Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Cathy Cartright

Kampuchea: Viet Nam launches major attack

First Published: Unity, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 25-February 7, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Six years after Viet Nam invaded Kampuchea (Cambodia), Vietnamese forces have launched a new offensive against the military and civilian bases of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). The attacks this year were especially ferocious with Vietnamese forces using Soviet-made T-54 tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery against Kampuchean forces armed only with light weapons.

While thousands of Kampucheans have been killed and an estimated 225,000 civilians have been forced to flee to refugee camps near Thailand, the CGDK reports that its forces are engaging the Vietnamese occupying army in fierce battles not only in the border area, but also in the heart of Kampuchea along routes 5 and 6.

Although Vietnamese forces have launched offensive after offensive, they are unable to decisively defeat the Kampuchean resistance. It is likely that the conflict in that country will continue for some time.

The Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea has raised many questions: Why did Viet Nam invade Kampuchea? Were millions killed by Pol Pot? If so, was that the reason Viet Nam invaded Kampuchea? When is an invasion justified? What is China doing in all this? And what are the roles and interests of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. there? And finally, is there a solution to the conflict consistent with the interests of the Kampuchean people, international justice and world peace?

Viet Nam’s stated reasons for its invasion

Viet Nam has given different rationales for its invasion at different times. At the time of its invasion in 1978, Viet Nam stated that, “Kampuchea has repeatedly committed systematic violations of the territorial integrity of Viet Nam. . . . In face of this serious situation, our armed forces have been compelled to take self-defense actions with the firm resolve to defend our sovereignty and territory. ...”

Later, Viet Nam denied it had invaded at all and asserted instead that they had merely gone to the aid of one side of an internal Kampuchean conflict. Still later Viet Nam cited the hostility of China and the U.S. to Viet Nam as the reason for the invasion of Kampuchea.

At no time did the Vietnamese ever cite the need to free the Kampuchean people from the rule of Pol Pot as a reason for their invasion. This indicates greater understanding of international law on Viet Nam’s part than various of its more zealous defenders in the U.S.

However, the Vietnamese did make use of widespread Western abhorence of Pol Pot’s excesses to lessen public repugnance towards the invasion. We will turn to the question of Pol Pot’s policies after addressing the reasons Viet Nam gave for its invasion.

Viet Nam acted in self-defense?

It is hardly believable that Kampuchea, a country of seven million people, could pose a threat to Viet Nam, with its 53 million people, and an army a million strong. After defeating the U.S., the Vietnamese government claimed to be the “third strongest military power in the world.” The Vietnamese had captured sophisticated U.S. equipment and had received equipment for years from the Soviet Union and China.

Furthermore, despite longstanding border conflicts between the two countries, there was no evidence of a Kampuchean invasion of Viet Nam at any time. Clearly, this argument was just a pretext, the oldest pretext in the world for an invasion.

That Viet Nam was merely backing an indigenous Kampuchean force, the Kampuchean National United Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea (KNUFSK), also lacks credibility. The KNUFSK was not even in existence until announced in Hanoi three weeks before the invasion.

If the overthrow of Pol Pot was the work of indigenous Kampuchean forces, it is hard to see why 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers are still needed in Kampuchea, and why they, rather than KNUFSK forces, must bear the brunt of the fighting against the CGDK forces.

Perhaps the invasion was not justified, but is the life of the Kampuchean people under Vietnamese occupation better today? The Guardian, which supports the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea, reported May 30, 1984, that Kampuchea, once known as a rich agricultural land, today cannot produce enough rice to feed itself. This confirmed a report by the Christian Science Monitor that Kampuchea was witnessing the biggest shortage of rice since the near starvation of 1979.

Furthermore, Viet Nam has pursued a policy of settler colonization in Kampuchea, with an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese moving into Kampuchea. One Kampuchean described the situation: “The liberators are becoming the colonizers. There are thousands of Vietnamese there now, everywhere. They have been settled in every district of Phnom Penh. They have much greater civil rights than us.” (The Quality of Mercy, William Shawcross)

Threats to Viet Nam from China and U.S.

The Vietnamese have argued that Kampuchea attacked Viet Nam as a result of Chinese and U.S. instigation. According to this line of reasoning both China and the U.S. sought to attack Viet Nam by instigating war between Viet Nam and Kampuchea. This action, according to Viet Nam, is a continuation of efforts by both countries to dominate Asia.

This argument is also rather difficult to maintain. It does not take a military expert to know that Viet Nam has a formidable army which another force would have to think of carefully before engaging in battle. The Kampuchean army under Pol Pot was hardly a match for the Vietnamese army.

There is no evidence that the United States supported Pol Pot prior to the Vietnamese invasion. The U.S. did not even have diplomatic relations with Kampuchea at the time. It has been only since the Vietnamese invasion that the U.S. has given $7.5 million per year to Thailand for Kampuchean refugee work, some of which may be channeled to CGDK forces.

The claim that China was instigating Kampuchea to attack Viet Nam is also ridiculous given the fact that all knowledgeable observers agree that Kampuchea did not attack Viet Nam. The argument of the need, because of China’s hostility, to strengthen Viet Nam by attacking and absorbing Kampuchea is likewise not plausible.

In any case the idea that China is intent on dominating Asia is without merit and does not conform to historical facts. During the Korean War against aggression, China sent over 500,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Korean people. At the end of that war all 500,000 returned to China and China did not seek to dominate Korea or acquire an inch of Korean soil.

More recently, during Viet Nam’s war against U.S. aggression, China sent over 320,000 support personnel and $20 billion in aid to help the Vietnamese people. When the war ended, China’s personnel withdrew. They did not seek to seize Vietnamese territory. If China sought to dominate Asia, it would surely not have withdrawn so readily.

In various border skirmishes with Viet Nam, China has acted with restraint. China does not have any troops stationed on Vietnamese soil. When China made a limited strike ten miles into Viet Nam in 1979 to protest Viet Nam’s armed intrusions on Chinese territory and the Kampuchean invasion, China withdrew within 16 days as promised. Today, Viet Nam has over 500,000 troops on its border with China. China has only an estimated 120,000-250,000 troops, hardly enough to threaten Viet Nam.

Real reason for Viet Nam’s invasion

Viet Nam is the largest of the three countries of Indochina. Viet Nam’s population of 53 million compares to seven million in Kampuchea and three million in Laos. If Viet Nam can dominate Laos and Kampuchea, it would control one of the richest areas in the world astride strategic Western sea lanes. By dominating Indochina, Viet Nam would be a major regional power.

This is the reason for Viet Nam’s invasion of Kampuchea and explains the fact that Viet Nam maintains 50,000 troops in Laos as well.

In 1967, the Hanoi government, the National Liberation Front of South Viet Nam and Kampuchea (then Cambodia) under Samdech Norodom Sihanouk, signed a written agreement stating that Viet Nam would respect Kampuchea’s borders, including offshore islands.

Two months after Viet Nam and Kampuchea defeated the U.S. in 1975, Viet Nam seized Kampuchea’s Wai Islands, but was militarily forced to withdraw. Immediately after the 1978 invasion, however, Viet Nam again annexed the Wai Islands, this time with the acquiescence of the Heng Samrin group, the Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh.

Viet Nam, Kampuchea and Laos, because of geography and a common history of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, have a basis for cooperation. Cooperation, however, does not mean that the smaller countries should be forced to give up their independence and sovereignty to the larger country. European countries cooperate in the European Common Market, but this does not affect the independence of each member nation.

Viet Nam has been backed by the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see why. In ; return for political support and $1 billion a year in Soviet aid, Viet Nam has given the U.S.S.R. use of the former U.S. air base at Da Nang and former U.S. naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. This gives the Soviet j Union important bases astride strategic shipping lanes. The occupation of Kampuchea also serves the Soviet Union as an additional threat to China from the south.

However difficult it is for us to believe that Viet Nam, a country whose struggles once inspired us all, has become an aggressor, facts are facts, however unpleasant. Just as we opposed aggression against Viet Nam in the past, today we must stand up against its aggression.

What about Pol Pot?

Although Viet Nam did not invade Kampuchea because of Pol Pot’s policies, the widespread abhorence for Pol Pot has been used by Viet Nam’s apologists to justify Viet Nam’s invasion. Therefore, it is necessary to answer the question of what did happen under Pol Pot, and if even a fraction of the horror stories were true, would an invasion have been justified?

In the West we have read stories of mass murder and genocide in Kampuchea. The movie The Killing Fields paints a picture of Kampuchea under Pol Pot too terrible to imagine. All observers agree that whoever took power in Kampuchea after the U.S. retreat would have been faced with mass starvation and great suffering, but the Western anti-communist press have charged that two to three million people were killed under Pol Pot. These charges are echoed by Viet Nam as well.

Most of the more rational Western reporters, including the pro-Vietnamese author Michael Vickery, agree that it’s impossible that two to three million people were killed. There were roughly seven million people in Kampuchea in 1975 and roughly the same number today. Taking into account births and natural deaths, two to three million people could not have died between 1975 and 1978.

Clearly, grave errors were committed under Pol Pot. These included evacuating the major cities, eliminating money and schools above the primary level, and torturing and killing people suspected of being “class enemies.” Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people died because of these policies. These policies have nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism or the kind of socialism that Marxist-Leninists are striving to build in the U.S.

There were indications in 1978 that the Kampuchean government was beginning to correct some of its errors. It had decided to reinstate higher education, recirculate money and the cities were again growing. Since 1979 Pol Pot and others made self-criticisms for errors. Whether Po; Pot would ever again be acceptable as a leader to the Kampuchean people is an issue that is up to the Kampuchean people to decide.

Certainly the Pol Pot government made immense errors. But did these errors justify an invasion by foreign troops?

Certainly Viet Nam did not invade Kampuchea out of concern for human rights. Its own record in that regard also leaves thing to be desired.

When is an invasion justified?

Even though Viet Nam has never made the argument that it invaded Kampuchea in order to correct abuses under Pol Pot, no justification by third parties, or attempts by Viet Nam to mitigate the invasion on these grounds, are valid. Because if concern for human rights was Viet Nam’s reason for invading Kampuchea, why were no other steps taken to deal with this situation? No efforts at economic boycotts, political and moral sanctions, international condemnation and isolation, etc. were undertaken.

What would happen if it were acceptable for nations to invade other nations on the pretext that human rights were being violated? There are dozens of countries which either the Soviet Union or the U.S. could easily invade on those grounds. For the U.S. these would include the Soviet itself, certainly Iran, Libya and quite a few of the Eastern European countries. With such invasions the loss of human life could be staggering.

There would be no international law and international relations would be reduced to a jungle if invasions of other countries were taken so lightly, unilaterally and with total disregard for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations.

Some U.S. leftists claim that in some cases, revolution can only be advanced at the point of a Soviet bayonet. This is both chauvinist toward the liberation struggles and also utterly reckless in terms of world peace. Not even Viet Nam or the Soviet Union have tried to put forward such arguments.

Is there a solution?

Is there a way out for the Kampuchean people who have suffered so much? No side in the Kampuchean conflict is likely to do away with the other in the near future. Viet Nam is a formidable enemy with a battle-hardened army.

The Kampuchean resistance is growing in strength On June 22, 1982, three groups united to form the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). They were Democratic Kampuchea, represented by Khieu Samphan; he Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, headed by Son Sann; and the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia headed by Samdech Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk became president.

The three Kampuchean groups command over 50,000 guerrillas holding upwards of 30 bases. An estimated one to two million Kampucheans live in zones I under guerrilla control. Political and ideological differences exist among the three groups. Each is allowed to maintain its own organization and receive foreign aid. But the formation of CGDK strengthened the Kampuchean resistance politically and militarily.

The only just solution is that of the UN International Conference on Kampuchea, which is supported by the CGDK. The UN plan calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Kampuchea and the holding of UN-supervised elections. In 1984, 110 countries supported such a resolution, including non-aligned and socialist countries such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Romania, Burma, Bangladesh and Yugoslavia.

For progressives in the U.S., we need to sort out the issues and proceed from the standpoint of peace, justice and concern for the fate of the Kampuchean people. We should fully support the demands for immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops and the holding of elections under UN supervision to allow the Kampuchean people to determine their own future, free from war, aggression and foreign domination.