These days, Phay Siphan claims an entire wing of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh, where he serves as both a secretary of state and spokesman for the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He often treats his staff to grilled duck lunches, which he documents with pride on the Internet, and opines to the media at length on almost any conceivable topic.
It is a life far removed from that in which he cut his teeth in politics in the early 1970s, when he worked as a covert U.S. commando tasked with wiping out North Vietnamese communists and their supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
“Our job was to seek and destroy,” Mr. Siphan said at his office on Friday. “They dropped us somewhere like Mondolkiri, or anywhere the North Vietnamese communists were concentrated, to deviate them, to destroy them, or to call in air support—the B-52s or any other air support.”
Mr. Siphan, who will only say that he is in his early 60s, says that his job as a commando began shortly after U.S. recruitment forces in helicopters descended upon his Phnom Penh high school in March 1970—the same month the National Assembly voted out then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and brought to power Lon Nol.
“We were under what they called the White Scarves,” Mr. Siphan said, referring to the common name for the Front de Lutte du Kampuchea Krom, a U.S.- and CIA-backed paramilitary organization of ethnic Khmer who fought in South Vietnam as part of the Mobile Strike Force Command, or MIKE force.
“It was commanded by the Cambodia lower-part [ethnic Kampuchea Krom] and South Vietnam,” Mr. Siphan said. “We had no number with the U.S., we just talked with our commanders.”
In a cell of 30 “special commandos” trained by the U.S. Army in early 1970, Mr. Siphan said he studied law in Phnom Penh while on call for weekly deployments to take out North Vietnamese communists along the forested Ho Chi Minh trail.
The U.S. paid a salary equivalent to 30 bowls of noodles a month, he said.
“Our small unit was located next to Pochentong Air Field. When they called us, we went down there, got equipped, they picked us up and dropped us there,” he said, identifying Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham and Ratanakkiri provinces as frequent areas.
“You got a grenade, you got a short rifle—at the time we used AR-18—[and] a grenade launcher, an M79—that’s small, light and easy to move. And a radio transmitter,” Mr. Siphan explained. “Of course, you had knives, pistols and stuff like that too.”
During the Second Indochina War, U.S. B-52 bombers carrying out covert operations dropped almost 2.7 million tons of ordnance in Cambodia in their efforts to cut off the routes supplying the Viet Cong communists in South Vietnam from the north.
A significant part of Mr. Siphan’s job, he said, was to identify where to drop the bombs.
On trips that sometimes lasted up to a week, Mr. Siphan’s cell would track the communists, engaging them to force them out of the bunkers in which they often hid during the day.
“When you disturb them, you call air support,” he said. “You’re the one who sends the signal…[and] the base calls a B-52 or other air support. You had to pinpoint where you’re at so you go at night time and give them a flash, and they see that and spot them.”
“You fought them—and then escaped right away and let the air support destroy.”
The commandos would have hammocks set up nearby, he said, where they would ride out the shocks caused by the bombings and then await flights back to Phnom Penh.
The job also involved basic reconnaissance work, saboteur work, blowing up bases along the Ho Chi Minh trail and engaging directly with the trail’s users.
“This is all: You’re faster than them and you strike. You spray them,” Mr. Siphan said of coming face to face with North Vietnamese and Cambodian communists along the trail.
“Your job and operation is to seek and destroy,” he said. “It means I chase you and kill you. It’s all about that—there is no negotiations, no talk. When I saw it, I destroyed it.”
“Why? Because we want to disperse them. We want to help them get them out of the trenches and disperse them and [make] easy targets for the bombs…or artillery support.”
In mid-1972, Mr. Siphan, an ardent anti-communist whose father served in the Cambodian military, withdrew from the covert U.S. commando forces to focus on his studies.
After the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975, Mr. Siphan said he took on a new philosophy of working together with the communists to help build the country.
“In 1975, we gave up and lived with them,” Mr. Siphan said. He was sent to a forested area 50 km off National Highway 5 in Battambang province, where he said he lived happily until 1977 or 1978, under the direction of Northwest Zone secretary Ruos Nhim.
“Life was, in that first period, so fun. We worked hard, we communicated with the base people, we got along with each other and we shared what we had with [them].”
Then a series of purges in the region began around 1977 and 1978, he said, attributing the decisions to Nuon Chea in Phnom Penh. As the Khmer Rouge leadership of the Eastern Zone was replaced, Mr. Siphan said the killings of base people and cadre began en masse. His own life was twice seriously threatened by the new leaders, he said.
“The first time, I explained to them, I said, ‘Come on, I like you, I work with you. Check with everyone. I work so hard, I like revolution, I never complain about revolution. If you kill me—fine, I am the one who you lost…. I’m loyal to building the country’” he said.
Afraid of the invading Vietnamese who overthrew the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, Mr. Siphan would instead flee to the Nong Samet Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, an area controlled by the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. At the border, he used his past covert work with the U.S. military to secure safe passage to California by late 1979.
“You see, it’s adaptation,” said Mr. Siphan, who later operated a doughnut shop in the U.S.
“The military trains you to be able to adapt to any circumstance and any situation.”
willemyns@cambodiadaily.com
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