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Intervention or illegal invasion?

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President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin (centre left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen (centre right) release doves during a Cambodian People’s Party ceremony marking the 36th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 2015. AFP

Intervention or illegal invasion?

DC-Cam deputy director Kok-Thay Eng wrote to this paper last week commemorating Cambodia’s annual January 7 Victory Over Genocide Day. Eng criticised people who ‘‘see January 7 [1979] as the start of an invasion of the Kingdom by Vietnam”, since ‘‘liberating a population from genocide is more important than the temporary loss of sovereignty of the Cambodian state”. Vietnam’s intervention should instead be considered in the light of the ‘‘responsibility to protect”, he said.

That is an interesting perspective from an organisation whose main mission is to ‘‘search for the truth” about the tragic events that unfolded in the DK between April 17, 1975, and January 7, 1979.

The ‘‘responsibility to protect” permits limited intervention in a state’s affairs by the international community for humanitarian reasons. This is a far cry from what was, in fact, a unilateral invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, motivated by fierce hegemonic ambitions and flagrantly violating international law. Any humanitarian benefits that resulted not only fail to alter this fact, but were unintentional.

It might be worthwhile to remind DC-Cam of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s eloquent address to the UN Security Council, days after Vietnam’s invasion ended. Sihanouk described Vietnam’s invasion as a ‘‘large-scale act of flagrant aggression, annexation and colonisation” by a boa constrictor swallowing up Cambodia, likening it to Hitler’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland in 1939.

Was Sihanouk alone in holding this view? No. At that Security Council meeting, several states – including China – echoed his criticism. A week later, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Military Commission secretary Geng Biao colourfully wrote in a secret report for the CCP leadership that ‘‘as early as before the liberation of South Vietnam, [. . .] the small handful of [Vietnam’s] war maniacs, at the instigation of their socialist-imperialist behind-the-scene boss, had wanted to encroach on Cambodia”.

Geng Biao further explained that Vietnam sought to integrate Cambodia ‘‘into the so-called Indochinese Alliance and [. . . become] the springboard and base of social imperialism in [Vietnam’s] attempt to realise its global strategic plan and expand into Southeast Asia”.

China’s then-leader, Deng Xiaoping, agreed. He decided to retaliate against the Vietnamese, whom he had earlier called ‘‘the hooligans of the east”. Thus, China started the Third Indochinese War against Vietnam.

The ‘‘socialist-imperialist behind-the-scene boss” to which Geng Biao referred was the Soviet Union, then led by hardliner Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev masterminded the ‘‘Brezhnev doctrine”, which began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and decided to invade Afghanistan and fuel many other Cold War proxy wars worldwide.

One Vietnamese ‘‘war maniac” Geng Biao alluded to was Vietnamese Worker Party general secretary Le Duan. Seasoned Vietnamese revolutionary and former Politburo member Hoang van Hoan recalled in his memoirs that Le Duan ‘‘slavishly followed the line of the Soviet Union” and dreamt of installing Vietnam as the ‘‘overlord” of an ‘‘Indochinese Federation”. No mention was made of humanitarian concerns.

Does this exaggerate Vietnamese and Soviet ambitions in Southeast Asia? No. Soviet archival records suggest that the Soviet military advised Vietnam to ‘‘do a Czechoslovakia” in Cambodia in order to gain permanent dominance over the country.

Indeed, the whole international community outside the Soviet bloc condemned the Vietnamese invasion as the crime of aggression that it was. As a result, for years to come, Vietnam’s ‘‘pitiful puppet” – as Sihanouk described Heng Samrin, then-president of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and current National Assembly president – was not allowed to represent Cambodia before the UN or anywhere else.

Some might nevertheless insist that despite its hegemonic ambitions, Vietnam still harboured humanitarian concerns regarding DK. If so, that would have been highly remarkable, considering the thousands of former South Vietnamese officials who Vietnamese communists executed after the liberation of Saigon. American scholar Steve Heder, who described these atrocities in The Phnom Penh Post in 1999, is not exactly known as a friend of the Khmer Rouge.

The sentiment of Kok-Thay Eng’s Victory Over Genocide article was echoed by Heng Samrin later that same day. Heng Samrin reportedly said that all who opposed the January 7 commemorations were ‘‘opponents of national progress” and supporters of the ‘‘Pol Pot genocidal regime”.

According to Heng Samrin, the Vietnamese invasion was designed ‘‘to liberate the Cambodian people from killers and to protect the revival of Cambodia, opposing any attempt for Pol Pot’s group to return”.

It might be helpful if Heng Samrin would testify before the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which started proceedings in the second trial against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan last week. One topic to be debated is the nature of the armed conflict between Vietnam and DK. In this regard, for example, Heng Samrin could explain to the Cambodian public and the tribunal judges how his views on the Vietnamese invasion should be interpreted in the light of all other perceptions of history.

Victor Koppe is the international co-lawyer for Nuon Chea.

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