Juleswings Collection: The Cambodian KPNLAF faction (1979 – 92)

Some more insignia from my ‘private armies’ and militia groups collection. These are from the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF) which existed between 1979 and 1992.

 

The Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF) was the military component of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), which began to form in March 1979. It grew from various anti-communist and anti-monarchist groups concentrated near the Thai border with Cambodia, which were opposed to the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime. Many of these groups were little more than warlord controlled militia gangs, more interested in border smuggling operations (including lucrative Khmer antiques trade) and fighting each other than engaging the PRK forces. Their alliance was initially one of convenience.

These groups were formally brought together under the banner of the KPNLF on 9 October 1979 at Sok Sann refugee camp in Trat  (Thailand). General Dien Del, a former career officer of the Khmer Republic became chief of the KPNLAF General Staff and former Prime Minister Son Sann led the faction. At this stage the new KPNLAF numbered around 1600 fighters, but because of the leadership’s non-communist credentials, the KPNLAF offered an alternative to those Cambodians who supported neither Sihanouk, Hanoi nor the Khmer Rouge.

Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) propaganda poster.
Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) propaganda poster.
KPNLAFSokh Sann guerillas at Sokh Sann. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
KPNLF guerillas at Sokh Sann. Note the panther patches worn on the caps of two of the fighters and the shoulder patch of the third in tiger stripe fatigues. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
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Very young, most likely child-soldiers of the KPNLAF at Sokh Sann. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
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Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces silver (chromed brass) and enamel paint cap badge, approximately 30mm high with pin back attachment. Larger embroidered variations of this design can also be found. Collection: Julian Tennant
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Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF) shoulder patch. Variations of this design was also worn on baseball caps. Collection: Julian Tennant

The number of KPNLAF troops grew after General Sak Sutsakhan arrived in Thailand from the USA and took over the leadership in 1981. A former commander of the FANK Special Forces as well as serving as Minister of Defense under Sihanouk and Head of State of the Khmer Republic during its final days, he had a reputation for decisiveness and incorruptibility, bringing legitimacy to the movement.

Gen Sak Sutsakhan-Inspecting-troops at Ampil. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
Gen Sak Sutsakhan-Inspecting-troops at Ampil. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

By mid-1981 the number of KPNLAF troops had grown to around 7000 armed troops but it was able to protect its refugee camp bases (the largest being at Ampil, Nong Chan and Nong Samet) and occasionally cross the border and achieved some successes against the PAVN and KPRAF troops in the northwest of Cambodia. Estimates of KPNLAF strength have varied widely. At the upper limit, reached in 1984, it is believed that the KPNLAF troops may have totaled between 12,000 and 15,000 troops.

However,  the Vietnamese Dry Season Offensive of 1984-85 which was launched to establish a border long line of defence known as the K 5 plan, began clearing areas of resistance and eventually ended the KPNLAF’s ability to operate as an effective fighting force.

KPNLAF 204th Operational Sector shoulder patch. Collection: Julian Tennant
KPNLAF 204th Operational Sector shoulder patch.

By the end of January in 1985, the Vietnamese forces had captured the Ampil, Nong Chan and Nong Samet camps. Under pressure from international aid agencies and the Thai government, KPNLAF troops were forced to relocate away from the civilian camps still under their control and also hampering their ability to cross the border into Cambodia.

During the same year Sutsakhan met with Son Sen of the Khmer Rouge and Prince Norodom Ranarridh, Sihanouk’s son, who commanded FUNCINPEC’s military arm, the Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste (ANS), to arrange military cooperation between the three movements.

This led to a split between the political arm of Son Sann’s KPNLF and the military commanders, who also believed that Son Sann’s meddling in military operations (by being unwilling to co-operate with the pro- Sihanouk ANS forces) compromised their effectiveness. These issues were not resolved until 1986 but by then the KPNLAF, operating in small, lightly armed groups of between 6 and 12 fighters, was largely restricted to waging a war of attrition.

Cambodian KPNLAF child soldier
Child soldier of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces at the Nong Chan refugee camp. 
KPNLAF troops at Nong Chan. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
KPNLAF troops at Nong Chan. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

Whilst the decades of conflict in the region undoubtedly gave the fighters a wealth of experience to draw from, it is also interesting to note the involvement of a secret British Special Air Service training team. This unit trained anti-Vietnamese Khmer resistance forces including members of the KPNLAF Commando battalion at a Thai military camp near the Burmese border and also in Singapore.

I suspect that the KPNLAF ‘Special Forces Black Panther’ badge (pictured below), which was made in Thailand in the latter half of the 1980’s, is for graduates of this training programme, although I don’t know if the trainees received any parachute training and I suspect this would be unlikely. The badge was worn on both the breast and also on caps as can be seen below.

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Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces ‘Special Forces Black Panther’ insignia. Thai manufactured, the badge measures 50mm across and is secured via a horizontal pin.  Collection: Julian Tennant
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General Sak Sutsakhan (left) conducting a press conference at Ampil. Note the KPNLAF ‘Special Forces Black Panther’ badge being worn on the cap of the KPNLAF soldier on the right. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth who is seen in civilian attire on the right of the picture.

The British SAS conducted at least six training courses for the KPNLAF conducted between 1986 and 1989. The courses lasted between six and ten weeks with candidates being trained to operate as independent six-man teams within enemy territory. Instruction was provided in small unit tactics, improvised demolitions, first aid, navigation, communications and unarmed combat. Well known former 22 SAS soldier and author, Colin Armstrong MM (aka Chris Ryan) was one of the British SAS training team, although most sources cite his deployment as being in 1984 and in support of the Khmer Rouge, not the KPNLAF.

Hostilities involving KPNLAF forces had largely ended by mid-1989, and Vietnam withdrew the bulk of its occupying troops from Cambodia by September 21, 1989. The remaining KPNLAF units were eventually demobilised by General Dien Del in February 1992.

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KPNLAF troops prepare for a parade at Nong Chan. Photo: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

 

The Cambodian War Museum 

The Cambodian Landmine Museum

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 2 – The War Museum of Cambodia

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Cambodian Police Honour Guard line the causeway to Angkor Wat Temple, 1993. Collection: Julian Tennant

In addition to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum, which I covered in an earlier post, there is another military museum close to Siem Reap town and the Angkor Temples.

Formerly known as the Siem Reap War Museum, the War Museum of Cambodia is located near National Highway 6 between Siem Reap and the international airport. It dates back to 2001 and was built in ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. The museum’s stated purpose is to keep the memory of the civil war in the history of Cambodia alive and to preserve the unique collection for posterity. However, at the time it was widely believed to be little more than a business opportunity for local powerbrokers to dip into the pockets of the lucrative tourist market who were flocking to the nearby Angkor temples. There may well have been merit in this scuttlebutt as for many years the museum was little more than a collection of deteriorating rusted old vehicles and weapons with little attempt to preserve or contextualise their history.

Siem Reap War Museum
Tail of a Chinese made Shenyang J-6 copy of the Soviet MiG-19 (Farmer) fighter aircraft featuring the distinctive three-turret Angkor symbol used by the Khmer Rouge. A Soviet Mil Mi-8 helicopter can be seen in the background. Photo: Julian Tennant

In recent years, under the leadership of a new management team, things have begun to change and whilst many of the objects on display are still left exposed to the elements or without solid contextual information, attempts have been made to provide a better overview of the three decades of war represented in the museum. Parts of the museum are being rebuilt and the first of these, the ‘Landmine House’ which is a huge improvement opened to the public in 2018.

After paying the US$5 entry fee visitors are free to explore (and play with) most of the objects in the museum. Guides are available to accompany visitors and whilst they are described as ‘free’, tips are expected for their service. In the early days of the museum many of the guides had first-hand experience of the war, fighting for one side or the other but most have been replaced with younger guides. This new cadre have better English language skills and could be useful for tourist visitors who only require a cursory understanding of the conflict and the exhibits but could lack the depth of knowledge that somebody with a deeper interest in military affairs could be looking for in a ‘guided tour’.  If time permits, an option is to use a guide to get their perspective and then spend time by yourself examining the objects in more depth.

Being largely outdoors and exposed to the elements, many exhibits are in very poor condition, rusting and in various states of disrepair. Textile items are particularly vulnerable when left outdoors in a tropical climate such as Cambodia and unsurprisingly there are few uniforms, flags or insignia on display. Most of the exhibits consist of vehicles, weapons, ordnance and some equipment.

Siem Reap War Museum
A pile of deteriorating Soviet era ShM-41mu Gas Masks rotting in an unprotected display area at the War Museum Cambodia. Photo: Julian Tennant

Siem Reap War Museum
A tourist hams it up for the camera with a couple of rusted WW2 era Soviet PPSh-41 Submachine Guns. Photo: Julian Tennant

If you choose not to use a guide and explore the grounds by yourself, signposts and captions accompany most of the items, identifying the object and in some instances,  who used them, or where they were recovered from. All the information is in English and there does seem to be a lack of descriptive information in Khmer, which to my mind once again suggests that this may be less about preserving the knowledge and history for future generations, but a venture that is aimed directly at the tourist market. Maybe I am being overly cynical about the museum’s intended function, but for a museum that is run ‘in partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence, until recently there did not appear to be much investment in actually preserving or presenting the exhibits in line with the museum’s stated aims. For many years the museum did look like a rusting junkyard that was being used as a cash-cow to line the pockets of some local military or government officials.

But thankfully the museum is undergoing some changes, with the aforementioned ‘Landmine House’ display being a good start, so hopefully this is the first of many improvements. And whilst I think that Aki Ra’s Cambodia Landmine Museum provides a better understanding of Cambodia’s recent past, the War Museum of Cambodia is also worth visiting to see the range of vehicles and weapons used during the conflict.

The museum is quite easy to reach being in Siem Reap town enroute to the airport. If you have time, I would suggest hiring a car and driver (for about US$50 per day) and heading out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum in the morning, possibly after visiting the nearby Banteay Srei Temple, (which is best early in the morning or late afternoon and much less crowded than other temples), then returning to Siem Reap for lunch. Then, after refreshing and avoiding the worst of the midday heat, the driver can take you to the War Museum of Cambodia for a couple of hours before returning to your hotel or heading out to Angkor Wat to watch the sun go down.

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Angkor Wat temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo by Vietnam News Agency
A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Bayon temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo: Vietnam News Agency

War Museum Cambodia
Kaksekam Village
Sra Nge Commune
Siem Reap
Cambodia

Website: www.warmuseumcambodia.com
Email: info@warmuseumcambodia.com
Phone: +855 (0)97 457 8666
MRT: Silom

Open: 08:00 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5 foreigners and US$1 for Cambodians.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

angkor_spud
Army buddy and fellow militaria collector, Trevor ‘Spud’ Couch looking for a cold beer whilst visiting Angkor Wat in the late 1990’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

For most tourists visiting Cambodia, the ruined temples of Angkor near Siem Reap are the main, if not only, reason to visit the Kingdom. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor attracted 2.2 million visitors in 2019 and plays a vital part in the Cambodian economy where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.

At its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire which stretched across much of South East Asia, used Angkor as its capital before finally going into decline after it was sacked by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431. In 1863 Cambodia was placed under French protection and then became part of French Indochina in 1887. In 1953 the Kingdom gained independence from the French but by the latter half of the 1960’s it was becoming increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then, in April 1975, after a seven-year struggle, the communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. During the three and a half years that followed at least 1.5 million Cambodians died during the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime. Repeated incursions into Vietnam by Khmer Rouge forces tested the patience of the Vietnamese and in December 1978 a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power within weeks. However, the subsequent Vietnamese occupation caused a civil war that would last until the end of 1997 when the remaining Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms.

Khmer Rouge soldiers march at Angkor Wat. — Documentation Center of Cambodia
Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat. Photo: Collection of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

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A corrugated plastic core Unexploded Ordnance warning sign from Japanese Demining Action (JDA) which I bought at the Cambodian Landmine Museum in 2000. JDA had a small team undertaking EOD work near the Thai border at the time. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

After nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia with the scars of its recent history still visible. For visitors to Siem Reap, there are a couple of military museums in the area that provide a welcome break from scrambling over the temple ruins.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum is located 25km north of Siem Reap, near the Banteay Srey Temple complex and whilst it is further away from the town, it is worth visiting. The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was taken from his family by the Khmer Rouge when he was just five and who fought for various factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the opposing Vietnamese army before UNTAC arrived in 1993.  He then went on to help them with their EOD activities and then, when he finally returned to his village, he used this experience to defuse and clear the mines in his community using homemade tools.

Whilst clearing the ordnance, Aki Ra often encountered orphaned, wounded or abandoned children which he took into his care. To help pay for their upkeep, he displayed some of the mines which he had diffused at his home near the ticket booth for Angkor Wat Park and charged tourists a dollar to view them. I recall visiting this, the original, Landmine Museum around 1999 and listening to Aki Ra tell his story. It was a very humbling experience.

In 2006, the local authorities ordered it closed supposedly on safety grounds, however Siem Reap expatriates told me that the real reason was because local authorities felt that Aki Ra’s museum was attracting more tourists (and money) than the Siem Reap War Museum which had been started in 2001 as a ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. This may well be little more than idle gossip, but given the high level of corruption that permeates Cambodian officialdom, this would not surprise me in the least and during one of my early visits to the Siem Reap War Museum, one of the guides did offer to sell me some of the exhibits that I expressed an interest in. Behaviour that I found strange for a museum supposedly existing to preserve the history of the conflict for future generations of Cambodians, so who knows… but I digress.

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Vietnamese made fragmentation grenade/mine and anti-personnel mine on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

With the help of Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, a charity the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief  Fund was started.  Donors raised funds to buy a block of land and build a new museum which opened at its current location in 2007. In addition to the museum, the land also housed a Relief Centre for children including a small school. In 2008, with the help of the charity, Aki Ra established a formal de-mining NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining, which is a separate NGO and apart from the Museum. They clear un-exploded ordnance throughout Cambodia, generally at sites deemed to be a low priority by the larger de-mining agencies, but where the presence of the UXO’s pose a real threat to the farmers who are attempting to work the surrounding land.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gives visitors a good overview of the problems caused by this un-exploded ordnance and also some insights into Cambodia’s recent conflict. After paying the entrance fee, visitors are provided with a headset and audio player which provides some additional contextual information for the exhibits on display.

Exhibits include a variety defused ordnance, weapons, uniform items plus equipment such as de-mining tools and also artwork created by the children from the Relief Centre. There is also a small shop selling souvenirs including books, t-shirts and DVD’s.

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1990’s period uniforms and weapons on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As previously mentioned, the museum is some distance away from Siem Reap town and the best option to visit is to either grab a tuk-tuk, which will take around 30 minutes and cost about US$20 for a round trip, or hire a local driver and car for the day, which should cost up to US$50. This second option allows you to also visit the nearby Banteay Srei Temple which is much less crowded than the other temples closer to Siem Reap.  You can then return to Siem Reap at your leisure and have the driver take you to visit the War Museum Cambodia  (which will be the subject of next week’s post) after lunch.

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Various EOD team patches from Cambodia in my collection. Top row left to right: Mines Advisory Group circa 1999, Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group type 2. Bottom row left to right: US Special Forces UXO Detachment Cambodia (2002), Cambodia Mine Action Centre variant, Australian Mine Clearance Training Team patch circa 1994. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Cambodia Landmine Museum
67 Phumi Khna
Siem Reap Province
Cambodia

Website:  https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Email: bill@wmorse.com
Phone: +855 (0) 15 674 163

Open: 07:30 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5
Free for children under 12 and all Cambodian citizens

 

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

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