End of Story?: Last Khmer Rouge defections don't bring closure - yet
By Nate Thayer in Bangkok
Far Eastern Economic Review
December 17, 1998
After 28 years and more than 2 million dead, the war in Cambodia ended on December 4. That was the day the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge agreed to lay down their guns and accept the authority of the government in Phnom Penh.
Conspicuously absent from the deal, however, were the names of the
three most senior Khmer Rouge leaders: military supremo Ta Mok, political
leader Khieu Samphan, and former party No. 2 Nuon Chea. International investigators want to see all three indicted for crimes against humanity for their role in the Khmer Rouge's brutal 1975-79 rule over Cambodia.
The REVIEW has learned that Thai authorities are detaining all three at the request of the United States. Thai and Khmer Rouge sources say U.S. officials have requested that Thailand hold the trio until an international tribunal is created to try the architects of Cambodia's "killing fields."
Senior Khmer Rouge and government military commanders negotiated the Khmer Rouge defection in a series of secret meetings at the temple ruins of Preah Vihear, in the remote northern jungles near the Thai border, Khmer Rouge Gen. Khem Nuon told the REVIEW on December 4. Phnom Penh confirmed the agreement the next day.
The guerilla military commanders, who defected with as many as 5,000 soldiers and up to 30,000 civilians from the Thai-Cambodian border, will be integrated into the government and armed forces, according to Nuon and Cambodian government officials. In exchange, the guerillas have vowed to lay down their arms, don the government uniforms, and recognize the new government and constitution. They will in effect be given an
autonomous zone where the central government wields little influence.
The decision follows two years of steady defections from the Khmer Rouge, who have been weakened by bloody infighting, a halt to foreign assistance, low morale and the evaporation of popular support. Though Khmer Rouge leaders say they still oppose Hun Sen's government, they have recognized the futility of further armed struggle. "We all agree to join the government. We are tired of war. We will fight politically for the peasants
from now on," says Khem Nuon.
Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea - the top three Khmer Rouge leaders following the April death of Pol Pot - were not among the defectors. According to Nuon, they are "retired and play no role."
A source close to the guerilla leaders says Thai authorities are holding the three, separately, in Sisaket province near the Cambodian border. "They are in a bad position," the source says. Thai and Khmer Rouge officials add that U.S. officials, who want to see the three tried for crimes against humanity, asked that they be detained. (U.S. officials refused to comment, and the Thai government denied that the Khmer Rouge leaders were on Thai soil.)
There's no guarantee that they will be brought to trial, however. Both guerilla and government sources say they expect that Khieu Samphan, a former Khmer Rouge diplomat who has at times been the public face of the movement, is likely to be granted amnesty by the Cambodian government in coming months.
Even more significantly, an appropriate international tribunal has yet to be created, and doing so may be difficult. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that such a tribunal should be held in Cambodian territory and controlled by Cambodian authorities. The major democracies, which want to maintain a policy of engagement with Hun Sen, may be reluctant to confront him on the issue. "The U.S. wants to influence and guide the leader, not alienate him," says a U.S. diplomat.
However, the United Nations sent foreign experts to Cambodia in November to assess the prospect for creating an effective tribunal - and they are not likely to be so diplomatic. They say Hun Sen's proposal would be unacceptable, as any tribunal would have to be controlled by an independent judicial process, like the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia. "We will not be party to a judicial farce," says a foreign expert close to the UN team.
Hun Sen's reluctance to see the creation of an independent tribunal is understandable. He is a former Khmer Rouge commander, and his government is filled with former Khmer Rouge; some defected when he did, in 1977, and others defected in recent years. They include the ministers of defence, interior, justice, finance and foreign affairs, as well as hundreds of officers in the military, security service and civilian administration.
Among the most notorious is Keo Pok, a former senior Khmer Rouge cadre who became a government official after defecting in March. In charge of purges in the 1970s that killed at least tens of thousands, his role is detailed in documents captured from Tuol Sleng, where the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed more than 16,000 people.
Mam Nay, another defector, served as chief interrogator at Tuol Sleng and is implicated in the murder of thousands. His signature is on scores of documents detailing the torture and killing of political opponents. He currently grows corn in western Cambodia.
The demise of the Khmer Rouge began in earnest in July 1996, when thousands rebelled against Pol Pot and other leaders who wanted to return to open warfare against the government formed after the UN-sponsored 1993 elections. The government backed the rebellion, led by Ieng Sary and senior field commanders. Pol Pot and other leaders holed up in the northern jungles deemed the Khmer Rouge rebels traitors and "worse
than excrement." "We want to make one thing clear. We will never
surrender," one senior cadre, Mak Ben, told the REVIEW at the time. "As long as there is grass, we can eat the grass." He defected to the government in July 1997.
In June 1997, Pol Pot's paranoia about traitors from within peaked. He ordered the assassination of his long-time comrade and defence minister, Son Sen, brutally murdering 16 of his family members in the process. Also targeted was Ta Mok, the one-legged military commander known as "the butcher," who escaped, mustered his troops and overthrew Pol Pot.
But under Ta Mok's leadership, little improved. By March 1998 he was losing many of his troops to mass defections. An offensive by former loyalists then forced Pol Pot, Ta Mok and thousands of troops and civilians to retreat to the jungles near the Thai border.
On April 15, Pol Pot died - of a "broken heart," his wife told the REVIEW - and a livid Ta Mok continued to demand all-out warfare against defectors. "They are traitors who will all die," he said. Ta Mok's interpreter that day was Tep Kunnal, a senior political official and former UN diplomat. During the interview, he turned and whispered grimly: "This movement is finished."
Later, as he plotted his own escape, Tep Kunnal sent a letter that revealed the bizarre idealism of a movement responsible for one of history's worst mass murders. "How great our sorrow is when we lose someone that we nourish and love dearly," Kunnal wrote. "But here it is not only the loss of someone's life, but the life of a movement that involves hundreds of thousands of human lives that have perished. You can imagine our grief." [End]