 300 casualties a day on the Vietnamese, or 10,000 a month. They have been able to sustain this pace since shifting to guerrilla tactics, according to Khieu Samphan, and Viet Nam is beginning to feel the effects.

One indication is that Viet Nam is having a harder time penetrating Democrats Kampuchea-held areas. Viet Nam is relying more on artillery attacks to shell Kampuchean positions, yet they are unable to follow up with infantry sweeps.

Viet Nam’s artillery is particularly active along the western border with Thai land, often launching 2-3,000 rounds day. These attacks make a great deal of noise which can be heard by the Western reporters on the border. However, they do little damage to the Kampuchean positions, which are dispersed to minimize the impact of the artillery. Even though Viet Nam has 100,000 troops concentrated along the border, they have not been able to significantly penetrate Democrat Kampuchea-held areas.

Prime Minister Khieu Samphan told us a major turning point has been reached the military situation: “The Vietnamese aggressors no longer have the possibility of crushing us militarily. On the contrary, the military situation for the enemy is deteriorating. This is why we have reached the conclusion the great Kampuchean nation will survive. But this does not mean we are in the position to go on the offensive. We are now at the stage of waging war of attrition and will be for some time to come.”

(To be continued.)