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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Vietnam’s Intervention in
Cambodia Revisited, 1979-2019
Carlyle A. Thayer
December 18, 2018

We request your assessment of Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia on the fortieth

anniversary of its intervention.
Q1: In your assessment, what is the general opinion held by international scholars
and historians on Vietnam’s role in Cambodia’s liberation from the Khmer Rouge in
1979? What is your own personal assessment?
ANSWER: The view of international scholars have changed from 1979 to the present.
In 1979 the Cambodia conflict took place during the Cold War when international
relations were polarized. The Cambodian conflict was viewed as a proxy war
between the Soviet Union and China. Further, Vietnam’s role in Cambodia was
compared to the Soviet role in the Afghanistan conflict. The key judgment by
international scholars in 1979 was that Vietnam has violated one of the cardinal
rules of international relations to use armed force against another country.
Since 1979 scholars have come to jettison the Cold War framework and view the
conflict in Cambodia as having its own driving forces. Vietnam was repeatedly
attacked by the Khmer Rouge from 1976 and during this period China became a
backer of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam thus faced threats on two fronts – in the
southwest and in the north. Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia is now widely
viewed as an act of self-defense.
I followed the emerging conflict between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam closely in
the 1970s. I first visited Phnom Penh in 1981 and continued to visit throughout the
1980s. I returned in May 1993 as a United Nations-accredited international observer
for the elections conducted by the United Nations Transitional Authority for
Cambodia (UNTAC). I was always convinced that Vietnam’s actions were motivated
by self-defense but Vietnam’s diplomatic stance at the time that the situation in
Cambodia was “irreversible” created difficulties in bringing the conflict to an early
Question 2: Some scholars and analysts have argued that Vietnam “invaded”
Cambodia under the guise of preventing genocide in 1979. What do you think about
this argument?
ANSWER: The public record from 1975 is clear, Vietnam continued to send fraternal
greetings to Democratic Kampuchea until relations sharply deteriorated in 1977-78.

Vietnamese military forces conducted large scale punitive raids into Cambodia in the
final quarter of 1977 to punish the Khmer Rouge for attacking Vietnamese villages
along the border. The Khmer Rouge kept attacking Vietnam. During 1978 a number
of Khmer Rouge officials and military officers, including Hun Sen, defected to
Vietnam and were gathered into a military force. These Cambodians were well
aware of the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge.
It is my assessment that Vietnam’s main reason for intervention was self-defense
and to prevent encirclement in a two front war by China. A second important reason
was to end the rule of the murderous Khmer Rouge and support Cambodians who
were willing to accept Vietnamese assistance. Vietnam’s propaganda directed at the
international community stressed both themes – self-defence against the Khmer
Rouge backed by China and ending the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Question 3: Cambodian leaders have repeatedly affirmed but for Vietnam’s
intervention the Cambodian people would not have survived. What is your
ANSWER: There can be no doubt that if Vietnam had not intervened in Cambodia the
genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge would have continued and that factional fighting
inside the Khmer Rouge would have aggravated the situation. It is absolutely true
that those Cambodians who were oppressed by the Khmer Rouge would not have
survived. Without Vietnamese assistance and support there would have been no
Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party, no People’s Republic of Kampuchea, no
State of Cambodia and certainly no Kingdom of Cambodia.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam’s Intervention in Cambodia Revisited,

1979-2019,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, December 17, 2018. All
background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
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