Cambodia & Laos – Neighbors to War

Among the landed states of Southeast Asia, Thailand and Burma were somewhat distant from events in Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos were on the front lines. More than other parts of the region, it is difficult to discuss these countries apart from the war. Both countries were once part of the French Empire. In Cambodia, the 1960s was the age of Sihanouk. For Laos, it was the time of becoming a country instead of a geographical expression.

Cambodia achieved de facto freedom from France in 1953 and was headed by a member of the Cambodian royal family, the peripatetic Prince Norodom Sihanouk, from 1954 to 1970. Sihanouk favored state intervention in a form he called “Buddhist Socialism,” and he professed anti-communism at home – clamping down successfully on communist groups that were active in Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s under Indonesian and Vietnamese guidance. During this time, aid flowed in from many sources, particularly the United States but also from China, France, and the Soviet bloc in sufficient quantities to offset annual budget deficits.

At the start of the 1960s, Cambodia was at peace and relatively prosperous. But agitation against Sihanouk’s one-party rule intensified, and repression of anti-Sihanouk groups forced many into hiding, including a young schoolteacher named Saloth Sar who had studied in France in the early 1950s. In 1962 he became secretary of the Cambodian communist party’s central committee and advocated armed action against Sihanouk and his “feudal” retainers. When the party seized power in 1976, Saloth Sar would call himself Pol Pot.

Sihanouk’s political style often involved enigmatic reactions to real or imagined threats. He responded to Cambodia’s political restlessness by changing the country’s constitution to make himself Head of State for life. In 1963 much of the prince’s cabinet resigned under his withering criticism of a conspiracy – the same year Sihanouk began to attack the United States for plotting against him. He cut off U.S. military aid and broke diplomatic relations in 1965.

The escalating war in Vietnam effected Cambodia in several ways in the 1960s. Cambodian farmers grew rich selling rice to North Vietnam instead of to the Cambodian government at artificially low prices. Phnom Penh lost export earnings. This was a small price to pay because farmers kicked back fees to army officers who were officially permitted to do this. Thus farmers and the army officer corps – two groups important to the stability of Cambodian society – remained quiescent and loyal to Sihanouk. By 1966, transporting North Vietnamese and Chinese military goods overland from, for example, Cambodia’s deep-water port at Sihanoukville became a big commission business that enriched these two groups further, and made up any losses to the government from lost rice export tariffs. Professing neutrality, Sihanouk complained publically about American and South Vietnamese border violations while allowing permanent North Vietnamese bases in eastern Cambodia. However, he profited handsomely from the trading relationship with North Vietnam that hardly benefited the general Cambodian population economically and, together with the political straitjacket of one-party rule, engendered widespread protests, particularly among students.

Sihanouk unleashed a wave of repression in 1967 that caused perhaps ten thousand casualties. This drove many on the left from mainstream politics and emboldened Saloth Sar’s communist faction, and for three years an insurgency against the Cambodian government destabilized the kingdom, and Sihanouk’s position became increasingly untenable. Under these pressures, the prince grew aloof from the day-to-day affairs of state; and spent more and more time on hobbies: practicing the clarinet, composing music, singing publically in Khmer, French and English – even producing and starring in his own feature-length films. Importantly, he also spent more and more time outside the country as Cambodia’s foreign relations became double-edged. He restored relations with the United States in 1969, shortly after American planes began to target Vietnamese positions inside Cambodia. At the time of this modus vivendi with the United States, he nevertheless courted countries in direct opposition to American interests. He spent much time in the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and Romania, as well as in North Korea which built him a 60-room residence with a cinema.

In March 1970, Sihanouk’s own National Assembly removed him as head of state while he was abroad, and Cambodia renamed itself the Khmer Republic. As in so many areas, the spirit and issues of the actual decade of the 1960s spill over into the 1970s as does our era. Likewise in Cambodia. In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords ended the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War – at least formally. American attention turned to Cambodia and throughout this year, B-52s hammered Communist-controlled positions to support the fragile government of General Lon Nol. Among other effects, the bombings created chaos in the rural areas and a refugee influx of millions to major Cambodian cities overwhelmed the capacity of the Republican government to manage.

By the start of 1975, communists in Cambodia controlled two-thirds of the country including the ruins at Angkor, and cut off the capital of Phnom Penh which became a Republican island in a communist sea. As part of a wider surge, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in April; Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s second city, Battambang, fell to a faction of the Communist Party called the Khmer Rouge that same spring. The region descended into darkness, but nothing so dark as in Cambodia. In 1976, the hatreds and bitterness pent up in the 1960s became the killing fields of the 1970s when Pol Pot and his followers seized power, changed Cambodia’s name to the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, and imposed a furious Mao-inspired genocide on the Cambodian people as complete and heinous as any of the Second World War. Not even the harsh regime of Vietnam after 1975 could countenance the continuation of Pol Pot’s savagery and the destabilization it produced in the region. The Vietnamese Army intervened to topple the Khmer Rouge in 1979.


Along with Cambodia, the other country that bordered Vietnam was the unorganized, untamed turbulent region of Laos that was less a nation after 1945 than a shatter zone across which the five countries that touched it – Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China – operated. However indistinct, Laos nevertheless became fully independent in 1953 after five decades of French rule. It was a collection of groups and land-locked regions, with poor communications, and with a communist faction called the Pathet Lao controlling large parts of the country – primarily in the mountains along the Vietnamese border, and it continued to be a contested land until 1975.

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Conference of 1954 declared Laos a neutral country with a coalition government. A neutral Laos held little appeal for North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. In 1958 elements of the North Vietnamese army invaded northern Laos and joined forces with the Pathet Lao communists operating there, and began the first tracks of what became the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south. The Eisenhower administration had backed the French war in Vietnam and after Geneva the United States took France’s role of supporting anti-communist forces throughout Indochina. In Laos, this meant supporting the Royal Lao Army and Navy as well as the fiercely-independent Hmong and Yao tribes who thrived on opium cultivation and cross-border trade with China.

As in Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, few Laotian people in the 1950s and 1960s gave strong support to the Vietnam War except for those in the ranks of the Indochina Communist Party. In-country fighting had broken out between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao by 1960, and was a specific topic of conversation between Kennedy and Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit of 1961. By this time, Soviets had appeared in Laos as advisors to communist forces, and the Pathet Lao started to get substantial Soviet financial and military equipment. A second attempt at a second Geneva Conference to secure the neutralization of Laos failed and raised the prospect for a communist victory in the region. This alarmed the Kennedy administration in the United States, served as an early introduction to Southeast Asia for Americans unfamiliar with such a distant place, and was a reason for the formulation of the idea of “flexible response” as a American military doctrine during these years.

Indeed, Laos preceded Vietnam as an area of concern for the West, and became a parallel theater of war in the years 1964 to 1968 when Vietnam grabbed most headlines. By 1965, northern Laos was almost completely inundated by North Vietnamese regulars working with the Lao communists, and in the years to 1970, Laos became an ever-more intense part of the Indochinese War. When Cambodia’s National Assembly dismissed Sihanouk as Head of State (see above), the pro-American General Lon Nol cut the Sihanoukville port to North Vietnamese traffic. As a result, Laos replaced Cambodia as the primary venue for moving supplies from Hanoi southward. Hanoi’s use of Lao territory to funnel men and supplies into South Vietnam led to a ruinous American bombing campaign which displaced millions in the country anywhere near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the north, the United States fought with Thai Army forces and Hmong militias against North Vietnamese allied with the Pathet Lao – and took in the sparsely-populated plains of the country immediately west of communist North Vietnam.

The Paris Peace Accords between the United States and Vietnam included an important side agreement establishing an independent Laos. The United States ceased military operations, Vietnam imposed a ceasefire on its followers, and Laos was relatively peaceful in the few years after 1973. But the Pathet Lao did not stand down. The years 1973-75 saw the gradual erosion of non-communist state power, the eclipse of the six-hundred-year old Lao monarchy, and institutionalized Communist control. Within months of the communist victory in southern Vietnam and Pol Pot’s triumph in Cambodia, the coalition government in the capital Vientiane collapsed to one-party communist control, and the Kingdom vanished in December 1975. Laos signed a 25-year treaty of friendship with Vietnam, which provided large numbers of Vietnamese troops and advisors to stay in Laos, which became Hanoi’s client. Nearly 50,000 Lao citizens and members of the old government were taken to re-education camps. American diplomatic personnel withdrew from the capital Vientiane and resettled tens of thousands of Lao and Hmong to the United States similar to the boat exodus from Vietnam in the middle and late 1970s. Unlike Cambodia which reacted to the 1960s in a 1970s orgy of death, Buddhist Laos moved to a quieter and quieter state – in the shadow and under the thumb of victorious Vietnam.

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