Paris Peace Accords 23 Oct. 1991

Monday, January 19, 2015

[Vietnamization] HRW: 30 Years of Hun Sen -- Hun Sen and the “K5” Forced Labor Program

III. Hun Sen and the “K5” Forced Labor Program

In response to Khmer Rouge attacks, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia on December 25, 1978. It reached Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, then chased the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border.

Vietnam installed a new government, mixing Hanoi-trained communists with former Khmer Rouge officers to run the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The former group included Pen Sovann, who was named the prime minister. Among the latter group was an obscure, 26-year-old named Hun Sen, who became the world’s youngest foreign minister. Pen Sovann soon fell afoul of Hanoi and was arrested. He was replaced by Chan Si, who died in office in December 1984. Hanoi, impressed with the capacity and loyalty of the young foreign minister, promoted Hun Sen to the post of PRK prime minister on January 14, 1985.[120]

The PRK was a police state, with virtually no civil or political freedoms. Among the many serious human rights abuses of its rule, few were more notorious than the Kế hoạch năm or K5 plan. K5 involved the mass mobilization of Cambodian civilians for labor on the Cambodia-Thai border and which led to the deaths of many thousands of Cambodians from disease and landmines.

Planned in early 1983 by the Vietnamese military command for Cambodia, K5 called for a Vietnamese offensive assisted by PRK troops to attack remnant Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge and other anti-Vietnamese and anti-PRK armed forces based along the Cambodia-Thailand border in late 1984 [T2P: when Chan Si was murdered in office for his refusal to implement], at the start of the dry season. This was to be followed by construction of defensive fortifications and obstacles on the Cambodia side of the border, including the planting of large numbers of landmines. The goal was to prevent Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge and other guerrillas from reestablishing their bases and infiltrating Cambodia from Thailand. According to Sin Sen, who became deputy minister of interior of the PRK in 1987 and was a senior member of the security forces until his involvement in a coup attempt in 1994, “The plan was to build a wall like the Berlin Wall along the Thai border.”[121]

Vietnamese planners decided it would be necessary “to mobilize a very large force from all classes of the [Cambodian] civilian population” from “the entire nation” as labor to construct this defensive “wall.” The plan was for the PRK “military, government, and Party headquarters and agencies from the national down to the local level to direct, organize, and manage” the construction project, doing so with Vietnamese military assistance.[122]

The military offensive went off successfully, after which the construction work began. The overwhelming bulk of this was carried out by the civilian population as planned. However, establishing a comprehensive effective line of fortifications and obstacles proved considerably more difficult than expected, especially in many areas of rugged terrain, forest and jungle. The work continued on a significant scale for a number of years but was never fully completed.[123]

Le Duc Tho, the senior Vietnamese official in charge of Cambodia, appears to have introduced the K5 construction plan to top PRK authorities, including its Revolutionary People’s Party of Kampuchea (RPPK), government and armed forces in January 1984. The RPPK Politburo approved a final version in July 1984. It was carried out under the overall authority of the RPPK Secretariat and PRK Council of Ministers, via a K5 Leadership Committee comprising RPPK, government and military officials. This committee was originally headed by the chairman of the PRK Council of Ministers, Prime Minister Chan Si, until his death in December 1984.

According to Sin Sen, “K5 was led by Hun Sen. He was assigned this responsibility by Vietnam.”[124] Day-to-day responsibility for K5 matters was reportedly invested in a subordinate standing vice-chairman, who led a K5 Standing Committee. This was originally Soy Keo, a vice-minister of national defense who was also concurrently chairman of the armed forces General Staff. In late 1985, Hun Sen replaced him with Nhim Vanda, a close confidante and the deputy minister of planning, who later became a deputy minister of defense.[125]

Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers assigned provinces, municipalities and government ministries and departments to provide labor for K5 projects, according to a quota system.[126] Vietnamese and official PRK sources portray the project as arduous but legal and not entailing large-scale fatalities, especially after the authorities corrected initial shortcomings in the care of the labor force.[127] Soy Keo reported to the all-RPPK National Assembly in July 1985 on the implementation of the plan, noting that 90,362 ordinary people were involved in the construction work. He argued that their deployment was pursuant to article 9 of the PRK Constitution, which stated that “the people as a whole participate in national defense.”[128] In subsequent years, according to official statistics, the number of ordinary people deployed as workers dropped: 20,034 in 1986-1987 and 8,814 the next year. However, they were supplemented throughout by militia, cadre and state employees. Including these would bring the 1986-87 figures to 38,388 and that of the following year to 13,316.[129]

In theory, workers were supposed to be paid for their efforts, but most went involuntarily and were used as forced labor, especially after many in the first waves came back ill, especially with malaria, with perhaps 5 to 10 percent dying. If official figures were accurate, this would suggest a death toll from malaria of about 1,000 persons.[130] A report from deputy health minister Chhea Thang and others who inspected K5 worksites in December 1985 blamed the malaria fatalities on bad weather that left the workers with little food and low resistance. The report also blamed the laborers for their own poor hygiene.

Subsequent reports from the Ministry of Health and the Council of Ministers and to the latter maintained that counter-measures had greatly reduced the death toll.[131] Other sources tell a very different story, describing a highly coercive deployment of a much larger work force and many more deaths, against which the authorities evidently took few effective measures. Each province, district, commune and village in the PRK was assigned a quota of “volunteers” to fill. Force and threats were used to make reluctant civilians participate.

According to Kong Korm, the deputy minister of foreign affairs at the start of K5 and later appointed minister of foreign affairs in 1987, Civilians from Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kandal and youth were mobilized to clear the border area. Students were forcibly conscripted into the military. Soldiers tore up student cards and inducted them.… But one group, including Hun Sen’s friends and subordinates, was sent to Battambang instead of the border.”[132]

Overall, one million or more Cambodians may have been sent to the border. Working conditions were miserable, particularly in the early stages. Virtually no shelter was provided, so workers had to sleep on mats, tarps or on the ground. Food was in short supply. One account cited an alleged internal Vietnamese army report finding that the living conditions of the K5 workers were miserable: “The main course is salt and less than thirty grams of dried fish if there is any, for a worker, and they are ill for a lack of medicines. The report cited corruption as the major reason for the conditions.”[133]

People taken from areas of the country with little or no malaria were dumped into a place with some of the most virulent strains of malaria in the world. Only 30-40 percent of the workers were given mosquito nets. There was no medicine and Cambodia’s hospitals were not equipped to deal with an epidemic. In fact several thousand, possibly tens of thousands, died of disease. Thousands more died and were disabled by landmines. The Thai-Cambodia border area had been heavily mined over the years by all of the armed forces active there. K5 workers were compelled to clear mine-infested areas without any previous training in spotting mines.

According to Bartu, “under the guise of removing potential refuge for the resistance, the programme enabled massive deforestation in Cambodia. In Takeo province for example much of the damage to the forests began in the early eighties when about 2000 hectares of trees were cleared.”[134]

According to Sin Sen, “Corruption was massive. If 10 tents were provided, only one would arrive.”[135]

Another troubling aspect of K5 labor conscription, according to academic research, is that it hit disproportionately at Cambodia’s ethnic Chinese communities, which were then the target of official PRK discrimination and died in large numbers at K5 border worksites. This situation reportedly opened up opportunities for extortion by PRK cadre, or at least invited bribes from Chinese who paid to have poor Khmer sent to the border in their place. Some of those who paid bribes claim that they were then arrested for having done so.[136] Bribery was not confined to the Chinese community, however, as Cambodians of all ethnicities have described paying bribes to avoid a deadly assignment.

Senior ruling party officials interviewed indicate that Hun Sen and other senior PRK officials were aware that the situation was much worse than that described in the official reports mentioned above, but that they decided to downplay the seriousness of the situation and blamed it on “enemy subversion” of the project.No dissent within the party on the issue was allowed.[137]

By the end of the program, Nhim Vanda had become a notorious and unpopular figure in Cambodia, with both he and Hun Sen blamed by many Cambodians for engaging in forced labor that led to the deaths and disability of thousands. Senior Cambodian officials claimed that K5 almost led to the collapse of the PRK regime.[138] The K5 program was “extremely unpopular” in Cambodia, said Sin Sen. “No one supported it. Only the poor were sent to K5. When they went there they were sure they would die.”[139] One expert concluded that “the K-5 plan probably alienated the Vietnamese from the Khmer people more than any other programme.”[140]

[120] Phnom Penh Domestic Radio Service, January 14, 1985, FBISDRAP, January 14, 1985.
[121] Brad Adams interview with Sin Sen, February 10, 2000, Phnom Penh.
[122] Nguyễn Văn Hồng, Cuộc chiến tranh bắt buộc: hồi ức (The Unwanted War: A Memoir) (Ho Chi Minh: Nha Xuat Ban Tre, 2004), pp.169-180; Lịch Sử Cục Tác Chiến 1945-2000 (History of the Combat Operations Department 1945-2000) (2005), posted on at
[123] Nguyễn Văn Hồng, Unwanted War, pp.194-205.
[124] Brad Adams interview with Sin Sen, February 10, 2000, Phnom Penh.
[125] Nhim Vanda was promoted to deputy minister of defense and chief of logistics in January 1989. He was vice-chairman of the 11-man Khmer-Thai Economic Commission, established and chaired by Defense Minister Tie Banh, in February 1989. In November 1990 he was appointed to the Cambodian Politburo as vice trade minister and in January 1991 he was made trade minister.
[126] Margaret Slocomb, “The K5 Gamble: National Defence and Nation Building under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (Vol.32, No.2: June 2001), p.201.
[127] Nguyễn Văn Hồng, Unwanted War, pp.194-205.
[128] Slocomb, “K5”, pp.198-199.
[129] Ibid., p.201.
[130] Ibid., pp.201-203.
[131] Ibid., pp.203-204.
[132] Brad Adams interview with Kong Korm, November 23, 1999, Phnom Penh.
[133] Peter Bartu, “The Fifth Faction: The United Nations in Cambodia 1991-1993” (PhD diss., Monash University, 1998).
[134] Mang Channo 'Forest Given to Local Government' Phnom Penh Post, January 13-26, 1995 p.5, Channo reports that by 1995 only four percent of the province was covered by forest.
[135] Brad Adams interview with Sin Sen, February 10, 2000, Phnom Penh.
[136] Sambath Chan, “The Chinese Minority in Cambodia: Identity Construction a Contestation(Montreal: Concordia University M.A. Thesis, March 2005), pp.59-68.
[137] Brad Adams interviews with senior government and party officials, names withheld.
[138] Brad Adams interviews with senior government and party officials, names withheld.
[139] Brad Adams interview with Sin Sen, February 10, 2000, Phnom Penh.
[140] Peter Bartu, “The Fifth Faction: The United Nations in Cambodia 1991-1993” (PhD diss., Monash University, 1998), p.32.    


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