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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mystery surrounds Son Sen, Nuon Chea

Mystery surrounds Son Sen, Nuon Chea

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ONFUSION surrounds the fall of a key Khmer Rouge base - and the escape of two of

the guerrilla group's supreme leaders - in an apparent major blow to the hard-line

faction this month.

The current whereabouts of Nuon Chea and Son Sen, believed to have fled to Thailand,

are unconfirmed, as are the circumstances of how two lesser KR figures - Ny Korn

and Ta Muth - were captured by the breakaway faction led by Ieng Sary.

Questions also remain about the fall of the KR base of Samlot - where the KR leaders

were - to the forces of the breakaway group.

"It all seems so unrealistic," said one KR analyst. "If they realized

Pailin was lost, and they were withdrawing to organize some resistance, how did Samlot

fall so easily?

"It would seem to mean that the Khmer Rouge were never well-organized, never

well-disciplined, that the hard-liners have no combat readiness any more and are

really at the end."

Another KR researcher, Phnom Penh-based David Ashley, also wondered how leaders of

the stature of Nuon Chea - Pol Pot's right-hand man - and Son Sen could have been

in such a poorly-defended base.

"I don't understand how they could end up in that situation. Nuon Chea would

usually have at least 50 bodyguards with him. Either they underestimated how quickly

all this could happen, or what we've heard is not completely true."

Samlot, about 22km south of Pailin, is believed to have been a KR weapons dump, and

a key gem and timber business area, for years.

It was captured, reportedly with barely a shot fired, to forces loyal to Sary's Pailin

military chief Y Chhean on or around Oct 1.

Nuon Chea - the head of the KR's political wing and No.2 in the KR hierarchy for

decades - and Son Sen - former KR Defense Minister believed to rank No.3 or No.4

in the KR - apparently fled with a small number of fighters to the Thai border.

Also reported to have fled was Ny Korn, believed to be Son Sen's brother, and Ta

Muth, former son-in-law of KR supreme military commander Ta Mok.

In an unclear sequence of events, both Ny Korn and Ta Muth reportedly ended up in

the hands of Y Chhean's forces - Ny Korn after apparently attempting to fight the

breakaway group and Ta Muth after being denied access to Thailand.

Nuon Chea and Son Sen disappeared into Thailand, prompting co-Prime Ministers Prince

Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen to make an official request to Thailand Oct 3 for the

pair to arrested and returned to Cambodia.

The Thai Foreign Ministry publicly reiterated its policy of disarming and forcing

back to Cambodia any combatants who strayed on its territory, and pledged its support

for the Cambodian government.

By the Post's press time, several foreign military observers and government officials

said they believed Chea and Sen had crossed back into Cambodia, probably to the KR

hard-liners' northern stronghold of Anlong Veng.

But a Thai-based intelligence source and long-time border watcher said that, as of

Oct 14, the pair were still holed up in Thailand's southeast border near Borai, Trat

province.

They were under the care of a Thai logging company which had a long-standing relationship

with the KR, the source said. Earlier Thai news reports also said that the pair had

been helped by a timber firm.

The source said elements of Thai marines based in nearby Chantaburi were aware of

Chea and Sen's presence near Borai and had offered to escort them up through Thailand

to cross back to Anlong Veng.

The source indicated that the marines would not turn over the KR leaders to Cambodian

authorities as they had a historical relationship with the KR, which even included

Pol Pot at one point in the 1980s giving the marines a gift of 80 vehicles.

"This is not the Asian way of doing things," said the source referring

to the possibility of Chea and Sen being handed over to the Cambodian government.

The Thai army headquarters, however, was worried that any attempt to help the KR

leaders return to Anlong Veng could become public, according to the intelligence

source.

"The army is very worried about losing face" if they are perceived as aiding

the KR hard-liners, said the source, who indicated that negotiations were underway

as to what to do with the pair.

Other sources, including General Tum Sambol, military adviser to Prince Ranariddh,

said the pair were likely back in Anlong Veng already.

Another possibility was that they had gone to Veal Veng, one of the few remaining

key hard-liners bases near the Koh Kong/Pursat border south of Samlot.

Meanwhile, Ny Korn and Ta Muth are reported by Funcinpec officials to be in Pailin,

apparently prisoners of Y Chhean.

General Sambol said Ta Muth had surrendered or been handed over to Chhean's forces

by Thai authorities, while Ny Korn had been captured.

He said Ny Korn, along with four or five KR divisional commanders and 400-500 troops

from the Samlot area, had tried to attack Chhean's forces but gave up after "maybe

a little bit of fighting."

Military observers said Ny Korn - commander of the KR's so-called Front 250, formerly

based between the breakaway zones of Phnom Malai and Pailin - was a major military

figure of comparable rank to Y Chhean.

Ta Muth is believed to be of lesser importance. KR researcher David Ashley said Muth

was removed of his duties in 1992 for corruption and not believed to hold any major

position since. His links with KR military chief Ta Mok may have also weakened after

his wife, Ta Mok's daughter, died and he subsequently remarried.

A foreign military observer said that, with virtually the entire northwestern border

from Samlot to Phnom Malai cleared from hard-line KR control, a major military blow

had been dealt to the Pol Pot faction.

"They have no offensive means any more - their only concern is how to survive

now, though it's not excluded that they will continue their activities on a smaller

scale..."

The key remaining concentrations of hard-line KR were in Kampot and Veal Veng, and

to a lesser extent in Kompong Speu, but most significantly in Anlong Veng and Preah

Vihear.

There were an estimated 6-7 KR divisions, perhaps totaling 1,200 soldiers, in Anlong

Veng. Some intelligence reports suggested guerrillas from Preah Vihear and north

of Siem Reap had been transferred there.

David Ashley, meanwhile, cautioned that it was too early to write off the hard-liners.

"It takes it to a new stage but it's not the end for the Khmer Rouge yet. They

are certainly in a worse situation they have been in since 1979.

"But maybe they would say that this is a dividing line, between those they can

trust and those who they can't and that they can start rebuilding themselves now,"

said Ashley, who recently interviewed KR in Phnom Malai.

"In Malai, people said Pol Pot will still think he can win, even if he's got

only 10 men left with him. It's crushing for the Khmer Rouge but it's not the end

yet."

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