POL POT - dead or alive - may have prepared a new generation of Khmer Rouge cadre
to carry on the rebel movement.
As debate rages over the veracity of the 68-year-old KR leader's reported death last
week, the critical question is what it means if - or when - it becomes true.
According to information collected in 1995 from KR defectors last year, Phnom Penh-based
Christophe Peschoux, author of the "'New' Khmer Rouge", said Pol Pot appeared
to have in recent years groomed a new, younger breed of senior cadre.
Among them, a possible designated successor is So Hong, a distant but loyal nephew
of Pol Pot, recently appointed as chairman of the KR's political commission.
But the reality, according to Peschoux, is that a successor such as Hong will face
a difficult task to control rivalries within the older leadership and keep the movement
in one piece. More likely is that the old guard will continue to reign.
Either option has the potential to prompt power-struggles, fracturing the guerrilla
group, said Peschoux. The best-known rivalry among Pot's most senior commanders is
between the military chiefs Ta Mok and Son Sen.
Of the old guard, most likely to assume the "real leadership" is Nuon Chea,
believed to be the number two in charge of the KR's political activities after Pol
Peschoux said that even less is publicly known about Nuon Chea - whose last known
public speech was during the KR regime in the 1970s - than the notoriously secret
On the military side, Ta Mok - believed to be in charge of the majority and the best
of KR troops - is likely to dominate. With no known conflict with Chea, the pair
could presumably work together, said Peschoux.
As for Khieu Samphan - the publicly-touted "nominal" leader of the KR -
he holds little real power, according to Peschoux. Primarily a diplomat and negotiator,
he would likely lead any political party which Phnom Penh permitted to enter politics.
"Since the Khmer Rouge pulled out of the political process, he has almost lost
his job," Peschoux said.
Despite KR announcements of their retirement years ago, the influence of Pol Pot,
Nuon Chea and Ta Mok is widely accepted to be a force behind today's Khmer Rouge.
Pot's role in keeping the KR as a cohesive force over decades, with great loyalty
from his most senior cadre and divisional army commanders, cannot be over-estimated,
"Pol Pot has managed to retain loyalty of almost all. No other cadre, no other
leader of his generation, or of the generation of Khieu Samphan, is in a position
to replace him and control the differences."
Pot, whose four-year regime of power in the 1970's saw more than a million Cambodians
killed through execution, starvation and exhaustion - and whose forces today continue
to harass the elected government of Cambodia - has widely been described by a former
KR as a man of great charisma.
Without him, conflicts between senior leaders, particularly Ta Mok and Son Sen, could
errupt, according to Peschoux.
But just as likely, in the true tradition of traditional communist party unity -
and self-preservation - is the assertion that remaining leaders would recognize the
need to stick together. "If they split, they're dead," said Peschoux.
Media coverage over the fate of Pol Pot has led to speculation about the implications
of such an eventuality for the KR and Cambodia.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen this week dismissed a report of Pot's death as a "political
gamble" aimed at boosting the chances of the government being willing to negotiate
a political settlement with the KR.
In apparent reference to other political elements in Cambodia, Hun Sen said there
were "internal Khmer Rouge" and external "Khmer Rouge" cooperating
with each other.
"They try to create a political crisis to seek a political solution to draw
the Khmer Rouge into a new political settlement," he said.
Both King Norodom Sihanouk and his son, First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh, said
they had no evidence that Pot had died. Both said, however, it would be good news
if it were true.
The sole report that Pot had died came on June 6 from Agence France-Presse (AFP),
which quoted Cambodian intelligence sources and a deputy commander of the rebel group.
AFP said the initial report of his death came via China around the same time as Cambodian
intelligence reported that Pot was ill from malaria.
Separately, an AFP correspondent in Aranyaprathet quoted an unnamed Khmer Rouge soldier,
identifying himself as deputy commander of Division 320, saying Pol Pot had died
the day before of malaria.
The man, reportedly traveling with a group of about six guerrillas, said they were
"going to Pol Pot's funeral" at the KR jungle base of Phnom Malai.
Two days later, Reuters quoted a KR commander interviewed at the Thai border as saying:
"The report about Pol Pot's death is not true. We've got no idea how this rumor
The guerrilla identified himself as Mit (Comrade) Chien. Peschoux said that if the
KR man was speaking officially, he would say whatever he had been told to by his
Meanwhile, unnamed Thai intelligence sources - in what appeared to cast considerable
doubt on Thailand's insistence that it has nothing to do with the KR - were widely
reported in Thai newspapers as saying that they were sure Pot was alive, if sick.
In Cambodia, military and police sources said they believed Pot was sick, possibly
dead, but had no conclusive evidence of that.
The KR's clandestine radio broadcasts remained silent on the issue, which fueled
further speculation over Pot's reported demise.
Some observers agreed that the KR could be angling for political negotiations with
the Cambodian government. They cited the recent public correspondence between the
King and Khieu Samphan, and the political tension between Funcinpec and CPP.
If the KR considered that the death of Pol Pot - real or staged - could make negotiations
more acceptable to the government, observers questioned why the KR did not officially
announce his demise.
One KR researcher suggested that rumors of his death could have been deliberately
spread, to "float a balloon" and see what reaction it got.
If political negotiations were their aim, the KR were probably miscalculating, he
suggested, because CPP would never agree.
"His removal or his death is probably not enough to lead to negotiations. There
are other leaders who are not acceptable to the government side."
Another foreign scholar disputed that the KR, or Cambodian political elements, would
falsely claim Pot's death. Inevitably, intelligence would emerge that that was not
true, he said.
Peschoux said he was not convinced of Pol Pot's death for two reasons: firstly, because
the information had apparently originated from China, not necessarily a reliable
source. Secondly, the cited reason of death: malaria, which Pot is known to have
suffered recurringly for decades.
"He has had malaria for 130 years," Peschoux exclaimed, "and you don't
die from it if you have the medicine to treat it. He should have access to all the
medicine he needs."