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SOUTHEAST ASIA: Viet Nam Mounts a New War

4 minute read
TIME

Hanoi is determined to “liberate” its former Cambodian allies

Cambodia and Viet Nam last week were locked in a blazing, all-out war. Across a front of several hundred miles, an estimated 90,000 regular Vietnamese troops, backed by perhaps 18,000 antigovernment Cambodians, had seized control of more than a quarter of Cambodia. Moving swiftly, the invasion forces severed Cambodia’s key military resupply lines, and by week’s end, according to Hanoi radio, had captured the capital city of Phnom-Penh.

The heavy fighting apparently began on Christmas Day. Three separate Vietnamese columns thrust into Cambodia, concentrating on Route 19 in the north. Routes 7 and 13 in the central Fishhook area of the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, and Routes 1 and 2 in the south. One of the first provincial capitals to fall, two weeks ago, was Kratie, which dominates the northern Mekong approach to Phnom-Penh. The Vietnamese and rebel forces reached the Mekong in several places from the Laotian border southward to cut off Phnom-Penh from the north.

Before week’s end the advance units were reported to have taken four additional provincial cities. So grave was the threat to Phnom-Penh even then that Premier Pol Pot, 53, who has ruled Cambodia since the Communists came to power in 1975, was said to be preparing a speedy escape to China with his chief comrades. Desperate, Cambodian Head of State Khieu Samphan appealed by radio to “all friends, far and near, to give aid and support of all kinds and forms.”

The war was almost a replay of Viet Nam’s invasion of Cambodia a year ago. That was a punitive measure, aimed at subduing Cambodian terrorist activity in the Parrot’s Beak salient and other border areas, and was eventually repulsed (see map). This time it was clear that Hanoi was determined to overrun the entire country, and it was eagerly cheered on by Moscow, which is supplying most of the arms and advice. Tass, which had praised the Pol Pot regime as recently as October 1977, last week excoriated it by quoting at length from Western publications critical of Cambodia, and added that Pol Pot was “pursuing a policy of genocide.”

Moscow insisted upon describing the invaders as “the revolutionary armed forces” of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), a band of Cambodian rebels rounded up by Hanoi last month. Few observers were misled by this disguise, however, KNUFNS is little more than an organizational fig leaf designed to conceal an attempt to unseat the virulently anti-Vietnamese Cambodian government. Among KNUFNS’ promises: to re-establish banks and private ownership, restore family life and abolish “compulsory marriage.” Still, broadcasting such attractive ideas may have little influence on Cambodia’s heavily supervised and rusticated population: there are said to be almost no private radios in all the country.

Hanoi’s big push was immediately protested by Cambodia’s Foreign Minister, leng Sary, who demanded that the U.N. Security Council condemn the invasion. The U.S., while carefully dissociating itself from Cambodia’s appalling internal policies, backed the demand, arguing that there was no justification for “unilateral intervention” against Cambodia by “any third power.” There was no immediate reply from Peking, whose prestige stands to suffer if Cambodia is humiliated by a Soviet-backed Viet Nam, but at his press conference last week with U.S. reporters Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing admitted that China had been giving the Cambodians “all kinds of material assistance.” He added: “But they don’t need any advisers from us, because they have their own rich experience.” Teng rejected the idea of direct intervention in Cambodia, but Peking seems to have prepared for the worst in the event of Phnom-Penh’s capture. At week’s end former Cambodian Chief of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk, his wife and an aide arrived in Peking in a Chinese plane after being evacuated from Phnom-Penh. Sihanouk was reportedly en route to New York City to lead a delegation that would plead Cambodia’s case at the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, Peking declared that Cambodia was getting ready for a “protracted struggle.” Translation: with China’s continued help, the Cambodians were prepared to resume the same guerrilla struggle against their foes that they conducted so successfully against the Lon Nol regime during 1970-75.

If this proves to be the case, the ironies will be painfully obvious. Viet Nam, which has long claimed a right to control the affairs of Indochina, might find itself engaged in a punishing and lengthy jungle war against its former pupils and allies. That prospect undoubtedly provokes deep concern in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Until the latest fighting, they had come to hope for equilibrium in that troubled region. Hanoi’s newest war will make them all think again.

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