The Khmer Rouge split has brought much attention to the mysterious rebel group's
inner workings. Nate Thayer analyses the break-up and assesses where the Pol
Pot faction now stands.
AFTER the raw drama and spell-binding intrigue of the unprecedented Khmer Rouge break-away,
one thing remains sure: thousands of hardcore troops and commanders remain loyal
to Pol Pot. These hardliners, who have long warned against dealing with the enemy,
have likely been hardened by recent events.
The schism has pitted Ieng Sary - former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, brother-in-law
of Pol Pot, and former No. 4 in the all powerful Standing Committee of the Party
- and a group of powerful younger military field commanders, against the old guard
leaders and their loyalists. Not since the purges and open warfare of 1978, that
led to the Vietnamese invasion and the fall of the KR regime, has the movement's
inner-circle been so rocked.
Remaining intact, however, is virtually all of the important KR political leadership
and most of its military command structure. These include party supremo Pol Pot,
his second in command Nuon Chea, chief of the general staff Ta Mok, and Defense Minister
Mok, who opposed the Paris peace agreements and advocates an aggressive military
posture, has seen his power significantly rise as a result of the internal strife.
He now directly commands at least 80 percent of the KR troops, though the rank and
file remains split, with final alliances not expected to clarify themselves for months.
Though Sary has taken as much as 20 percent of the KR's fighting force, he has not
gone over to the Royal Government. Sary's faction has effectively set up an autonomous
command with a tenuous agreement of a truce with government forces.
But the rebel faction has removed a major stronghold and leadership base, as well
as control of rich gem and timber territory that provided desperately needed cash
to the movement's central coffers - a major economic and political blow to the leadership.
In addition, for the first time in 30 years the KR loyalists find themselves without
foreign or domestic allies that have been critical to it's survival.
The United Nations, the United States and ASEAN, who all backed the KR-led guerrilla
movement prior to the 1991 peace accords, are all now firmly behind the Cambodian
government. China halted all support in 1991, and Thailand has gone to lengths to
stop cross border traffic and covert assistance to the guerrillas. In addition, their
former battlefield allies - the two non-communist factions - are now part of
a coalition government and formally at war with the KR.
Pol Pot, known as a brilliant military strategist, saw the writing on the wall in
1992, and warned his comrades of impending danger: "While Democratic Kampuchea
has indeed now become strong, without others to be with it, Democratic Kampuchea
cannot be strong all on it's own. When these guys...leave Democratic Kampuchea on
it's own, it is possible for us to be weakened. Once that happens, they will attack
the DK and drag the other forces into joining with Phnom Penh. It would become an
alliance between the West, the Youn [Vietnamese], the contemptible puppets and two
of the three parties. If this were to be the situation, then the Chinese, the Thai,
and ASEAN would all accept it whether they liked it or not...the forces sustaining
us would be enfeebled, which would lead to our being isolated and attacked."
He termed it "a life and death struggle".
The scenario that Pol Pot described as his faction's worst nightmare is precisely
the situation they face now, many analysts say, and is key to the pressures which
contributed to his movement's implosion.
Since 1992, when the KR pulled out of the UN-sponsored election they have attempted
to become self sufficient, relying on timber and gem trading for new resources. The
breakaway faction has taken with them control of the most lucrative area. In 1993,
at least 57 Thai companies were operating over 1,000 earth moving vehicles in KR-controlled
ruby regions of Pailin, with more than three billion baht invested, according to
then Thai MP Thanit Traivut. Western intelligence and Thai businessmen put the guerrillas'
monthly gem profits at $10 million from Pailin alone, until the early 1990's.
In a speech to senior cadre before the peace agreement, Pol Pot explained the importance
of Pailin: "Our state does not currently have sufficient capital either to expand
its strength or enlarge the army. We are spending many tens of millions of baht to
augment the assistance of our foreign friends, but that is still not enough and there
are many shortages. It is thus imperative that we find ways to develop the natural
resources that exist in our liberated and semi-liberated zones as assets to be utilized
in the fight the aggressor enemy."
ORIGINS OF THE CURRENT CONFLICT
It was a centrally-ordered directive by the senior leadership in recent months to
re-seize control over resources in Pailin that sparked the crisis.
Importantly, KR radio - still in the hands of the loyalists - and the rebel radio
provided important and accurate details of the origins of the split.
While often used for propaganda, KR radio also serves as a vital communication link
to the rank and file. References to its importance are often cited in internal KR
Between radio broadcasts, intelligence reports, and guerrilla and loyalist sources,
the origins of the split are relatively clear. There are several important factors.
Firstly, there are long personality disputes among the leadership that have simmered
for years. Particularly, Ieng Sary was in fact purged from all positions of political
importance within the organization more than six years ago. While he continued to
live in DK zones, he was in many ways a minor figure. It was the younger field commanders,
Y Chhien in particular, who held the real power.
Secondly, the KR, in the aftermath of the failed Paris Agreements, the cut off of
foreign assistance, and the loss of their former Cambodian allies to a government
coalition, are suffering from an increase in "regional fiefdoms". In areas
like Pailin the large amount of trading in valuable resources has made many ordinary
KR cadre, soldiers and civilians relatively wealthy - and reluctant to go back to
the times of warfare and central control by the DK leadership.
Thirdly, because of the cut-off of foreign assistance and pressure on cross border
trade with Thailand, the KR leadership increasingly is in need of cash and was trying
to consolidate central control of resources and political loyalty.
Furthermore, the massive trading with Cambodians from government territory and Thais
has left sectors such as Pailin vulnerable to infiltration by enemy operatives. Senior
KR sources say they have been suspicious of locating important bases at Pailin since
at least 1990, when they began detecting radio emissions not under their authorization.
The brief government military capture at Pailin in 1994 was blamed by senior KR officials
on government special forces units and other "spies" posing as businesspeople.
The split erupted publicly on 6 August when KR radio called for the arrest and "destruction
of the traitors", naming Ieng Sary, 450 Division commander Sok Pheap and 415
commander Y Chhien.
Ieng Sary, in a rebuttal broadcast over government radio, called Pol Pot "the
cruelest and most savage murderer", and also condemned Ta Mok and Son Sen.
On 7 August, the DK radio again denounced Sary as a traitor, accusing him of embezzling
millions of baht from the movement to lavish on himself and his family.
On Aug 8, the loyalist radio called for the arrest of Chhien for spying and stealing
Importantly, the radio also said "this Chhien and a couple of his thugs, such
as the named Nhoek, Lanh, and Khieu, threatened to arrest, in a pseudo coup, the
NADK supreme command representatives... This open offense and threat to arrest the
supreme command representatives took place on the morning of 6 August."
The rebel faction shot back, announcing loyalty "to support our leader"
Ieng Sary and "deny[ing] our support to Son Sen who is not our leader who confiscated
possessions, such as ox-carts".
The rebel broadcast also referred to Son Sen accusing "patriotic fighters...such
as the late comrade in arms Hoem and Mich, of being traitors.."
Many aspects of the radio reports were confirmed by Khmer Rouge loyalist and rebel
sources, and the radio was used, during this crisis, as a means to communicate with
the rank and file to attempt to explain the events and halt the erosion of unity
within the ranks.
The spoils of rubies and timber sparked an internal party conflict that has escalated
to what we have today. In essence, the Khmer Rouge military leadership, including
Ta Mok, Son Sen and Nuon Chea, attempted in recent months to re-assert central control
over elements in the army in control of the Pailin sector. These forces, particularly
Chhien and his allies, balked, and the confrontation escalated.
Furthermore, the rebels' reference to the "late comrade in arms" Mich of
being a traitor suggest a purge was under way prior to the open split. Mich served
as a senior military chief of Front 250, elements of which joined the rebels.
The government reference to Chhien and a "couple of his thugs" attempting
to arrest the leadership is a direct reference to younger field commanders seeking
to arrest Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Son Sen, and Nikon after the attempt to seize control
over the area in early August.
What is clear is that the rift had virtually nothing to do with politics, and even
less to do with factions of the KR defecting to the royal government, which was decidedly
a spectator - although beneficiary - to the events.
IENG SARY AND LEADERSHIP CONFLICTS
Ieng Sary - a long-standing member of the Communist Party standing committee, foreign
minister and deputy prime minister during the DK years in power, and the key liaison
for all Chinese military and financial aid throughout the guerrilla war of the 1980s
- was stripped of power in a bitter break with the organization many years ago.
His fall came after years of friction, much of it based on personality conflicts.
As foreign minister during the KR rule, most of the intellectuals who came back to
Cambodia after the KR victory in 1975 were under his charge. Hundreds perished, and
many more were kept in reeducation camps or were forced to do menial work in state
When the KR retreated to the jungle in 1979 after its overthrow by the Vietnamese,
Sary caused a major rift within the leadership by acknowledging to a reporter the
existence of the Toul Sleng torture center in which at least 16,000 people were interrogated
and executed - mostly party cadre and their families. Sary was denounced in internal
party meetings for violating a key tenet of the KR - to never make public statements
not sanctioned by the leadership.
But Sary had the support of the Chinese, who insisted that all their assistance be
passed through him. As a result, he was effectively in charge of distributing weapons
and money throughout the 1980s, a role which gave him concrete power. But he is known
to have had several disputes with Pol Pot, and to have angered field commanders and
political cadre with his autocratic style and abrasive personality. When the signing
of the Paris agreements ended all Chinese covert aid in 1991, his influence effectively
Ousted from the Standing Committee of the Communist Party around 1989, Sary was no
longer invited to high level meetings, according to KR officials. In a late 1992
meeting between Pol Pot and another senior official, Pol Pot agreed with criticism
of Sary, saying "I have known for a long time that Ieng Sary was a bad leader",
according to sources close to the faction.
KR sources say that serious rifts between Sary and the leadership began in 1986,
"when one guy who was in charge of security for Ieng Sary organized a bandit
attack with some Thais at Pailin and stole millions of dollars," according to
Many Khmer Rouge intellectuals complained bitterly about Ieng Sary's abrasive personality.
"We have a saying in Cambodian that people had to 'walk like a duck' around
Ieng Sary and his wife. If they dropped something, someone else picked it up. They
complained about the quality of the food. Their servants were nervous and obsequious,
like around a king. It was very feudalistic," says one source close to the KR
"In 1993, Ieng Say still lived in Thailand in a very nice home built with DK
money. That was denounced by the leadership. While others suffered in the jungle,
he lived in a nice home in Thailand."
During the 1980's, most of the KR intellectuals were based at Phnom Malai, in areas
under Sary's influence. But in the early 1990's, almost all of the political leadership,
including the foreign affairs staff, young intellectuals, and Khieu Samphan and the
office of the president of Democratic Kampuchea, moved north to the base of Phnom
Chhat. Under the control of So Hong, commander of sector 102 and the nephew of Pol
Pot, it served as a major base for the leadership until it was overrun by government
forces in a surprise attack in August 1993.
While Sary is held responsible for the deaths of many intellectuals during his tenure
as DK foreign minister, Cambodian scholar Steve Heder points out that some of the
only ones who survived were those directly under his charge. Department heads in
the Foreign Ministry during the Khmer Rouge rule included Suong Sikoeun (who joined
Sary's breakaway in August), Kiet Chhon (who defected in 1993 and is the current
Finance Minister), Thionn Prasith (former KR ambassador to the UN through the 1980s
until his retirement), Long Norin (who is with Sary's breakaway), Ok Sokhun (KR ambassador
in Paris until the embassy was turned over to the government after the Paris agreements),
Pech Bun Ret (who remains with the loyalists), and Chan Youran (the current DK "foreign
minister"). Such survival rates among these intellectuals, who had all been
named to the security services at Toul Sleng as traitors, suggests that Ieng Sary
was able to protect them from the purges that claimed many of their colleagues.
THE REAL POWER
Many KR sources say that by far the most important defector, rather than Sary, was
military commander Lt. Gen. Y Chhien, who, as officer in charge of Pailin, controlled
crack troops and the lucrative gem and logging trade with nearby Thailand.
"Officially Chhien should be under Ieng Sary, but many believe that Chhien now
controls Ieng Sary," said one source close to the KR. "He controls concrete
forces - troops and money."
Chhien "was said to be a protégé of Pol Pot", says scholar
Heder. "He was responsible for the personal security of both Pol Pot and Nuon
Chea," according to the confession of senior Khmer Rouge official executed at
Toul Sleng prison in 1977. In 1977, he accompanied then Foreign Minister Ieng Sary
on an officials visit to Rangoon, in the capacity of "bodyguard".
By 1981, he was identified as Division 415 commander, and in 1991 promoted to overall
Pailin sector commander - equivalent of a governor, civilian administrator, military
commander and economic czar.
It was a role that gave him great influence, and one that would be bestowed on someone
with the total confidence of the leadership, including Pol Pot. Chhien was viewed
as one of a rising group of six or seven younger commanders being groomed for taking
over the movement.
Sary's daughter, a graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook in
the late 1980s, is married to a top lieutenant of Chhien.
"Both Sok Pheap and Chhien had a high degree of interaction with the international
community. They had extensive contact with Thais and other foreigners," said
Heder. "Elements of both Divisions voted in the UNTAC elections, against the
directive of the leadership."
On the other side of the KR, perhaps the most key military man is Ta Mok
The number three on the standing committee and Chief of the General Staff of the
army, has seen his influence considerably enlarged since the UN peace agreements.
He increased his control from 6 to 12 divisions in 1992, and is responsible for troops
from the northwestern Thai border throughout the north and the entire east of the
country on the Vietnam border.
This gave him control of perhaps 70 percent of the Khmer Rouge army. But one of the
consequences of the recent split is the marked rise in influence of Ta Mok in the
wake of the loss of Pailin. Now more than 80 percent - and perhaps as much as 90
percent - of the remaining troops are under his direct command.
Ta Mok, otherwise known as Chhit Choeun, studied Buddhism when young, and reached
the status of "Lok Kru Achhar". He took over his father's lumber business
and was described as "bright".
According to a senior KR official in 1977, Ta Mok "made vital contributions...by
building up a solidly reliable base. He was able to build up military strength in
every sector", "throngs of people supported him" and "he was
able to build up massive armed forces rapidly" and "went down personally
to lead the military". But, continued Non Suon, who was later executed at S-21,
Ta Mok had "shortcomings"; "he thinks only his zone is important"
and "is quick to become angry, even furious...his attitude is displayed in loud
rages and cursing. A lot of other cadre have been cursed out by him". Non Suon
continued to say Mok has a "boastful personality and clings stubbornly to his
understanding of things. Whatever he says has to be done, is to be done. If this
is not curbed in time he could be transformed into an authoritarian strongman."
THE NUMBERS GAME
While Prime Minister Hun Sen said in August that the two commanders Chhien and Sok
Pheap would bring 3,000 troops to defect to the government, analysts urged caution,
and the intelligence figures suggest otherwise.
In August 1991, the NADK formally submitted military organization charts to the UN,
in accordance with the agreements reached in Paris. They said that 415 division had
a strength including combatants, guerrillas (militia), and porters of 1,200 men and
women. In 1992, UN military intelligence put the real number under arms at about
400. In internal documents of the RCAF's 2nd bureau responsible for military intelligence
dated June 1995 put the troop strength at 350.
For division 450, the August 1991 NADK official figure was 1,635 (of which the DK
said about 65 percent were under arms). UNTAC estimates in 1993 put the figure at
400, and the later RCAF internal intelligence documents reported about 300 under
Whichever way one analyses it, the figures bandied about by the government of late
can be dismissed as propaganda.
For overall figures of DK armed strength, their formal submissions to UNTAC in August
1991 was 25,175 combatants and porters plus 2,510 guerrillas, of which 65 percent
- or about 18,874 - under arms. These figures are consistent with the upper ranges
of State of Cambodia and Vietnamese intelligence estimates at the time. In the mid-1992
UNTAC's "guestimate" was about 10,000 KR under arms. But after the DK's
withdrawal from the peace process, they began a central directive of remobilization
of troops. By December 1992, UNTAC had increased their estimates to 15,000 under
arms. In June 1995, RCAF intelligence put the KR strength at 4,750 regular forces,
with militia bringing the total to 8,500.
Using the government own intelligence figures, the two divisions comprise approximately
800 soldiers, or between 10 and 20 percent of the entire KR fighting force.
But the KR leadership is not only short of friends and money, but also ammunition.
The group has ordered all soldiers and civilians to meet a quota of homemade bamboo
stakes and other crude weapons since last year. In an internal strategy document
from the leadership to cadre earlier this year, the leadership spoke of "The
strategic weapons that we call our main forces, sharp pointed soldiers, which are
punji sticks, poison punji sticks, and booby traps...machetes, axes, and knives are
While the internal split within the movement has caused concrete damage and is a
major propaganda victory for the government, it is much too early to count the KR
Virtually the entire KR political leadership, and much of its military command, is
intact. The entire northern command structure - which has successfully defeated all
government attempts to destroy it in recent years - is largely unaffected. It is
this area that the leadership moved its political operations several years ago.
It is cogent to remember that the Sary's forces have given no sincere indication
that they are willing to join the government, or indeed that peace and national reconciliation
was ever their aim in breaking away.
In scores of interviews with defectors by this reporter in recent years, few cited
political disagreements with the KR as a motive for leaving. Most said that they
were treated well by the commanders and were proud of their role in defending the
country against the Vietnamese threat. That is the case with those loyal to the Pailin
It is likely that, for the time being, the Pailin rebels will remain a "third
force" - with a shaky tactical alliance with the government - unless a confrontation
between the new "allies" is forced.
For the rest of the KR, many government officials acknowledge that they have little
to offer in the eyes of the average guerrilla, and that life in the "liberated
zones" is often better than that of his counterpart across government front
Hardline KR elements - who have long advocated no contacts with the enemy and who
support an increase in guerrilla warfare and terrorism - are now in greater control
of their faction.
In a 1994 KR document issued to northern forces, Ta Mok warned: "We have continued
to exist with them, eat with them, peacefully allied with them to the point that
some of our cadres and ranks have been repeatedly put in danger... in some of our
units, enemy elements comprise 50-60 percent."
Ta Mok warned that "pacifism has entered our cadres" and that "there
is a confusion, a blending our essence and our enemies."
He reminded cadre of "our absolute duty to smash and sweep away the enemy."
An October 1995 internal KR military strategy document outlined their emphasis on
avoiding "tricks of the enemies", especially the "peaceful relationship
The document also urged the KR to target foreigners, particularly Americans.
"The resistance forces are everywhere. We can attack the two heads and their
American boss everywhere. We can cut highway four anywhere, any bridge, any culvert
on the road. We are going to cut it over and over until the two-headed government
will not be able to use it and until the Americans and their construction on highway
four turn their tails and run back to Phnom Penh...the short reminder of historical
events is nothing more than a desire to caution that the strategic supply lines are
the life and death key to winning or losing a war...cut the enemy' throat! Cut the
enemy's throat! Cut the enemy's blood arteries! Tragic fit, tragic death to all enemies
near and far!"
The US Army has detachments of military engineering units involved in road construction
on Route 4 and special forces units training Cambodian deminers elsewhere in Cambodia.
Western intelligence sources say they have information that the KR are targeting
Westerners in Cambodia, and have issued at least three confidential "threat
alerts" in recent months.
Similarly, other internal documents and references on radio push the same line: that
the KR must guard against all enemies, and remain at a distance from corrupting influences.
One document said: "Our first responsibility is we must be clean. Our major
responsibility is to clean up our act. We must be clean. Our ranks, especially our
cadre, must be clean, our skin clear, free of all smell, no peaceful relationship
scheme, no spying activity, no internal undermining, nothing to be compromised at
With the recent events, those elements of the KR who have been warning of the "peaceful
relationship scheme" are likely to be saying "I told you so" - and
be that much more intent to strengthen their hands with the remaining ranks.
(Nate Thayer, correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is currently
a Visiting Scholar and Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies, Foreign
Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. He is writing two books
on modern Khmer Rouge political thought and the political history of Cambodia since