Thousands of diplomatic cables detailing Cambodia’s civil war leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 were published on anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks yesterday.
Dubbed the Kissinger Cables after then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the cache includes more than 1.7 million documents sent between 1973 and 1976.
Declassified by the US government in 2005, they remained virtually inaccessible before the WikiLeaks publication.
Leaked cables published by the site in 2010 and 2011 stunned governments across the globe, launching diplomatic crises and inciting tensions, with some deeming the leak the catalyst for the Arab Spring.
In Cambodia, the cables – which primarily spanned the mid-1990s to 2010 – offered a number of embarrassing revelations, including dirt on the nation’s top 10 tycoons, details about CPP factionalism and digs at the royal family.
Offering little in the way of scandalous disclosures, the Kissinger Cables provide instead a unique historical insight into a situation the Americans both helped create and exacerbate.
Some of the earliest cables hint at the US’s growing unease with Marshal Lon Nol – the US-backed general who led the 1970 coup against then head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
In a cable dated August 31, 1973, Ambassador Emory Swank reflected on the nation’s prospects days before his mission’s end.
“The leadership he has offered his poeple [sic] has been vacillating, inarticulate, unforceful and at times unintelligent, and his reputation, rightly or wrongly, is now so tarnished that he can expect to govern only in default of a successor.”
As early as the mid-1970s, it is clear the state of affairs was far from sustainable and that, without US support, the front would crumble almost instantly.
In an urgent May 1973 request that Kissinger continue green-lighting tactical air operations, Ambassador Swank notes there is no doubt that “over the past three years [it] has provided the necessary margin for survival”.
“Without regular Mekong convoys or a vast emergency airlift, Phnom Penh with its population of 1.3 million would not long remain a viable urban center. It would soon have no electricity, no industry, and rapidly dwindling stocks of such necessities as rice (there is a 38-day supply on hand at the moment). Unemployment, hunger and civil disorders would follow quickly in about that sequence.”
Over the course of the year, the failures will only grow more protracted. By April, 1974, a full year before the Khmer Rouge’s successful overthrow of Phnom Penh, ambassador John Dean off-ers a bleak evaluation of the Khmer National Armed For-ces’ (FANK) prospects.
“The purpose of this mess-age . . . is to correct what I detected when I was in Washington in March that somehow the government in Phnom Penh has turned the corner militarily,” Dean warns.
“Any euphoria engendered by the lessening of pressure on Phnom Penh in early February is not now justified.”
Highlighting the Khmer Rouge sorties into the provinces after failing to capture the capital, Dean notes they have been “forced . . . into a new and perhaps more promising provincial strategy”.
“As a newcomer here, I have been struck by the lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the government, FANK, and above all the population. In stark contrast to the rigid, harsh control of the Khmer communists, the government and FANK have been unable to instill[sic] a sense of discipline or impart much enthusiasm to civil or military ranks.”
Concurrent with the downfall of FANK is budding intelligence on the Khmer Rouge.
In a 1973 cable concerning a film by Sihanouk, a diplomat refers to Saloth Sar, later known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, as a “key [Khmer Communist] figure”.
In 1974, Dean fingers him as “the top military commander”, before highlighting the Comm-unists’ increasing distance from Sihanouk as they gain power.
“The [Khmer Communists] no longer make any effort to use Sihanouk’s waning prestige among the . . . peasantry and in fact are openly displaying their contempt for him in areas they occupy,” he writes.
“Public displays to the contrary, no two Khmer have harbored deeper animosity towards each other than Sihanouk and Khieu Samphan. The humilitation [sic] the prince dealt the deputy by having him stripped naked and beaten in public has not been equalled in modern Cambodian history.”
Dean, a keen observer of the situation, was one of just a handful of leaders to urge shifts in policy and testified repeatedly to the extent of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody incursion - warnings that went unheeded.
In the same cable, he caut-ions that the Khmer communist party “has set new records for ruthlessness in its drive to change the basic character of the Khmer peasantry, as has been amply attested to by thousands of refugees from KC-controlled regions”.
As the war progresses toward its vicious finale, the cables reflect increasing confusion and desperation.
“The forthcoming departure of the Australian embassy staff . . . is fairly well known around town. It has made many of my diplomatic colleagues who have the tendency of being jittery even more so,”Dean writes on March 13, 1975.
“At the last moment Khmers and foreigners alike frantically call their friends in the American embassy to ask to be put on the USAID flight to Bangkok or on other aircraft over which we have control to get out of the country. For all practical purposes we, the Americans, are now the only link with the outside world.”
When the US-backed Lon Nol regime crumbles, few with knowledge profess surprise. In what would be the final mess-age relayed by the embassy, on April 9, 1975, Dean sent the following note from former interior minister Ek Proeung to Prime Minister Long Boret:
“If the dept remains curious as to why the Cambodian conflict is ending the way it is after five years of bitter combat, it might place in juxtaposition (a) the fact that the Khmer Rouge are now within 75mm recoilless rifle range of the heart of Phnom Penh and (b) the message from the Marshal’s personal secretary to his prime minister describing the wonderful reception being accorded the exiled president by the Indonesians, including rooms in a luxurious motel, souvenirs of great value, viewing of high-class handicrafts, and all the other demonstrations of warmth and friendship. Talk about Nero . . . ”