- I as Defence Attache learnt the importance of my role to manage India’s bilateral ties
By Major General(Dr.) P K Chakravorty (Retd.)
New Delhi. 14 June 2020. Cambodia was in 1996 just settling down and the Khmer Rouge was still active in parts of the country. Safety was a major issue and the Charge d Affaires and self-took a decision that it was in the nation’s interest that the three Indian Naval ships led by the Fleet commander of the Eastern Fleet visit Sihanoukville which lies on the South China Sea. I was on a coveted posting of Defence Attache to Vietnam.
Sihanoukville is also known as Kampong Som, a coastal city in Cambodia and the capital of Sihanoukville province. It is located in the Gulf of Thailand on the South China Sea. The city is flanked by an almost uninterrupted string of beaches along its entire coast line. It has a population of about 89000. The port is located about 230 Km from the capital Phnom Penh.
Assessing the task in hand as also the difficult security situation I flew from Hanoi to Phnom Penh about a week before the arrival of the ships of the Eastern Fleet. Cambodia at that time had King Nordom Sihanouk, two Prime Ministers, and two Defence ministers as two parties jointly shared power. On reaching Phnom Penh, I was warned about the prevailing security situation and not allowed to come out at night. An uneasy calm prevailed as the Khmer Rouge was partially active and undertaking sporadic attacks in the country. The next morning I visited the Embassy and discussed all aspects of the visit. The Charge D’ Affaires apprised me of all details and directed that I must meet the Cambodian Ministry of Defence and discussed numerous issues. They were extremely large hearted and agreed to courtesy calls on King Nordom Sihanouk and both the Defence Ministers. I was surprised at their offer of no charges for Ship’s fuel; Low Sulphur High Speed Diesel. Further there were no maps available for helicopters to fly from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. They were gracious in stating that they would allot an AN 32 aircraft for the Fleet Commander and about 50 combatants to fly to Siem Reap to enable them to visit the famous Angkor Vat temple. It would be great if such a thing could be organised.
Having got the details, I quickly analysed that the entire visit entailed flying to Phnom Penh by helicopters for which maps, helipad and what happens if we have to fly back by night. I immediately went to a book shop and to my good luck found a map which would enable us to know the land marls to fly. I was lucky that a colour photo copier was available which enabled excellent copies to be made so that the three Chetak helicopters could have sufficient maps. The next issue was to cater for night flying of part of the distance. Using my experience, I decided that it would be ideal to follow the coast line which would enable us to get the view even when it was dark. The next issue was to select a helipad where sufficient illumination was available to land at night. Further, I visited Pochentong Airport and with the Cambodian Armed Forces gave our flight plans for the helicopters and also obtained the frequencies including VOR for our flights. I was now ready for the visit and had possibly tied up all issues. With all these preparations, I left for Sihanoukville by road the next morning. It was a smooth drive and we arrived safely. Having reached one straight away visited the port and checked details for berthing of the three ships. In my discussions, they told me that the decision to provide free fuel (LSHSD) was not practicable. I had a mobile and I immediately informed the Charge D’ affaires as also the Fleet Commander. Fortunately, the issue got resolved and funds were made available within a few hours. I reconnoitered a helipad with space for the helicopters and selected visible landmarks by night. Further mustered up cars and buses to enable our officers and sailors to visit Phnom Penh by road and kept constant touch with the Cambodian Armed Forces to provide us security against the Khmer Rouge. This was an area which one was familiar due to tasks performed in the Indian Army.
The three naval ships smoothly berthed at the port and were accorded a great reception by Cambodian officials and the people of Cambodia. It was a treat to see school children with Indian flags cheering these three ships. After a guard of honour we met the Fleet Commander of the Eastern Fleet and he was briefed on the situation in Cambodia. Having completed that we flew to Phnom Penh which was an hours flying time. It was great to be flying over Cambodia with sporadic rain and we landed safely at Pochentong airport. Thereafter there were numerous calls on the Defence Ministers and Service Chiefs. All of them were extremely friendly to our country. By the time we took off it was twilight and gradually became dark as we were flying. The pilots took the coast line and the Admiral himself a Naval Aviator was impressed with night navigation. It was an interesting flight and we safely landed at our helipad which was visible with the natural lights at about 8 p.m. The pilots were outstanding and enjoyed the night flying.
The next day was important as we had only one call on the King. The King Nordom Sihanouk was a friend of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and was glad to receive the delegation headed by the Admiral. He spoke at length about our relations and his views about the world order. He had just returned from China after medical treatment and we were surprised at the cheerfulness of this great leader. It is incredible that he spent two hours with the delegation and expressed his love for the Indian people. After the call we visited the Indian Embassy and the killing field’s museum as also other sites. Incidentally adequate transport was arranged to enable all officers and sailors to visit Phnom Penh. We flew back in day light and landed our helicopters on the ship. The Cambodians hosted a dinner for the Fleet Commander and we prepared for our next day’s visit to Siem Reap.
The next day the Admiral and a mix of Officers and Personnel Below Officer Rank moved early morning to Sihanoukville airfield where a comfortable transport aircraft of the Cambodian Air Force awaited their arrival. The boarding was smooth and it was a smooth flight to Siem Reap. The flying time was about an hour. Having landed we visited the great Angkor Vat temple and a few other sites. The visit was spectacular and the entire lot was impressed. The return flight was equally smooth with the Cambodian Air Force serving us a light lunch on board. We landed back safely and the Admiral to this day recounts that visit.
Hats off to the Cambodians for honouring the Eastern Fleet of the Indian Navy. After the pleasant trip we had a dinner on the ship for the Cambodian officials and diplomats. It was extremely well attended and the Cambodians were impressed with the Indian Navy. We were fortunate that the dinner was extremely well attended. The next day post noon the ships departed for Tokyo and were seen off by the Cambodian Government and officials of the Indian Embassy. It was a great event which was executed with military precision.
I had not completed a month but realised the impact on international relations that the ship visit made. It was heartening to note that just a few days back (June 2020), Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and conveyed his good wishes. It is important that our Services interact with service personnel of foreign countries. To that end we have officers training teams in Vietnam and Laos who teach tactical English. Further defence cooperation has been enhanced exponentially with these countries. The visit was extremely successful and the Eastern Fleet landed again at Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in 1999. All this has enhanced our international relations with these countries and ASEAN.
(Major General(Dr.)(Retd.) P K Chakravorty, VSM is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and a Former Additional Director General Artillery. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)