Khmer Rouge on the move in Cambodia
Guerrillas control large chunks of country, target provincial capitals
EDITOR'S NOTE — Associated Press correspondent
Nate Thayer spent five weeks with Cambodian guerrillas deep inside Cambodia, the first Western journalist to make such a trip during the 11-year-old war. This is his report.
By Nate Thayer
The Associated Press
July 18, 1990
NATIONAL HIGHWAY 6, Cambodia — Guerrillas have seized hundreds of villages and military positions in northern Cambodia, forcing the army to fall back and defend besieged provincial capitals.
Evidence of the most significant guerrilla gains in more than 11 years of fighting was clear during a five-week trip with the insurgents that covered 450 miles.
The three-party guerrilla coalition, which includes the Communist Khmer Rouge, controls large areas of the north and northwest. The insurgents are shelling and launching commando raids on key provincial capitals.
Senior guerrilla commanders say the attacks are in preparation for full-scale assaults on the cities of Kompong Thorn and Siem Reap, and the ancient temples of Angkor near Siem Reap.
During the trip, hundreds of government artillery shells and rockets landed daily, shaking the paddies of a beautiful rice-growing region engulfed by war. Debris from bridges blown up by guerrillas littered highways. The jungle fighters set up ambushes to attack convoys trying to resupply forward government outposts defending the major urban areas. Guerrilla medics trained in China ran field hospitals, dressing wounds and amputating limbs.
As the guerrillas advance, the world seeks a political solution and worries that the Khmer Rouge, whose bloody regime was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in December 1978, may regain power. More than a million Cambodians were killed or died of starvation during 3 1/2 years of Khmer Rouge rule. Khmer Rouge commanders expressed confidence they would capture Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. They used maps to illustrate encirclement from the north, south and west —similar to the strategy in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge defeated the U.S.-backed government of President Lon Nol.
The trip, with an escort of guerrillas loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of the coalition, began on the Thai border and covered three northern provinces. Included was a 30-mile stretch of National Highway 6, a government lifeline to outlying provinces, now in guerrilla hands.
It provided the first independent confirmation of the guerrillas' claims that they have advanced deep inside the country. Thousands of Sihanouk's guerrillas were seen lounging in villages, shopping in bustling markets and manning lines around Kompong Thom, which they said was their next target. Kompong Thom, a strategic crossroads city, is 90 miles north of Phnom Penh.
Sihanoukist rebels advance toward the besieged provincial capital of Kompong Thom. (AP)Photo: Nate Thayer
In separate attacks, the Khmer Rouge was advancing toward Siem Reap, 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, and was within reach of the Angkor temples. "We have taken all the positions around Siem Reap, isolating the town," said Ta Pok, a Khmer Rouge brigade commander interviewed at his jungle base north of the city. "We are winning everywhere we are fighting," said Col. Khan Savoeun, a commander of forces loyal to Sihanouk, Cambodia's former ruler, at headquarters in Stoeung, the de facto capital of what the Sihanoukists call their liberated zone.
In the war's early stages, most guerrillas were in bases along the Thai border and obtaining weapons from China was easy, given Thailand's support for the insurgents. Now the lines have shifted far from the frontier.
The Sihanouk forces and the Khmer Rouge have forged a network of thousands of miles of secret roads and trails into the interior. Convoys of trucks, oxcarts and thousands of civilian supporters were seen daily moving supplies from jungle caches to forward areas. Convoys of Chinese-supplied trucks and captured government vehicles moved freely along sections of provincial highways that were under government control less than a year ago.
More than 50,000 insurgents are fighting an army that has superior firepower, but is mostly conscripts reported to be poorly trained. The guerrilla groups led by Sihanouk and Son Sann are non-Communist, but the Khmer Rouge is by far the strongest. The war took a favorable turn for the guerrillas last fall, when Vietnam withdrew most of its soldiers, leaving the forces of Premier Hun Sen to face the battle-tested guerrillas alone. "Sometimes I think Hun Sen is stupid; you know we don't need to negotiate with him now," said Mit Lot, Khmer Rouge deputy division commander at a base 12 miles from the Angkor Wat ruins. “If they don’t compromise, they will lose everything. At this rate the war will be over by the end of the year," he said.
Although the Khmer Rouge is the most powerful force in the coalition, it seemed clear during the trip that the non-Communists had gained considerable support and scored significant military victories. The Khmer Rouge has little public support because of its history, and that hampers its effectiveness in more heavily populated areas.
Sihanouk's commanders described a raid by 400 commandos who briefly seized Kompong Thom in late June. They destroyed military positions and tested the waters for what guerrilla field commanders said would be a full-scale attack on th provincial capital. Heavy weapons could be seen in place less than five miles from the city and rockets were being fired at Kompong Thom.
The Sihanouk forces claim to control more than 700 towns and villages. A major source of their strength appears to be wide public support for Sihanouk, revered by many as a god-king during his reign. Around Stoeng, on Highway 6 less than a 30- minute drive from Kompong Thom, non-Communists control the largest area of Indochina since the Americans left 15 years ago.
Followers of Sihanouk have trained hundreds of civilian administrators, teachers and medical personnel and begun an aggressive effort to re-establish Buddhism. Thousands of children were seen attending primary schools. Dozens of Buddhist temples were being refurbished and others built.
While the Sihanoukists and Khmer Rouge are in a loose coalition, tension between the groups was evident. "For the time being, we share common military goals with the Khmer Rouge, but we are in full control here," said Col. Khan Savouen, commander of the Kompong Thom area. "The Khmer Rouge understand strength, and we are very strong in Kompong Thom”