Tuesday, April 14, 2015

US or UN as the world's policeman? Don't count on it.

Flashback 40 years: A United States Marine on high alert as civilians queue to board a CH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter at Landing Zone (LZ) Hotel in Kampuchea's capital, Phnom Penh, on 12 April 1975. The LZ was established in soccer field less than a kilometre from the American Embassy and was chosen because the field was screened from the line of sight of Khmer Rouge artillery spotters by nearby buildings.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Phnom Penh. It is a pivotal moment in one of our ASEAN neighbour's history that many Singaporeans do not know nor care much about. 

It is a great pity because answers to burning questions that some Singaporeans have over the need for, and value of, our national defence and whether the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can be substituted by foreign military intervention can be found in Cambodia's bloody past.

Some two to three million people were killed in the blood bath that followed the Fall of Phnom Penh 40 years ago. It is an astonishing death toll beyond comprehension. The pogrom followed the collapse of the then-Kampuchean social system as the communist Khmer Rouge reset the country to Year Zero. Instability in Indo-China unsettled Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s as American strategists mulled over the future of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore if the Domino Theory held true.

Veteran war correspondent Denis Gray was among those airlifted from Phnom Penh by United States Marines during Operation Eagle Pull on 12 April 1975. Five days after the Americans flew off, Phnom Penh fell to communist forces. 

In an interview with Senang Diri, Mr Gray recounts what it was like in Phnom Penh as the dying city, besieged and under artillery fire from the Khmer Rouge forces, awaited its uncertain fate.

"Never truly trust a superpower to be your sole protector and never get into a position when you do need one for protection. Easily said, difficult to do but well worth remembering," said Mr Gray. 

To mark the 40th year since US forces pulled out from Phnom Penh, Mr Gray relooked that fateful day in a story titled "US handed Cambodia over to 'butcher' 40 years ago". Please click here for his story.

Phnom Penh's tragic past reveals a hard truth in global politics that has been replayed in battlegrounds the world over. It is worth reflecting upon Mr Gray's wartime experience because his account adds value to our understanding of just what underpins the Lion City's security, survival and continued success. 

1. What was the mood like among residents in Phnom Penh in early April 1975? 
The situation was desperate for the average resident -- food running out, rockets and howitzer rounds coming in and killing people, horrible hospital conditions and the Khmer Rouge around them on all sides. Some hoped that in the end the Americans might somehow save them. And despite all this, I never witnessed any panic. There was a heroic stoicism among so many Cambodians I met.  And also a kind of denial of the reality around them.

2. What was the worst-case situation the city's residents expected for Phnom Penh?
I suspect there may have been a few who vaguely  foresaw some of  what was going to happen. But they were definitely in the minority. Nobody I met predicted what actually happened. And that goes for not just the Cambodians although some diplomats and journalists feared there would be a bloodbath of some kind because of the reports that were coming in of how the Khmer Rouge treated their enemies or perceived enemies. Many educated Cambodians were convinced that although there would be some problems in the end the Khmer Rouge and those in Phnom Penh could work things about because as they kept saying ''we are all Khmer.'

3. Why did FANK (Forces armées nationales khmères, Khmer National Armed Forces) melt away even with the support of US weapons and firepower?
FANK didn't melt away. Some of the units fought very bravely until there was virtually no hope. This was amazing given the corrupt nature of many of their officers.  The war was not lost for lack of bravery and tenacity on the part of the average solider, but by the incredible greed, corruption and ineptness of the military leadership (with few outstanding exceptions). You can't win a war when some of your commanders are selling weapons to the enemy.As far as US fire power by early 1975 there was none and the supplies coming in were shrivelling away. 

4. What went through your mind on your final flight from Phnom Penh in April 1975? What personal belongings did you take with you?
Leaving Phnom Penh was one of the saddest moments of my life. Like many of those evacuated I felt a mix of shame, guilt of leaving behind Cambodian friends and colleagues, anger at Washington (although not men like Dean and his diplomats in the city) and great sadness. I left with the clothes on my back, shower shoes and a small suitcase mainly filled with my papers. 

5. What lessons, if any, does Fall of Phnom Penh have for teaching people about national resilience or self-sufficiency in defence?
The lessons are many and complex. I'd say one would be to never truly trust a superpower to be your sole protector and never get into a position when you do need one for protection. Easily said, difficult to do but well worth remembering. Given the sad state of the international order, self-sufficiency is to be highly commended. 

6. What would you say to someone who sees global powers/the UN as the world's policemen?
Ideally, I would love to see a totally neutral, strong, effective UN force as the world's peace keeper. Nationalism should be something thrown into history's dustbin. But that is likely a pipe dream. So we are stuck with superpowers running the global show. Sometimes the US and others have done the right thing in this arena, but the cardinal rule still seems to be: in the end you look out for No. 1 (i.e. your own national interest) first.

"I returned to Phnom Penh in 1980 very shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese. It was still a ghost town and unlike the 'Killing Fields' museums you see today, there was still blood in the torture chambers and clothes on the executed. People were on the edge of starvation and many were traumatized from their trials under the Khmer Rouge. 

"Since Cambodia, I have covered a dozen conflicts, including Gulf War I, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc. so I have seen places like Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kosovo vacated by the Serbs, etc. but nothing quite like the experience of Phnom Penh."

War correspondent Denis Gray on assignment with United States forces in Afghanistan.

Thank you Mr Denis Gray for sharing your insights into the Fall of Phnom Penh and your experience covering wars around the globe. Look forward to meeting you in the Lion City when you can make time to see us. :-)

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1 comment:

The said...

This is from Din Merican:

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger abandoned Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge when they sought “peace with honour” with the North Vietnamese. Sihanouk was replaced by a pro-US regime led by Lon Nol in a coup in 1970. The Pro- US administration proved to be inept and corrupt. The Khmer Rouge took over in 1975 to begin its reign of terror which end with the Vietnamese invasion of the Kingdom in 1979.That led to its international isolation until the Paris Peace Accord of 1991 followed by the UN sponsored elections in 1993.

The then Deputy Prime Minister Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak wrote this letter to US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean:

“Dear Excellency and Friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people, which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments. Prince Sirik Matak.”

There is a lesson to be learned from this Cambodian tragedy.