Vietnam’s Invasion of Cambodia, Revisited

40 years after the invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge, it’s clear China emerged the ultimate winner.

Vietnam’s Invasion of Cambodia, Revisited

A bullock cart goes past a destroyed Vietnamese tank in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province (July 1979).

Credit: © Nayan Chanda 2018

On the morning of January 7, 1979 a small unit of the Vietnamese army swept into Phnom Penh virtually without firing a shot and ended the violent reign of the Khmer Rouge. It also dealt a heavy blow to China. The Vietnamese victory, however, turned out to be hollow, literally and metaphorically.

Hours earlier, the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea had fled the capital’s wide coconut tree-lined boulevards. The rumble of Vietnamese tanks and jeeps echoed from the abandoned buildings forcibly evacuated four years before when the Khmer Rouge had swept into power. Small numbers of Khmer Rouge cadres, soldiers, and families who camped out in the ghost city had been rushed to the station to cling to a train leaving for Battambang. The train carried Pol Pot’s brother-in-law Ieng Sary and other senior officials. There were decomposing bodies on the street but most overpowering was the stench of rotting fish. Residents would have no chance to savor the precious catch, piled high and abandoned, from the annual fishing season on the Tonle Sap.

The smelly shell of a capital devoid of inhabitants that the Vietnamese army took over in 1979 could not have been more different from the bustling Saigon that Hanoi troops had stormed into four years before – ironically, days after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. On April 30, 1975 I watched North Vietnamese tanks crash through the gates of the presidential palace and raise the communist flag. Ironically, the North Vietnamese colonel Bui Tin, who was present at the palace to take the surrender of the last president of South Vietnam, found himself in Phnom Penh four years later too. But this time there was no surrender to receive. He hovered over the abandoned capital in a helicopter.