Veterans of the KPNLF mark their 30th anniversary, saying their nationalism and fight against communism and corruption remain relevant to the Kingdom.
Without the resistance, Cambodia would be wearing a vietnamese hat.
THREE decades on from the founding of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) in the remote jungles of Battambang province, veteran resistance fighters say the group’s controversial legacy – and that of its president and founder Son Sann – remain relevant in a changing Cambodia.
One of the main resistance factions to emerge along the Thai border following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime by Vietnamese troops in January 1979, the KPNLF prompted controversy for its role in the decade-long civil war against the Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh.
During a ceremony at the Son Sann memorial stupa in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district on Friday, a dwindling group of KPNLF veterans gathered to reflect on their experiences in the resistance and promote the continuing pertinence of the faction’s goals.
Svay Ngov, a soldier who lost both of his legs in the service of the KPNLF, said the sacrifice was worthwhile in the pursuit of the group’s aims.
“I made sacrifices for the sake of my conscience, which was to fight against the foreigners who invaded Cambodia, fight against the Khmer Rouge and fight against corruption in society,” he said in a speech at the ceremony.
“These three core issues remain unresolved.”
Son Soubert, Son Sann’s son and an active member of the movement, said it played an integral role in establishing the 1993 Constitution and helped usher in the current system of multiparty democracy.
“We fulfilled our aim of bringing about national reconciliation and, even if we have never ruled the country, we still continue to play a role in promoting democracy,” he said on Sunday.
The KPNLF was established on October 9, 1979, by a small group of nationalists, “white” Khmers and officials from the Sihanouk and Lon Nol regimes, unified in their opposition to communism and to the presence of Vietnamese forces in the country.
Recruiting its support from the flood of refugees seeking sanctuary in its bases along the Thai border, the KPNLF – with support from the United States, Europe and China – provided social services and waged a continuing insurgency against the Phnom Penh government.
The Cold War calculus of the age, however, created strange bedfellows. In June 1982, Son Sann entered into a coalition – the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) – with the royalist Funcinpec and remnants of the Khmer Rouge, an association that even today prompts controversy.
General Dien Del, the KPNLF’s former general chief of staff who was present at the founding of the group in 1979 and travelled to China to procure its first shipment of military aid, said the group’s aim was to act as a bulwark against the “Vietnamisation” of the country during the occupation of the 1980s.
Despite the Vietnamese military withdrawal from the country in 1989, however, Dien Del said, its influence remained.
“Even if the foreign troops withdrew, civilians remained and supported the Phnom Penh government,” he said, referring to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the successor to the communist regime of the 1980s.
“Now there are Vietnamese everywhere because slaves of the Vietnamese took control of the country.”
When asked whether the Vietnamese deserved any credit for overthrowing Pol Pot, Dien Del stood firm.
“Not at all,” he replied. “They were an occupation force. Without the resistance, Cambodia would be wearing a Vietnamese hat.”
Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, denied the charge, saying that by throwing in its lot with Pol Pot, the KPNLF had squandered its credibility.
“After we rescued the people from Pol Pot and stopped Pol Pot from returning to the country, the [KPNLF] and Funcinpec set up an alliance with the Khmer Rouge,” he said, emphasising the CPP’s independence from Vietnam.
“[We] have never taken a foreigner as our boss. Those criticising us should check and balance their historical background.”
Despite the controversy of its anti-Vietnamese nationalism, old resistance fighters said their animating principles – to resist foreign occupation, prevent a return to the “genocidal” Khmer Rouge regime and fight corruption – have been undiminished by time.
“Today, we find that all of these principles are still critical,” said Pol Ham, who joined the KPNLF in 1979 and served as the head of its information service from 1989 until 1991.
“We have contributed a lot to the liberation of our country and for [its] reconstruction.”
After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, the KPNLF collapsed after its civilian and military wings split into separate political parties to contest the 1993 elections.
Despite the party’s ignominious end, however, others said Son Sann was still able to play an instrumental role in the peace process.
“When people were repatriated from the border, the seeds of human rights and democracy were created inside the country,” said Lao Mong Hay, a researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission who served as an aide to Son Sann from 1988 to 1992, in an interview in February.
“Unfortunately, because Son Sann was not successful at the elections, we could not translate the ideas that we cherished into concrete actions.”