The Resurrected: The Khmer Rouge Haven't Disappeared-They're in Power
By Nate Thayer
Far Eastern Economic Review
Bangkok, April 16, 1998
It was a crime that earned Cambodia's ousted prime minister a 30-year prison sentence. "Norodom Ranariddh negotiated with the Khmer Rouge," the Phnom Penh military court judge intoned on March 18, at the end of a trial orchestrated by his rival co-premier, Hun Sen. But on the day Prince Ranariddh was convicted, Hun Sen's men were holding secret talks with the same Khmer Rouge rebels--cutting a deal remarkably similar to the one for which Ranariddh was being condemned. As a result of the negotiations, hundreds of Khmer Rouge guerrillas emerged from the northern Cambodian jungle the following week, armed with amnesty from prosecution, money and ranking positions in Hun Sen's government. Similar scenes have been repeated all over the country since 1996, when the Khmer Rouge--the ruthless organizers of the 1975-78 reign of terror that left more than 1 million Cambodians dead--began fragmenting through infighting and defections. Instead of being brought to justice before an international tribunal, some of the movement's top commanders have gained senior positions in the government and security forces, while the Khmer Rouge rank and file have been quietly reintegrated into Cambodian society by the thousands. They are the beneficiaries of the bitter rivalry between Hun Sen and Ranariddh, whose political factions are vying for the allegiance of the guerrillas to strengthen their troop numbers. It's a raw power play that makes Hun Sen's condemnation of Ranariddh's negotiations ring hollow: Hun Sen justified his July 1997 coup by charging that Ranariddh was conspiring with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the government.
Hun Sen's embrace of longtime Khmer Rouge cadres also undermines the premise of the international community's tacit backing for the Cambodian strongman, which is rooted in the pragmatic belief that his regime is a bulwark against the return of the murderous faction. Preventing the guerrillas from returning to power has been a goal of major Western countries ever since the Khmer Rouge government was overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese, who installed a puppet regime of Khmer Rouge defectors in Phnom Penh. After the Vietnamese army pulled out in 1989, this regime remained under Prime Minister Hun Sen. He and his Cambodian People's Party strong-armed their way into an uneasy coalition with Ranariddh's Funcinpec party after contesting elections sponsored by the United Nations in 1993. The factor that has persuaded foreign governments to back Hun Sen and the CPP is the party's control over Cambodia's administrative apparatus, which gave it credibility as the only force capable of blocking a Khmer Rouge comeback. Far from suppressing the Khmer Rouge, however, Hun Sen has courted the rebels as fervently as he accused Ranariddh of doing. He has appointed their leaders to his government despite overwhelming evidence that many of them were involved in torture and murder in the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. In late March, for instance, Hun Sen greeted several thousand Khmer Rouge troops in the latest mass defection. Declaring that he "warmly, movingly and joyfully" welcomed these "compatriot officers," he promised that they would be "inducted into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the national police, the military police and the civilian administration."The leader of the breakaway faction, Keo Pok, told journalists: "We all oppose and separate from the control and leadership of the murderous hard-liners . . . and would like to return to live with the Royal government." Pok's own murderous past as a long-time member of the Khmer Rouge's Central Committee was forgotten. Indeed, the Cambodian government continued its public condemnation of the rebels without missing a beat. Less than a week later, the government appealed to the Friends of Cambodia--an informal group of countries including the United States, Japan, France and Australia--to bring "the Khmer Rouge to trial for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity." The U.S. has given more than $1 million to finance the gathering of evidence for an international tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge for such crimes. But in reality, Washington and other "friends of Cambodia" have turned a blind eye to the fact that thousands of Khmer Rouge cadres--many of them suspected mass-murderers--have been brought back into the corridors of power. On April 6, a State Department spokesman told the REVIEW: "The United States has supported the reintegration into Cambodian society of Khmer Rouge defectors . . . Many former members of the Khmer Rouge, including some in Cambodia's current leadership, have renounced that organization's murderous policies." Former Khmer Rouge cadres now in the government include Hun Sen himself, the defence minister, the interior minister, the finance minister, the head of the national assembly, and thousands of others in the provincial and local administrations. Some had been targets of the Khmer Rouge's 1978 purges and fled to neighbouring Vietnam. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, they returned to Phnom Penh to be installed as the new government. But many have joined the government only in the past two years. The Khmer Rouge began disintegrating in earnest in August 1996, when almost half its forces in western Cambodia made a deal with the government. The rebels were enticed by promises that they would be allowed to keep their territory, exploit its rich timber and mineral resources, and hold senior posts in the government and armed forces. These areas are now autonomous zones controlled by the same Khmer Rouge figures who administered them before defecting. They and other Khmer Rouge commanders now hold government office despite abundant evidence that they were guilty of committing atrocities during the movement's three years in power.
- Keo Pok, the 68-year-old senior cadre who led the mass defection in late March, played a leading role in some of the Khmer Rouge's worst killing sprees. His role is detailed in captured Khmer Rouge documents being compiled by Yale University. According to documents taken from Khmer Rouge torture and execution centres, Pok was involved in the execution of people associated with the Lon Nol government, which was toppled by the Khmer Rouge in1975. In the same year, he led the massacre of thousands of Cham Muslims in eastern Cambodia, the documents show. As head of the northern zone in 1977, he supervised the rounding up of "internal enemies, "including at least 112 civilians who were later killed, according to documents from the Tuol Sleng torture centre, known as S-21, that are cited by Cambodia historian Ben Kiernan and other scholars. "Pok's fingerprints are all over the S-21 archives," says Cambodia scholar Stephen Heder at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. "The evidence is indisputable." Later in 1977, he took charge of the central zone, ordering the local leaders tortured and killed. Pok's worst atrocities came in 1978, when he led massacres in the eastern zone along the Vietnamese border in which tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands forcibly relocated, according to documents left at Tuol Sleng by the Khmer Rouge after they fled the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. "The guy who was in charge of the killing was Pok," says Heder, who has analyzed the documents.
nIeng Sary, the Khmer Rouge's former foreign minister, now controls an autonomous zone in western Cambodia. He broke from Pol Pot in August 1996, and the following year held a press conference in Phnom Penh to publicly pledge loyalty to Hun Sen. Shortly afterwards, he was given the rights to sell 178,000 cubic metres of logs from the timber-rich zone, worth an estimated $75 million. His lucrative deals were signed by Hun Sen on January 7 and 11 this year, according to copies of the official contracts obtained by the REVIEW.
n-- Mam Nay, another notorious Khmer Rouge figure, lives near Ieng Sary and now grows corn for a living, according to Cambodian military sources and human-rights investigators. Mam Nay was chief interrogator at the Tuol Sleng torture centre, where 16,000 people, including women and children, were put to death. His signature is on scores of documents detailing the torture of political opponents. He is implicated in "hands-on torture and execution and would almost certainly be convicted in any international tribunal," says Heder of London University. Cambodian authorities know where he lives, but have made no attempt to detain him.
n-- Pech Chheang, a long-time ally of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, defected to the government in late March along with his Khmer Rouge troops. Gen. Chheang and his troops are now fighting remnants of the Khmer Rouge in northern Cambodia. Chheang was the Khmer Rouge government's ambassador to Beijing from 1975 to 1984. In 1994, Khmer Rouge radio named him as the movement's defence minister.
n-- Nuon Paet also was made a general in the Cambodian army after he defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1996. He is a convicted murderer. He was found guilty in a Cambodian court for killing three Western tourists who were kidnapped and held hostage for six weeks in 1994.
- Sam Bith was Nuon Paet's commander at the time of the Westerners' murder. He switched allegiance last August, denouncing his former Khmer Rouge comrades at a Phnom Penh press conference. He is now a two-star general in the government army. Bith was the commander of Khmer Rouge troops who invaded Ha Tien in Vietnam in 1978, according to Heder and other scholars. Those troops slaughtered thousands of Vietnamese women and children during the cross-border raids, which provoked Vietnam's subsequent invasion of Cambodia. Bith was one of nine younger leaders chosen by Pol Pot in 1985 to be groomed to take over the Khmer Rouge. Of those, six have joined Hun Sen since 1996 and now hold senior ranks in the Cambodian army. Since then, most of at least 15 Khmer Rouge army divisions have joined Hun Sen after offers of amnesty, money and government positions. The defections have left the guerrilla movement with a demoralized rump of a few thousand still fighting the government in the jungles in the north. The bulk of the Khmer Rouge are now members of Cambodia's government. That raises the question of who is to be defined as Khmer Rouge and who can be brought before an international tribunal if it were ever to be held.