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December 25, 1998


Current Cambodian strongman Hun Sen is more and more beleaguered on the international arena. The US Senate is expected to pass a resolution in January 1999, as the US House of Representatives did on October 2, 1998, supporting judicial proceedings against the former Khmer Rouge officer and present dictator for serious violations of international laws on human rights since 1979.

The investigation of Hun Sen’s past should lead to examination of a relatively little-known period in Cambodian history: the time just after the Pol Pot regime, the Vietnamese occupation and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989).

Although overshadowed by the great genocide which took place between 1975 and 1978 under Pol Pot, the subsequent period also brought genocide of the same form, though of lesser scope. It was perpetrated by Pol Pot’s successors and former colleagues, among them Hun Sen.

From 1984 to 1988 the pro-Vietnamese authorities implemented a deadly plan called “K5″. This more recent bloody chapter of the history of Cambodia is opened in doctor Esmeralda Luciolli‘s book “Le Mur de Bambou - Le Cambodge après Pol Pot” (The Bamboo Wall: Cambodia after Pol Pot) published in 1988 by Regine Deforges Edition - Medecins sans Frontières (Distributed by Albin Michel).

The K5 plan killed tens or hundreds of thousands of victims. Cambodians sent into forced labor died of starvation, exhaustion, disease (particularly malaria) and lost their limbs and lives to the antipersonnel mines scattered on the sites where they were sent. Many of these laborers were executed for trying to escape.

During that period Hun Sen was a member of the central committee of the communist party and was promoted from Minister of Foreign Affairs to Prime Minister. As one of the main leaders he must bear responsibility for the massacre.

There are still thousands of families in Cambodia whose missing father, husband or son reminds them of the K5 plan, and there are thousands of handicapped people whose missing eye, hand or leg reminds them of the K5 plan. Will justice be rendered one day to these victims?

We have translated the most significant excerpts from “The Bamboo Wall” in the following paragraphs.



The decision to build what would be soon called the “bamboo wall” was never publicly announced. In July 1984, mysterious rumors some bits of which reached us circulated among the Cambodians. From now on each one must go to the border for several months a year, in regions mined and highly infected by malaria, to build some new sort of Chinese Wall between Cambodia and Thailand. The idea looked so foolish that many foreigners thought they were seeing only an example of the Khmers’ supposed tendency to exaggerate. After a few weeks, they had to accept the facts: departures began and these labors soon became an obsessive fear of all Cambodians.

The Vietnamese army had started to enlist Khmer civilians to do strategic work since 1979. Early on, in the autumn of 1982, the population was made to participate in “socialist service”. This work consisted of building dams, roads and earthworks near their dwellings and proved to be useful to the inhabitants. But very quickly, this task took a strategic turn and the peasants were ordered to clear the surrounding forests and build protective barriers around the most important dwelling centers. Starting in 1983, the population was made to create fences out of two or three rows of prickly shrubs or bamboo, sometimes lined by mine fields, around the villages. The people were also forced to set up defensive barriers along the railroads, around the bridges and at strategic points of the highways. (…) However, the first chores lasted only a short time and did not require any displacement of the population.

In 1984, a new stage was reached: the population of the country was mobilized for gigantic labors officially designated as “work to defend the fatherland”. At the beginning of that year, the Vietnamese authorities decided to seal the Thai border. The dry season offensive of 1984-1985 destroyed the major camps of the resistance located in those areas. To reinforce this victory they had to tightly seal the country against infiltration by the guerrillas and prevent the population from fleeing to the border.

To this end, the decision to set up a “defense line” eight hundred kilometers long was made in Hanoi, in early 1984, by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s central committee. (See “Cambodia, a new colony for exploitation” by Marie- Alexandrine Martin, Politique internationale, July 1986 and “The military occupation of Kampuchea”, Indochina Report, September 1986). The construction of that Asian “wall” was to be implemented in several steps : first, clearing of a strip of land three to four kilometers wide along the border, through forests and mountains; then excavating trenches, setting up dams, building bamboo fences lined with barbed wires and mine fields; and finally opening a strategic road running along the “wall”, to convey troops and ammunition and monitor the frontier.

Cambodian authorities were in charge of the project implementation. Everything leads us to believe that this work was to be done as rapidly as possible, whatever the cost in human lives and the economic consequences, in order to “fight against Polpotist bandits in the forest, who since the destruction of their camps all along the Thai border infiltrate the country to steal food and please their masters in Peking or Washington” (Radio Phnom Penh, 21 September 1986). These Herculean labors recall the gigantic ones undertaken during Pol Pot’s time. Haven’t the present leaders a common past and ideology with the ones in charge of the preceding regime?

The requisitioning of civilians started in September 1984. The Cambodians often refer to the departure to the “clearing” duty as a new “April 17″. (17 April 1975 marks the entry of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh and to most Cambodians the beginning of an ordeal).

The work is designated by the mysterious acronym “K5″, which the Cambodians, when asked, did not know the meaning of. Each Cambodian province was assigned the task of building a section of the wall. Twice or three times a year a contingent of workers, so-called “volunteers”, were recruited for periods varying from three to six months, according to the quota set by the central government for each province in proportion to the local population. The provinces in turn determine the quotas for each district, the districts doing the same for the communes and the communes for the villages. In theory, only men aged 17 to 45 years old were requisitioned but it frequently happens that women or teenagers are designated for want of any other person available in the family. For the whole country, each departure gathered an average of 100,000 to 120,000 persons. (…)

According to an official of the Ministry of Defense who took refuge in Thailand, the work, at the national level, is placed under the responsibility of Bou Thang, Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, respectively Minister of Defense, Secretary General of the Communist Party and President of the Republic. (…)

When they arrive at the sites, nothing is planned to accommodate and shelter the workers. “When we arrived”, said Touch Saroeun (a participant), “thousands of workers had preceded us. We were maybe ten thousand coming from several provinces. There was no shelter at all. It was useless to seek to build a cabin, because we were moved every day. Some of us had hammocks, others had nothing. They slept on the ground, on bits of plastic sheets or even on the soil.” (…)

Food remains very insufficient. (…) The stocks run out quickly. “We were told that there would be every thing on the spot, tells a villager from Takeo. But once there, there was nearly nothing to eat.” (…) Thory, a young woman from Battambang, said that in her group, “several people died of starvation.

It was like under the Pol Pot regime.” (…) It was forbidden to seek food during work time. A Khmer Krom who participated in the clearing work in Non Sap area, a site renowned for its hardship, recalls: “One day, I walked away for a short while to try to fish in a pond. The soldiers saw me. I was caught and beaten for a long time. That often happens because many people were hungry.” (…)

In some areas, the local authorities were unable to supply food to the workers. These starvation rations were supposed to be enough to carry out an exhausting and dangerous work: the “volunteers” have to clear mined lands, excavate trenches, build roads, carry equipment, ammunition, corpses, demine the land and put mines in it again along the “wall”.

Everywhere the testimonies are identical. The workers are dispatched in small teams and worked eight to ten hours a day. Each one is assigned a determined amount of work to be accomplished during the day, otherwise the penalties such as blows or extra chores are frequent. In Samrong, Nong Rus had to “clear the land, carry crates of ammunition and sometimes corpses of soldiers or workers blown up on a mine”. (…)

The sites were watched over by Khmer soldiers, themselves supervised by the Vietnamese army. Fleeing, practically excluded, was impossible during day time, and very risky at night time because of the mines. Several refugees told of having been herded for the night on lands surrounded by mines. “Any attempt to escape amounted to a suicide. A mine belt had been laid around the camps which were accessible only through a narrow path. A few Vietnamese soldiers were enough to watch over us”, said Chhay. In another group, “seventy people were given the order to watch over the others. They were given guns. They were themselves monitored by the Vietnamese. If anyone tried to flee, he was often shot on the spot. Others have been caught and taken to jail in Battambang.”

Sunnara, from Prey Veng, was obliged to guard the “volunteers”. “We did not have any choice, the Vietnamese were after us. The rare persons who tried to escape were recaptured and savagely beaten, then taken to jail. Some have been executed.” Sareth, from Pursat, was demining: “Often those who were blown on the mines were accused of wanting to flee. In fact, these were accidents because we did not know at all where the mines were.” (…)

Since the beginning of the work in September 1984, the K5 plan, described by some people as a “new genocide”, made tens of thousands of victims. (See “Un nouveau genocide”, Philippe Pacquet, La Libre Belgique, 26 May 1986).

Accidents caused by mines were frequent. Nobody knows where they are laid because the Khmer-Thai frontier has been successively mined for years by the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, and the non-communist resistance. (…)

Many died on Non Sap site during the first year of work, toward the end of 1984. “Corpses could be found in several places”, said Thory. “We had to cremate them. Sometimes I had to carry ammunition for quite long distances. Along the way, in the forest, we found corpses of the workers who preceded us and blew up on mines.” Her testimony is confirmed by that of other persons who had worked in the same area. In a group of villagers from Bavel, ten people died that way, and eight in another group.

It also happened that trucks carrying “volunteers” blew up on mines. In Sitha’s convoy, two trucks were disintegrated. Out of the hundred people carried by each truck, more than half of them died and most of the others were injured. In March 1985, on the way to Pursat, a nurse from Prey Veng saw the truck that preceded his blow up. About twenty “volunteers” were killed and another fifty wounded. (…)

The victims of landmines had little chance of surviving their injuries. First- aid posts located on the sites did not have the required personnel or equipment to tend them. It took sometimes several days to evacuate a wounded person to the nearest provincial hospital. Moreover, competent surgeons are rare. Like all their colleagues they devote part of their time to political activities and are not always available. Even if they were, they did not have any blood for transfusion, or antibiotics or oxygen, or sometimes even gauze and disinfectant. The people severely injured die. (…) In 1985, in Kandal, about a hundred injured people from the first contingent died and tens of others had amputations. In Prey Veng, fifty-six workers from the second contingent died on landmines. (…)

However, mines did not take the heaviest toll on human lives, but malaria did. This is not surprising at all, when the areas where the clearing were done were known to be infested by malaria. (…) Since the beginning of the labor at the border, the same phenomenon occurred as during deportations by the Khmer Rouge regime: “volunteers” [coming from the central plains where malaria is rare in normal time] uprooted overnight to severely malaria-infested zones are very sensitive to the disease. Virtually all of them are infected in no time and the development of serious cases is furthered by malnutrition and exhaustion. All the witnesses talk about malaria as a real scourge. Moreover, once ill, the “volunteers” are forced to continue to toil to the point of exhaustion. (…)

While in the beginning the K5 plan was very secret and little mentioned on the radio, by mid-1985 reports similar to those celebrating enthusiasm on the working sites of the Khmer Rouge regime started to be heard: “Our people now live in joy. They thrive to overcome all the obstacles by voluntarily participating in the work of defense of the fatherland, at the same time building a new life on this earth they have become the master of.” (Radio Phnom Penh, 22 August 1986).

Of all of the contingents, the first one, leaving on September 1984, was hit the hardest. These first “volunteers” were decimated by malaria, starvation and landmines. During the first semester of 1985, tens of thousands of workers returned home, as well as they could. (…) During our outings in the provinces, the sight of infirmaries recalled the Thai borders during 1979: everywhere malnourished men, exhausted, often packed on the bare ground. Wherever we went, in the provinces, in the districts, 80% to 90% of the “volunteers” returned ill. The mortality rate was very high, between 5 and 10%. In Kandal province, out of 12,000 workers, there were 9,000 cases of malaria and 700 dead. In a district of Takeo, out of 1,100 who left for labor, 900 came back with malaria and 56 died. In one of Kompong Chhnang’s districts, 10% of the “volunteers” had succumbed to malaria. (See “Malaria decimates border workers”, AFP, Lucien Maillard, 27 August 1985; “Forced Human Bondage”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 August 1985; Marie-Alexandrine Martin, “Une nouvelle colonie d’exploitation”, Politique internationale, summer 1985). (…)

A few officials were reported to have shown some opposition to the continuation of the work notwithstanding the cost in human lives. The then- Prime Minister himself, Chan Sy, would have been one of those, which was why many Cambodians saw with suspicion his sudden demise in 1985. (…)

The toll for the first two years of the K5 plan was heavy. According to the least alarming estimates, at least one million people participated in the labor from September 1984 to end of 1986. (The ninth contingent left for the border in October 1986. Let us bear in mind that each contingent numbered an average of 120,000 persons). The mortality rate from malaria amounted to around 5%, so there would have been a minimum of 50,000 dead during this period. According to an official from the Ministry of Defense, now a refugee in Thailand, his department estimated in March 1986 that 30,000 people died since the beginning of the labor. This assessment does not take into account tens of thousands of sick, wounded and crippled people. (…)

In Phnom Penh, at the orphanage for “juniors”, the number of abandoned children has considerately increased since the beginning of the work . The death of the husband at the clearing work constitutes the main reason given by the mothers who can no longer work and take care of the child a the same time. (…)

During our outings in the provinces, it was rarer and rarer to see men tilling the fields and most of the time women planted, bedded plants or harvested, on their own. In each home, the departure of a person, most of the time a man, for many months, lowers the family production and even after their returns, the men often lack the strength to work again for many weeks. (…)

(In 1985, according to an official of the Ministry of Agriculture), only 60 to 70% of the rice fields cultivated the preceding year were being sown, because the workforce was considerably decreased by the requisitions for clearing, armed forces and the defense militia of the villages. (…) At the end of 1985, the Ministry of Agriculture forecast a deficit of 250,000 tons of paddy for the harvest to come. (…) General mobilization of the population for labor at the border was responsible for a great deal of the agricultural deficit. (…)

Of all the aspects of the Vietnamese occupation, the K5 plan is no doubt the most worrying. Officially, the construction of the wall was to meet the need to defend the country against infiltration by the resistance forces based at the Khmer-Thai border. (…) Even if we suppose that the resistance constitutes a real threat to Phnom Penh, all the military experts, all the observers agree to say that the “wall”, a mere bamboo fence, is incapable of stopping infiltration. Besides, no defense line is efficient unless it is guarded all along its length. The construction itself went more slowly than planned, and, three years after the work started, only a few sections were completed. (…) The defense line could not benefit from any strategic credibility in so far as infiltration from outside was concerned.

Under these conditions, it would be wise to look elsewhere for the reason for this murderous extravaganza. The “defense line”, if it did not hamper the resistance, constitutes a real obstacle for the population to escape to Thailand. (…)

Among the Cambodians, a few people believe the Vietnamese intended by this means to insidiously eliminate one part of the life force in Cambodia. This premise can be questioned all the more by the reminiscence of Khmer Rouge methods in the construction of this wall. But adversely, it is undoubtedly true that through this undertaking the regime was able to maintain the population in a permanent state of mobilization and maybe this is where we should find the main justification of this undertaking.

Whatever it was meant for, the K5 plan looks like a strategically absurd undertaking, triggered mainly by internal political reasons, hard to explain, for which the Khmer people have already paid the tribute in tens of thousands of human lives. (See “A fence to be tested”, Jacques Beckaert, Bangkok Post, 15 May 1986, and “The military occupation of Kampuchea”, Indochina Report, September 1986). Maybe the rationale behind the K5 plan was one of the self- contradictions of this regime, which leads many Cambodians to compare it to the Khmer Rouge.

In 1986, thousands of refugees arrived at the Khmer-Thai border. Fear of returning to the labor of “defense of the fatherland” came first among the reasons that made them flee. (…) Despite the testimonies of these refugees, the K5 plan raised little interest abroad. A few rare journalists have described the work without triggering any international reaction to this new tragedy of the Khmer people. (The first journalist to have mentioned it at length in a French daily was Jean-Claude Pomonti, in an article entitled “Le mur vietnamien” (the Vietnamese Wall) published in Le Monde, 5-6 May 1986). Shortly before my departure from Phnom Penh, a Cambodian bitterly confided to me: “Nobody did anything for us during Pol Pot era, the same now, you can bet!”.


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