Forty years after the victory of the Southwestern border defence war and the international mission helping the Cambodian people to overthrow the Pol Pot genocidal regime, Gen. Pham Van Tra (former Politburo member, former Minister of National Defence) couldn’t forget the days of fighting in the neighbouring country. He called those days as the period during which the justice won the cruelty and volunteer Vietnamese soldiers – the “Buddhist army” as called by the Cambodian people – heightened the spirit of internationalism.
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the victory of the Southwestern border defence war and the joint victory of Vietnam and Cambodia over the Pol Pot genocidal regime (January 7, 1979 – January 7, 2019) e-newspaper VietnamPlus had an interview with Gen. Pham Van Tra.
“We want to maintain peace with the Cambodian people”
During the Southwestern border defence war, Gen. Pham Van Tra held the post of head of Division 330, Military Region 9. Afterwards, he was appointed as Deputy Commander of Battlefield 979.
Reporter: Could you please talk about the historical context of the Southwestern border defence war as well as the struggle against the Pol Pot genocidal regime?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: In fact, not until 1977, had the Pol Pot troops attacked us. Since April 1975, after taking power in Cambodia, Pol Pot usually spread distorted information about Vietnam and sent its troops to disturb and invade our nation’s territory in the Southwestern sea. They even occupied Tho Chu island and several other islets of Vietnam, cruelly killing many civilians.
At that time, after the resistance war against the US ended, I was assigned to continue commanding Regiment 1 U Minh and then Division 4 of Military Region 9, to directly participate in the fight against the invasion of the reactionary force Pol Pot-Ieng Sary, regain Vietnam’s sovereignty over Phu Quoc, Tho Chu, Hon Ong and Hon Ba islands and safeguard the country’s borderline from Tinh Bien (An Giang) to Ha Tien (Kien Giang).
However, at the end of 1976, the Pol Pot troops increased and expanded attacks and invasion of our country’s territory and somewhere 15km into our domain, causing tensions along the Southwestern border. These attacks were not unprompted actions but directed systematically and prepared carefully. In the night of April 30, 1977, the Pol Pot deployed troops at the division level and local forces to stage large-scale attacks along our country’s Southwestern border.
Reporter: When receiving information about the Pol Pot troops’ official invasion of Vietnam’s territory, how did you feel?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: At the time, I was head of U Minh 1 Regiment. This was a very special period when the resistance war against the US imperialists just ended. The regiment’s officers and soldiers were very happy as the country was liberated and regained peace and thought that they could visit their homeland after many years.
Hence, when hearing the news the Pol Pot troops invaded Vietnam’s territory, I was very surprised and felt indignant. The Ministry of National Defence decided to send us to the sea to liberate islands such as Tho Chu and Phu Quoc.
It is necessary to say that at that time we fought to defend our Fatherland but not combat against the Cambodian people. Our officers and soldiers were all ready to sacrifice to regain the islands occupied the Pol Pot troops.
In 1975, on Tho Chu island alone, the Pol Pot troops killed 500 Vietnamese civilians. If the Vietnam People’s Army did not come early, Phu Quoc island would also fell into the same situation. We also promptly protected islands that the Pol Pot troops had not occupied yet.
Reporter: In the following years, the fighting along the Southwestern border continued escalating when the Pol Pot troops staged comprehensive attacks along the border. At the time, how was the general spirit of our army and people?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: At the end of April 1977, the Pol Pot troops used divisions and local forces of border provinces to concurrently attack and invade the Southwestern border. At that time, our people, especially those along the border, were very panic. On the border of Military Region 9 alone, they mobilised up to seven battalions and local forces of Takeo and Kandal provinces to attack 13 stations of the armed police and 14 out of 16 communes from Vinh Gia to Vinh Xuong (An Giang).
At that moment, our people, especially those along the border, were very panic. But regular troops were immediately mobilised from divisions to coordinate with local armed forces and armed police. Our soldiers fought back fiercely to protect our people and every sacred inch of soil of the Fatherland and gradually pushed the enemy back to the other side of the border.
If we did not combat, people in the border areas would continue to be killed and have to live in the miserable situation. In fact, this war was a compulsory struggle and we did not take the initiative. The Pol Pot troops attacked us first and trespassed upon our territory, forcing us to fight back. We were all determined to safeguard every inch of soil of the homeland to the last.
The attack of justice
Reporter: When the Vietnam People’s Army pushed the war back to the other side of the border, there were many public opinions that were not really objective from the international community. What are your viewpoints on this issue?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: In fact, the Southwestern border defence war and the fight against the Pol Pot regime had three stages. The first stage was the resistance war to safeguard the Fatherland’s border. The second state was to liberate the Cambodian people. In the final stage from 1980-1985, the Pol Pot regime restored its forces along the border with Thailand after it received support from foreign nations.
When our soldiers liberated the Cambodian people from the Pol Pot genocidal regime, an American later told me that: “When the Vietnamese army entered Cambodia, the whole world condemned, including the US. But until now, we think that the world must thank and support Vietnam as it early detected and annihilated international terrorists.”
The Cambodian people also supported Vietnamese volunteer soldiers. They called the Vietnamese soldiers the “Buddhist army” because we liberated tens of thousands of Cambodian people from concentration camps.
Especially, after the first round of fighting in Cambodia, when our soldiers withdrew, many Cambodian people cried. They told us that if the Vietnamese soldiers did come they would be killed all. They wanted us to stay, but at that time, we received the order from the Ministry of National Defence. When we came back later and stayed, the Cambodian people were very excited.
Reporter: What is your assessment of the Southwestern border defence war and the struggle against the Pol Pot genocidal regime 40 years ago?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: First, the Southwestern border defence war was a struggle of justice. For the justice, the whole people supported the war. When we attacked the Pol Pot troops in Cambodia’s territory, the justice continued to be shown. If it was not for the justice, the Cambodian people would never support and the Pol Pot regime would not be defeated.
Reporter: 40 years after the victor over the Pol Pot genocidal regime. Vietnam and Cambodia have continued to promote cooperation in many fields and jointly built the shared border of peace and friendship. What is your assessment of the bilateral cooperative relations?
Gen. Pham Van Tra: I’m very delighted to know that the planting of markers along the Vietnam-Cambodia shared border has been basically completed. There are now several sections left. But the work will be accomplished sooner or later. We have still relied on the French colonial maps because the borderline in the maps was the most accurate. We also invited French experts to witness the planting of border markers.
Reporter: Thank you for your interview!