Vietnam lost dozens of thousands of lives in the war against the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge, the perpetrator of the Cambodian genocide in 1970s-80s, said Vietnamese Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, adding the world owes Vietnam gratitude for that sacrifice.
A killing field in Cambodia. Photo: The Independent
Vietnam was forced to involve in the war after Pol Pot’s troops attacked the Vietnamese southwest border and killed thousands of civilians since mid-1975, said Vinh, who is a deputy minister of defense.
Though sending troops to Cambodia only for defensive, Vietnam had faced international pressure, critics, and embargoes amid the after-war economic devastation.
Echoing Vinh, General Pham Van Tra, who led Vietnamese forces into Cambodia in 1978, said that the counter-offensive along the southwestern border and the war against Pol Pot regime had three phases: protecting Vietnamese border and people; liberating Cambodian people from the savage Khmer Rouge; and from 1980 to 1985, dealing with the remnants of the regime.
An American told General Tra that “When the Vietnamese military arrived in Cambodia, the whole world protested – including the US – but now, I think that the world must express gratitude and support for Vietnam for their early efforts to put an end to these terrorists.”
A Vietnamese soldier with Cambodian children. Photo: VNS
Support in peacetime
Vinh said that the war had left Cambodia in the rubble. The devastation was beyond what people could imagine and the reality forced Vietnamese troops to stay to help the people survive, sharing foods and clothes in the context of countless difficulties.
After the liberation of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops had to fight against Khmer Rouge soldiers who were still under the support of some large countries and planned to fight back anytime. Vietnamese troops had to hunt them in jungles. Malaria and Pol Pot’s mines caused them heavy losses.
Vietnamese soldiers offered training to Cambodians. Photo: VNS
Meanwhile, delegations of Vietnamese experts in different fields namely finance, banking, building, and agriculture were sent to Cambodia to help the neighbors settle down and rebuild facilities and premises for the new government to function. The support remained unchanged over time and even decisive for Cambodia to join ASEAN in 1998.
Vietnam helped the new Cambodian government operate stably and Cambodians settle down without threats from Pol Pot forces until The Paris Peace Accords formally titled Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict were signed on October 23, 1991.
The United Nations’ trial on Khmer Rouge’s leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea and other heads is a recognition of justice, that Vietnam’s involvement in the war was defensive and its support for Cambodia was fair.
Cambodia names three big festivals with the one on January 1, 1979 called the Liberation Day largely thanks to the support of the Vietnamese army.
For disinterested support in a decade, Vietnam should be judged by the way it did, Vinh said, adding that the world owes Vietnam gratitude.
Gratitude from insiders
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen who fled to Vietnam in 1977 to seek help has on his own shown gratitude towards priceless support that Vietnam has been offering to his country. In a speech celebrating the 40th anniversary in Cambodian National Stadium held on January 7, Hun Sen thanked Vietnam for its support in ending the Cambodian genocide and in recovering the kingdom.
The Cambodian government's Spokesperson Phay Siphan credits January 7 with saving his life. “Without Vietnam, I was about to get killed right away because I was in jail already. At that time I told them I was a student, they put almost everybody in jail,” he said.
Cambodian children carried photos of Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet when he visited Phnom Penh in 2007. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy
Siphan said that a number of Cambodian people, mostly those born after the war had no understanding of the importance of January 7 as they were not living under the Pol Pot regime.
For many of those who have lived through and managed to survive the Khmer Rouge’s regime between 1975 and 1979 certainly share my personal feeling about Vietnam’s role as liberator of Cambodia. Understandably, for some who have not personally suffered under the Khmer Rouge’s regime may think otherwise, said Ronnie Yimsut, the sole survivor of a Killing Fields attack that killed most of his family in Cambodia in 1977. Today, he is a senior landscape architect for U.S. Forest Service Region 9 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the US.
In fact, Khmer Rouge since it crowned the power in mid-1975 until January 1979 caused 1.8 million Cambodians to die of starvation, diseases, and murder.
Phnom Penh today. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodia, including Phnom Penh, has changed beyond recognition from the devastation left in the wake of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Siphan emphasized.