Khmer National Armed Forces

Khmer National Armed Forces

The Khmer National Armed Forces (French: Force Armée Nationale Khmère), often abbreviated to FANK, were the armed forces of the Khmer Republic, the state that existed between 1970-75, and today is known as Cambodia. FANK succeeded FARK (Force Armée Royale Khmère), which had been responsible for the defense of the Kingdom of Cambodia since its independence in 1954 from France. The FANK Commander in Chief was General Sosthene Fernandez.

Though essentially little more than the successor to the Royal army, FANK possessed a more partisan role in the Cambodian Civil War that escalated following the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 by his Prime Minister Lon Nol in a National Assembly vote. Though the Royal army had been involved since 1967 in the suppression of the Communist Party of Kampuchea's rebellion led by Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot), up until Sihanouk's overthrow it was considered to have the support of the consensus in Cambodian society, as the Prince was considered the symbol of the people.


In 1954 Cambodia was occupied by the French colonial forces, which included many Khmer personnel, and assorted units of the Vietminh, most of whom were Vietnamese. According to the Geneva Accords of that year both armies were obligated to withdraw from the territory of the Kingdom and a new defense force was to be conscripted, FARK. In practice, most of what become FARK were soldiers newly released from the French Army, though ex-Vietminh were also allowed to join.

Most of the officer's core had been officials in the colonial regime. Lon Nol, for example, was the ex-commander of police under the French. In 1955 Lon was promoted to Chief of Staff of FARK, and in 1960 received the added title of Minister of Defense. Under his command FARK become a bastion of American influence on Sihanouk, particularly because US aid constituted 30% of the force's budget. In 1966, following his faction's seizure of a high number of posts in the ruling Sangkum party's faction of the National Assembly in elections, Lon was elected prime minister, thereby locking the state institutions in the grip of FARK, just as Sihanouk had feared. In 1967 he resigned after a car accident, only to return two years later when the monarch mounted a renewed purge against leftist dissidents.

Lon, as a representative of the conservative Khmers who had supported the French, never totally accepted Sihanouk's policy of non-alignment. Though the Prince's sporadic purges of leftist movement's would quench Lon's wrath at the growing communist resistance, what truly worried him was Sihanouk's covert deals with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong that allowed the forces of both to establish bases along the Mekong River in Cambodia and form a massive supply and mobilization infrastructure. Lon also knew that Sihanouk's balancing appeasement of the US from 1968 onward by allowing bombing and overland raids against VC forces based in Cambodia would be ineffective in stopping the communist insurgency. One of the measures he was able to take was to mould within FARK an anti-communist elite that would back him in the event that Sihanouk twisted too far left.

Alignment with the US

On August 18, 1970 Lon Nol automatically succeeded Sihanouk when the latter was deposed by the National Assembly as Head of State. The move was constitutionally legal, yet it quickly ran afoul of the conservative mentalities of the Khmers, many of whom believed that the Prince ruled through divine hegemony. What made matters worse was Sihanouk's sudden shift left in the following year that saw him establishing a base in Beijing, and declaring a cooperative front with the Khmer Rouge and other leftist opposition groups. Lon Nol also had to deal with a number of FARK officers who, though holding his views, felt that the overthrow of Sihanouk had been too extreme. This group would leave the system when Lon transformed FARK into FANK to accommodate the character of the new Khmer Republic. New recruits, by contrast, could be found in the far right Khmer Serei, a group that had opposed Sihanouk and always viewed him as a communist crony.

The new policies of Lon included ultimatums to North Vietnam and the Vietcong to vacate the bases they had established on Khmer soil, and he also prevented arms shipments to the Vietcong from landing in his ports. Yet he was caught off guard in the early 1970s by the newly aggressive tactics of the North Vietnamese Army, which had previously allowed the Vietcong to fight against the South even after its devastation in the 1968 Tet Offensive. The result was that the Lon Nol period actually saw an increase in North Vietnamese influence in the Mekong Delta particularly in 1972 when they launched ferocious offensives all along the Cambodia-South Vietnam border that dwarfed the Tet Offensive numerically. The offensive exhausted both sides, and led to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 that saw the end of US involvement in overt combat operations in Vietnam. The Accords hit the Khmer Republic and South Vietnam hard, as the military and civilian aid they received from the US was cut by over fifty percent. FANK, which had been a force armed and maintained by American advisors, had to wake up to a new reality where they had to fix their own equipment and train their troops with far less of a budget.

At the beginning of 1974, the Cambodian army inventory included 241,630 rifles, 7,079 machine guns, 2,726 mortars, 20,481 grenade launchers, 304 recoilless rifles, 289 howitzers, 202 M113 Armored Personnel Carrier APCs, and 4,316 trucks. The Khmer navy had 171 vessels; the Khmer air force had 211 aircraft, including 64 North American T-28s, 14 Douglas AC-47 gunships and 44 helicopters. American embassy military personnel -- who were only supposed to coordinate the arms aid program -- sometimes found themselves involved in prohibited advisory and combat tasks.

Civil War

Sihanouk's collaboration with the Chinese helped the Khmer Rouge recruit peasants whereas before they would have been disinterested. In addition, Khmers of more moderate opinions came to dilike the Lon regime, due to his oppressive regime that limited freedoms far more than Sihanouk had. After the Paris Peace Accords, Lon failed to halt the illegal build-up of North Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta in preparation for a renewed offensive. He also could not coordinate a dual effort with either the US CIA and the Nguyen Van Thieu regime in South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the FANK forces committed numerous abuses against civilians who rioted in support of Sihanouk, particularly peasant villagers, that drove them into the arms of Pol Pot. In the remote areas of the country, particularly the highlands, FANK could not restrain the Khmer Rouge's fearsome intimidation campaigns against the peasants, and increasingly became the army of Phnom Penh and Cambodia's urban centers than of the nation itself. Whereas in the 1967 and 1968 campaigns of the Khmer Rouge's Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK) Lon Nol could depend on the peasant's loyalty to Sihanouk, now he was alone with his deteriorating army.

Facing them was the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces which received arms and ammunition freely from the nation's porous borders. While the CPNLAF was far smaller, FANK was faced with the problem of how to provide equipment for the surging ranks of volunteers who opposed the Khmer Rouge from their dwindling stores. As the war progressed, and weapons and ammunition, not to mention practice areas, became rarer, FANK was unable to train their new recruits, leaving it an army of raw conscripts and demoralized veterans. FANK was already at a strategic disadvantage following the seizure of the northwestern area of the country by North Vietnam in 1970 in response to the Lon Nol ultimatum, and the fall of various peripheral states to the Khmer Rouge in the same year.


In January 1975, at the same time as the North Vietnamese winter offensive blew the South's defenses apart, the Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh, crowded it with 250 thousand refugees, and besieged it. Lon Nol, FANK Commander in Chief Sosthene Fernandez and other Khmer Republic officials could not coordinate an effective resistance and at the same time feed the refugees and residents of Phnom Penh. On April 1 of that year Lon Nol resigned and left the state, effectively ending FANK's existence as a coherent force.

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