March 01, 1985 Cambodian Conflict: Vietnamese Seize Khmer Rouge Bases; Other Developments

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Issue Date: March 01, 1985

Cambodian Conflict:
Vietnamese Seize Khmer Rouge Bases; Other Developments

Vietnamese soldiers Feb. 15 seized and set fire to the administrative headquarters of the communist Khmer Rouge rebel group at Phum Thmei, according to Thai military officers. The Khmer Rouge military headquarters, Phnom Malai, was also reported to have fallen. The Vietnamese had captured the Khao Din Khmer Rouge base Feb. 14, and the Ang Kobal camp, a divisional headquarters, Feb. 5. [See 1985 Cambodian Conflict: Vietnamese Capture Ampil Camp]

Phum Thmei had served as the capital for the Cambodian three-group rebel coalition under Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

(Phnom Malai was the name of several hills located on the Thai border some 12 miles (19 km) southwest of the Thai town of Aranyaprathet. It was also the name given to a 135-square-mile (350-sq-km) area in which several Khmer Rouge military bases and civilian camps were located.)

The fall of the camps, in western Cambodia, was the result of the largest Vietnamese offensive to date in the six-year war against the Cambodian rebels. The losses meant that all major Khmer Rouge bases had been overrun, a situation that damaged the credibility of the coalition fighting to overthrow the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government.

The assault on the Khmer Rouge camps followed recent Vietnamese successes against the noncommunist Khmer People's National Liberation Front, another group in the coalition. The KPNLF, led by Son Sann, was the largest of the two noncommunist coalition groups.

Camps belonging to the third rebel group led by Prince Sihanouk remained untouched by the Vietnamese in the current dry-season offensive.

In that offensive, the Vietnamese appeared determined to completely clear the border area of rebel forces. Since January, it had been drawing up its forces in preparation for the assault on the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese had concentrated elements of as many as six divisions, backed by tanks and artillery, in the border area against some 10,000 Khmer Rouge rebels around Phnom Malai.

In the fighting in late January and early February, the Cambodian rebels had hit hard against Vietnamese troops advancing from the south, inflicting some heavy losses. As the Vietnamese attempted to pin the rebels against the Thai border, other rebel forces attacked the Vietnamese from the rear.

At the same time, the rebels staged attacks on the interior. Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge titular leader, claimed Feb. 9 that his forces had made their deepest penetrations yet within Cambodia. A Khmer Rouge radio broadcast Feb. 7 had claimed that the rebels had entered the town of Siem Reap, some 90 miles (145 km) east of Phnom Malai Feb. 2. Siem Reap was a key Vietnamese command post and communications center. The rebels were said to have killed 38 Vietnamese and a number of Soviet and other Eastern European advisers, destroyed buildings and captured weapons. [See 1984 Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Claims Major Victory]

As the Vietnamese launched their final push at Phnom Malai Feb. 12, the rebels did not resist them but instead withdrew and reportedly formed into small units to prepare to strike at enemy troops deeper inside Cambodia. Some rebels were reported to have fled to Thailand.

Casualty figures for the fighting at Phum Thmei and Phnom Malai were not known, but were believed to be low because of the rebel withdrawal.

The fighting forced thousands more Cambodian civilians to take refuge in Thailand; since the dry-season offensive began in November 1984, most of the 250,000 Cambodians living in rebel-controlled territory along the Thai-Cambodian border were reported to have fled into Thailand.

Thailand Jan. 16 began moving Cambodian refugees from near the border to Khao-I-Dang, a United Nations-run camp 180 miles (290 km) northeast of Bangkok. Most of the refugees had come from the Nong Samet KPNLF camp seized by the Vietnamese in December 1984. [See 1984 Cambodia: Rebel Camp Overrun]

Conflict Spills into Thailand

The drive against the Khmer Rouge Feb. 12 spilled over into Thailand as stray shells landed on Thai territory. Three Thai citizens were reported killed and thousands were forced to flee the border area. The Thai military moved up troops and artillery in anticipation of a Vietnamese attack.

Clashes occurred Feb. 20 between Thai soldiers and Vietnamese troops trying to take a hillside inside Thailand. One Thai officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded in the fighting.

Following earlier incidents on the border, Thailand Feb. 6 had summoned the Soviet ambassador to the foreign ministry to warn him that the stability of Southeast Asia was put at risk by the Vietnamese incursions. The ambassador was told that only Soviet support had enabled Vietnam to stay for so long in Cambodia.

The Hanoi-backed Cambodian government of President Heng Samrin Feb. 20 threatened to attack Khmer Rouge guerrillas and other rebels "taking sanctuary in Thailand."

In other developments in the conflict:

  • In a protest to the United Nations, Thailand Feb. 19 accused Vietnam of using poison gas against Cambodian rebels and charged that four rockets containing phosgene gas and hydrogen cyanide had landed on Thai territory.

  • Prince Norodom Sihanouk Feb. 9 made a rare visit to Cambodia to receive the credentials of four foreign ambassadors at the showcase camp of Phum Thmei. The four nations recognizing the Sihanouk-led coalition were North Korea, Bangladesh, Senegal and Mauritania.

  • Sihanouk reported Feb. 15 that Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge former Cambodian leader, was gravely ill, suffering from "malaria crises." Pol Pot had not been seen in public for several years.

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Feb. 11 appealed to foreign nations for military aid for the Cambodian rebels. It was the first time that ASEAN had collectively asked for such aid, and the request did not differentiate between Khmer Rouge rebels and the other resistance groups. Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila contended that the aid was necessary because of Soviet weapons supplied to Vietnamese troops.

  • Five of the six member nations of ASEAN--Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand--Feb. 6 summoned the Soviet ambassadors in their respective countries and asked them to cease supporting Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.

  • Thailand Feb. 1 said there was "nothing new" in proposals made by Vietnam to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar during a recent visit to Hanoi. U.N. sources had reported that Vietnam had offered to withdraw its forces from Cambodia simultaneously with the "elimination" of the Khmer Rouge. [See 1985 Other International News: U.N. Chief Visits Vietnam]

  • The U.S. Jan. 18 ruled out the possibility of providing military aid to the Cambodian rebels. Paul D. Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said such aid would make negotiations with Vietnam more difficult, adding that the U.S. would not provide aid of any kind to the Khmer Rouge.

China Issues Warning

Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, hinting at a new war with Vietnam, Jan. 23 had warned Hanoi that China would teach Vietnam a "second lesson" if it continued the fighting in Cambodia. China had used similar words of warning before invading Vietnam in 1979, in retaliation for Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. [See 1979 Chinese Troops Launch Invasion of Vietnam, Advance 15 Miles, Hit 4 Provinces...Peking Calls Drive Limited]

Speaking at a news conference in Bangkok, Wu said China would not stand by and permit Vietnam to continue provoking Thailand.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk revealed Feb. 11 that in October 1984, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had assured him that China would invade Vietnam if the rebel coalition faced military defeat. [See 1984 China: 35th Anniversary Celebrated]

In a further statement Feb. 16, Sihanouk said that in recent days China had promised him that it would continue to place military pressure on Vietnam in support of the Cambodian rebels. This was apparently a reference to China's actions against the Vietnamese along the Sino-Vietnamese border as a means of drawing Vietnamese troops away from the fighting in Cambodia. Sihanouk said he and the Khmer Rouge wanted China to move now, "since now it appears that the situation of the armed resistance in Cambodia is getting bad."

Sihanouk had said Jan. 31 that Vietnam had suggested to China that the two nations begin secret negotiations on bilateral ties. However, he said, China had assured him that relations with neither the Soviet Union nor Vietnam would be normalized until Vietnam allowed Cambodia to be independent.

Sihanouk also said Deng had warned him that China's support would end if the coalition between his own forces, the Khmer Rouge and the KPNLF was broken. China currently supplied most of the aid to the Cambodian rebels.

Meanwhile, hostilities along the Sino-Vietnamese border continued. China said its forces retaliated Feb. 12 against Vietnamese assaults, and Vietnam the next day claimed that it had "put out of action" 250 Chinese soldiers who had crossed into Vietnam.
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