05 December 2009

Obscure War Blogging Part I: Vietnamese-Cambodian War

This is going to be an ongoing series here at Unleashing Chiang wherein I explore various wars that most people don't know much about in an effort to educate and inform. We begin in lovely, exotic Indochina with an interstate war near and dear to my heart, the Vietnamese-Cambodian War.

Who?: Newly unified Vietnam, fresh off of its victory in the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge-led Cambodia, right in the midst of the genocide.

When?: 1978-79

-8-10,000 battle deaths
-humanitarian disasters on both sides; Cambodia, in particular, experienced crippling food and refugee crises

Why?: It seems especially odd that these two Southeast Asian "red brothers" would go to war, especially in the midst of what seemed to be the ascendance of communism in East Asia. What was the deal? Here are some of the causes...

To the American right, this proved that those dastardly Vietnamese commies were aggressive and sought expansion. To the left, this showed that national antagonisms could trump communist solidarity.

Hanoi and Phnom Penh had indeed quickly developed vastly divergent outlooks soon during and after the Vietnam war; for example, Pol Pot was angry that the Vietnamese chose to negotiate with the Americans. The Khmer Rouge began to purge pro-Vietnam members and discriminate against the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.

The war was also a byproduct of the Sino-Soviet split. Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge were Soviet and Chinese proxies, respectively, and the two bigger powers saw the other's proxy as tools against their influence in the region. Both proxies received support from their patrons during the war.

Cambodia had long been suspicious of Vietnam's intentions, and had something of an inferiority complex. It's paranoia was somewhat well-founded though because Vietnam did intend to dominate the region.

More immediately, the two states disputed a number of islands as well as maritime borders. The crazy-ass Khmer Rouge became increasingly intransigent during the negotiations. Before long, they were conducting raids into border villages and terrorizing Vietnamese villagers. Some skirmishes broke out and Hanoi pushed for negotiations, but, well, Pol Pot was freakin' nuts. Cambodia continued to act provocatively and Hanoi decided it had had enough.

Outcome: Vietnam invaded around Christmas of '78 and quickly and easily moved on Phnom Penh. By mid-'79 Vietnamese forces controlled most of the populated areas in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were deposed and spent the next 15 or so years literally in the wilderness. The conquerors installed a pro-Vietnam communist regime in Phnom Penh that would rule for some time.

Who Cares?: This war is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it stopped the Killing Fields--one of the most tragic episodes in international history. So it was something of a humanitarian intervention, albeit an unintentional one.

Second, it definitely put lie to the idea that there was some monolithic communist bloc. The Russians and Chinese has already clashed up north, but this was one communist regime actually invading and deposing another.

Third, due to the odd twists of Cold War geopolitics, both China and the U.S. continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia after Pol Pot's deposal. How traumatized and bitter were we at Vietnam for that bit of diplomatic weirdness?

Fourth, many have argued that the war played a major role in precipitating the Sino-Vietnamese War. Stay tuned for more on that one...

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