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Why Cambodia’s Military History Is So Important for National Security?


As we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements, we would do well to recognize the importance of history, and in particular Cambodia’s military history, for the region and the world. Cambodia’s history should be recognized as a national resource to inform the country’s strategic development, influence, and leadership in the ASEAN region.

Military history has been described as the research of war and the analysis of victory and defeat; however, it also encompasses much more.  Military history covers a range of topics from the rise and fall of regimes to the transformation of countries, and how humanity repeats and/or learns from its mistakes. Cambodia’s history is filled with unique lessons for the country, region and world.

Cambodia was a significant crossroads in the Cold War struggle between ideologies, political systems, and foreign policy agendas. The history of Cambodia that led up to, and comprises part of, the history of foreign interventions in the region demonstrates how critical the country is to regional security, and the region’s security is to global security. Further, the mass atrocities, war, and deprivation that colored so much of Cambodia’s history in the latter part of the twentieth century provide important lessons on the conditions that precipitate and result from instability, war, and genocide. Cambodia’s history is an illustration of the human spirit, as much as a lesson in the depths of human depravity.

The history of Cambodia is also punctuated by numerous attempts by neighboring countries to encroach upon, occupy, and even usurp territory from the Cambodian people.  Studying the history of these past relations, disputes, and conflicts will not provide a roadmap for current or future diplomatic or military affairs; however, this history is a national resource that empowers leaders with strategic wisdom on how to manage relations with neighbors and the world.

Cambodia’s history, and particularly its military history, provides an important resource for the development of strategic wisdom for our country, our region, and world leaders. Cambodia’s military history is full of lessons on how (and when) to wisely exercise restraint, when to exercise patience, and when to exercise boldness in defending national security.  Cambodian military leaders can look to Cambodia’s military history as a national resource in building up not only their own strategic wisdom, but also the professionalism of their organization and officer ranks.

Cambodia’s national security depends upon a professional military organization.  Professional military organizations require competent leaders who are not only strategists but also historians—because no successful strategy can be developed without an understanding of history.

History shapes the core components of all successful strategies.  Military history ensures that strategy is not only informed by the current operational environment, tactics and doctrine, but also the successes and mistakes of the past.  History can provide you insights into whether the objectives of your strategy are acceptable, whether the methods for achieving your objectives are even feasible, and how your predecessors fared in using the same or different strategies in the past.  Military history is a key component of all combined military and national security strategies.

The member states and collective leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also requires leaders that are historians as well as strategists.  Cambodia’s military history is uniquely important to the peace and security of the region because many battles, struggles, and geopolitical strategies were centered within Cambodia’s military history.  Cambodia was a key center of gravity during the various wars, conflicts, and struggles of the 20th century within the region.  In the wake of the First Indochina War, Cambodia became independent, and during the Second Indochina War, Cambodia was the epicenter of one of the largest aerial bombardments in world history.   Cambodia’s geopolitical location during the Second Indochina War made it a critical battleground between various competing actors.

Between 1975-1979, the people of Cambodia also suffered unspeakable tragedy under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and though the Khmer Rouge were overthrown from power in 1979, Cambodia continued to struggle with war, famine, and humanitarian crises resulting in the death, displacement, or resettlement of millions of Cambodians.  The defeat of the Khmer Rouge was not only a strategic victory for Cambodia, it was a strategic victory for ASEAN and the world.

The military engagements, maneuvers, and strategies that played out in Cambodia between 1979 and 1993 rippled across the region, and to some extent many of these forces shaped (and still shape) the geopolitics of ASEAN today.  Cambodia’s military history is a history of not only battles and military maneuvers but also key political decisions and strategies that remain important references for informing national security and collective ASEAN strategy in the Southeast Asian region today.

As we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements, we should take the opportunity to not only reflect on what we must learn from the history surrounding these agreements, but also how much we can learn from all of Cambodia’s history.  The importance of this history is perhaps no greater than now, as Cambodia prepares to assume the chair for the ASEAN in 2022.  As Cambodia prepares to assume the chair for ASEAN, we should recognize this upcoming leadership role as an opportunity to leverage, among many other resources, Cambodia’s history to inform the Cambodian and ASEAN peoples’ collective development, partnership and leadership.  Cambodia’s history is part and parcel to envisioning a collective peace and security for the ASEAN region.

Photo of the Samdech Pichey Sena Tea Banh, Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of National Defense of Cambodia (right), and General Nem Sowath, Special Advisor to the Defense Minister (left) inspect the Anlong Veng Peace Center’s (DC-Cam) plans to build a Win-Win monument.

Photo of Samdech Pichey Sena Tea Banh, Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of National Defense of Cambodia and his special advisor, General Nem Sowat (standing right).  Next to General Sowat is Lieutenant General Meas Sina (standing left) with Mr. Youk Chhang (sitting). The distinguished party was visiting a proposed military history zone near the Anlong Veng Peace Center, Oddar Meanchey Province, along the Cambodian-Thai border.  Photo by Ly Kok-Chhay, 6 March 2020.

~ Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, and a leader in genocide education, prevention, and research. In 2018, Chhang received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” for his work in preserving the memory of genocide and seeking justice in the Cambodian nation and the world. In 2007, he was nominated as Time Magazine’s top 100 men and women. Chhang has worked with civil society organizations and leaders around the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, and other post-conflict developing countries. For the past 18 months, he has also been doing extensive research on Cambodian military history and military zones with General Nem Sowath of the Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense.