On December 25, 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia. Phnom Penh fell, after minimal resistance, on January 7, 1979, and on the following day an anti-Khmer Rouge faction announced the formation of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Council (KPRC), with Heng Samrin as president of the new ruling body.

On arriving in Phnom Penh in 1979 after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge James Pringle wrote in the New York Times: “I had known Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge takeover. In less than four years, it seemed to have regressed to the 14th century, at least the country side. As for Phnom Penh , it was still largely devoid of people; civilians who did manage to enter were facing starvation, picking up odd rice grains in the street.”

According to Lonely Planet: The Vietnamese installed a new government led by several former Khmer Rouge officers, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. The Khmer Rouge’s patrons, the Chinese communists, launched a massive reprisal raid across Vietnam’s northernmost border in early 1979 in an attempt to buy their allies time. It failed, and after 17 days the Chinese withdrew, their fingers badly burnt by their Vietnamese enemies. The Vietnamese then staged a show trial in which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were condemned to death for their genocidal acts. [Source: Lonely Planet+]

“As the conflict in Cambodia raged, Sihanouk agreed, under pressure from China, to head a military and political front opposed to the Phnom Penh government. The Sihanouk-led resistance coalition brought together – on paper, at least – FUNCINPEC (the French acronym for the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia), which comprised a royalist group loyal to Sihanouk; the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a noncommunist grouping formed by former prime minister Son Sann; and the Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea and by far the most powerful of the three. The heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge were swept aside to ensure a compromise that suited the great powers. +

A 1991-United Nations-brokered peace pact lead to elections in 1993 and the restoration of King Sihanouk as a constitutional monarch.

See Ousting of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnam and Decline of the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia After the Vietnamese Invasion

On January 8, 1979, a pro-Vietnamese, anti-Khmer Rouge faction announced the formation of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Council (KPRC), with Heng Samrin as president of the new ruling body. On January 10, the KPRC proclaimed that the new official name of Cambodia was the People's Republic of Kampuchea. Within a week, the PRK notified the United Nations Security Council that it was the sole legitimate government of the Cambodian people. Vietnam was the first country to recognize the new regime, and Phnom Penh lost no time in restoring diplomatic relations with Hanoi. From February 16 to February 19, the PRK and Vietnam held their first summit meeting in Phnom Penh and cemented their relationship by signing a twenty- five-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty declared that the "peace and security of the two countries are closely interrelated and that the two Parties are duty-bound to help each other...." Article 2 of the treaty dealt specifically with mutual security assistance to help each defend against "all schemes and acts of sabotage by the imperialist and international reactionary forces." The two governments also signed agreements for cooperation on economic, cultural, educational, public health, and scientific and technological issues. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) had "its ultimate origin," according to Cambodia expert Michael Vickery, "in the same revolutionary victory of 17 April 1975 as does the rival Pol Pot [Democratic Kampuchea] group." The PRK's patron since 1979 has been Vietnam, and in late 1987, many observers believed that the survival of the Phnom Penh regime depended on Vietnam's continued occupation of the country. *

The PRK was established in January 1979 in line with the broad revolutionary program set forth by the Kampuchean (or Khmer) National United Front for National Salvation, which was formed on December 2, 1978, in a zone liberated from the Khmer Rouge. Of the front's fourteen central committee members, the top two leaders--Heng Samrin, president, and Chea Sim, vice president--were identified as "former" KCP officials. Ros Samay, secretary general of the KNUFNS, was a former KCP "staff assistant" in a military unit. The government of Democratic Kampuchea denounced the KNUFNS, as "a Vietnamese political organization with a Khmer name," because several of its key members had been affiliated with the KCP. *

The initial objectives of the KNUFNS were to rally the people under its banner, to topple the Pol Pot regime, to adopt a new constitution for a "democratic state advancing toward socialism," to build mass organizations, and to develop a revolutionary army. Its foreign policy objectives included pursuing nonalignment, settling disputes with neighbors through negotiations, putting an end to "the border war with Vietnam" provoked by the Pol Pot regime, and opposing foreign military bases on Cambodian soil. On December 26, 1978, the day after the Vietnamese invasion, the KNUFNS reiterated its opposition to foreign military bases. *

On January 1, 1979, the front's central committee proclaimed a set of "immediate policies" to be applied in the "liberated areas." One of these policies was to establish "people's self-management committees" in all localities. These committees would form the basic administrative structure for the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Council (KPRC), decreed on January 8, 1979, as the central administrative body for the PRK. The KPRC served as the ruling body of the Heng Samrin regime until June 27, 1981, when a new Constitution required that it be replaced by a newly elected Council of Ministers. Pen Sovan became the new prime minister. He was assisted by three deputy prime ministers-- Hun Sen, Chan Si, and Chea Soth. *

Early Events After the Khmer Rouge was Ousted

On January 10, 1979 the KPRC proclaimed that the new official name of Cambodia was the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Within a week, the PRK notified the United Nations Security Council that it was the sole legitimate government of the Cambodian people. Vietnam was the first country to recognize the new regime, and Phnom Penh lost no time in restoring diplomatic relations with Hanoi. From February 16 to February 19, the PRK and Vietnam held their first summit meeting in Phnom Penh and cemented their relationship by signing a twenty- five-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty declared that the "peace and security of the two countries are closely interrelated and that the two Parties are duty-bound to help each other...." Article 2 of the treaty dealt specifically with mutual security assistance to help each defend against "all schemes and acts of sabotage by the imperialist and international reactionary forces." The two governments also signed agreements for cooperation on economic, cultural, educational, public health, and scientific and technological issues. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Despite objections from the Soviet Union and from Czechoslovakia, the UN Security Council allowed Prince Sihanouk to argue the case for Democratic Kampuchea in early January 1979. Sihanouk--who had distanced himself from Khmer Rouge brutality, charged that Vietnam had committed flagrant acts of aggression against Cambodia, and he asked the council to demand an end to Hanoi's interference in Cambodian affairs. He also urged that the council not recognize the puppet regime in Phnom Penh, and he appealed to all nations to suspend aid to Vietnam. *

In the UN Security Council debate, Vietnam unsuccessfully challenged Sihanouk's claim to represent Cambodia, asserting that he spoke for a regime that no longer existed. Vietnam also charged that the Pol Pot regime had provoked the border war and that Hanoi's presence in Cambodia was necessary and was strictly an issue between Vietnam and the PRK. Hanoi argued, moreover, that the Cambodian crisis was a matter of internal strife among rival groups that was brought on by Pol Pot's atrocities against his own countrymen. Hanoi actually asserted that there was no "Cambodian problem" that warranted a debate in the UN or anywhere else in the international political arena. *

The fifteen-member UN Security Council, however, failed to adopt a resolution on Cambodia. Seven nonaligned members on the council had submitted a draft resolution, which was endorsed by Britain, China, France, Norway, Portugal, and the United States. But the draft, which called for a cease-fire in Cambodia and for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from that country, was not approved because of objections from the Soviet Union and from Czechoslovakia. *

International Response to the Ousting of the Khmer Rouge

In rapid succession, the Soviet Union, other Marxist-Leninist states, and a number of pro-Moscow developing countries had also recognized the new regime. By January 1980, twenty-nine countries had recognized the PRK, yet nearly eighty countries continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

More countries voiced opposition to Vietnam's involvement in Cambodia. Most vocal was Thailand, the security of which was threatened directly by the turn of events in Cambodia. (Thailand shares an 800-kilometer border with Cambodia, and historically it has regarded the country as a buffer against Vietnamese expansion) The Thai government demanded Vietnam's immediate withdrawal from Cambodia so that the Cambodians would be able to choose their own government without foreign interference. Thailand's allies in ASEAN-- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore--agreed with Bangkok's position. *

The United States also agreed with Thailand's position. Although it had never recognized Democratic Kampuchea and disapproved of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, the United States nonetheless supported Democratic Kampuchea's request for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. China expressed its support for the Khmer Rouge and even accused Vietnam of attempting to force Cambodia into an Indochinese federation and of serving as an "Asian Cuba"--a surrogate for the Soviet policy of global hegemony. *

Soviet leaders hailed the PRK's "remarkable victory" and expressed their full support for a peaceful, independent, democratic, and nonaligned Cambodia that would advance toward socialism. Moscow also accused Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime of genocide and implied that China had imposed the regime on Cambodia. *

The fate of Cambodia was interwoven with the security interests of its Asian neighbors. For example, on February 17, 1979, China attacked Vietnam, apparently to ease Vietnamese pressure against Thailand and against Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The Cambodian question surfaced again in the UN Security Council session that was convened on February 23 to consider ending the hostilities along the Vietnamese-Chinese border and in Cambodia. This time the focus was on regional power politics; China demanded that the UN Security Council censure Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia, and the Soviet Union asked that the council condemn China for its "aggression" against Vietnam. The United States called for the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Vietnam and of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia. *

In late 1979, the stage was set for an international political showdown over Cambodia. In September of that year, the UN General Assembly rejected the efforts of the Soviet Union, the Congo, and Panama to challenge the legality of Democratic Kampuchea and decided that it should continue to be represented at the United Nations. The vote was seventy-one to thirty-five in support of the decision, with thirty-four abstentions. (Sihanouk, who no longer represented the Khmer Rouge regime, argued that the Cambodian seat should be left vacant because neither of the two Cambodian claimants had the mandate of the Cambodian people.) In November, the UN General Assembly adopted an ASEAN-sponsored resolution by a vote of eighty-one to twenty-one, with twenty-nine abstentions, calling for immediate Vietnamese disengagement from Cambodia. The resolution also called on all states to refrain from interference in, and acts of aggression against, Cambodia and its Southeast Asian neighbors. The assembly mandated the UN secretary general to explore the possibility of an international conference on Cambodia and appealed for international humanitarian aid for the country's population and for its refugees who had fled to neighboring countries. *

Vietnamese Rule Over Cambodia

Vietnam ruled Cambodia from 1979 to 1989 through a puppet regime. Although life under the Vietnamese was infinitely better than life under Khmer Rouge it was still no picnic. The Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government was a dictatorship that controlled the political through a network of party-appointed village chiefs and was not shy about using assassination and torture to silence critics.

Cambodia's People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime, under the leadership of Heng Samrin, set out to restore the country's social and economic life, which had been racked by a decade of political turmoil. The country was renamed “the People’s Republic of Kampuchea” and ruled by Khmer officials and Vietnamese advisors, backed up by occupying troops. The Vietnamese soldiers and advisors gradually withdrew, and the country was renamed again, the of “State of Cambodia.”

The Vietnamese-backed army dug up mass graves and displayed the bones and skulls as evidence of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was tried in absentia for "genocide crimes" in 1979 by the Vietnamese-back government and sentenced to death.

Vietnam promised repeatedly to leave Cambodia by 1990, and by the end of 1987, Hanoi had staged six partial troop withdrawals. Officials in Hanoi indicated, however, that phased withdrawals would end and that Vietnamese forces would return to Cambodia if there were a threat to Vietnam's national security. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and most Western nations were skeptical of the moves and viewed them as merely disguised troop rotations. Among Cambodia's noncommunist neighbors, Thailand especially was concerned about the threat posed to its own security by a large, well-armed Vietnamese army just to the east of its borders. On the diplomatic front, the United Nations (UN) routinely condemned the Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia on an annual basis, and most countries withheld diplomatic recognition from the pro-Vietnamese Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh. *

Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-Backed Government After the Khmer Rouge was Ousted

After Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge and established a government in Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese set out to tighten their grip on the country by occupying and colonizing it. Meanwhile, the deposed Khmer Rouge regime regrouped in remote enclaves near the Thai border to give armed resistance to Vietnamese forces and the puppet government in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

At the end of the 1970s, Cambodia was divided politically and territorially under two regimes, each claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the nation. After that the competing regimes have been locked in an armed struggle in Cambodia, as one side contested the Vietnamese presence and the other acquiesced more or less grudgingly to its role as Hanoi's surrogate. *

Western nations refused to do anything to help Cambodia while it was under Vietnamese control. Shamefully, the United States backed the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia because the were fighting against the Vietnamese. The United States even encouraged China to supply the Khmer Rouge with military and humanitarian because Vietnam was an ally of the Soviet Union,

Effort by the Vietnamese army to crush the Khmer Rouge repeatedly failed. The Vietnamese were reluctant to leave because they didn't want an anti-Vietnamese government like the Khmer Rouge to come to power.

See Hun Sen, See Vietnam

Opposition to the Vietnamese-Backed Cambodian Government

Opposition to the Vietnam-backed Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime of Heng Samrin had been growing since 1979. The most prominent opposition group was the Khmer Rouge, which sought to reestablish its political legitimacy and to mobilize the Cambodian people against the Vietnamese.In January 1979, Khmer Rouge leaders announced the formation of the Patriotic and Democratic Front of the Great National Union of Kampuchea (PDFGNUK, the Khmer Rouge), a popular front organization in which the Kampuchean (or Khmer) Communist Party (KCP), under Pol Pot planned to play a dominant role. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The first and principal noncommunist resistance group was the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) led by Son Sann. The front's military arm was the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF). It was originally formed, in March 1979, by General Dien Del, a former army officer under Lon Non's Khmer Republic. Son Sann's formation of the KPNLF on October 9, 1979, coincided with the ninth anniversary of the founding of the Khmer Republic and therefore symbolized rejection of "Sihanoukism." After 1979 Son Sann and Sihanouk often clashed over the issue of coalition-building and national reconciliation, despite their common distaste for the Khmer Rouge and for the Vietnamese occupation. After 1985 the KPNLF fell into disarray as a result of leadership disputes in the movement's top echelon. By late 1987, it still had not regained its former stature or fighting strength. *

The second noncommunist, nationalist resistance faction was the Sihanouk group called initially the Movement for the National Liberation of Kampuchea (Mouvement pour la Libération Nationale du Kampuchéa - MOULINAKA), formed in August 1979 by Kong Sileah after his split with General Dien Del. In September, Sihanouk set up the Confederation of Khmer Nationalists from his base in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). The confederation lacked support because key actors in the Cambodian situation perceived it to be merely a forum, and that only for "committed Sihanoukists." Around March 1981, the MOULINAKA group joined with other small pro-Sihanouk factions to establish a political organization called the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif (FUNCINPEC). The movement soon formed its own armed wing, the Sihanouk National Army (Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste - ANS), which began minor incursions into Cambodia. As a political movement, FUNCINPEC quickly acquired a legitimacy beyond its numbers, because of the impeccable nationalist credentials of its head, Sihanouk. Moreover, although it remained the smallest of the Khmer resistance groups until 1985, its quest for stature was abetted by its having neither the opprobrious human rights record of the Khmer Rouge to live down, nor the debilitating leadership disputes of the KPNLF with which to contend. *

Khmer Rouge’s Struggle Against the Vietnamese-Backed Cambodia Government

As part of an image-rebuilding effort, the Khmer Rouge announced the replacement, in December 1979, of Prime Minister Pol Pot with the politically moderate Khieu Samphan. The replacement did not affect Pol Pot's position as leader of the KCP or his control of the Khmer Rouge armed forces, officially called the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK). Khieu Samphan retained his position as president of the State Presidium of Democratic Kampuchea, a post equivalent to head of state under the 1975 constitution of Democratic Kampuchea. At about the same time, it also was disclosed that the political program of the PDFGNUK, adopted in December, would serve as the provisional fundamental law of Democratic Kampuchea until free elections could be held. Sihanouk described the episode as a ploy designed to give the Khmer Rouge's "odious face" a mask of respectability. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

According to Lonely Planet: In 1984 the Vietnamese overran all the major rebel camps inside Cambodia, forcing the Khmer Rouge and its allies to retreat into Thailand. From this time the Khmer Rouge and its allies engaged in guerrilla warfare aimed at demoralising their opponents. Tactics used by the Khmer Rouge included shelling government-controlled garrison towns, planting thousands of mines in rural areas, attacking road transport, blowing up bridges, kidnapping village chiefs and targeting civilians. The Khmer Rouge also forced thousands of men, women and children living in the refugee camps it controlled to work as porters, ferrying ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across heavily mined sections of the border. The Vietnamese for their part laid the world’s longest minefield, known as K-5 and stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao border, in an attempt to seal out the guerrillas. They also sent Cambodians into the forests to cut down trees on remote sections of road to prevent ambushes. Thousands died of disease and from injuries sustained from land mines. The Khmer Rouge was no longer in power, but for many the 1980s was almost as tough as the 1970s, one long struggle to survive. [Source: Lonely Planet +]

During the mid-1980s the British government dispatched the Special Air Service (SAS) to a Malaysian jungle camp to train guerrilla fighters in land mine–laying techniques. Although officially assisting the smaller factions, it is certain the Khmer Rouge benefited from this experience. It then used these new-found skills to intimidate and terrorise the Cambodian people. The USA gave more than US$15 million a year in aid to the noncommunist factions of the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition. +

Cambodia in the 1980s

During 1979 the country was still reeling from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and the lack of educated and qualified personnel to staff administrative posts was hampering efforts to reestablish a civil government. Most of the country's educated elite had been murdered during the Pol Pot era, while others had fled to safety in Vietnam. (In August 1979, a Phnom Penh "people's revolutionary tribunal" tried Pol Pot and his closest confidant, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, in absentia, on charges of genocidal crimes and then sentenced them to death.) Another complication for the Heng Samrin regime was the growing Khmer Rouge guerrilla resistance in the western and the northwestern border areas. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

By mid-1980, life in villages and in towns had stabilized somewhat, and relief aid from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and some Western countries had helped to prevent mass starvation. Meanwhile, the regime had managed gradually to extend its administrative control to outlying areas close to the Thai border and had initiated the drafting of a constitution in January 1980. The National Assembly, which had been elected in May 1981, formally adopted and promulgated the Constitution in June. *

When the Khmer Rouge was driven out many Cambodian were forced to work on work gangs. The only foreign journalists were from the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Cuba. For much of the 1980s Cambodia remained closed to the Western world, save for the presence of some humanitarian aid groups. Government policy was effectively under the control of the Vietnamese, so Cambodia found itself very much in the Eastern-bloc camp. The economy was in tatters for much of this period, as Cambodia, like Vietnam, suffered from the effects of a US-sponsored embargo.

When the Khmer Rouge was finally driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, there were maybe 100,000 living people in Phnom Penh. An East German journalist who visited Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge left told National Geographic there were so many corpses lying around that helicopters flew overhead spraying disinfectants. In 1980 a Soviet diplomat said he couldn't walk in the side streets, the smell was so awful. Even so, people slowly trickled back.

By the late 1980s, Phnom Penh was a quiet place in the day but dangerous at night. Monivong Boulevard was the only real busy street. The primary motored vehicles were 1960s-era Honda motorscooters, and there were few of those. The only hotels that welcomed visitors were the Samakhi and Manorim. A room with a Russian air conditioner and Vietnamese mosquito netting went for $35 night. At night the city was almost absolute black. You could hear occasional gun fire, sometimes from the Khmer Rouge but more often than not from drunk soldiers.

Most people who visited Phnom Penh at this time arrived from Saigon. There were no flights form Thailand and the border between Thailand and Cambodia was closed. Long distance calls were routed through Moscow. A bridge blasted apart in 1972 was still blasted apart in the 1980s. Ships sat rusting in the docks with no goods to carry. Squatter communities established themselves in various parts of the city.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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