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General who gave his all

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Cambodian villagers flee fighting in Samrong village, 20 kilometres south of the Thai border in northern Cambodia. Reuters

DIEN Del was a disting-uished field commander of the Khmer Republic from 1970-1975 and of the Khmer People’s National Liber-ation Armed Forces. He fought Vietnam’s military occupation of Cambodia from 1979 to1990.

Born in 1932 at Soc Trang, in what is now southern Vietnam, Del died in Phnom Penh on February 13.

I knew him as a friend and a comrade in arms. We met in Cambodia when he was a lieutenant-colonel and I was taking a semester out of graduate school to observe the situation in the field after then-head of state Prince Sihanouk was deposed on March 18, 1970.

We didn’t meet again until sometime after May, 1975 in the US. This time, Del was a refugee.

The Khmer Republic had coll-apsed on April 17 after the US withdrew from the region. Most government members — including Republican leader Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, who was executed by the Khmer Rouge — declined the US offer to be airlifted to safety.

A rising star, Del was a brigadier general commanding the 2nd Division in 1972, and was commander of the territorial forces and governor of Kandal province from 1974 to April 16, 1975.

His dream of setting up a base in northwest Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia’s towns and cities was thwarted by volatile conditions on the ground, and a helicopter took him to Thailand.

At the end of May, 1975, Del, his wife, and two children arrived as refugees in Alexandria , Virginia.

I reconnected with him.

Two years later, Del left the US for France. There, he and Khmer senior statesman Son Sann formed a committee for Cambodia’s liberation.

On February 1, 1979, he left Paris for Bangkok, and subsequently made his way to the border region, where he persuaded 13 armed groups to merge. A month later, Del proclaimed the Khmer People’s National Armed Forces; he was named chief of general staff.

In the fall of 1980, Del, wearing army fatigues, drove an oxcart as he escorted me, fresh from the US, down a muddy road to show off the KPNLAF “liberated zone”.

Del and his civilian colleague Hing Kunthon were determined to integrate me into the movement.

At Banteay Ampil, they enrolled me in a political warfare training class. Del signed my certificate in October, 1980. The year after, 1981, Del sent me to the Military School for a crash course in the KPNLAF’s first officer training class.

Foreign observers’ descriptions of Del in Wikipedia are accurate: he commanded respect from superiors, colleagues and subordinates; seas-oned journalists who saw him in combat “admired” his appearance of calm and control; he was “perhaps [the army’s] best general, a man with a merry sparkle in his eyes . . . [strutting] up and down in his tiger suit, pistol at his hip, saying he would fight to the last.”

I worked with Del in good and bad times. He had his strengths and weaknesses. When I was with him in the field, his confident demeanour sometimes belied the danger at hand. Though he seemed to hesitate before signing the authorisation for my first mission with a KPNLAF company into the heavily mined, Vietnamese-held area of Beung Ampil, a stone’s throw away, he did let me go. A Brit with a movie camera also went.

As we moved, the company commander radioed progress to HQ. When a firefight broke out, Del’s voice was heard as I busily snapped photos of a combatant falling, a couple with blood on their clothes.

Suddenly, an arm dragged me, and we jumped behind a small mound. As a mortar shell crashed on the very spot where I’d stood seconds earlier, I rose with my camera; a soldier pushed me down.

The company commander rad-ioed that we two civilians were all right, no thanks to my naiveté, but it was a close call.

When Del received intelligence reports from his foreign friends — the exact date the enemy would attack the headquarters — he let me stay at HQ in a bunker.

I watched as he met with his commanders. He took me with him as he toured the defence line. He joked with troops, suggesting how best to raise huge columns to obstruct tanks, where else to implant mines.

Reaching a tall tree that some said was home to a bad spirit, Del pulled out his pistol and fired shots at it. “That should do it,” he said. Those around him let out a nervous laugh.

The enemy opened fire before dawn, followed by continuous shelling until mid-morning. I was in the bunker, praying the roof wouldn’t collapse as shells exploded above.

Come morning, Del, puffing a cigarette and smelling of alcohol, told me to run to the border.

“Someone has to live to continue the struggle. We shouldn’t all die here,” he shouted as I protested there wasn’t enough time to reach the border, then shoved me out.

Ampil never fell. Reporters were sceptical as we reported that KP forces had destroyed at least one tank. It wasn’t until a few years later that troops went back and photographed a rusted tank at the site of the battle.

Del, a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, gave his all to bring a republican form of government to Cambodia, and will be fondly remembered by his countrymen.

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