Now entering his 34th year in power, 65-year-old Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has had more than half his life to refine and update the canonical story of how he and a ramshackle squad of Khmer Rouge defectors helped overthrow Pol Pot in January 1979.
Many elements have remained the same, while others have slowly drifted over time. Then, as now, the story goes, Hun Sen fled to Vietnam in June 1977 to avoid Pol Pot’s purges; then, but not now, a large share of the responsibility for the evils of the regime lay with China.
Writing to then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim in January 1979, Hun Sen, as foreign minister of the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh, described the government he had just helped overthrow, as “the barbarous genocidal regime of the Pol Pot clique, instrument of Beijing’s expansionist policy.”
A decade later, Hun Sen wrote in an essay that “China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia” — and there was good reason. China alone had propped up Pol Pot’s regime after its fall in 1979 until 1991, supporting the Khmer Rouge with hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fight Phnom Penh.
It is significant, then, that Hun Sen’s latest telling of the fall of Pol Pot — a slick documentary-style film broadcast around Cambodia on primetime television on January 3, and since rebroadcast both on television and online — mentions China not a single time.
The 90-minute film instead skirts the issue of China while burnishing Hun Sen’s credentials as a hero amid a wave of repression that has led to the dissolution of the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and the imprisonment of its leader, Kem Sokha, ahead of this year’s July 29 national election on charges of planning a U.S.-led “color revolution.”
A lot changes in four decades. The leaderships of China and Vietnam, for one, have changed myriad times, and among the major figures of the events of 1979, only Hun Sen remains — and now finds himself, as Pol Pot once did, dependent on China’s support.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Phnom Penh from January 10 to 11, and came bearing gifts, in the form of 19 new agreements offering aid and investments. He also brought a last remaining vestige of international legitimacy. Both the United States and EU have withdrawn some aid and are now threatening trade privileges in response to Hun Sen’s repression of the country’s opposition party.
The film, Marching Toward National Salvation, is built around an extensive interview with Hun Sen, those close to him, and some Vietnamese officials, and studiously avoids mentioning the Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge against Hanoi’s invasion. The tale ultimately turns into a hagiographical celebration of Hun Sen.
The familiar story of how the Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge renegades overthrew a murderous Beijing-backed regime is thus reduced to a story of how a 25-year-old Hun Sen escaped the purges of the regime he once fought for, and then spent 18 months convincing Vietnam to invade.
“Hun Sen was both the commander of the military and the chief of political strategy,” the film’s narrator says, after Hun Sen castigates the Khmer Rouge and recounts his escape to Vietnam after Pol Pot’s expanding purges arrived in his local area in June 1977.
Even the other usual Hanoi-backed figures in the story of Pol Pot’s overthrow — the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s founding president, Chea Sim, and the 1980s regime’s president, Heng Samrin — are relegated to a single mention at the end of the film. The pair – once central pillars of the Cambodia ruling party triumvirate of power – now simply led an “uprising” that helped the invasion plans being driven solely by Hun Sen, according to the film.
“It was not by chance that Hun Sen became the leader,” National Military Police commander Sao Sokha, a close Hun Sen ally, adds. “All of the military at that time wanted to listen to Hun Sen. They wanted more and more of his words of education and teaching.”
Yet obscured in this new grand narrative of Hun Sen versus the Khmer Rouge was the large influence played by the regional maneuvering between Pol Pot’s only major ally in China, on the one hand, and Vietnam and its ally in the Soviet Union, on the other.
After the 1960s Sino-Soviet split, China looked out at a visage of potential hostility in Asia — from Japan and South Korea in the north, to Vietnam, the Philippines and the other South China Sea claimants to the south — but it was most wary of Soviet intentions.
“By 1975,” writes Andrew Mertha in Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, “the prospect of China being boxed in to the north by the USSR and to the south by Moscow’s ally Vietnam was becoming increasingly troubling for China’s leaders.”
The Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia in April 1975, Mertha writes, created an “opportunity for China to mitigate the effects of a Soviet-Vietnamese axis” — while the new regime’s “growing hostilities against Vietnam, also born of centuries of ethnic tensions … ensured Phnom Penh’s distance from Hanoi and Moscow.”
While China was growing wary of the Soviet Union’s intentions in Southeast Asia — and its post-Sino-Soviet split alliance with Vietnam — Vietnam itself was growing concerned about Chinese intentions for hegemony in Asia the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
The closest Hun Sen comes to acknowledging geopolitics in the film is his explanation for the gap of 18 months between his arrival in Vietnam in 1977 and the invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. Vietnam, the premier says with obvious regret, had initially rebuffed his requests for invasion by citing Cambodia’s sovereign rights.
But that changed after a particularly barbaric series of Khmer Rouge raids into Vietnam, during which civilians were massacred. Vietnamese officials indicated to Hun Sen they were ready to accede to his requests by May 1978, the narrator says in the film, and began sending Cambodian spies — backed by Vietnamese soldiers — to do reconnaissance work in the country ahead of an invasion.
Unmentioned is that Vietnam first made major inroads into Cambodia to repel the Khmer Rouge raids in a series of skirmishes between September and December 1977 — with the Khmer Rouge claiming that Vietnamese forces got as close as 50 miles from Phnom Penh.
Hun Sen pays passing mention to this mid-way through the film, when he notes the Khmer Rouge severed diplomatic ties with Hanoi on December 31, 1977. The Vietnamese forces withdrew on January 6, 1978, a year and a day before their final victory.
For its part, China counseled the Khmer Rouge to moderate their attacks against Vietnam starting after the Vietnamese withdrawal of forces in early 1978, not wanting to get involved in an unnecessary conflict between its southern neighbor and a rare ally in Cambodia.
Yet the Khmer Rouge’s raids and provocation of Vietnam — as irrational as they outwardly seemed, with the Khmer Rouge announcing on radio that they could defeat the Vietnamese forces in battle if each Cambodian killed 30 Vietnamese soldiers — at the same time served only to draw the Khmer Rouge and China closer.
China was reticent to lose Cambodia, its only ally in Southeast Asia, to a Soviet pawn. Though it balked at providing military support to rebuff the Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, its support for Pol Pot continued for another 12 years, helping to destabilize its foe Vietnam, its surrogate in Phnom Penh, and bog the country down in its own unending Vietnam War in Cambodia.
A lot has changed in 40 years — but not everything.
Like Pol Pot before him, Hun Sen has now pinned his political longevity on China, which again looks out at a visage of hostile powers across Asia as it seeks to rise to the status of the regional hegemon, and celebrates having a strong ally in Phnom Penh.
The Soviet threat is gone, but Hun Sen’s cantankerous political attacks on all things American in Cambodia, which has tied him to the Chinese for support, might be viewed in much the same way as Pol Pot’s attacks on Vietnam: it’s me, or a pawn of China’s great power rival du jour.
Though Hun Sen never specified the precise hue of the “color revolution” brewing against him by Cambodia’ popular opposition party as he dismantled the country’s 25-year-old UN-built democracy late last year, his targets both in the opposition and in fragile civil society had a distinct American accent.
The 24-year-old U.S.-owned English-language newspaper-of-record, The Cambodia Daily, was forced to close — but not the Australian-owned Phnom Penh Post. Gone too were radio programs from the U.S.-run Voice of America and Radio Free Asia — along with two of their reporters, who were imprisoned for “espionage” — but not those of Radio France International.
Gone, even, was U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute — even as Germany’s Konrad Adanaeur Institute, which had been actively working with the opposition to develop policies, was left untouched. The message to China would have been clear.
Hun Sen is only the latest in a long line of Cambodian leaders to bank his leadership’s long-term survival and his legacy on the rise of China as the regional power.
Pol Pot, too, was not the first.
King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia’s 1953 independence, also moved sharply toward China’s influence late in his rule. He went as far as to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 1965, believing that the future in Asia was with China.
Pol Pot and King Sihanouk were notably both thwarted by competing interests from within their regimes — a pro-U.S. faction represented by the coup leader Lon Nol for Sihanouk in March 1970, and a pro-Vietnamese faction, with Hun Sen among the leaders, in the case of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
Hun Sen may well yet prove to have bested both for timing in the China gambit. Yet as a self-proclaimed life-long student of history and geopolitics, he would be forgiven for looking around his party with apprehension.
Alex Willemyns is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.