In the hierarchy of a movement which labels its enemies 'puppets', he is Brother
Puppet No 1.
Khmer Rouge figurehead leader Khieu Samphan - who reportedly put a pistol to his
head and threatened to kill himself during Pol Pot's overthrow last year - is again
caught in the middle of the movement's protracted death throes.
As Ta Mok fights to keep his dwindling guerrilla forces intact, or perhaps attempt
to strike a deal with the government, Samphan is expected to play his part - as chief
propagandist, negotiator and the so-called 'moderate' face of the KR - whether he
likes it or not.
He can be under no illusions that he is playing for his future, and quite possibly
his life. But while Samphan was for years a loyal aide to the movement's doyen Pol
Pot, many believe that he is now a reluctant servant of Ta Mok.
"Khieu Samphan hates Ta Mok," said Yim Phanna, the guerrilla commander
who led last month's dramatic breakaway from Anlong Veng. "But he is very afraid
of him. All the educated men - Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran and the others - are very
afraid of Ta Mok."
Samphan, an intellectual in a revolutionary movement which has proven itself considerably
better at killing than at political theory, knows fear well. According to fresh accounts
from defectors, Samphan almost killed himself rather than be handed over to Mok after
the Anlong Veng leadership struggle last June.
Pol Pot, still fuming over the 1996 breakaway of Pailin and Malai, ordered the killing
of KR defense minister Son Sen, and also reportedly wanted Ta Mok and fellow KR leader
Nuon Chea dead.
Fleeing Anlong Veng when he realized his forces were no match for Mok's, Pol Pot
was chased through the jungle by Phanna's Div 980 troops.
According to Div 980 defectors, Pol Pot took Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran
and other political leaders Tep Kunnal and Mak Ben with him when he fled. Somewhere
along the way, most of them - Nuon Chea and Chan Youran among them - decided to give
"They knew they had no way to escape, and thought it was better to surrender.
They escaped from Pol Pot and came back towards us," said one of Phanna's deputies,
Yim San. "When we met them, they didn't say anything. But they knew they had
to go back to Ta Mok."
Pol Pot and his family went on, accompanied by only Khieu Samphan, his wife and children,
two loyalist generals, Saroeun and San, and a few bodyguards. Somewhere on the Dangrek
escarpment near the Thai border, in so-called Field No 40, Phanna's troops caught
up with them.
"When he saw the soldiers from 980 arrive, Khieu Samphan knew they were going
to arrest them all," said another division soldier, who would not give his name.
"He pulled out a pistol and put it to his head, like he was going to kill himself.
Mr Phanna [bent down] before him and urged him not to, but Mr Samphan kept his gun
there. Mr Phanna said 'Don't do that. We will not hurt you'.
"Mr Phanna called for Samphan's relative [Tean]. He told Mr Samphan 'We know
you are not involved in the coup. We will not arrest you. We will not kill you.'
Finally, Mr Samphan put down the gun."
Phanna was reluctant to comment in detail on the chase of Pol Pot, but the account
of Samphan's suicide threat was confirmed by Yim San and another senior defector,
Pol Pot said nothing during his capture except to quietly ask that his life be spared,
according to Yim San. Pol Pot, Samphan and the rest of their group were taken to
Mok at his house in Anlong Veng. Mok, very happy, declared that Div 980 was one of
the best, and promoted Yim Phanna to be a regional commander.
Nine months later, Samphan must have felt a sense of dreaded déjà vu when
he was again grabbed and marched off into the hills last month, as it was Ta Mok's
turn to lose control of Anlong Veng.
"People told me that Khieu Samphan was crying when [Mok's loyalists] took him
away. He was crying because he was afraid of Ta Mok, and of more fighting in the
Khmer Rouge," said Yim Phanna.
The defectors claim that Samphan would have happily joined their breakaway, but that
no-one was prepared to try to take him from under the close eye of Mok - their houses
were just a few hundred meters apart.
Samphan reportedly knew about the planned revolt against Mok five or six days before
it happened. "His nephew came to me to ask that we take Khieu Samphan out of
Anlong Veng with the breakaway," said Yim San. "I told his nephew that
I could not go and talk or negotiate with Khieu Samphan because Ta Mok might send
his forces to catch us."
Since being marched off by Mok's partisans, Samphan has been fulfilling his duties
at the KR's mobile radio station, broadcasting speeches urging the defectors to return
to the revolutionary fold and denouncing "the yuon communists" and their
"puppet Hun Sen".
As the KR yet again desperately tried to show the world they are rehabilitated, it
was Samphan's name that they used. "Now, after Pol Pot's death, the true leader...
is Khieu Samphan. Ta Mok is an adviser to Khieu Samphan," rebel general Nou
Non told journalists on the Thai border.
Never mind that Samphan has supposedly led the KR since the mid-1980s when Pol Pot
was said to have stepped down to an advisory role. Now, like then, no-one believes
that Samphan is anything but a pawn.
For a man who controls no guns - and therefore has no real power - Samphan is perhaps
more valuable for his name than for anything else. RCAF and government officials
privately say they would welcome his defection, and King Norodom Sihanouk has several
times in the past expressed a willingness to pardon him.
Although KR scholars say he was for years a loyal apologist and accessory of Pol
Pot, Samphan is considered more acceptable to Cambodians and the world than its real
leaders, past and present.
He and other key 'intellectuals' Chan Youran, Tep Kunnal and Mak Ben - the "gang
of four", as one defector called them - between them represent perhaps the last
sliver of legitimacy the KR could claim to have as a political movement rather than
just a bunch of bandits and killers.
Born in 1931 in Svay Rieng, Samphan studied in Phnom Penh and France, along with
Pol Pot, earning a doctorate in economic science. As a newspaper editor under the
then-Prince Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, he was stripped naked and beaten
by police in 1960 and imprisoned without charge for two months. Later a controversial
parliamentarian under the regime, he eventually left for the jungle in 1967, rising
to be commander-in-chief of the KR army.
Since the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, Samphan has served as the movement's main
negotiator and diplomat. He has largely been out of a job since the KR withdrew from
the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, except for a brief period last year when he headed
negotiations with Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec party.
Formerly the president of the KR's provisional government (and now chairman of its
so-called National Solidarity Party), Samphan's main job is to be a mouthpiece -
for years, under Pol Pot and now Ta Mok, he has directed the broadcasts of KR radio.
"Khieu Samphan is important for Ta Mok," said Yim San. "He has a lot
of experience in dealing with foreign countries, and in political matters. If Ta
Mok wants something to be said to his people and to the international community,
he has to get Khieu Samphan to tell them."
"But really he has no right to discuss matters with Ta Mok - for political,
economic and military matters, it is only Ta Mok who decides. When we heard Khieu
Samphan on the radio, we used to say 'This is Ta Mok, using the voice of Khieu Samphan'.
Most of the people felt very sorry for Khieu Samphan, that he has no right to speak
freely about political matters. I don't think anybody thinks he is a bad man like
Meanwhile, in post-Ta Mok Anlong Veng, the ransacked house of Khieu Samphan gave
some insight into its former occupant last week. The floor was strewn with his possessions:
books ranging from volumes on the Cold War, ASEAN and communism to English-French
dictionaries and a handwritten notebook of old French fables; copies of old and new
newspapers including the China Daily, the Beijing Digest and the Bangkok Post; speeches
by leaders including Norodom Sihanouk; pages and pages of transcripts of Voice of
America, British Broadcasting Corporation and Cambodia government radio bulletins;
at least a dozen scrapbooks of handwritten notes on international affairs such as
the UN and US interventions in Kuwait, Iraq and Bosnia; political parties' manifestos;
and recent copies of anti-government newspapers and leaflets such as a July, 1997
article Death of Democracy in Cambodia.)
Just maybe Khieu Samphan, aged 66 and working for a mass murderer, still believes
there's a legitimate revolution to be had.