Ongoing Power Struggle in Cambodia Began in ’78

The current struggle for power in Cambodia began in late 1978 when the Vietnamese opened a drive against the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. By early 1979, the Khmer Rouge had been driven out and the Vietnamese installed a puppet regime in Phnom Penh, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, headed by Heng Samrin. Soviet-backed Vietnam, with perhaps 180,000 heavily armed troops deployed, maintains control of most of the country.

But a resistance movement, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which is composed of two non-Communist groups and the Khmer Rouge, keeps up a guerrilla war. From 1975 until overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for a blood bath in which at least 1 million Cambodians may have died.

The Khmer Rouge, with only scattered forces remaining in the country today, claims to have abandoned its radical ideology but the Khmer Rouge leadership, under Pol Pot, remains unchanged.

The larger of the two non-Communist groups in the coalition is the 16,000-strong Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), backed by Peking and led by former Prime Minister Son Sann. The other, with about 9,000 soldiers, is the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia until 1970, as its leader.


The United Nations does not recognize the Heng Samrin regime. The KPNLF and the Sihanouk forces are backed by the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (the non-Communist nations of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines). They also have the backing of the United States, which intervened in Cambodia in 1970 to support the Lon Nol government, which had overthrown Sihanouk. But five years later, weary of war in Indochina, the U.S. cut back its military aid; victory for the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge followed.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill that would give $5 million in assistance to resistance forces in Cambodia, provided that the non-Communist Southeast Asian nations also make an aid commitment.