Vietnamese veterans celebrated their retreat from Cambodia 25 years ago

Posted by: | Posted on: September 14, 2014

D Nguyen Thanh Nhan Drawing of Nguyen Thanh Nhan

Comment: Reading news by BBC on “Vietnam’s forgotten Cambodian war”, I am fascinated by Mr. Nhan whose words are reflecting younger Vietnamese population who see the invading into Cambodia is a waste of manpower and left bad reputation for Vietnam many years to come. Hence, their new paradigm shift is in reverse to the imperialism and Nam Tien policy of top Vietnamese leaders. As this country is still governed by Communist system, the voice of those youth has no space to express or to change such entrenched mentality at all. Mr. Nhan is not alone on his reaction to the invasion over Cambodia, the villagers in central Vietnam whom I visited in 2007 whispered to me that their children were forced to carry guns and trucked them to Cambodia. The parents and relatives were so suffering and painful. As they knew, I am Cambodian, everyone seems in hurry to recall their past suffering. An aged woman recalled about the non-returned son, and another man smiled as his son is still alive and can re-unionize with the family. Nhan is right saying that “American soldiers thought they helped Vietnam. Then their illusion was broken,” Mr Nhan said. “We were the same in Cambodia.” His fearful momentum was that in daytime those Cambodians are friend but they turned to be enemy in the night time. I am going to purchase his book “Away from Home Season – The Story of a Vietnamese Volunteer Veteran in Cambodia” and try to understand his point of view although it has been censored and distorted the original manuscript by the Vietnamese government to fit their political agenda.

However, Mr. Nhan including many Vietnamese see that the choice government chose was not right for them but they are sill voiceless to be heard and the cycle of Kamma of an imperialism mindset under the yoke of communist system has been rolling non-stop although barking sound sometime distracted them a lot. I would like to invite everyone to read this report by BBC written by Kevin Doyle from Phnom Penh

Vietnam’s forgotten Cambodian war

The author, Nguyen Thanh Nhan, (kneeling second from left) at a Vietnamese military base inside Cambodia, 1985
Vietnamese veterans like Nguyen Thanh Nhan (Bottom, second from left) are still haunted by the war

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On 30 April 1975, the last American helicopters beat an ignominious retreat from Saigon as the tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rumbled into the capital of defeated South Vietnam.

Victory over the US military is remembered each year in Vietnam as a triumph over foreign aggression in a war of national liberation.

Less celebrated is Vietnam’s quiet retreat from its own deeply unpopular foreign war that ended 25 years ago this month. A war where Vietnamese troops, sent as saviours but soon seen as invaders, paid a steep price in lives and limbs during a gruelling decade-long guerilla conflict.

On the 25th anniversary of their withdrawal from Cambodia, Vietnamese veterans are still haunted by their memories of war with Pol Pot’s army.

Some wonder why Cambodians are not more grateful to the troops who freed them from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

“Anyone who came back from Cambodia intact was a lucky person,” said Nguyen Thanh Nhan, 50, a veteran of the war and author of the autobiographical book “Away from Home Season – The Story of a Vietnamese Volunteer Veteran in Cambodia”.

Sent to Cambodia at the age of 20, Mr Nhan served from 1984 to 1987 in a frontline combat unit near the Thai-Cambodian border where some of the bloodiest confrontations with Khmer Rouge fighters took place.

An entry in the war diary of the author and veteran Nguyen Thanh Nhan, which recounts a battle in 1986 where many Vietnamese soldiers were killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
Mr Nhan has kept detailed accounts of the war, including this diary entry recounting a 1986 battle

Though the Vietnamese government has never officially confirmed casualty numbers, some 30,000 Vietnamese troops were believed to have been killed before the final withdrawal in September 1989.

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American soldiers thought they helped Vietnam; we were the same in Cambodia”

Nguyen Thanh NhanVietnamese war veteran

Banned in its original form by the Vietnamese government, Mr Nhan’s book recounts the hardships of the Vietnamese soldiers and their camaraderie while trying to survive among a population who played host to them by day, and their enemy by night.

Much like the young Americans who fought in Vietnam, Mr Nhan’s years in Cambodia have left indelible psychological marks. He still suffers from nightmares, and their daytime equivalent that drag him back into the terror of battle.

“When your companions die in battle, it is a very great loss,” Mr Nhan said. “During the war, the battle does not stop. We have no time to reflect. We must be strong to continue. Later, more than 30 years later, memories come back – over and over again.”

“The injury in the body is not so heavy but our injury was mental. Many soldiers, one or two years later, when they came back, they went mad.”

His experience parallels the disillusionment of American troops, a generation before who arrived in Vietnam believing they were coming to save a nation, only to find that many ordinary people considered them the enemy.

“American soldiers thought they helped Vietnam. Then their illusion was broken,” Mr Nhan said. “We were the same in Cambodia.”

Pol Pot
Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a wave of killing
A Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldier holding a gun rides a motorcycle while he and his fellow comrade enter Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975
The Khmer Rouge forced millions of Cambodians out of the city and into the countryside
Skulls are displayed at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial in Phnom Penh on 25 June, 2011
Up to two million people are believed to have died under the Khmer Rouge

Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia in late December 1978 to remove Pol Pot. Two million Cambodians had died at the hands of his Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot’s troops had conducted bloody cross-border raids into Vietnam, Cambodia’s historic enemy, massacring civilians and torching villages.

Pol Pot fled ahead of the onslaught and Phnom Penh was placed under Vietnamese control in a little over a week.

Those that survived the Khmer Rouge regime initially greeted the Vietnamese as liberators. Years later, however, Vietnamese troops were still in Cambodia and by then, many Cambodians considered them occupiers.

Cambodia was an unpopular war for Vietnam, said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Vietnam and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

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The dead are lucky as they rest in peace; we struggle every day”

Nguyen Thanh NhanWar veteran

“The Vietnamese military had been trained and experienced in overthrowing an occupying power and all of a sudden, the shoe was on the other foot. They had to invade Cambodia and occupy it, and succeed in setting up a government and engineer a withdrawal.”

Unlike Vietnam’s wars against the French and Americans, the intervention in Cambodia was “downplayed” to the Vietnamese public, Mr Thayer said. When soldiers returned from Cambodia without the fanfare of previous wars, veterans felt that they had been “forgotten”.

Gratitude was also not forthcoming from Cambodia, where hostility towards the Vietnamese remains ubiquitous. It is an enmity born of conflicts between ancient emperors and kings, of lost territory and a much smaller Cambodia faring poorly through history to a far more populous Vietnam.

Today, many in Cambodia would like to forget that it was Vietnam that saved their country from Pol Pot’s vicious revolution.

Vietnamese propaganda poster from the 1980s extolling solidarity between the people of  Vietnam and Cambodia
A propaganda poster from the 1980s depicts Cambodian-Vietnamese relations
The Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh commemorates Vietnam’s role in removing Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime from power in 1979
The Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh commemorates Vietnam’s role in defeating Pol Pot
The former Vietnamese military cemetery in Phnom Penh where troops who died in Cambodia were laid to rest. Following the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989, the soldiers’ remains were removed from the cemetery and reinterred in Vietnam
Following Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia, soldiers’ remains were removed from this war cemetery

Every few months, a group of veterans from the war in Cambodia meet in Ho Chi Minh City. On a recent Sunday morning, their get-together started early with short welcome speeches followed by swift toasts of strong rice wine.

Asked about the war, their mood shifted perceptibly. What happened in Cambodia is not something they discuss often.

One relents, likely out of politeness, and he describes an enduring image from his first days in Cambodia in 1979.

Le Thanh Hieu’s unit pursued the retreating Khmer Rouge to the border with Thailand. He remembers seeing Cambodian villagers lying on the sides of roads dying of starvation and illness.

“They were dying everywhere. They were dying of hunger,” said the 54-year-old. “We didn’t have rice to feed the starving. We only had army rations to feed ourselves in battle.”

Yet, he said, “faced with this situation the soldiers could not avoid saving lives” and they used their rations to make a thin rice soup for the starving.

“I don’t want to have this experience to tell you about,” Mr Hieu said.

Vietnam does not want to entirely forget about the war in Cambodia, said Mr Nhan. It only wants to remember an official version: a victorious, lightning attack that toppled Pol Pot.

Best forgotten, Mr Nhan said, are the 10 years of punishing hit-and-run fighting and the largely-forgotten veterans still scarred from their experiences.

“For me, the truth needs to be said,” he said.

“Sometimes I think the dead are lucky. They rest in peace. We have to struggle every day. Our lives continue.”

For your reference, please refer to BBC