Cover Story

The end of the tunnel looks dark in Phnom Penh

Angela Ferrante January 15 1979
Cover Story

The end of the tunnel looks dark in Phnom Penh

Angela Ferrante January 15 1979

The end of the tunnel looks dark in Phnom Penh

Indochina

It seemed like a bloody and violent replay. Only three years ago, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was strangled into submission as the Khmer Rouge Communist guerrillas ousted the American-backed regime of Lon Nol. Last week, as a 100,000-strong Vietnamese invasion force marched closer daily, the old colonial city was once again on the point of being “liberated” by Communist guerrillas—only this time it was the erstwhile conquerors, the brutal Chinese-backed regime of Premier Pol Pot, who were on the verge of disaster.

The invasion, launched Christmas Day as part of an old border war between the two countries, was nominally spearheaded by a newly formed group of Cambodian rebels called the United Front for National Salvation. But it was more than evident that the crack Soviet backed Vietnamese army conducted the heavy fighting, leaving the mopping up to the 20,000 insurgents.

As Soviet-built Vietnamese jets strafed and bombed, the rebels boasted on Radio Hanoi that they had captured the important Mekong River port of Kratie—just 100 miles from the capital—and thus controlled more than onequarter of the countryside. At the same time, Vietnamese forces were moving to cut Phnom Penh’s links with its northern provinces and its outlet on the Gulf of Thailand, Kompong Som, the principal entry for Chinese supplies. With that accomplished, the city’s only access to the world would be its airport and a few decrepit aircraft.

So quickly were the Cambodian government forces crumbling that the re-

gime was left spluttering helplessly. While Radio Phnom Penh called the Vietnamese “dirty and shameful murderers,” President Khieu Samphan derided Vietnam as “the Cuba of Asia” and appealed to the United Nations and all countries “far and near” for help in stopping the invasion. So far, little help seems to be forthcoming. Even the Chinese seemed, at least on the surface, to accept as inevitable a Soviet victory in what is, in essence, a fight by proxy between the two big Communist superpowers in Indochina. Senior Vice-Premier Teng Hsiao-ping, called dutifully on the UN to give “clear moral support” to the Cambodians, but conceded

it seemed impossible to restrain“hegemonism—whether big or small.” Even though there are 20,000 Chinese advisers in Cambodia, the most the Chinese offered was a safe haven for the regime’s leaders.

The reason may be partly that the more liberal Chinese leadership no longer finds it expedient to prop up a despotic and unpopular regime. Since the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, Cambodia has been virtually sealed off from the world, its people submitted to a cruel gunpoint reorganization plan that involved an enforced mass exodus from the cities. The brutality of the regime is helping to push many Cambodians on to the side of the Vietnamese, whose long-term aim may be to establish an Indochina federation including ,Laos, which is already under its wing. But whatever the motives and ramifications of the latest upheaval, for Cambodians a replay can mean only one thing—more bloodshed in a country that has known little else for years.

Angela Ferrante