Last days in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge
“If US aid was cut back to the last dollar, 50 cents of it would still find its way into the generals’ pockets”
Note from PF in 2014: Philip Brooks wrote these anonymous dispatches for The Digger, with James Shuvus Williamson, while the two of them lived on the edge and sometimes on the run.
March 18 was the fifth anniversary of the coup that made General Lon Nol premier of Cambodia. Backed by the CIA and the American government Lon Nol declared war on the Khmer Rouge, a war that has been fought by conscripts with American weapons and ever-diminishing food and arms. On March 15, a Digger correspondent flew into Phnom Penh for several days and returned the following impressions.
“There will he no time to spare at the airport so could you hand your passports to the hostess and pick them up at the city terminal." The loud speaker crackles above our heads as fighter p1anes join us in the air to guide us to a fast landing. Our plane taxies very quickly to the terminal building, now only a shell, surrounded by sandbags as feeble protection against the daily rocket attacks. Soldiers run wildly in all directions around the building, and fear being contagious, we follow a frightened bourgeois Cambodian couple around the terminal. Here they escape in a Peugeot and we retreat to the terminal. We find ourselves in a room where, covered by the panic and chaos ensuing from an attack five minutes ago, soldiers are looting the till. Rich Cambodians huddle in the terminal, waiting to get out of the country but scared to move onto the tarmac. Squeezed between sandbags no one is making a quick exit, either to the city or the plane. Eventually we board a bus which, driven with a mixture of fear and machismo, rushes us to the city market where a ten-day visa is stamped on our passports.
Lon Nol forces hold only eleven centres outside of Phnom Penh and they're all encircled.
In the provinces an American adviser told us the Khmer National Armed Forces’ generals “have full colonels to order their food, wash their hands, swat flies from their faces and wipe their arses".
In the south, Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) remains the country's only deep-sea port, but it is useless to Lon Nol’s Phnom Penh base because the Khmer Rouge control the highway except for Kampot.
On the highway to the FANK’s only town is Siem Reap, ten miles from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat which Sihanouk popularised as the seat of Cambodian culture. The Royal Cambodian Government of National Union (GRUNK) held its first conference recently, at Angkor.
In some of these isolated areas local truces exist and demarcation lines have been agreed on.
About 70km down the Mekong River from Phnom Penh is Neak Luong where, during our time in Cambodia, the heaviest fighting was taking place. It is where Highway 1 to Saigon crosses the Mekong and FANK troops hold four square miles around the village. FANK officials say there are 5,000 troops there totally encircled and subject to constant shelling.
A BBC crew spent 24 hours there on March 16 and reported hundreds of civilian and military casualties in one morning. Helicopters which brought in supplies, until the grass strip airport was taken the next day, were supposed to fly out the wounded. Instead, for $200 businessmen escaped their inevitable spell of thought reform. Neak Luong by now has been taken by GRUNK.
John Dean, the US ambassador, believes it “strategically vital” that Neak Luong remain open. When the wet season comes (starting mid-April) “it will wash the Khmer Rouge from the banks and all their mines down the river and the Mekong from Phnom Penh to South Vietnam will be re-opened”. Not only will the fall of Neak Luong end the last hope of reopening the Mekong, it will also be a psychological and material blow to the Phnom Penh government. The remains of the division at Neak Luong will presumably, as in the past, join Khmer Rouge forces adding troops to their Phnom Penh front and adding to the insurgents’ arsenal of military equipment. Forty percent of GRUNK equipment is captured US supply.
Phnom Penh is a special military region, supposedly defended by 200,000 troops, more numerous than the GRUNK forces who are moving closer daily. On March 16 we took a pedicycle to the front at Prek Penhou, a village l0km north of the capital. Some of the soldiers returning from the front while we were there at the main garrison HQ were no more than 14, struggling to carry even a light weapon such as the M16. In the south, we were told later by a Cambodian doctor, generals have orphan armies of 11 and 12 year olds as their personal soldiers.
Heroes of the republic, waiting to be honoured for their sacrifices in the Place de la Revolution
Photo Philip Brooks
Daily, rockets shell the city. It is a terrifying sound. One’s ears rapidly tune in for the whistle of passing rockets followed by the felt thud and a loud explosion. If they hit you, we were told, you do not hear them. They spread shrapnel, the cause of most injuries, for two hundred yards. A piece the size of a fingernail can kill.
One fact of the shellings not reported in the west is that GRUNK sappers have leafleted twice, at the Pochentong market near the airport and in the vicinity of Lon Nol's palace, before attacking these areas with missiles. The leaflets urge people to come over to GRUNK and move out of areas "into which we shall fire hundreds more rounds". The fact that sappers can do this in a city supposed to be defended by 200,000 tells of the support ·they really have. Three years ago sappers destroyed 80 per cent of Lon Nol's airforce on the ground at the airport.
What FANK soldiers there are left are convinced it is not merely Khmer Rouge they are fighting but North Vietnamese. Three times this scenario was outlined by soldiers to me: "The first line is Khmer Rouge, the second North Vietnamese who have their guns trained not only on us but also on the Rouges, to make sure they don't retreat."
In fact the Khmer Rouge have had little material support from other nationalities compared with Lon Nol's troops. For five years they have fought with few weapons, their best captured from Lon Nol's forces. A single SAM missile would be enough to knock out one of the American airlift DCBs that keep Phnom Penh in ammo and food at present, and that would probably stop the airlift and convince the wavering US Congress to stop further propping up of the Lon Nol organization. But they have no SAMs.
In 1970 the US gave Cambodia -- then still ruled by Sihanouk -- US$8.3 million for military aid. Since then the US has given US$1,165 million. Figures for Chinese or USSR aid to Khmer Rouge are uncertain but it has been a fraction of that figure. Yet today 95 per cent of the country's land and 60 per cent of the people live in areas administered by the Khmer Rouge. Sam Adams, a CIA operative until he “came over" in 1973, reported that of the official troop strengths of 70,000 for GRUNK and 220,000 for FANK, FANK had only 40,000 combat troops who had to be kept at the front constantly. The rest are all support troops. All GRUNK troops have combat experience and through the length of Cambodia, which is their supply line, another 200,000 support troops help carry their makeshift equipment towards Phnom Penh.
Some opponents of GRUNK see the wet season as the salvation of Lon Nol's government, but the British Military Attaché in the capital, who doubts that the regime can survive at all, believes the FANK forces' greater reliance on heavy equipment will make them more vulnerable once the rain begins. For GRUNK, on the outskirts and by then (August) most likely as the government, the rains will be merely a welcome relief from the heat.
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At the Ministry of Information they explain the Marshall does not give interviews.
One journalist tells the Minister that an interview would help dispel rumours about the Marshal. “What sort of rumours?” asks the Minister. “Well, that he can talk for a start”, says the journalist.
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Marshal Lon Nol seized power, with a little help from the CIA on March 18, 1970. In 1971 he suffered a stroke paralyzing 80 per cent of his body. He lived somewhere in Phnom Penh, sometimes at the Presidential Palace which was ringed with antiaircraft guns since his own airforce bombed the palace in a coup attempt late in 1973.
According to the Filipino Ambassador, any bad news was kept from the old soldier. As all news was bad news he was told nothing. His chief military adviser was General Am Wrong, the position of Chief of Staff having been vacant since a week before we arrived owing to the fact that it's hard to get starters for the job on top of an army that's about to be beaten. In fact Cambodia is a country without a government in its capital city. At l0.30am on our first morning in town I went to the Ministry of Tourism to get a street map. Its three floors were empty but open. Typewriters sat on each desk, obviously untouched in months. A young Khmer explained that civil servants were paid little and irregularly, and with nothing to do they left at 10.00am to go home and cook. Lon Nol's pet project at that time (in mid-March) was for a zoo in Phnom Penh. He had a team of civil servants working on the plans. Meanwhile the Ministry of Information was planning the introduction of colour TV -- in a city where electricity is only turned on three times a week!
Walking round that city, in shops, offices and in taxis, Lon Not's pudgy face beams foolishly from the walls. Journalists said the photos had pictures of Sihanouk on the back.
While Lon Nol is now an exiled vegetable, his cronies today are in their final fling of ripping off the last dollars and arranging for life in exile. While we were there, at one cabinet minister's house across the Mekong, a Cambodian rock roll band entertained guests at his son’s twenty first birthday party.
Today Cambodia is run by the US Embassy and aid organisations who run the food handouts.
The US Embassy is built like a world war II bunker. Inside glass I doors, US marines bar the way. Ambassador John Gunther Dean, late of Laos and Vietnam, drives around town in a black Manhattan, steel plated thick enough to take a mortar rocket. Being Dean, he needs it. In 1970 a Khmer Rouge sapper wheeled a cart past the Embassy -- the cart was full of explosives and the explosion killed a bodyguard and the chauffeur and injured then Ambassador, Thomas Enders.
On Dean's desk there proudly stands a letter from Richard Nixon, thanking Dean for his help in the Laotian peace agreement.
At the Embassy, they now talk about a "conditional surrender". A week ago it was a “controlled solution”. The official policy according I to Dean is "to strengthen this side I until the other side realises it cannot win militarily". Even Dean, according to insiders, knows this is bullshit, but he's dealing with a President who has revived the domino theory. When a US Congress team visited Phnom Penh in February, Lon Nol made a rare appearance to read “an appeal from his country”. The speech, we were told, was straight from the pen of John Gunther Dean.
With no chance of a negotiated settlement and GRUNK poised for a complete military victory, the US Embassy is planning evacuation procedures. One scheme is that they'll cut down the trees and power tines in Phnom Penh's wider streets to land transport planes there. Meanwhile they fly in US marines from aircraft carriers off Vietnam to shoot anyone interfering with departing US citizens. No third party nationals, Dean told us, would be evacuated under any circumstances. We were edgy about our chances of getting out. We saw a French journalist getting out his Khmer Rouge flag and a Sihanouk scarf - journalists tell of 21 reporters or photographers who were captured and had their throats cut, regardless of their professed sympathies.
The Americans will escape this city, with its stench of death in the market places and the parks. Others won't, and faith in the Americans is rapidly deteriorating.
On the streets the Chinese express most vehement anti-American feeling. As elsewhere in Asia, the Chinese are the wealthiest of the merchants and shopkeepers. There are 200,000 Chinese Cambodians, 120,000 of whom hold Taiwanese passports, making them the people with the most to fear from the Khmer Rouge. Their sense of betrayal stems from looking for over 20 years to America to help them fight their own ideological battles against communism. Today most of their shops are shuttered and barred, protecting the few goods that remain.
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Five years ago, Cambodia was poor but not starving. Today, ninety five per cent of the country's goods come from the USA, 2-3 per cent from other countries, mainly Japan, and the other 2-3 per cent is generated in internal revenue. Sihanouk recently said: “The rial is worth less than shit paper.” Last month a planeload of 500 rial notes, the largest denomination (about 20 cents) flew into Phnom Penh from London to cope with racing inflation. When asked why a larger note was not printed a government official replied “they did not wish to cause panic”. At the doorways of banks, guards with machine guns frisk you on entering and leaving, despite the fact that you'd need a cattle truck for a $1000 robbery.
Today the city survives on the airlifts, as does the corruption business. Thirty nine contracts were let out to airlines for ammunition and food to be brought in to Phnom Penh. Only 14 of the airlines have planes.
Rice is the staple food flown in daily. Prices are lower for civil servants and the army, and the standard ration is a bare survival minimum. The rest of the rice goes onto the blackmarket where, as in any free enterprise economy, those with money can get more. Bourgeois Cambodians are stockpiling in anticipation of a long siege.
A front-line foot soldier gets about $8 and 21kg of rice for himself and family each month. On all fronts soldiers said they were getting only 13kg -- the rest, paid for by the USA, finds its way to the black market and the money ends up in the pockets of low-rank officials and the Swiss bank accounts of the generals. Five hundred and seventy tons of rice are consumed daily in Phnom Penh. Whenever the airlift is forced to slow down or stop, the reserves of rice estimated to last a month, are hit.
The Lon Nol government received U8$277 million in aid for 1975, including $100 million for the ‘Commodity Import Program’ which now pays for the Americans’ airlift. Pilots receive $500 a trip, some making five a day from Saigon or Bangkok. At a small street cafe I had breakfast with three American pilots, all working for small Khmer airlines supported and set up by US aid. They flew supplies daily into other encircled garrisons. White-shirted and brushing little beggar kids away, these were the men who once flew secret night bombing missions, and flew around South East Asia for tbe CIA’s Air America. Today, March 17, they were convinced night bombing was once again going on. “Something fishy is happening here. Someone is doing it and it sure as hell ain’t the Cambodians.”
It's not only the rice that comes from America to be hoarded or sold by privileged ranks: so too does the equipment. Enough M16s have been supplied for both sides and the civilian population at the fronts as well, yet · still the F ANK forces are short. In the market I could buy one for $60 and an AK47 for $75.
US aid will make little difference, as the US military adviser said: “If all aid was cut back to the last dollar, 50 cents of it would find its way into the generals’ pockets.”
The Phnom Penh central market where rockets fall regularly, and an AK47 gun sells for $75.
Photo Philip Brooks
Phnom Penh, once a city of 700,000 now has 1.8 million people in the surrounding 250 square miles. Sixty per cent are hungry and included in the top 40 per cent are cyclo drivers earning $1 a day. The largest refugee camp is the National Stadium where one water tap in the arena supplies everyone there.
There are a few aid organisations still handing out food but their numbers diminish as the Khmer Rouge approach, fearful as they are of the consequences of their biased handouts. One of the big ones is the Catholic Relief Services, which has been backing up US military adventures in Indo-China for ten years.
The city's temples are now nearly all refugee camps. Buddha's heads become useful anchor points for hammocks, archways and ruins become shelters and walls are made from 7-Up (Leeds) or Coca Cola tins.
Walking these streets we also saw several hospitals and as white men, we had entry everywhere. In a makeshift operating theatre a soldier with a leg gone and no arm was being operated on. His chest wide open, the only swabs available were used ones. A Cambodian doctor told us he and his team of six doctors have done up to 146 operations in a single day, and that they lose 30 per cent on the operating table. They are lucky to be a military hospital because they get drugs from the Americans. For the civilian hospitals where there are three times as many casualties, “there is nothing”. Victims of shrapnel were lying 60 to a corridor at the civilian hospital we saw. Families move in with the wounded because that's the only way they'll get fed.
March 18 - the fifth anniversary of the overthrow of Sihanouk - opened with a rocket attack close by the hotel at dawn. We headed for the Place de la Revolution, where crooked rows of limbless soldiers sat or knelt on school chairs waiting, as returned ‘heroes of the republic’, to receive some dubious honour from a minor official. To one side, soldiers herded people dressed in rags into an area far from the official dias. Some of these people were presumably relatives of the luckless ones, the small percentage of the maimed who were given free food that day and then next day would have gone back to the streets to beg or play a musical instrument, virtually the only jobs open to them.
Everywhere we went there was a common understanding of who was making money out of the war. Some people said there should be new elections. When asked about the generals, our cyclo driver motioned to his pocket and then pointed at the faraway saying “Swiss banks”.
About the Khmer Rouge nearly all were reticent. They are uncertain but no one believed there will be the bloodbath about which Dean has been repeatedly wiring Washington in an effort to swing Congressional votes. People we talked to called themselves nationalists, not communists, nor supporters of the military. All wanted peace first, and in our simple exchanges, they brightened at the mention of Sihanouk's name, symbol as it is of the past and especially the past peace.
The military propaganda is pervasive and much of it specifically anti-communist, but there is also a campaign directed at women. Women in Phnom Penh work as labourers cleaning the streets if they can work at all. Some are in the armies, but for many the war means prostitution and government posters ennoble fucking for soldiers, in fact presenting it' as a woman's duty. A poster on every street corner shows a long-haired man tapping a girl on the shoulder. She is saying: “Come back when you are in uniform.”
When FANK forces have captured soldiers from a Khmer Rouge women's batallion, FANK generals find the women's behaviour particularly galling. “The generals were so angry”, one diplomat told us. “They complained of the audacity of these virgins who had the nerve to look a man straight in the eye and who didn't shuffle their feet demurely like good Khmer women.”
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As dark comes in on Phnom Penh, people climb the trees planted along the wide avenues in Sihanouk's day, and cut the branches for firewood. The City Library long ago lost all its books for fuel. Young kids spend all day selling Coke bottles full of two stroke by the roadside, black marketeers for Phnom Penh’s dwindling public transport system.
A downtown cinema which, on March 18, was featuring Nights of Violence.
Photo Philip Brooks
A soldier who lost a leg fighting in Lon Nol's army, waits to receive a medal.
Photo Philip Brooks