Phnom Penh Post
By Nate Thayer
Friday, 21 April 1995
The final chapters of history are being readied for one of the most brutal regimes in recent times, the Khmer Rouge. Nate Thayer investigates.
ANGKOR CHUM, SIEM REAP - Along this isolated stretch of provincial highway, 19 blown bridges isolate the remnants of villages that were burned to the ground in recent months by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Huge craters in the road explain the carcasses of trucks destroyed recently by anti-tank mines. Dozens of soldiers with protective eye-wear gently expose thousands of land mines laid in rice fields, as truckloads of ragged government troops pass by on the way to nearby front lines.
Intermittently, deafening explosions mark another mine detonated in place. The automatic weapons bursts puncturing the quiet have been a regular feature of life in rural Cambodia for more than 25 years.
The tree line on the other side of the rice paddy marks Khmer Rouge zones, where the remnants of one of the worlds last communist guerrilla movements wages what now seems a war without issue. But despite the depressing scenario of ongoing warfare, most Cambodians and analysts agree, the Khmer Rouge appear, ultimately, to be doomed.
In the wake of a vicious military campaign of terror targeting civilians begun late last year, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge have suffered significant defeats in northern Cambodia in recent months. Nearly half their forces in this once key stronghold of Siem Riep have defected to the new government, unwilling to continue fighting what they say is a hopeless cause with no clear objective. While it may be a few years away, analysts agree that the group is dying a slow death, with little chance of recovering as a potent political force.
"The Khmer Rouge must die because they have lost their political base, their support base, their ideological base. Now they just have an army, and the army has turned against the masses," said Siem Riep governor Toan Chhay.
The governor is not just spouting government propaganda. Since 1979 until 1993's UN-sponsored election, Toan Chhay was chief of staff of the royalist guerrilla army that fought with the Khmer Rouge. His forces shared jungle supply lines, covert Chinese aid, and battlefield strategies with Pol Pot, aimed at ousting the Vietnamese occupation army and the government they installed.
Now, as a senior official of the government that emerged from those 1993 elections, he is welcoming Khmer Rouge defectors using psychological warfare and political and economic incentives. Against the recalcitrant hard-core cadre still fighting from increasingly remote jungle outposts, he and the army are coordinating military assaults.
For the government, the combined use of amnesty where Khmer Rouge elements are sincerely invited to defect without retribution and effective but cautious military pressure has turned Siem Riep province into a model of national reconciliation that has brought a level of peace and development unseen in decades.
In many areas long under guerrilla control, Khmer Rouge defectors have rallied to the government and continue to administer the same zones they did as guerrilla cadre. Four months ago, much of Ankor Chum district, 30 kilometers from Angkor temple, was at war, inaccessible to government forces. In January, after Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders ordered troops to kidnap and execute local officials, burn villages, and mine roads that connect the desperately poor communes, many long time cadre said enough is enough.
552 Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Angkor Chum alone defected to the government after their commanders cut a deal with provincial authorities. Last week, in a bizarre scene, hundreds of armed Khmer Rouge, still in their Chinese PLA style uniforms, lounged in village markets, flirting with vendors and providing security against the remnants of their former comrades now hunkered in small groups in the surrounding jungle.
"When we received the order to carry out the policy to attack the people and villages, I led the people into the forest to protect them, but of course then my commanders wanted to kill me," said Tung Yun, 38, who commanded two regiments of 600 guerrilla fighters until January. He smiled as a 152 mm artillery parked near his house shook the earth as it fired at his former Division commander, who with less than 75 men, had retreated to the jungle a few kilometers away. "Don't worry, I took all the big weapons with me, they can't fire back."
Tung joined the Khmer Rouge in 1974. "Wherever I looked in 21 years I never found a happy place," he said over lunch in a handsome village house that belongs to relatives. "The happiest I have been is now." Tung continues to command his troops, and the government now pays his salary and provides his ammunition. "I don't know why they are still fighting, I guess they just want power."
Meanwhile, the defections have meant unprrecedented levels of security in many areas of Siem Riep, allowing an array of development projects such as road construction, dam repair, demining around former front-line villages, and agricultural infrastructure improvements. These efforts have increased levels of local support for the government, further eroding the rebels' ability to appeal to the sympathies of long neglected villagers.
The Khmer Rouge leadership view forces like Tung's differently: "In certain units, 50 to 60% (of our troops) are organized enemy elements" who are "poisoned by enemy ideas", say written directives from Pol Pot and Ta Mok issued in late 1994 and obtained from defectors in Siem Riep.
But despite the clear-cut successes of the government in marginalizing the Khmer Rouge in Siem Riep, it stands in stark contrast to the other primary area of guerrilla influence-Battambang.
There, the guerrillas have been able to deflect government military offensives effectively and remain capable of sustaining themselves.
Cancerous levels of corruption from top to bottom in government and military abuses continue to be a major source of popular discontent and provide a ripe breeding ground for anti-government sympathy. Says a source close to the Khmer Rouge: "Corruption is the basis of the regime. Personal gain has replaced any ideology. Reasons to resist the government remain."
"The weakness of the DK should not be considered by itself. It should be considered in the framework of a balance of forces," says a source close to the Khmer Rouge leadership. "Even a weak DK remains something strong compared to this government."
Agrees Toan Chhay: "We need to strengthen the discipline of our own soldiers. It is not a Khmer Rouge problem, it is our problem."
In Battambang there have been no significant defections in recent years. Analysts say that the military and provincial government there is sufficiently corrupt and brutal that there is little incentive or atmosphere of trust that encourage the Khmer Rouge to come over to the government side. Human rights workers and government sources in Battambang say that the military continues to carry out murder, intimidation, and extortion of innocent civilians as well as families suspected of having Khmer Rouge connections. Government sources say that there have been several cases of Khmer Rouge forces attempting to negotiate to defect, only to be scuttled by local military leadership more interested in confrontation and revenge than reconciliation.
The legendary resilience of the Khmer Rouge organization should not be underestimated, say those who know the Khmer Rouge well. They point out that, except for their disastrous three years, eight months, and 20 days in power in the late 1970's, Pol Pot and his top cadre have lived underground in difficult jungle conditions since the 1960's fighting a series of governments considerably more formidable than the current regime.
But while these failures of the government may allow for the Khmer Rouge to continue as an army for years, there is little to indicate that they have a future as a political movement. The Khmer Rouge no longer seem to have a political program of significant credibility in the countryside. They are fighting for survival, say analysts, resembling warlords more than revolutionaries, rebels without a cause. Defectors speak of a hierarchy isolated, demoralized, and increasingly unable to get their troops to implement the directives of the leadership. Intelligence sources and defectors say that more moderate elements who favored a political solution to the conflict have waned in influence and more hard-line field commanders are on the ascendancy.
"The first priority of the DK has always been to defend and preserve their leadership and forces," says a source close to the movement. "It is the number one priority before launching offensives or actions against the enemy."
For the first time since they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge are employing new tactics in the countryside that include targeting normal peasants and burning whole villages effectively abandoning their previous hearts and minds strategy.
"In 1979, we were on our deathbed. We should have died in 1979. Why didn't we die? Because even though we made alot of mistakes, and had many enemies who hated us... in every situation we have kept control of the countryside, and that is the reason we have been able to survive," Pol Pot said in a 1992 speech to senior cadre. "Our army was completely defeated and dismantled, but was rebuilt from the countryside. The necessity for us is the countryside, not communism."
But their renewed campaign of terror in rural villages - scores of which have been razed in recent months - have deeply alienated much of their previous base of support and many of their own fighters. Many of the villages are populated by families of their own cadre, who have abandoned the movement and joined the government after being asked to attack their own kin. As a result the remaining Khmer Rouge cadre in some key areas of the country have been denied access to food and provisions which came from these same villages.
"The Khmer Rouge strategy is to regroup, keep the struggle alive and tell the world they are still alive," said Toan Chhay. "Blow up bridges, lay mines. OK, we will rebuild the bridges again and again."
Both sources close to the Khmer Rouge and western intelligence officials confirm that the Khmer Rouge leadership has approved the use of terrorism - including urban attacks - as a new tactic. "Many people in the leadership want to use terrorism now. I can't be more specific," says a source knowledgeable of current thinking within the leadership. Western intelligence officials say they have hard evidence that the Khmer Rouge have sanctioned targeting westerners for terrorist attacks. Such attacks, analysts agree, would be extremely difficult to prevent because of widespread availability of weapons and explosives and lack of effective control of Phnom Penh by security services.
But perhaps most importantly, for the first time in 30 years, the Khmer Rouge have found that both foreign and domestic allies that were essential for the groups survival have evaporated. The United Nations, the US, and ASEAN who backed the Khmer Rouge-dominated guerrilla coalition during the Vietnamese occupation, now are focusing on strengthening the current government and helping destroy the guerrilla faction. The political and material support of China has halted. In recent months Thailand has gone to great lengths to diminish crucial cross border access. And the Khmer Rouge's former battlefield allies during the 1980's are now the internationally recognized government that emerged from the $3 billion UN peace plan that culminated in elections in May 1993.
In his Feb 1992 speech, Pol Pot predicted the current scenario: "Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) cannot be strong all on it's own. When these guys (UN and western powers) strafe everybody else and leave Democratic Kampuchea on it's own, it is possible for Democratic Kampuchea to be weakened. Once that happens they will attack Democratic Kampuchea and drag the other forces into joining with Phnom Penh. It would become an alliance between the West, the (Vietnamese), the contemptible puppets, and two of the three parties. If this were the case, then the Chinese, the Thai and ASEAN would all accept it whether they liked it or not... that is why we need friends among the three parties until the day we die, and we need (foreign) friends until the day we die." But if one thing is clear, the Khmer Rouge have few, if any, friends these days.
The crackdown on covert Thai military support has hurt the Khmer Rouge deeply, according to sources close to the faction. Without access to Thailand, the key guerrilla rear bases along the Thai border would be unable to sustain themselves, deprived of foodstuff, fuel, medicine and other key commodities. While smuggled support continues it is greatly diminished, sources close to the guerrilla faction say.
Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge are now threatened with losing much of their main sources of gem and timber income. Thai businessmen and intelligence sources confirm that the vast majority of the gem fields near Pailin which brought millions of dollars a month to Khmer Rouge coffers in recent years, have virtually dried up.
In the Thai border town of Borei, where cross border gem trading was centered, most of the scores of banks and big gem companies have closed since last year. "Now it is small scale, nothing significant," said an Asian diplomat who monitors the trade. "In terms of economic strength, the Khmer Rouge are very shaky, unless they have a lot stored away."
Furthermore, cross-border logging through Khmer Rouge-controlled check-points is expected to be greatly diminished in coming months as the Cambodian government has vowed to end logging exports. "If the government has a policy not to issue logging licenses to Thai companies, the Khmer Rouge logging will finish," said the Asian diplomat. "Thai companies now get export licenses from the Cambodian government for Khmer Rouge logs."
The Cambodian authorities, motivated by kickbacks, issue licenses to Thai companies to take logs from KR border areas, effectively helping finance their enemies.
With an effective clamp down on logging in Khmer Rouge areas, which now allow trucks to cross in from Thailand smuggling other crucial goods to the guerrillas, these supplies would also dry up, say Thai border officials.
Intelligence estimates now put the fighting strength of the Khmer Rouge at between 5,000 and 6,000 regular troops under arms. About 2,000 of them are holed up in remote, sparsely-populated jungles of the far north, with the rest in the mountainous western provinces of Battambang and Pursat. Small pockets of guerrilla fighters - usually numbering less than 100 - remain in numerous jungle outposts in other areas of the country collecting "taxes" at gun point. They are more a minor irritant than a political threat.
Khmer Rouge sources and intelligence officials agree that the faction is suffering from significant ammunition shortages. In recent months Khmer Rouge radio has repeatedly called for villagers and soldiers to produce quotas of "pungi sticks" to defend bases. Analysts say that captured soldiers and defectors complain of ammunition shortages, and the guerrillas are stepping up campaigns to buy supplies from corrupt government commanders.
"It is similar to the situation in 1973 after the peace agreement signed with Vietnam," Pol Pot said in a communique to supporters in 1993. "At that time we were isolated from external support. We had to rely on the people and we had to get our ammunition from the enemy."
But what seems to be the Khmer Rouge's biggest obstacle to survival is their lack of any coherent political program that appeals to the population. Their directives to cadre and radio broadcasts are almost singularly focused on the ridiculous claim that millions of Vietnamese troops and civilians have flooded Cambodia as part of a massive plot by Vietnam to "swallow" Cambodia. But the racist invective - while attempting to appeal to deep strains of racial hostility many Cambodians harbor towards their eastern neighbor - rings particularly hollow in the rural areas of Cambodia where the war is conducted and virtually no Vietnamese have been seen since the Vietnamese army pulled out in 1989.
"Their line on the Vietnamese issue does not fit the reality in many parts of the country, particularly the north and west," says one Cambodian source close to the Khmer Rouge. "Once the people realize there are no Vietnamese, all the DK logic collapses."
"Most of us do not believe that Vietnamese control Cambodia," said former Khmer Rouge regiment commander Tung Yun who defected in January. "When we went to fight we did not see other nationalities. We fought because we were ordered to do so but in our hearts we did not want war anymore."
The Khmer Rouge daily attack the United States, Australia, and France who they say, in collusion with Vietnam, "are waging war against the Cambodian nation and people." But such talk also rings hollow to villagers who see millions of dollars of donor assistance coming in to build roads, healthcare, and other infrastructure development. For most Cambodians now, including many who once sympathized with the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnamese occupation, after 25 years of warfare, destruction, and disastrous political experimentation, there is little motivation to fight and no enemy except those who continue to wage war.
Khmer Rouge attacks late last year in Siem Riep province created 70,000 new refugees from poor rural villages, but most have returned home and vast areas of the province long under guerrilla influence are now with the government. Development workers who had been restricted because of security from many areas for years say that they are getting unprecedented access and security, much provided by former KR soldiers and supporters.
British and French NGO's are clearing thousands of mines from roads and villages. They are followed by UN-supported road building crews, many who employ Khmer Rouge defectors and their families. After the roads are built, other NGO's are entering to repair irrigation systems and provide veterinary health care.
"You can see in Siem Riep that many areas have suddenly opened up," said David Salter, chief project engineer for the International Labor Organization in Siem Riep, whose mandate is to build roads to rural areas. "Because of improved security, access to development has improved. Everyday we employ 1400 people. A lot of those people are defectors or their families. It brings them into the economic life and development process. When they have a job they protect their jobs. When the road gets built the value of their land goes up. When their lives are improved it encourages more defections and security is further improved and more development work can be undertaken."
Last week in Siem Riep town, scores of military officers and officials gathered to celebrate the Cambodian new year. "Together with the Khmer Rouge and the government working together we will build roads, build schools, build happy places," Toan Chhay said in a toast. Scores of drunken former Khmer Rouge and government officers cheered wildly.
In 1988, Pol Pot told his followers that "peace will bring many new complications" and the "enemy will come at us even more strongly, this time flush with money."
Said an ASEAN diplomat with long ties to the Khmer Rouge: "There is no way out now for the Khmer Rouge, they will die slowly."
Said Toan Chhay " I think it will take ten years to get rid of the Khmer Rouge now. Contain them, isolate them, development, development. It is a political strategy."