Stephen Heder, an expert on the guerrillas, gives his interpretations of
the current situation.Interview
By Denise Heywood
What do you see as the future aims
of the Khmer Rouge in the next few weeks and in the longer term?
want to get in a better position to do political organizing among the peasantry.
To the extent that they can achieve a cease-fire that will allow their armed
forces to function politically in the countryside, then that's a goal for them.
They can establish a presence at the center of power and use that as a way of
blocking the efforts of their enemies to prevent them from organizing in the
Everything ultimately revolves around that. They see that as the key to
power. In that sense the military effort serves only political ends. At the same
time they genuinely believe the other side only understands the language of
What about the kidnappings, are they new terrorist
The practice of taking hostages now is similar to the
tactic of taking Untac hostages. It was not set up as a policy to take hostages
as such, but just to reduce Untac's ability to gather information and maintain
access within their areas of control. It probably reflects a policy line at the
top which allows those at the bottom to detain people. I would be surprised if
the upper levels organized hostage-taking. If that were the case, we'd see more
of it. It is not organized terrorism as such. Maybe it wasn't NADK who took
these hostages. It could be other guerrilla groups. I am cautious.
What is their strategy now?
It is to surround the cities from
the countryside. It's the same strategy as before. It's a simple and
straightforward quasi-Maoist strategy.
Ultimately, do they want to take power?
Ultimately, yes. All
political groups do. Having taken power they want to make sure that nobody else
shares that power.
Do they want to be part of the government?
Only in order to be
able to prevent that government from preventing them from mobilizing the
countryside. They still believe that only socialism, as they understand it, can
save Cambodia. It may have to be delayed. There may have to be a few
intermediate steps that they didn't take the last time in order to achieve that
The analogy I use is the literature about Japanese
soldiers who, years after WWII, were still hidden in the jungle. But they had
radios. They reconstructed reality in such a way as to convince themselves that
all this stuff was unreal. The Khmer Rouge leadership has a system of control
which also prevents them from having a clear understanding of what's going on in
the world or what's going on in Cambodia. It's the cocoon in which they encase
themselves and those under their control. Isolation from the outside world.
That's internalized. Then they externalize that on others.
Do they want to establish a peaceful regime?
peace and there's international peace. They would still be attempting to bring
about mass mobilization on the basis of their class analysis of Cambodia
society. They would be promoting social conflict. It's hard to say, in this
hypothetical case, that it would be as violent as the last time around. History
could never repeat itself so neatly. But if the question is, would they promote
violent social conflict, yes, they would use violence as a means of settling
political problems after taking power.
Would people die? Yes. Would it
be violence and death on the scale of 75-78? The reality is that the factors
that made it possible for them to take complete power in 1975 probably do not
When they took power they were not terribly strong, probably
20,000 troops. They did it by deference. People deferred to them. In the Untac
period we calculated that their armed force was about 17,000 before the Paris
Peace accords. Then they self- demobilized. I interviewed a lot of
self-demobilizing NADK defectors. Of these 17,000, not everybody was armed. They
didn't have enough arms. It goes against what we've been led to believe about
massive arms caches. They don't want too many people running around with guns.
Then they began remobilizing after that. They may be close to that number again,
in spite of demobilization after the elections. I would guess they have 15,000
troops. They are not capable of undergoing rapid expansion. They can continue to
replace their losses but will only grow slowly. The Khmer Rouge want peace if
peace means that their ability to conduct political organizing in the rural
areas will thereby be enhanced. The immediate goal is to enhance their own
political position via military means. Their real strategy is to organize a
return to support in the countryside. Cambodian politics is not about class
struggle but about personal networks, fought out on an ideological basis.
How are they still funding their efforts?
Same old way.
Logging, gems. Money stashed away, which has gone on the disruptions in the
north, at Anglong Veng, but I have no idea how much.
How do see the future?
[The NADK think that:] Cambodia is like
an old rotten boat: if it were possible to take it out of the water, dry it out
in the sun, patch it and caulk it, they might be able to put it back in the
water. But we're not going to allow them to take the boat out of the water, and
even if they get it out of the water, we won't let them patch it. It will always
be full of holes, and if they try and put it back in the water, it's going to
They can cause enough problems to delay and divert economic
recovery, for long enough that at some unforeseen point down the line, some
juncture of events will intervene which will allow them to make an advance. It's
revolutionary optimism. They are tenacious, a word Pol Pot loves to use about
himself. Part of their obsession is being more tenacious than the Vietnamese,
more tenacious than everybody. "Our moment will come." In Cambodia the state is
weak and the society is weak. It's vulnerable to international conjunctures of
events. If there is a complete realignment in somebody's interest to support the
KR again, maybe they will get their chance. It might be in 10 years, or 20
years. It will probably be never. But it might happen. From Pol Pot's and Nuon
Chea's point of view, as long as they maintain a leadership apparatus, and the
ability to reconstitute an armed force, it might happen again.
already seeing investment money going to Vietnam. Cambodia is still a risk. Why
would anybody put their money in Cambodia, when they could put it in Vietnam, or
Laos or Thailand or China? Anywhere except Cambodia where the risk is so
The Khmer Rouge are difficult to eliminate. You can successfully
re-incorporate elements of an insurgent movement back into the policy in such a
way that they raise certain social issues. We have the phenomenon in Cambodia of
many post-Leninist regimes that nobody is raising social issues, such as
standing up for the peasantry. They are ignored in the race to join world
capitalism and the world consumer society. The CPP can perform this role. The
socialists perform this role. Difficult to get the scary coalition between
ex-communists and radical nationalists. But the Khmer Rouge can never convince
people that they're not violent.
US academic Stephen Heder is attached at
London's School of Oriental and African Studies and is writing a PhD on the
Khmer Rouge. He was Untac's Deputy Director of Information and Education from
April 1992-September 1993.
He speaks Khmer, Thai and Mandarin, and has
been visiting Cambodia since 1969.