Cambodian deserter reveals Sihanouk Trail workings

This report from the USMACV* Document Exploitation Center from December 1966 is based mostly on knowledge gained from a Cambodian Army deserter who turned himself over to the US – South Vietnamese authorities in December 1965.


The first page of the previously classified document


The source had good motivation to desert – he had embezzled $200,000 from his employer, the Cambodian state, six months before, as well as murdering someone for no apparent reason just a few weeks before he ‘came over’. His name was Than Ngoc Lac, alias Tep Ly, a 25 year old Khmer-Vietnamese naturalized Cambodian.

The information he divulged shed light on relations between Sihanouk and friendly nations (“Red China” and the Soviet Union) at the time (1965) as well as more fine grained details of how the Vietcong worked in Kampot province at the time.

Than’s much older brother in law was a Brigadier-General, close to Sihanouk. Than’s work in Kampot for the Public Works, also put him in touch with Vietcong activists living and working there. He thus felt he had a lot of juicy information to offer in return for his avoiding a Cambodian prison sentence.

Firstly he claimed that China had 10,000 troops placed along the border with Vietnam, securing Cambodia’s borders against incursions from South Vietnam and the USA (this was very important to Sihanouk as we have seen elsewhere). He, Than, had personally helped settle these soldiers in to Phnom Penh. He noted that China delivered arms and munitions to the Cambodian Army, but they were then secreted away, to be picked up by the Vietcong later. (The claim about Chinese soldiers seems unlikely given the lack of any other such reports - JP)

The Soviets were also assisting Cambodia, though not the Vietcong. They used four-propeller aircraft to fly in construction materials to Kampot for the Kam-Chay hydroelectric plant being built (presumably on the same site as the current dam – JP) and also other construction supplies to Sihanoukville airport.

Than, or Tep Ly, was also witness to the employment of Vietcong officials by the Cambodian government. One such official worked for the Public Works out of Kampot and was seen collecting money from Vietnamese residents, and “conducting propaganda and taking the Vietnamese youths to various VC agencies” (p 13)

One such agency was a radio station operating on behalf of the National Liberation Front (the public face of the Vietcong). He met VC cadres who worked at the radio station, which was close to Ha Tien, but on a raised hillock, on the Cambodian side of the border. He met them at a market at Luc Son, a village that, despite housing a clandestine radio station, nonetheless housed two battalions of the Cambodian Army. This would have confirmed to US authorities that collusion was at the highest levels of the Cambodian government.

The article does not mention what became of Tep Ly, but it is unlikely he returned to Cambodia before 1970.

* (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 31 December 1966).

Thanks to Steve J from the “Kampot Survival Guide” for sourcing this article