Author’s note: When the Khmer Rouge regime took power in Phnom Penh in April 1975, and the subsequent fall of Saigon and defeat of American forces weeks later, the shock waves reverberating through Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur were devastating. Embolden by the communist victories the Malayan Communist insurgents blew up the national monument and assassinated the police chief in Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia became a haven for guerillas of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). Overnight border outposts and police stations along the Thai-Cambodian were overrun and briefly captured. After the attacks the CPT would retreat into Cambodia to rest and recuperate.
Thai pre-emptive reactions were swift, brutal and insidious. The Khmer Rouge regime had to be undermined. Thai village gangs were organized to raid Cambodian villages ostensibly to steal cattle and livestock. This were easy targets, as one of the raiders told me, because the villagers were poorly defended by only young boys as the regular army were undermanned and dispersed to guard the border with Vietnam and Thailand. Fake pictures of Khmer Rouge soldiers forcing peasants to pull ploughs (taken on the border) were published in the Bangkok Post.
In a spectacular article by Norman Peagan in the Far Eastern Economic Review 1976 about the Khmer Rouge barbaric raid of Nong Palai Thai village, he reported that the village survival of the massacre (where pregnant women were horribly bayoneted) told him that the raiders spoke in Thai.
The super nationalist Khmer Rouge made the cardinal mistake of taking on both its giant neighbor Vietnam and Thailand at the same time. History has shown that the Cambodian “king” is either installed by the Thais or the Vietnamese. [Today Hun Sen’s government is a Vietnamese installation.]
Thailand is relatively free where journalists could come and go and try to find out what is happening. In Vietnam it was not the case. The undermining and infiltration of the Khmer Rouge must be deep, thorough, and devastating. They attacked on Christmas Day 1978 and by New Year Day the Vietnamese army were in Phnom Penh. Thailand was alarmed. Asean, America and China rallied behind Thailand to opposed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The joke at that time was only Bangkok’s notorious traffic jam could stop the Vietnamese tanks.
The anti Khmer Rouge propaganda by the Thais and the US government and the western press up till then had helped the Vietnamese invasion, and justified the toppling of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
The question never asked was how much the Vietnamese were involved in the infiltration of the KR, – their agents and spies, supporting one faction against another, and in fanning the massacre. Hun Sen was the Khmer Rouge they support.
In War the first casualty is truth. Hitler massacred his border villagers by dressing his soldiers in Polish uniforms and made that excuse to invade Poland. Most recently, President Bush lied about Sadam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and invaded Iraq.
A review of Gerry Troyna’s documentary on the Thai-Cambodian border
Published by the Bangkok Post on May 30, 1990 under the headline “Scenes from either side of the border” by Kim Gooi
The story of Cambodia is a saga of its ever-shrinking borders, and of centuries of contention between Vietnamese and Thai armies.
Cambodia is the luckless victim sandwiched between two large powerful rivals, its population of seven million people completely overshadowed by its neighbors of 50 million each. The invasion in January 1979 which resulted in the installation of Vietnam’s candidate on the ‘throne’ in Phnom Penh was merely the most recent of such incidents down through the centuries.
As in the old days, the fallen and deposed leaders retreated to Thailand retreated to Thailand for help and protection, waiting for the time when they would march back to Phnom Penh to reclaim power.
Today, more powers are involved in the war in Cambodia and in seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict but the basic contenders have not changed. This was pointedly stated by Thai General Pichit Kulvanijaya in an interview with Canadian television CBC: “Since the time of King Rama II we have fought many times with the Vietnamese army over the issue of Cambodia, and Cambodia has never, not even once, been able to win back its independence without Thai assistance.”
The frontier between Thailand and Cambodia is littered with landmines and the nameless dead, felled by landmines and the destruction of war. Since 1979, Vietnamese and Thai soldiers have clashed scores of times, but as all wars, it is the civilian population (particularly the children) that has borne the brunt of the suffering.
Many of the thousands of refugees housed in a dozen camps along the border have been there for a decade or more; many more were born there and know no other life than that in dilapidated huts, under plastic sheets, behind barbed wire.
The depressing state of affairs is the subject of a highly-acclaimed documentary programme produced by the British television [BBC]. It is one of a series of eight titled “Frontiers” which explores the man-made lines dividing cultures, languages, religions and races. Each 60-minute programme attempts to show what a frontier does to the people living under its shadow.
Produced with the help of Kraisak Choonhavan, the prime minister’s son, acting as consultant, “Frontier: Thailand/Cambodia” was adjudged to be so outstanding among its kind that it was screened ahead of the series in the United Kingdom last October as an independent programme under the title ‘Border Run’. It is being shown again as part of the ‘Frontier’ series, which came to British screens this month.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand has access to a copy of the programme and intends to screen it at its club house, although a date for the showing has not yet been scheduled.
The impact of the “Border Run” screening in the UK was such that director/producer Gerry Troyna was commissioned to the final programme for Frontiers, “Frontier: USA/Mexico”, shot in Tijuana and along the Rio Grande. The other frontiers explored in the series are: East/West Germany; South Africa/Mozambique; Finland/USSR; Israel/Jordan; Afghanistan/Pakistan; and Eire/Northern Ireland.
“A film documentary or a novel is a story of people, and people means characters,” said Troyna, defining his approach to documentary-making. “If we have good interesting characters, then we have a successful story. It must be visually powerful, interesting for viewers to follow, and most of all, entertaining enough to glue viewers to their TV sets. Or else people will just watch five minutes and switch off.”
“Frontier: Thailand/Cambodia” was written and presented by Jon Swain, who covered the fall of Phnom Penh for the London Sunday Times. He shows the border from both sides and tells the story of his involvement and attachment to Cambodia; he sees it as a country of happy, easy-going people, placid paddy fields, and swaying palm trees, engulfed in bloodshed and war. Swain was among the last of the foreigners to be sent out of the country by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in April 1975.
Filming of the documentary coincided with three events that would provide colour and powerful visual images: a parade by the Royal Thai Army of newly acquired Chinese tanks, the annual birthday parade for His Majesty the King, and the Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Cambodia.