Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gen. Dien Del gave his all for Khmer

Gen. Dien Del (L) in the 70s
Feb. 26, 2013 | Written by Gaffar Peang-Meth
Guam Pacific Daily News

This article is a tribute to a distinguished field commander, Gen. Dien Del, of the Khmer Republic from 1970-1975 and of the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces. Dien Del fought Vietnam's military occupation of Cambodia from 1979-1990.

Born in 1932 at Soc Trang, Kampuchea Krom, now southern Vietnam, Dien Del passed away in Phnom Penh on Feb. 13. His body was cremated on the 17th.

I knew Dien Del as a friend and a comrade-in-arms. We met in Cambodia when I took a semester out of graduate school to observe the situation in the field after the March 18, 1970, deposal of then Chief of State Prince Sihanouk. Dien Del was a lieutenant colonel.

We did not meet again until sometime after May 1975, in the United States. This time, Dien Del was a refugee. The Khmer Republic collapsed on April 17, after the U.S. withdrew from the region. Most government members declined the U.S. offer to be airlifted to safety -- including Republican leader Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, who was executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Rising young star

A young rising star, Dien Del was a brigadier general commanding the 2nd Division in 1972, and was commander of the Territorial Forces and governor of Kandal Province from 1974 until April 16, 1975.

His and others' dreams to set up a rear base in northwestern Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia's towns and cities were thwarted because of volatile conditions on the ground, and their helicopters landed them in Thailand.

At the end of May 1975, Dien Del, his wife, and two children, arrived as refugees in Alexandria, Va. I reconnected with him.

Two years later, in May 1977, he left the U.S. for France. There he and Khmer senior statesman Son Sann formed a committee for liberation of Cambodia. On Feb. 1, 1979, he left Paris for Bangkok, and subsequently made his way to the border region.

He persuaded 13 different armed groups to merge. On March 5, 1979, Dien Del proclaimed the Khmer People's National Armed Forces; he was named chief of general staff.

In the fall 1980, Dien Del, wearing army fatigues, drove an oxcart as he escorted me, fresh from the U.S., down a muddy road to show off the KPNLAF "liberated zone."

At Banteay Ampil, Dien Del and his civilian colleague, Hing Kunthon, enrolled me in Class V of political warfare training. Dien Del signed my certificate in October 1980. The year after, 1981, Dien Del sent me to the Military School for a crash course in the KPNLAF's first officer training class.

Adapt to integrate

Dien Del and Hing Kunthon were determined to integrate me into the nascent movement. They insisted one must adapt (I was ill for a week from impure water and eating snails from a local pond) in order to be adopted by the KPNLAF. In order to be accepted, I was coached that I was to watch, listen and remain quiet. I should speak, I was told, only after a lengthy period of observation and reflection, or I would not earn the trust of those in the field.

Foreign observers' descriptions of Dien Del in Wikipedia are accurate: Dien Del commanded respect from superiors, colleagues, subordinates; seasoned journalists who saw Dien Del in combat "admired" his appearance of calm and control; he was "perhaps (the army's) best general, a man with a merry sparkle in his eyes ... (strutting) up and down in his tiger suit, pistol at his hip, saying he would fight to the last."

I worked with Dien Del in good and bad times. He had his strengths and weaknesses. When I was with him in the field, his confident demeanor sometimes belied the danger at hand. Though he seemed to hesitate before signing the authorization for my first mission with a KPNLAF company to probe the heavily mined Vietnamese-held area of Beung Ampil, a stone's throw away, he did let me go. A Brit with a movie camera also went.

As we moved, the company commander radioed progress to HQ. When a firefight broke out, Dien Del's voice was heard as I busily snapped photos of a combatant falling, a couple with blood on their clothes. Suddenly an arm dragged me, and we jumped behind a small mound. As a mortar shell crashed on the very spot I stood seconds earlier, I rose with my camera; a soldier pushed me down. The company commander radioed that we two civilians were all right, no thanks to my naiveté, but it was a close call.

Was good with troops

When Dien Del received intelligence reports from his foreign friends -- the exact date the enemy would attack the headquarters -- he let me stay at HQ in a bunker. I watched as Dien Del met with his commanders. He took me with him as he toured the defense line. He joked with troops, suggested how best to raise huge columns to obstruct tanks, where else to implant mines.

Reaching a tall tree, which some said was home to a bad spirit, Dien Del pulled his pistol and fired shots at the tree.

"That should do it," he said. Those around him let out nervous laughter.

As expected, the enemy opened fire before dawn, followed by continuous artillery shelling until mid-morning. I was in the bunker, praying the roof wouldn't collapse as a shell exploded above. Come morning, Dien Del, puffing a cigarette and smelling of alcohol, told me to run to the border.

"Someone has to live to continue the struggle. We shouldn't all die here," he shouted, as I replied there wasn't enough time to reach the border. Dien Del shoved me out.

Ampil never fell. Reporters were skeptical as we reported that the KP forces had destroyed more than one tank. It was not until a few years later that troops went back and photographed a rusted tank at the site of the battle. Dien Del was then KPNLAF deputy commander-in-chief. This charismatic, larger-than-life figure gave his all to bring a republican form of government to Cambodia, and will be well-remembered by his countrymen.

Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam. He was a former assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.


Anonymous said...

I just call him as Khmer HERO General. His name is always in my mind even he was passed away.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

OR KUN LOK Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth for a piece of Khmer Hero General Dien Del importantly and amazingly you wrote.
With my both knees on the ground I am praying and saluting to the lost souls of our Brave Khmer Soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defending our Khmer Nation.

Anonymous said...

General Dien Del was one of the best Khmer patriots who put his life in danger trying to protect Cambodia.

Thank You Dr Peang Meth too for his courageous effort to serve Cambodia along with General Dien Del and Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces.

Bun Thoeun

Anonymous said...

My salute to the late General Dien Del who spend his entire life fighting against the Vienamese colonization of Cambodia.
My utmost respect to Lok Pou Peang meth for the same cause.
I know of the journeys that both of you took because my uncle was there with you and General Sak.

Anonymous said...

Great! Thank you for writing wonderful history about Khmer heroes! Let's get inspired by them!

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong to serve our country Cambodia.

Maybe the General Dien Del just loves our country Cambodia so much same as other Khmer Krom born, who ready to die for the country of our ancestor.

Thanks to you, Dr. Pengmeth for the great information of General Dien Del. As civilized Khmer citizen we all have the right to serve and protect our country Cambodia.
We did almost the same thing since 1980, just on a different ideology-basic.
But in general we always did for our country Cambodia and for our Khmer people.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Peang Meth for you article to let us know more about Gen. Dien Del. My family was in the refugees camp 1985, a few weeks before the Hun Sen troops + Vietnames soldier took over all the refugees camp allow the borders. I was about 15 years old at that time, I really didn't know about how Gen. Dien Del put all guerilla (free fighters) together to fight for our freedom from Vietnam and Hun Sen, I just relied after read your article. I been in the refugees camp for 9 years before have a new life in the USA. Go back to Gen. Dien Del, he was outstanding leader, actually I was one of army officer. I went to military school (E.O.A) under Gen. Dien Del and Gen.Pan Thay. Gen. Dien Del always stoped by our school to say hi even he was drunk with foreigners friend. I said his drunk, sometime he had to drink because of the stress.
I was proud to be a young officer under Gen. Dien Del and Gen. Pan Thay, it was my experience in life. Eventhough I'm here in the USA but I still thinking of 9 years live in the refugees camp, you all know how terrible life was, one with government back up by Vietnam and other side by tiger (Thai Soldier).
RIP to Gen. Dien Del and thanks again to Dr. Peang Meth. I have your picture Dr. Peang Meth, you took it with Gen. Pan Thay. I recally didn't know where Gen. Pan They was. Anyone know please let us know.