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Vietnam Occupation

History of Cambodia : Vietnam Occupation

When the Vietnamese tanks rolled into Phnom Penh in 1979, they ended a 4 year murderous genocidal regime. However, Cambodia’s isolation especially from the Western world continued and economically, and by association, was weakened by the US sponsored embargo against the Vietnamese. A vast famine drove hundreds of thousands to refugee camps along the Thai border, and fighting between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge degenerated into guerilla warfare.

Khmer Rouge-Vietnamese Conflict

The lines of war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese were drawn when the Khmer Rouge continued border skirmishes against their former allies that left hundreds of Vietnamese civilians dead. On Vietnam’s successful invasion of Cambodia, the Pol Pot forces fled to the jungles, to be replaced by a pro-Vietnam puppet regime.

Former Khmer Rouge official, Heng Samrin, headed the new government called People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Other prominent leaders included Hun Sen, Cambodia’s current Prime Minister.
Landmine, by-product of war – by Paul & Kelly

Famine and Refugee Camps

During this time, Cambodia suffered a massive famine as millions of the dispossessed walked across the country to find family who had survived. The once lush rice fields of Cambodia were ruined, left unattended and unharvested and rice stocks were not replenished.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee border camps in Thailand which were set up as part of a UN-sponsored international relief program. Neither the UN community nor the Vietnamese-sponsored government could agree on how to distribute the food, each distrusting the other. Patchwork relief efforts resulted in some agencies distributing aid through Phnom Penh and others through the camps, which were overrun by Cambodians.

At peak, refugee Cambodians numbered at least 500,000. The Thai military, wanting an effective Khmer Rouge as a foil against the Vietnamese, managed to gain control of the supplies distribution channels. They siphoned food to the Khmer Rouge guerilla forces along the Thai border, and that coupled with weapon supplies from China, allowed the Khmer Rouge to continue their internal warfare for another 20 years.

Khmer Rouge Guerilla Warfare

Politically, Prince Sihanouk was pressured by the Chinese to form an external coalition government, which included the Khmer Rouge. In 1984, the Vietnamese effectively overran all Khmer Rouge camps in the Western Cambodian mountains and drove them into Thailand. The Khmer Rouge adopted guerilla tactics, laying thousands of mines, blowing up roads and bridges, killing civilians and forcing refugees in the camps to ferry supplies into Cambodia across mine-filled territories. The Vietnamese response was to lay mines from the Gulf of Thailand to the Laotian border, creating the world’s longest minefield known as K-5.


Vietnam kept 200,000 troops in the major towns and the countryside for 10 years. Their intrusive military presence, the return of former Vietnamese residents and the immigration of new ones fanned anti-Vietnamese feelings among the Cambodians and re-ignited Khmer nationalism.

For much of the 1980’s, both economies were in shreds and the positive effects of perestroika and burgeoning neighboring economies convinced Vietnam to end its international isolation. They announced the withdrawal of all its troops in 1989, and the UN forged a fragile peace pact between the Sihanouk and the Hun Sen coalition marking the end of Vietnam occupation.