Former Official Recalls Cambodian Collapse
US abandonment left Cambodia open to a savage future
On April 10, John Gunther Dean, the US ambassador to Cambodia at the fall of Phnom Penh, gave a startling interview to Denis D. Gray of the Associated Press, in which Dean accused the US of abandoning the country and “handing it over to the butcher.” Dean left on one of the last helicopters out. Chhang Song was President Lon Nol’s last Minister of Information. Here, in a story published by the Khmer Times of Phnom Penh, he describes in grim detail what Dean and the other Americans left behind.
In early April, 1975, when I was with Prime Minister Long Boret and President Lon Nol in Bali, we discussed what should be done in the event of the fall of Phnom Penh.
We agreed the best plan would be to move the government headquarters to the deep water seaport of Kampong Som (now Sihanoukville). From there, we would plan resistance against the communist Khmer Rouge.
The direction would be southwest along National Road 4, to Kampong Som. Evacuation would take place by road, jungle and airlift. The port city offered the point of greatest accessibility for supplies and a continuation of the struggle. A sea evacuation from Kampong Som would represent a final line of safety. Airfields at Kampong Som and on one of the nearby islands had been specially built for the purpose. There were even plans to relocate foreign embassies to the port city.
Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia’s northernmost province, was added to the plan as another point of resistance and a rallying point for retreating government forces. Its location close to the Thai border offered advantages.
With no longer any assurance of outside assistance, journeys to these resistance sites appeared extremely hazardous on the evening of April 16, one day before the end. The only remaining option was to fly the entire cabinet and the top military commander to Oddar Meanchey province. An ultra-secret plan was prepared.
Secret Plan: Flight to Oddar Meanchey
At 4 am on April 17, helicopters would pick up cabinet ministers and military commanders in front of Wat Botum, in an empty field south of the Royal Palace. Ministers and military commanders who had been in session all through the night, left military headquarters in the early hours of the morning for their final rendezvous at the pagoda, before leaving Phnom Penh.
At the pagoda, it was quiet. It was a quiet that was foreboding and threatening. For these men, accustomed to years of violent war, the quiet seemed abnormal. Thirty of the republic’s top civil and military leaders, their wives and children, were there. The men wore their khaki uniforms. The prime minister and Gen. Sutsakhan and their families were there.
The chimes at the pagoda struck four, then four and one-half, then five. The day began to break. No helicopters landed. Helicopters and airplanes flying high in the clouds, on support missions to the front line, were the only ones to be seen. The cabinet was left on the ground, to ponder its next step. Somebody had got his signals crossed.
Hope of evacuating the cabinet to Oddar Meanchey to continue the resistance was fading. “They are not coming,” somebody in the group said in a tired, resigned voice.
In the last days before the fall, some ministers spent their nights at military headquarters, the Etat-Major Général on Norodom Blvd, which now was used for cabinet meetings. They slept on sofas, desks, and even on the floor. Some kept a small amount of luggage with them, clothes and toiletries wrapped in linen sheets. There were, in effect, refugees.
After the aborted helicopter evacuation in front of Wat Botum, Prime Minister Boret and the cabinet returned to the military headquarters just before 6 am. Deep anxiety, agony and intrigue were all present on that morning of April 17, 1975. After an evening of steady rocket fire, in the morning there was a death-like silence. Not a rocket, not a shot, nor an artillery shell could be heard.
At 6 am, Ung Bun Huor, president of the National Assembly, walked through the gate to the military headquarters. He looked cheerful enough considering the circumstances.
“Peace is at hand,” he said mimicking Henry Kissinger. “I believe we have been successful,” he added. He referred to a peace proposal the government offered the communist side just three days earlier. At Kissinger’s urging, a message was sent to Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing, via the Red Cross, officially inviting him to return to Cambodia and head a government of national reconciliation. The message stated that the republican army would surrender to him and welcome him back as head of state.
In Phnom Penh, at dawn on April 17, it was widely assumed that the lull in fighting must be the consequence of Prince Sihanouk’s acceptance of the offer and his orders to his men to cease fighting. Pacing up and down, Bun Hour related what he had seen that morning. Beginning at 5 am, he had driven around the city’s defense perimeter, feeling out the front lines. Before, they had been closing in dramatically on the capital. Now, all was quiet.
Peninsula Invaded Overnight
While this news was being received with a mixture of feelings, the telephone rang. Admiral Vong Sarendy, chief of the Cambodian Navy, answered the call. It was from his headquarters located on the tip of the Chroy Changvar Peninsula. There were suspicious movements directed toward the naval base, the caller reported. Boats could be seen coming from the opposite shore. Sarendy immediately requested permission to return to his headquarters to meet the enemy threat.
Thirty minutes passed. The lull in fighting was suddenly broken by the deafening noise of chattering machinegun fire in the distance. Once again the phone rang at the military headquarters. This time it was Admiral Sarendy himself. He had reached his own headquarters now and was reporting a ferocious attack launched by enemy forces against the naval base. They had crossed the river during the night and now occupied much of Chroy Changvar Peninsula.
Adm. Sarendy’s voice betrayed little emotion as he talked to his chief. But he was aware that the end was in sight. In the background, the sounds of machinegun fire and the explosion of rockets could be heard.
“They are all around us now,” he said simply. “They talked to me through our radio, directly. They demanded that we surrender and raise the white flag at once.”
Gen. Sutsakhan said: “We are in deep trouble. We are besieged. I am no longer in a position to give you orders. Do whatever you judge best. You are on your own.”
Gen. Sutsakhan spoke in a resigned tone. He wished his Chief of Naval Forces good luck and signed off. Prime Minister Boret listened to the grim report without saying a word. He left and jumped into a Land Rover and drove to the river’s edge.