When Lon Nol declared his country a republic in January 1970 and removed Sihanouk, everything changed.
There are three dimensions to what happened next: the rapid growth of the opposition to Lon Nol throughout the country; the corruption and ineptitude of the Lon Nol regime; the intense B-52 bombing campaign of the US air force.
United Front (FUNK)
When Sihanouk heard of the coup he immediately threw in his lot with everyone who wanted to resist the new regime, and formed a broad united front - the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK). This included the communists and was recognised by them and their Vietnamese comrades as a way to extend their influence.
The united front was always going to be dominated by the best organised and the most disciplined group – this was the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk supporters were replaced first and then Vietnamese soldiers were driven out of Khmer Rouge controlled areas – including Kampot. By 1973, the Cambodian revolutionaries had moved out of the shadow of their Vietnamese collaborators and now marched to the beat of their own drum, on their way to capturing Phnom Penh.
Kampot was part of the Southwest Zone that saw the first implementation by the Khmer Rouge of their radical economic and social policies.
Lon Nol regime
Opposing the FUNK were the military forces of the Lon Nol government and its sponsor, the USA. The well connected Cambodian officer class sensed an economic opportunity and exploited it for all it was worth.
They inflated troop numbers and kept the wages for themselves. William Shawcross believes by 1975 between 20 and 40 % of military salaries were being stolen by the commanders of these soldiers 2. Supplies and weapons were similarly secreted away and ended up in the markets of Phnom Penh, or in the hands of their enemy.
Unsurprisingly, with soldiers not getting paid, and officers unwilling to fight, morale amongst government forces plummeted. With the loss of much of the food-growing countryside, rice supplies dwindled and prices soared. The economy was being devastated by a civil war and incomes for most of the population spiralled downwards.
The Youtube clip above seems to relate to a human shields incident from April 1970 described by Shawcross below. Saang is in Region 25 of the Southwest Zone (after 1975). This event took place at a time of pogroms against Vietnamese civilians living in Cambodia. The victims in the video appear to be Vietnamese.
“ Lon Nol ordered a band of Vietnamese taken from a camp in Phnom Penh to help relieve the town of Saang, southwest of the capital. The detainees were told as they were driven in trucks towards the town, that they were “volunteers” and that their role was simply to persuade the communists to leave. They were dropped on a country road about two miles outside Saang; one nervous man was given a white flag to lead the procession and Cambodian officers brought up the rear, prodding with sticks…..After the pitiful procession shuffled around the last bend in the road, a rapid exchange of automoatic-weapon fire began: bullets snapped across and along the road and Lon Nol’s volunteers fell howling to the tarmac.”3
When the Lon Nol troops entered the town next day, the communists had retreated and the town was looted. The 'volunteers' had been mown down from behind4
Making everything worse was the American bombing campaign that was literally unprecedented. The Nixon-Kissinger led US administration ramped up the bombing of Indochina, as they gradually withdrew their own troops. From 1969 the B-52 bombers increased their incursions across the Cambodian border chasing communist guerrillas who retreated further into the interior. The bombing continued for 4 years, and the spread of targets can be seen on the map below5.
The consequences for the Cambodian civil war were to drive the Vietcong further into Cambodia and to push the many victims of the bombing into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. By the start of 1975 Phnom Penh was isolated by land and then by river. On April 17, the Khmer Rouge marched triumphantly into the capital and immediately ordered the evacuation of the capital – by now close to 3 million people.
Many years later the true metrics of the bombing became apparent 5. In the Second World War the Allies collectively dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs. In data released in 2007, the total bombing by the US in Cambodia exceeded that figure by some 756,000 tons. As the authors noted “Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.” 7
- William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of Cambodia. Fontana, 1980, Suffolk, p 246
- Ibid, p 228
- ibid, p 133
- This statement was made in a newspaper article included as part of a newspaper compilation presented to the US Senate on Dec 16, 1970. It was translated from French by Wilfred Burchett.
- The map is from Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, Bombs over Cambodia: New Light on US Air War, Asia-Pacific Journal, vol 5, issue 5, May 2007. (The authors publicized a report released by “Clinton” (Hilary or Bill?) that included this data.)
- Ibid p 3