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CAMBODIA: Colonization

3 minute read

Occupying a ravaged land

When twelve Vietnamese divisions swept into Cambodia last December, Hanoi billed the blitzkrieg invasion as a “liberation.” Having overthrown the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and installed their own puppet government, headed by Heng Samrin, the Vietnamese might then have been expected to withdraw, if only to defend their own northern border against China. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that what Viet Nam actually has in mind is the colonization of the country the Cambodians now call Kampuchea.

Last week firsthand testimony about Viet Nam’s determination to extend its authority over every corner of Cambodia emerged from three of the 120 Vietnamese army deserters who have turned up among the thousands of civilian refugees still streaming across the border into neighboring Thailand. Interviewed by TIME Hong Kong Bureau Chief Marsh Clark at a Thai military prison near the border town of Aranyaprathet, the deserters provided details about the continued warfare between Hanoi’s army and the remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces, and about what is fast becoming the complete “Vietnamization” of Cambodia.

Like most Vietnamese deserters, the soldiers were draftees from South Viet Nam. After receiving rudimentary basic :raining, Privates Tran, 25, Mai, 21, and Van, 24, had been shipped to northwest Cambodia to reinforce the occupying troops. Though Tran and Mai were sent to Cambodia in different units, their transport was identical: U.S.-made C-123 cargo planes, piloted by Soviet airmen. At the military airfield at Siem Reap, Tran spotted from 50 to 70 Soviet maintenance men servicing Soviet planes and U.S. aircraft captured by the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

As ideologically suspect South Vietnamese, the three soldiers were treated as second-class citizens who were not allowed to carry weapons in Hanoi’s army. They trailed behind North Vietnamese regulars engaged in mop-up operations against the Khmer Rouge insurgents. Casualties and deaths were heavy in combat with the fierce Khmer. The South Vietnamese had the grisly duty of loading the body bags of the dead onto trucks headed back to Viet Nam. Lately, the deserters reported, Hanoi has been ordering the Vietnamese dead to be buried within Cambodia.

The soldiers saw widespread hunger. Corpses of those who had died from starvation were a common sight along the roads, and children sometimes came to beg food from the Vietnamese soldiers, who occasionally threw them scraps. All three deserters were adamant in testifying they had seen no food from international relief agencies distributed to hungry Cambodian civilians. Said Tran: “I don’t think the North Vietnamese will tire of battling to conquer Cambodia, even if it takes another year or two.” His fellow deserter Van added: “The North Vietnamese are unhappy when they’re not fighting.”

The deserters’ firsthand accounts confirmed reports by American intelligence. The White House protested that Hanoi has been diverting international relief supplies intended for Cambodia’s hungry civilians to its own occupying troops. However, Washington’s appeal “not to feed the flames of war, but to use your aircraft and airfields to feed the people” went unheeded. When two U.S. Air Force cargo planes tried to fly into Phnom-Penh last week with cranes to be used for un loading relief supplies, Hanoi ordered the airport closed to them.

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