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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.