How the Khmer Rouge defeated the Vietnamese: the forgotten 1978 war


It is difficult to find photographs of this particular short and unsuccessful Vietnam war in 1978. And in general, in the black-and-white mess of the photographic archive of the Indo-Chinese wars, it is difficult to make out who is who. This Vietnamese photo shows how the forgotten battles of early 1978 could have begun.

In the history of a number of wars, there are blank spots, forgotten events and entire battles that seriously impede the understanding of the course of the entire war. Sometimes a whole chain of events is replaced by a simple propaganda myth.

Several years ago, I researched the war in Cambodia, which interested me very much, about which we had little knowledge of its essence. I don’t need to tell you about Oleg Samorodny and his book, because he basically retells stories from the corridors of the embassies (interesting and informative in his own way), and had an indirect relationship to purely military events. Having studied the history of the war in Cambodia, I attended to the sources. I needed a source to cover the war day after day. But, since it was unrealistic to get to the Vietnamese military archives, and the Khmer Rouge military archive was either destroyed or disappeared somewhere (according to some reports, it was taken to Hanoi after the capture of Phnom Penh in early 1979), it was necessary to find some third-party source … And it was found: the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times, the full-text archive of which was posted on the website of the Singapore National Library. I searched around it, read all the messages that mentioned khmer rouge (their common name at the time), and wrote down everything at least somewhat informative. Journalists usually received information from the newspaper’s bureau in Bangkok, which, in turn, was supplied with information by Thai intelligence. She was very interested in everything that happened in Kampuchea, since Thailand was the first country where the Cambodians who were beaten in the next round of armed clarification of relations were sent. Due to the difficulties of working with agents, Thai intelligence pressed on radio interception.

Radio Interception – Thai Intelligence – The Straits Times. This is how information from the battlefield and from parts of the fighting sides got on the pages of the newspaper. Not everything was accurate and complete, but each message was supplied with the exact date of the newspaper’s publication. This allowed me to compile a chronological table of events, and the geographical points mentioned in the messages allowed me to place the events on the map. From the bits of information, a rather interesting picture of the history of the Cambodian war was formed, in which forgotten battles were discovered, not mentioned by any other source. These are the battles that took place from September 1977 to June 1978, that is, the entire dry season of 1977/78, when they usually fight in Cambodia.

These events were forgotten due to their, so to speak, indecency. The Vietnamese army, glorified in battles and defeating the Americans, suffered a complete defeat and retreated. She was beaten, and by whom? The Khmer Rouge, whom the Vietnamese themselves had picked up in the jungle just 5-6 years earlier, were armed, taught to fight! That is, it was the strongest shame. It is difficult for us to imagine, well, for example, as if the DPR army had defeated the Russian army – this is a disgrace of about this magnitude. It is clear that Vietnam was not at all eager to talk about it. I am also confident that the entire propaganda campaign against Pol Pot, which painted him in the blackest colors and began at the end of 1978, appeared both to justify the invasion of Kampuchea and to hide the shame of the previous defeat.

This story was described in more detail in my book The War of Radio Interception. History of the Communist War in Cambodia. ”

Unclear background to the conflict

How the long communist war between Kampuchea and Vietnam began (this was a unique case when the communists fought on both sides, at least at first, until the Khmer Rouge renounced communism in 1981) is still not clear. The countries were of the same ideology, allies, comrades in arms, and so on. Vietnam was pro-Soviet, Kampuchea was pro-Chinese, but there were no objective reasons for the fight.

I will not delve into this question, especially since it requires additional searches; I will only say that, in my opinion, the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists were played off by anti-communist rebels. There were a lot of them. For example, Pham Nam Ha detachments operated in southern Vietnam in 1978, and then the former Commodore of the South Vietnamese fleet, Hoang Ko Min, created an entire army of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam. In May-June 1977, on the border in the Ha Tien area, there were strange skirmishes with units that came from Kampuchea, about which Singaporean journalists directly wrote that they were “Cambodian or Vietnamese rebels”. In September 1977, battles west of Ha Tien took on a large scale, involving about 5,000 Vietnamese soldiers, artillery and aircraft. At the same time, Khiu Samfan in September 1977 congratulated his Vietnamese comrades on the occasion of Independence Day.

I think the Cambodian anti-communists acted like Khmer Rouge mummers and managed to mislead both sides by sowing hostility that soon turned into a large-scale war. In late December 1977, a major battle broke out in the Cambodian province of Svayrieng, involving artillery and aircraft; the Vietnamese lost about 2 thousand people, but began to develop an offensive deep into Kampuchea in the province of Takeo. Apparently, this was the first battle between Vietnamese and Cambodian troops.

Perhaps there was still not a very clear background, since the newspaper reported on December 7, 1977 that Pol Pot and Chinese Vice Premier Chen Yu Wei for some reason traveled to the Cambodian-Vietnamese border and inspected some points there. We clearly do not have enough reliable facts to understand the background of the Vietnam-Cambodian conflict.

Unexpected defeat

Soon, six Vietnamese divisions crossed the border and captured all of eastern Kampuchea to the Mekong. On January 3, 1978, Radio Phnom Penh reported that the front was about 100 km from the city, and the capture of the capital was possible within 48 hours. Relations between Kampuchea and Vietnam were severed, the Vietnamese embassy was expelled.

The Vietnamese advanced in two wedges, in the north along Highway 7, first to the northwest with a turn to the south; and in the south, along Highway 2 almost exactly north, through Takeo to Phnom Penh. That is, with ticks. The Khmer Rouge held a large enclave in Svayrieng province, in a ledge deep into Vietnamese territory, along Highway 1. In principle, the situation did not look particularly difficult for the Vietnamese. They captured the Mekong crossing to Neak Luong, from where Phnom Penh was a stone’s throw away.

According to the estimates of American intelligence, cited in the newspaper, the Vietnamese were about 60 thousand people with tanks, and the Khmer Rouge – 20-25 thousand people. Any military analyst could, taking all the circumstances into account, bet that the Vietnamese will soon enter Phnom Penh. And I would be wrong. On January 6, 1978, the Khmer Rouge launched a powerful counteroffensive and on January 8, they actually defeated the Vietnamese. Radio Phnom Penh reported Vietnamese casualties of 29,000 killed and wounded, about 100 tanks destroyed.


The Khmer Rouge attack. But it was this particular photo of 1975, and three years later they were better armed, had equipment and artillery.

Most of them, 63 cars, were burned by the Khmer Rouge in the battles on Highway 7. For several days there were conflicting reports about who won, but on January 13, 1978, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the DRV Vo Dong Zang offered Kampuchea peace negotiations to end the “fratricidal war “. So it became clear that the Khmer Rouge actually kicked the Vietnamese red’s ass.

Later, American intelligence also reported that the Vietnamese retreated and now occupy a strip about 20 km deep into Kampuchea from the border. On January 9, 1978, the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive into Vietnam, captured the provinces of Kien Zang, An Zang, Long An and on January 19 attacked the city of Ha Tien, a seaport. The Vietnamese lost the main rice-producing province in South Vietnam – An Zang, despite the fact that the situation in the south of the country was close to starvation. Kampuchea also got it; The Vietnamese damaged the Phnom Penh – Kampong Saom railway to the port where Chinese weapons and ammunition were going.

How the Khmer Rouge defeated the Vietnamese: the forgotten 1978 war
The general scheme of hostilities from December 1977 to June 1978. Dark red: Khmer Rouge; light red: Vietnamese army. The numbers indicate (light red – Vietnamese): 1 – the offensive of December 1977 – early January 1978; 2 – attack on Phnom Penh along the Bassak River in February 1978; 3 – offensive in April-May 1978; (dark red – Khmer Rouge): 1 – an offensive deep into Vietnam in January 1978; 2 – an attempt to storm the port of Ha Tien in March 1978

Exchange of blows

For a while, both sides did not undertake large-scale attacks, but exchanged sensitive blows. In February 1978, a large Vietnamese group, supported by 30 tanks, helicopters and aircraft, attempted to attack Phnom Penh along the Bassak River from the south. The offensive was repulsed, and the Vietnamese group retreated.

The Khmers in An Zang province very successfully repulsed Vietnamese attacks, but they already had the strength to attack and capture the city of Ha Tien, despite the fact that the city center was only 2.5 km away. The Khmer Rouge attempted to settle the matter with an amphibious assault. Around 10-13 March 1978, a Khmer Rouge battalion landed west of Ha Tien and attempted to advance. The attempt was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese were assembling a group of about 200 thousand people for a large-scale offensive. But the Cambodians were lucky. On March 16, 1978, in the province of Kampong Cham, an officer of the headquarters of the 5th Vietnamese division, Colonel Nguyen Binh Tinh, was captured, who was conducting reconnaissance. He described plans for an impending offensive in Svayrieng, Preiveng and Kompong Cham provinces, east and northeast of Phnom Penh, in April 1978.

The officer told the truth, and on April 13, 1978, the Vietnamese launched an offensive, which ended with the loss of 8-10 thousand people, burned down tanks, a downed plane and an offer of a truce in early June 1978. The battles went on for a month and a half, but almost nothing significant was reported in the newspaper about these battles.


An unidentified Vietnamese officer (most likely a lieutenant) at S-21 Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh; apparently a prisoner of this unsuccessful war for the Vietnamese

After this failure, Vietnam began to prepare for a more serious attempt to invade Kampuchea, which was associated with a propaganda campaign against Pol Pot, the organization of an anti-Pol Pot uprising in the Eastern zone of Kampuchea (the Vietnamese managed to persuade the entire leadership of the Eastern zone to betray and large rebel detachments were formed there) and the creation of a powerful air superiority. This attempt was successful and culminated in the capture of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Although this success was the prologue for being drawn into a long, bloody and almost fruitless war with the guerrillas in the west of Kampuchea, along the border with Thailand.

The reason for the defeat of the Vietnamese in 1978 was, of course, in the Vietnamese themselves, who made serious mistakes. First, the underestimation of the enemy, although not long before that the Khmer Rouge switched to a divisional structure, received new weapons from China and were trained by Chinese instructors. Secondly, the plan to take Phnom Penh in the pincers with tank strikes along the roads was not bad only at first glance. In fact, the Vietnamese forces were inevitably drawn into a long column, extremely vulnerable to flank attacks; since the terrain was difficult for vehicles to pass along the roads, the movement of tanks and vehicles was possible only along the highway. This mistake was made in Kampuchea more than once before the Vietnamese. Thirdly, the shown carelessness. The Khmer Rouge, initially offering very weak resistance, allowed the Vietnamese to drive deeper, stretch out in a column stronger, and then defeated and destroyed them with flanking attacks from both sides.

All this had a shocking effect on the Vietnamese and led to the fact that the Vietnamese leadership reached a readiness to grapple with Pol Pot in earnest, having previously slandered him. This forgotten war, unsuccessful for the Vietnamese, changed a lot in the further course of the communist war in Indochina.

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