On March 18, 1970, the Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh declared the end of the Kingdom of Cambodia led by Norodom Sihanouk.

There was initial jubilation in some mainly urban areas at the formation of the ‘Khmer Republic’, but the rural areas became transformed into battle zones as the precarious, uneasy coexistence of the two main political forces during the 1960s came to an end. Kampot province was no exception.

On one side were the communist forces led by the North Vietnamese Army and their allies in the south, the Viet Cong. Together they were known as the NVA/VC.

The Khmer Rouge had been nurtured by the NVA/VC for a decade but was still little more than a fledgling organisation, heavily reliant on their fraternal comrades for weapons, training and strategy. The combined NVA/VC and Khmer Rouge movement labeled themselves a ‘popular front’ called the FUNK and was officially led by Sihanouk, who resented being removed from power by Lon Nol.

On the other side was the government of the new Khmer Republic, whose army was called the FANK. In March 1970 this numbered around 38,000, growing to 150,000 over the next six months, as tens of thousands of young men volunteered to fight1. It was also supported by a small air force. 

However, quantity in armed forces is no substitute for quality. Many of the new FANK recruits ended up fighting battles with the FUNK after only a few days training – with predictable results.

As of May 1970, the government forces in the newly-created Military Region 2 (MR 2) were as follows2:

  • Takeo: 6 battalions, 2,500 men,
  • Ang Ta Som: 4 battalions, 1,700 men
  • Kampot: 3 battalions, 1,100 men
  • Kampong Trach: 1 battalion, 170 men.

Unlike his predecessor Sihanouk, Lon Nol had ideological allies in Saigon. The large and powerful ARVN (Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam) became a major factor in the fledgling Cambodian civil war. Behind the ARVN lay the military might of the USA, which was ironically looking for an exit strategy from Indochina by this time.  

The invasion and fighting inevitably displaced villagers in the areas, such as those above (May 1970)3

The FUNK’s strategy for the next five years for MR 2 became set almost immediately: Isolate the main provincial towns and economically significant sites; block the arterial roads which connected them; harass and attack government forces in a guerilla-style campaign; and administer the areas that fell under their control. This provided the Khmer Rouge part of the FUNK with the perfect opportunity to learn how to rule rural populations.

The first invasion

As soon as Lon Nol had deposed Sihanouk, the FUNK started to drive the Cambodian army (now part of FANK) away from the country’s south-eastern border, where they had coexisted for several years4. By the middle of April this goal had been accomplished and towns close to the MR 2 border areas were under threat.

Tuk Meas was captured on April 21 and Kampot Province’s vital fertilizer plant subsequently became unable to function, as the necessary phosphate could no longer be mined5. Kampong Trach was attacked on April 29 and quickly taken, as NVA/VC forces pushed westwards6.

Kep also came under attack and was taken for a day on May 14, recaptured and then raided again ten days later. The Lon Nol government and its allies in South Vietnam were very aware of the strategic significance of the coast stretching from Kep to the border with Vietnam7. This area included Prek Chak, which was taken by the VC and remained in their hands.

The CIA were alarmed that several NVA battalions had even pushed as far west as National Road # 4, in what was certainly part of the overall FUNK strategy of blocking major arterial roads throughout the country8.

In this case, by gaining a foothold in National Road #4, the important port at Sihanoukville was blocked from easy access to the capital, which presented significant economic problems for the government. For example, fuel could no longer be transported to Phnom Penh, and rice exports, vital for generating foreign currency, could not be shipped.

Kampot Town seized

By early May the CIA reported that the FUNK had captured the commercial area of Kampot Town, and held it for two days, before being pushed out by the ARVN9. It seems highly likely this attack was the one which caused Kimsee’s family to flee to Prek Chak. Three battalions of FANK troops were redeployed to the town to reinforce government defences.10

By May 11 there were reports of an NVA ‘main force unit’ in the town for the first time, and that they had ordered that all bridges in the area be destroyed.11 Three days later the communists still held the high ground around the town12. After a week the ARVN, dispatched to retake the town, had still not cleaned out the enemy.

In June a report revealed that Cambodia’s only cement works at Chakrei Ting, eight kilometres north-east of Kampot, had been damaged by the fighting, and was no longer in production13. Communist forces had also re-infiltrated the university buildings in Kampot and Takeo14.

Both Kampot and Sihanoukville were now cut off from both road and railway connection to Phnom Penh. 75 railway ties had been pulled out of the line east of Kampot, along with the destruction of three bridges.

Similarly, on National Road #3, three bridges had been blown up near Ang Ta Som, which was also under heavy attack from the NVA/VC. The oil refinery at Sihanoukville had had to be closed as they had no space left to store the fuel, which had banked up because of no longer being able to be transported to Phnom Penh15.

The FANK responds

After being forced to retreat from the south-east border areas after the coup, the FANK army battalions had moved to reinforce the provincial centres of Kampot and Takeo. Ang Ta Som, sitting astride Road # 3 and close to Takeo, was also bolstered in this phase by two parachute battalions – who came under siege almost immediately upon arrival 16. Takeo subsequently suffered 30 attacks in two weeks in May with 10 per cent of the town being destroyed17.

The ARVN, together with troops from the US army, had invaded Cambodia earlier on April 29 and subsequently remained until about July 22 (the US left slightly earlier). Their initial aim had been to destroy the sanctuaries of the NVA/VC in MR 2. Unfortunately for them the impact of this invasion was to push the communists even further inland, where they subsequently found new allies amongst ordinary Khmers.

Armoured Personnel Carriers heading west into Cambodian interior, May - June 1970

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/13476480@N07/30205720685/in/photostream/

The effect of this invasion on farmers and villagers was described by Shawcross thus: “The 495th ARVN battalion rampaged through the villages around Takeo. The battalion commander, Captain Le Van Vien, frequently called in air strikes, to drive the people from the villages…he and his men would seize the animals and force them [the owners] to buy them back… Others looted openly and took their plunder back to Vietnam”18.

The willingness of many peasants to tolerate and even support the communists may be partly explained by this undisciplined behaviour of the ARVN.

As they pushed further into Cambodia the FUNK communist troops generally melted away into the countryside and avoided fighting the FANK and its allies. This happened in Takeo when the communist forces literally disappeared overnight19.

Where did they go? One report described a linking-up of the NVA/VC troops with Khmer Rouge forces hunkered down in the Cardamon Mountains (including Koh Sla where Eng was located). The NVA/VC troops were reported as regrouping “in the centre of the province”, which likely meant Chhouk and the area around Phnom La’ang.

The local villagers were “performing supply and intelligence gathering tasks” for the NVA/VC20 Their guests presumably intended to wait out the ARVN invasion, laying low until they left (which as previously stated occurred about July 22 1970).

The battle for control of the cement works outside Kampot town reignited during July. Air support was provided for ARVN and FANK troops trying to retake the works – which changed hands at least twice21.

To demonstrate the chaos that existed during this time, there is an intriguing report that a FANK army major struck an arrangement with local communist forces not to attack Kampot Town if the army didn't attack them22.

In what may be an unrelated incident, the former military governor of Kampot Province was accused by Lon Nol of being too close to the communists and summarily executed. This was seen as too harsh by other army officers, many of who had profited from similar connections under the previous regime. As a result, these officers refused to go to the battle front 23.

In 1970 Kampot Town had a population of 15,00024, but this would grow periodically as people, like Kimsee’s family, who lived in the surround area fled the violence and the bombing.

Map showing extent of loss of territory by May 1970. Very little of the land would have returned to government control before 197525.

 

Endnotes

  1. CIA Intelligence Handbook, October 1970
  2. Memorandum for Secretary of Defence, May 14, 1970. Kampot, together with Takeo, now became part of Military Region (MR) 2, which covered the area between National Road # 4 and the Mekong – almost identical to the later Khmer Rouge ‘South West Zone’.
  3. https://www.flickr.com/photos/13476480@N07/29576383593

  4. Presidential Daily Brief, April 30, 1970
  5. The impact of fighting in Cambodian in the economy”, June 1970 (CIA memo)
  6. Presidential Daily Brief, April 30, 1970
  7. CIA weekly summary, May 1, 1970
  8. Memorandum for Secretary of Defence, May 14, 1970
  9. Updates in the fighting, May 2, 1970
  10. Presidential Daily Brief, May 1, 1970
  11. Presidential Daily Brief, May 14, 1970
  12. Ibid
  13. Presidential Daily Brief, June 12, 1970
  14. The impact of fighting in Cambodian in the economy”, June 1970 (CIA memo)
  15. CIA Bulletin, July 29, 1970
  16. Report on fighting in the region, May 1970
  17. “The impact of fighting in Cambodian in the economy”, June 1970
  18. William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of Cambodia. Fontana, 1980, Suffolk, p 174-75
  19. Presidential Daily Brief, May 19, 1970
  20. Presidential Daily Brief, May 27, 1970
  21. The impact of fighting in Cambodian in the economy”, June 1970 (CIA memo)
  22. Developments in Indochina (CIA report), September 25, 1970
  23. Memorandum for Secretary of Defence, May 14, 1970
  24. CIA Intelligence Handbook, October 1970
  25. CIA map, August, 1970