CAMBODIA: Something to learn from KPNLF freedom fighters

In about 10 days, thousands of Cambodians (and their foreign friends) in Cambodia and abroad will gather in small and large groups to commemorate the thirty fifth anniversary of the Non-Communist Resistance (NCR), the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF).

Sept 25, 2014

An article by Anwar Ul Haque published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

In about 10 days, thousands of Cambodians (and their foreign friends) in Cambodia and abroad will gather in small and large groups to commemorate the thirty fifth anniversary of the Non-Communist Resistance (NCR), the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF).

I was a member of the Front in the field at the Khmer-Thai border in 1980-1989. I am writing as a way of participating in this historical day. Aslide show, mostly of photosI took of the resistance,also appears on YouTube to depict the development and history of the Front in pictures. The article and the slide showcomplement one another. They provide valuable educational, and hopefully inspirational, material for Cambodians and non-Cambodians interested in Cambodia’s recent past.

It has been said there is no history; there are only men and women who act to make things happen, and those who interpret those actions. The article and the slide show are about the actions of ordinary citizens seen through my eyes.

Birth of the KPNLF

The KPNLF was created in Cambodia’s northwest on October 9, 1979, nine months after its military wing, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces(KPNLAF) was proclaimed on March 5.

The Front was born during the Cold War when national sovereignty was considered to be comprised of four elements.  It was absolute (non-negotiable), comprehensive (covering all areas of national life), permanent (no time limit), and inviolable (untouchable).Sovereign Cambodia was from April 1975 to January 1979 under the rule of the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge, whose policies and practices killed more than two million people through execution, forced labor, starvation and disease. Backed by China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia was shielded by the principle of sovereignty despite the accommodations for “humanitarian intervention” in established international law.

In December 1978, Soviet-backed Vietnam undertook a military invasion of Cambodia involving more than 100,000 Vietnamese troops, tanks and aircraft. In 14 days, they routed the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge. On Jan 7, 1979, the invaders captured Phnom Penh, installed a Cambodian Communist regime – and stayed for the next 10 years. My article, “Brief History of Vietnamese Expansionism vis-à-vis Cambodia,” originates from my doctoral dissertation more than 30 years ago.

I asked then, had Hanoi evicted a murderous Maoist regime from power and left the task of rebuilding Cambodia to the United Nations, would Vietnam not have won the world’s and Khmer victims’ gratitude for ending  a genocidal regime? But Vietnamese troops stayed as occupiers, reviving Khmers’ fear of Vietnam’s historical annexation of Khmer soil.

Vietnam’s invasion led Cambodian nationalists who opposed the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge to hasten their liberation plan. In February 1979, former Khmer Republic Gen. Dien Del, a refugee abroad, left France for the Khmer-Thai border. On March 5, he brought 13 independent armed groups, disorganized and undisciplined, to form the KPNLAF. They elected him their Chief of General Staff and called on former Prime Minister Son Sann, thenin France,to lead.Within five months, 9 Cambodians had left France for the border, arriving in August. On October 9,Mr. Son Sann was proclaimed KPNLF President.

Principles, goals, political program

The KPNLF has three guiding political principles: Sangkuors, Bamreur, KarpierProcheapolrothor To rescue, To Serve, To Defend the People. It’s of no surprise that today’s Cambodia National Rescue Party adopted these principles as CNRP’s own.  CNRPVice President, KemSokha, and some other key figures were KPNLF cadres.

The Front gave itself three goals in 1979: To oppose the Khmer Rouge’s return to power; to oppose the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia; and to build Cambodia with freedom, justice, human rights, free of occupation.

An Executive Committee(EXCO), set up to assume the “operative direction” of the KPNLF, was assisted by the Conseil des Sagesor Council of Elders, and a Military Council. A Manifesto – political program – was based on the fundamental principles of nationalism, Buddhist socialism (the Middle Path), strict neutrality, national independence, sovereignty of the people, territorial integrity, good neighborliness and peaceful coexistence with allwho, like the Front, aspired to peace, liberty and social justice.

The KPNLF called for an immediate general cease-fire, the withdrawal of Hanoi’s troops, and a United Nations supervised general elections.

KPNLF at a “crossroads”

Repeating that the Front “never pretended” to be able to evict Vietnamese occupation forces from Cambodia, Mr. Son Sann declared the conviction that guerilla action in the country and diplomatic action abroad wouldpressure Hanoi to negotiate.

To support that guerilla action, the Front needed weapons. While the KPNLF was accepted internationally as an alternative to the Hanoi-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, Pol Pot’s backer, China, stood firm: Chinese aid would not be given until the KPNLF, the nationalist royalist FUNCINPEC, and the Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) joined forces. Some “friendly” governmentsconfirmed their aid would not be given to a resistance, only to government; they suggested the nationalists take over the UN-recognized seat of “Democratic Kampuchea.”

In 1981, President Son Sannadvised the people that the KPNLF hadreached a “crossroads” and must make a turn. He asked the people to give him power to decide. The people agreed.

On an ASEAN tour, President Son Sann announced he would send three KPNLF representatives (Secretary General Neang Chin Han, EXCO member HingKunthon, and me) as negotiators representing the KPNLF at the Ad Hoc Committee on the formation of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.

For the next few months,Front’s representatives participated in endless, excruciating meetings with royalist FUNCINPEC and DK representatives. The latter included KhieuSamphan, IengSary, IengThirith, andSon Sen who alternated. President Son Sann appealed to the people to “Lebthmar, lebkruors” or Swallow rocks, swallow stones.

On June 22, 1982, the CGDK was formed in a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, with His Royal Highness Norodom Sihanouk as President, Mr. Son Sann as Prime Minister, and Mr. KhieuSanphan as Foreign Minister.

A two-pronged strategy

Key figures of the Front were distraught as they debated with heavy hearts theFront’sstrategy in the CGDK with the Khmer Rouge. The KPNLF’s number one goal was to prevent the Khmer Rouge’s return to power. Yet how would KPNLAF combatants fight without weapons?

While all key figures supported the CGDK-strategy as unavoidable,a two-pronged strategy emerged and took a life of its own. The KPNLF would be a good partner in the CGDK, but some key Front figures worked to strengthen coordination and cooperation between the two non-Communist nationalist groups, the KPNLAF and FUNCINPEC’s military arm, the ArmeeNationaleSihanoukienne, ANS, and pushed the concept of a coordinated Non-Communist Resistance (NCR).

During President Son Sann’s presence in Paris, the EXCO decided at a meeting on Sep 19, 1983, “In unanimity, to play the game of cooperation between the nationalists.”In 1984, the KPNLAF and the royalist ANS instituted a Permanent Military Committee (PERMICO) to coordinate their military activities. In 1985, ANS General Teap Ben hand-carried to Beijing a document on the formation of the NCR Joint Military Command (JMC)for the approval by HRH Sihanouk, who was in Beijing. In 1986, the JMC was born.

With aid from China, and aid and training from ASEAN, the KPNLAF forged ahead with its military activities. There were military setbacks, of course. But the KPNLAF bounced back.

While a major internal rift occurred in the Front’s leadership, as photos in the slide show illustrate, KPNLAF leaders respectfullyhonored President Son Sann at their field headquarters. Unfortunately,some partisans proved to be plus royalisteque le roi, or more royalist than the king.

Sketches in the video depict KPNLAF advances in its military offensive in 1989, and photos document the results of the Front’s offensive.

Thanks to the CGDK, United Nations General Assembly members voted to reject the Soviet bloc’s efforts to oust Democratic Kampuchea from the UN. Ninety-one nations rejected the bloc’s move, while 29 members voted in favor and 26 abstained. Not everybody supported the CGDK.

An overview

At an NCR-Aid donors meeting at the border, mention was made of a political sea change in Moscow.  The political and foreign policy reforms of the Soviet Union’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev – glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya – caused me to realize that changes would inevitably be coming, too, to the political and military dynamic of the CGDK/NCR.

As the KPNLAF High Command’s head of the Department of Planning and Analysis, I advised the High Command of the faraway developments that could beexpected to affect Vietnam and eventually the future of the Front.Actions I suggested to allow the military advances to continue were debated.  As events developed, Moscow pulled out Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988; Hanoi talkedin that year of Vietnamese troop withdrawal, which reportedly took place in 1989 when KPNLAF military successes were recorded, but the NCR shifted its full attention to creating political parties for future elections.

In October 1991, the Paris Peace Agreements were signed; warring Cambodian parties found themselves in Phnom Penh. In 1993, the United Nations-organized and -supervised general elections were held in Cambodia.

After 1991 the success or lack thereof of each of the various political parties could be attributed to the management styles and political skills of party leaders. One thing is certain, however:  The Front’s civilian and military combatants made sacrifices without which there would have been no Paris Peace Agreements nor thesubsequent general elections.

Perhaps today’s Cambodians can learn something from the successes, challenges, and missed opportunities experienced by the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front as it commemorates its thirty fifth anniversary.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at [email protected].