Nayan Chanda Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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You went on in the next few years to follow the Cambodia story. That's a great human tragedy, which might be called a spillover from the Vietnam War. Tell us a little about that and the forces that were let loose there internally because of the involvement of external actors.
The Cambodian conflict ... I've been going to Cambodia since 1971. I have made periodic trips there to collect material for my thesis. I was in Phnom Penh just about ten days before the collapse, and, somehow, I decided that Phnom Penh may not be the place to wait for the victors to come. The story I'd been hearing -- the way the Khmer Rouge had behaved with foreigners... So, I decided to wait the inevitable in Saigon rather than in Phnom Penh. In retrospect, I think I made the right decision; otherwise, I would have ended up in the French Embassy compound like other journalists, as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.
After '75, the first time I went back to Cambodia was in 1979, a few months after the Pol Pot regime was overthrown. Phnom Penh was still a ghost town. Vietnamese troops were guarding the entrance to the city and still searching for hidden caches of arms and maybe hidden Khmer Rouge. It was an extremely eerie experience to walk down the main boulevard of Phnom Penh in the middle of the day and hear your footsteps echoing from the walls. It was totally devoid of life. Grass had grown on the pavement. You walk into a home, everything is lying there, as it was left behind by the occupants five years ago -- table cutlery on the table ...
A real ghost town.
A ghost town, yes. Since then, I've seen this town come back to life, and then seen the evidence of what the Khmer Rouge did to that country. It was just absolutely mind-blowing to see this huge, huge open field of mass graves, which were ... again, which were opened up by the survivors to find gold. It was just amazing: people had gold teeth or maybe some ring or some ornament on their body when they were killed, so the survivors four years later went and dug up the graves to look for gold with which they could buy something in Thailand to survive.
So Cambodia was, again, a lesson in the cruelty that a human being is capable of inflicting on another human being. And also the spirit and the resilience of the human soul.
Let's clarify those a little. Is it that the Cambodians were at the bottom of the rung, in terms of Vietnam [war] priorities, and that these forces of madness, of Communist dogma gone mad, were unleashed on the countryside? Or is that too simplistic?
I think it is a bit too simplistic. The Khmer society was basically a rural society, and the peasants were ... nobody was landless, really, there was enough land. But it was not producing enough, and if your family was large, they couldn't feed the entire population, and kids would go to town. Sihanouk developed an education system very well, and that was in some ways its undoing, because there was education where they produced a lot of graduates, but there was no service industry to absorb these graduates. So you had a lot of graduates pulling rickshaws to carry passengers. That development led to a huge unrest among youth. The Khmer Rouge leaders really came from the middle-class intellectuals, who wanted to change this feudal monarchy and system where the courtesans and aristocrats led the way, and peasants suffered and the middle class was jobless.
So there was this opposition growing, and the Vietnamese communists used Cambodia as their sanctuary during the Vietnam War. When Nixon decided to invade Cambodia to clear out the sanctuaries, he actually did the Vietnamese a great service, because he then turned Cambodia against the United States, and the Vietnamese troops could go much deeper inside the country. The Khmer Rouge were then backed by the Vietnamese, they were trained and armed. And the Khmer Rouge resistance started growing with the help of the Vietnamese.
When the Vietnam War was over and the consequences of what you just described were being felt, the great powers still took an interest in what happened there. Tell us a little about how the dynamic of Cambodian political and social life was affected by the conflicting interests of China, the United States, and others.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Vietnamese communists were jubilant. They had a very arrogant attitude toward the rest of Southeast Asia, because they were the victors who defeated the Americans, and they were going to be the leader of Southeast Asia. The Russians saw the opportunity of getting a foothold in Southeast Asia, and they supported the Vietnamese. And the Chinese at this stage -- the Chinese have been very suspicious of the Vietnamese for a long time, with whom they have a very long historical conflict. So the Chinese were really the most upset country after the Vietnamese victory.
So the China - Vietnam conflict, which had been dormant, sort of started flaring up. The Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge to oppose the Vietnamese, and so the Khmer Rouge were given massive amounts of economic and military assistance by the Chinese. And the Russians started giving Vietnam massive economic and military assistance. By 1978, they signed a treaty which allowed the Russians to have a naval base in Cam Ranh Bay.
In the meanwhile, the Chinese had sent tens of thousands of advisors to Cambodia, and started training the Cambodian army. So Cambodia became a proxy for the Chinese to attack the Vietnamese from the southwest. And so this conflict, where the Chinese and Russians were on [opposite] sides. The United States, under Jimmy Carter, took the position that Cambodians were the worst human rights violators, so the U.S. had nothing to do with them; but the U.S. also wanted to mend their relations with China.
Then came a time in 1978 when China and Vietnam both were pressing ahead wanting to have normal relations with the United States. Zbigniew Brzezinski was the National Security Advisor of Carter, and he was totally against the Vietnamese because the Vietnamese were seen as Russian stooges. And so, under Brzezinski's guidance, Carter lined up with the Chinese, and so although the United States did not take part directly, it turned out that the Chinese-Cambodian attack on the Vietnamese had the implicit backing of the United States.
The Chinese invaded Vietnam in February 1979, just a few weeks after Deng Xiaoping, then China's supreme leader, had visited Washington. While in Washington, he told Jimmy Carter and Brzezinski, "I'm going to teach Vietnamese a lesson. They have become very arrogant by invading Cambodia." And, basically, Carter said, "Yes, I understand, but keep it short." You know: "Don't carry on the lesson too long.'" And so the Vietnamese - Chinese conflict came to a head in 1979.
So from '79 until the signing of the Cambodia Accord in 1991, Cambodia had become the next war, where the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in '79. And the Khmer Rouge were then backed by the Chinese and ASEAN, and, implicitly, by the United States, to resist the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. So Cambodia was in a civil war, which lasted until 1991, where there was an international agreement to bring it to a close.
What changed the situation and led to the agreement?
Essentially, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the biggest backer of the Vietnamese. And the Vietnamese were already isolated by the United States and ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Countries -- the organization which played a very active role in opposing the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. So on the one hand, the Vietnamese lost their main support with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had withdrawn from Afghanistan by then. and the Soviet Union was, basically, telling the Vietnamese, "The game is over; you should withdraw from Cambodia." And then, of course, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre put the Chinese in the doghouse. The Chinese saw an opportunity of emerging from that isolation by playing a statesman-like role, so they took a more active role and pressured the Khmer Rouge to come to an agreement. So the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese isolation both played a role in bringing a working settlement.
So these places like Cambodia and maybe Afghanistan really suffer as they become an object of the big power game, but then things settle out in some way, often because the interests of the great powers change.
Change, yes, yes. And that has been a major, major factor at how these countries have been sort of the playpen, the cockpit of a struggle between powers who have very little interest either in the people or the resources of the country. Cambodia has, really, nothing that anybody wants, yet that country suffered terribly the last two decades.
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