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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - KR Papers show rebels still living in the past

KR Papers show rebels still living in the past

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

in June.

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.



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