Khmer Rouge researcher David Ashley took a thorough look at
the 273 pages of documents found by the Post in May close to Pol Pot's final resting
place on the Thai-Cambodian border. In the following analysis he attempts to answer
three questions: What do the documents purport to be? Are they genuine? And what
do they reveal?
The 'KR Papers' purport to be handwritten notes from a series of meetings held at
the Khmer Rouge political school in Anlong Veng, which was seemingly re-established
shortly after the arrest of Pol Pot by Ta Mok's forces.
The meetings date from a six-month period between June 24, 1997 - nine days after
Pol Pot's capture - and Jan 24, 1998. Except for the first meeting documented, a
two-day congress of senior leaders to decide on future policy and leadership, almost
all the other meetings were study sessions lasting several days at which the official
KR line was given to a large number of medium- and low-level cadres from the army
and local-level administration.
The notes also cover working meetings of representatives from the military regions
and districts and one meeting to discuss the work of the political school. This and
other internal evidence suggests that the papers' authors worked for the political
school and probably took the notes for their personal benefit.
Unfortunately, the authors give no information about themselves, express no opinions
of their own and give no introduction or conclusion to any of the meetings or to
the papers themselves.
That's what the KR Papers appear to be. This leads to the next question: are they
genuine? I believe unquestionably so. My confidence in this regard, as someone who
has misspent years of his life studying KR documents, is based on three reasons:
First, the language, tone and detailed substance of the 273 pages accord precisely
with other past and contemporary Khmer Rouge material, down to Nuon Chea and Ta Mok
using phrases and relating stories which they have repeated privately elsewhere.
Second, anyone forging the papers with a political or even a financial purpose would
have paid attention to making the documents more readable, less repetitive (and probably
considerably shorter). Instead, as might be expected from handwritten notes, they
are scrappy, with frequent misspellings, numerous abbreviations, several words illegible
and some sentences ambiguous or meaningless.
And third, as explained below, the papers fail to fully serve the political purpose
of any of the parties who might have an interest in manufacturing such a document.
I thus conclude the papers are indeed notes made on a series of internal Khmer Rouge
seminars and meetings, a genuine if not official Khmer Rouge document.
Of course, how accurately the notes represent what was said in those meetings depends
on how well the papers' authors understood and how faithfully they recorded them.
But the overall impression, given the sheer detail with which speakers' comments
are generally recorded, is that the authors were attentive listeners and fast writers.
As such, the reader of the KR Papers - the longest such document available for the
past 16 years - is placed in the privileged position of being a fly-on-the wall in
numerous internal seminars as senior managers of Democratic Kampuchea Inc explained
the corporate message to their colleagues and employees.
What was that corporate message? To understand that, one must first recollect the
context of the meetings. When the meetings began, the Khmer Rouge had just undergone
its worst ever internal dispute.
The June 9,1997 killing of Son Sen, the long-time army commander-in-chief, had sparked
fighting between forces loyal to Mok and Pol Pot which culminated in the arrest of
the movement's top three leaders. These were Pol Pot, the man who had led the KR
for 25 years until a congress in January 1997, and the two men whom the congress
elected to lead the movement thereafter, So Sarouen and Nhem San.
All this occurred, moreover, at a time when the movement, having been at war almost
continuously for 30 years, had recently lost most of its territory and forces to
its principle enemy. With no realistic prospect of military victory and isolated
domestically and internationally, its last hope appeared to lie in an offer of renewed
alliance from the royalists - long-time allies from the 1980s who had nonetheless
betrayed them in 1993 and fought against them thereafter.
The political training was thus organized by the post-Pol Pot leadership to bolster
the flagging fighting spirit and strengthen the doubtful loyalty of cadres at a moment
of crisis in the movement. It emphasized political education because, in line with
long-established Khmer Rouge thinking, the movement's key weapon was perceived to
be its cadres' absolute faith in its moral superiority and ultimate victory.
Hence, what really worried the leadership was not its present military weakness or
its apparent lack of allies, money, ammunition, troops or supporters. Instead, it
was anything which undermined the cadres' conviction and loyalty to the struggle:
the ideological threat posed by defeatism, war-weariness and the enemies' "political
warfare"; the distractions of money, property, power or "sin"; and
a confusion between friends and enemies.
The study sessions were the leadership's response to these dangers, an attempt to
re-create a black-and-white moral universe so that a new generation of Khmer Rouge
officials and soldiers would continue what its aging leaders saw as the movement's
historic role as the true representative and only protector of Cambodia's poor peasants.
To combat these ideological dangers, the papers are dominated by two themes.
The first was a constant stress on "building" oneself, through constant
study and self-criticism. The other theme was an attempt to explain the three core
problems which Khmer Rouge cadres found most difficult to understand and so threatened
their faith in the movement.
These issues - the overthrow of Pol Pot, the alliance with Funcinpec and the purpose
of the on-going war - were thus discussed repeatedly and at length.
Since rank-and-file rebels found it as difficult as outsiders to understand why Pol
Pot and his designated successors were overthrown, the papers give extensive and
repeated detail as to their "treachery".
Their "crimes" are seen to begin particularly in July 1996, when Pol Pot
sent Ta Mok to try to suppress the revolt in Pailin and Malai and then blamed him,
Nuon Chea and Son Sen for failing to do so.
Thus, the papers conclusively disprove any conspiracy theory under which the post-1996
splits within the KR leadership were all staged as part of some grand Pol Pot strategy.
Indeed, the papers allege that Pol Pot sought to kill the three of them already in
October 1996 and subsequently detained them under an informal house arrest. He even
planned a trial of Ta Mok, who until that time had "loved Pol Pot more than
life itself", for causing "the collapse of the West".
Subsequently, Pol Pot is accused of manipulating the long-awaited "succession"
from the elderly KR leadership to the next generation. Pol Pot is seen as favoring
So Sarouen and Nhem San - two long-standing Khmer Rouge army cadres previously associated
with Son Sen and his Northeast zone - and marginalizing Ta Mok and those cadres most
closely associated with Mok's zone of Anlong Veng.
Until June 1997, however, Anlong Veng's growing hostility is largely targeted at
Saroeun, the new brother number one, who is depicted as being dictatorial, tyrannical
and power-mad. It is only with the killing of Son Sen that Pol Pot's hand behind
events is finally betrayed.
Pol Pot's actions during the resulting fighting - in destroying the KR radio station
and burning the mind-boggling amount of wealth (in cash, gems and gold) that he had
hitherto kept hidden from the movement - only added to his "betrayal".
The papers clearly demonstrate that, with the overthrow of Pol Pot, it was Ta Mok
and his protégés who took power in the Khmer Rouge with the full support
of Nuon Chea. While the new Standing Committee was led by Mok's protégés
- Nhorn, Ngun, Tem and Neov - Mok's power was not only indirect.
The papers clearly imply that the real power continued to lie with Ta Mok, as "overall
leader" of the "old committee", and it is he who apparently continued
to hold the money, who went to Bangkok to negotiate on the KR's behalf, and who decided
that Pol Pot should be kept alive because "too many Khmers have died already".
At one point in December 1997, Ta Mok quotes Pol Pot as plaintively asking an intermediary
whether "Ta has pardoned him yet": the answer was no.
The evidence of the documents also suggest that the intellectuals, including Khieu
Samphan, Chan Youran and their colleagues, played no role in military and administrative
affairs and were peripheral to the real leadership of the movement. They are seen
as having sided with Pol Pot during the internal conflict.
If the change of leadership was real, it was not necessarily significant. The new
leadership renounced Pol Pot the individual but not the organization, ideas, strategy,
tactics and methods with which he was associated. Indeed, the most striking impression
from reading the documents is how little the movement's thinking and rhetoric changed
with the end of Pol Pot.
The only Pol Pot policies which are explicitly renounced are those of 1994-96: the
line of killing village officials and burning and mining villages, the closed door
policy, and the constant hunt for hidden enemies among the ranks. Pol Pot's errors
during the 1970s, particularly his internal purges and his refusal to accept Chinese
offers of aid and military intervention, are also occasionally eluded to but are
not discussed in detail.
For the rest, the problem was not the political line but the implementation: "Pol
Pot had a correct line but Pol Pot didn't implement the line which he himself made."
In general, therefore, the KR leadership was determined to continue the same struggle
it had fought for the past 50 years. While their external propaganda maintained that
the end of Pol Pot meant the end of the KR movement, internally they made no such
pretense. Instead the old leaders constantly reiterated the movement's long heritage
and urged that everything be done to ensure the long-term survival of the movement,
"for several generations", "100 years, 200 years".
This was because the need to fight their old enemies had not disappeared. The conflict
with the number one enemy, Vietnam and its "puppets", had existed since
1930. The conflict with the number two enemy, the "exploiting classes"
of "feudalists" and "bourgeoisie", had existed for 2,000 years.
Neither was going to go away any time soon.
"Comrades", a July 7 meeting concluded, "you have struggled for a
very long time already, but the war is not yet over. You must carry on."
Any idea that the Khmer Rouge leaders were prepared to finally give up in return
for peace, exile or amnesty is disproved by the papers.
For this reason, the Khmer Rouge viewed Funcinpec's offer to join the coalition of
anti-Hun Sen parties, the National United Front (NUF), in precisely the same way
as it had viewed similar alliances with the royalists in 1970-75 and 1982-91 - not
as a means to end the war against a "puppet" regime but as a tactic to
increase the means to wage it. They thus saw joining the Front as a way to gather
additional "national" forces, regain legitimacy and enable the world to
provide them with aid.
Like Hun Sen, the Khmer Rouge believed that Ranariddh's offer to join the NUF was
a life-line. In the words of Tem, number three in the new Standing Committee, in
late May 1997: "If we don't join the Front, we die immediately" because
"there's only so much money", "[we're] isolated, terribly isolated"
and because Thailand will "close the [border] crossings".
On the other hand, the Khmer Rouge feared the NUF almost as much as they welcomed
it. As in the past, the leadership believed that a close association with the "feudalists
and capitalists" posed a grave, even fatal, threat to the internal coherence
of the movement.
As a female cadre, Mot, put it: "1. Join and [we] die, die in terms of views
and stance; 2. Don't join and [we] also die."
What worried them was less a period of war - which was officially estimated at not
more than 10 months - but a period of peace which would follow when they would fight
politically against those they still regarded as their 2,000-year-old class enemies.
They believed that their previous foray into peace and political struggle during
the UNTAC period had cost them a significant number of forces, and they feared the
same would happen again.
They, nonetheless, believed that the present alliance with Funcinpec was essential
and that, in the future, they also had to find a way of living alongside the other
parties. Hence the perceived need to continually instill in the cadres the "poor
peasant" character of the movement.
If the papers prove Hun Sen correct about the KR objective in joining the NUF and
correct in alleging that Khmer Rouge fought alongside the Funcinpec resistance in
O'Smach and elsewhere, they prove him incorrect in claiming that it was Pol Pot who
orchestrated this move or that the KR had sent thousands of troops to Phnom Penh
and were preparing an imminent coup.
Nothing in the papers mention any pre-July 5, 1997 military planning between the
Khmer Rouge and Funcinpec. The papers instead indicate that the Khmer Rouge were
still mulling over the NUF while Hun Sen was preparing armed action.
Indeed, the papers imply that Ranariddh's attempts to bring in the Khmer Rouge led
indirectly to the tensions between Mok and Pol Pot erupting into open crisis - first
through the helicopter incident in February 1997, when Funcinpec negotiators were
killed by troops loyal to Pol Pot, and then with the negotiations with Funcinpec
The tone of the documents gradually changes over the months from June to January,
as the Front forces "go back to hug the yuon" and the prospects of victory
"within 10 months" recede. In their place, the pages are increasingly dominated
by Ta Mok's personality and his ever more eccentric political ideas.
On the one hand, Mok pins his hopes on a third world war which he believes is certain
to break out in Cambodia between the US and China and on a "struggle [erupting]
now throughout the world attacking the US, that is to say, the poor are attacking
the rich, communism is being resurrected".
On the other hand, if the situation is returning to that of the 1970s, then evidently
so can the rhetoric and tactics. When the resort to Pol Pot's united front tactics
of the 1980s doesn't work, Mok instead turns to Pol Pot's thinking of a previous
He thus states that it is essential to create a new party of poor peasants. He ascribes
Thailand's apparently impending collapse to its dependence on machinery rather than
on the cow. He says that Thailand and the world can instead learn from the Cambodian
struggle which by relying on the poor peasants is uniquely rapid, for it prefers
a child to be crushed than allow the wheel of history to be halted.
It was for such ideas, such leaders, such aims that the Khmer Rouge rank-and-file
were supposed to continue to sacrifice their lives, limbs and children. A reader
of the KR Papers cannot be surprised that they finally chose not to.