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After Pol Pot: the politics of survival

After Pol Pot: the politics of survival

T he Khmer Rouge: an ideologically-bankrupt dinosaur disintegrating into purges? A

grand 'Trojan horse' conspiracy of illusion? What most experts agree is that the

rebels are fighting for their survival - and their future is inextricably linked

to Phnom Penh politics. Jason Barber reports.

Pol Pot has been busy: on the run, captured, dead, alive, or still in charge and

furiously scheming, depending on who you listen to.

What seems apparent is that, one way or other - whether he faces exile, a courtroom

or death from natural or not-so-natural causes - he is reaching the end of the long

road that has been his tumultuous, bewildering life. Old, sick - possibly already

dead, some still believe - the revolution is over for him.

Even in the endgame being played out in the jungles of Anlong Veng and the corridors

of Phnom Penh, Pol Pot - true to every age-old cliché about his mysterious

character - remains an enigma: both important and irrelevant at the same time.

While most observers believe he is finished, no longer able or allowed to hold any

real power in the movement he has led for three decades, Pol Pot - or at least his

specter - remains a wild card for those on all sides of the political game.

To all, and particularly to his own movement, Pol Pot's immediate legacy is the problem

of what to do with him. Whether purged from the Anlong Veng leadership or not, the

Cambodian face of mass murder is too unacceptable a figure for any public role in

a movement which, say scholars, can no longer rely on military struggle alone.

The strains on the KR hardliners are heavy. Militarily, they are increasingly isolated

and going nowhere; they have lost (though not all believe it is genuine) their economic

hubs of Pailin and Malai, where their former comrades have proven it possible to

retain control without major concessions to the government. And, with Cambodia facing

entry into ASEAN, there are regional pressures for the "KR problem" to

be resolved.

On top - and most important - is a government coalition tearing itself apart, with

Funcinpec actively seeking the KR's support for the National United Front of anti-CPP

parties. If ever there was a time for the KR to think politics, not just guns, it

is now.

Problem No.1 for any political reintegration of the KR is Brother No.1. The national

and international unacceptability of Pol Pot is something the rebels have long known.

After the ouster of his regime in 1979 he - along with top comrades Nuon Chea and

Ta Mok - was claimed to have "retired" in a discredited publicity ploy.

In the mid-1980s, he supposedly held only the position of head of a KR "Institute

of Defense"; in 1989 he officially stepped down from that.

"He cannot go any lower," says Phnom Penh-based KR researcher Christophe

Peschoux. Whether Anlong Veng is currently united or divided, any possible return

to national politics means "they have to make Pol Pot disappear".

"If there is a serious dispute in Anlong Veng, they may trade him against their

political rehabilitation," said Peschoux, summing up the only prospect of the

KR supremo ever facing trial - if formerly loyal lieutenants such as Ta Mok are prepared

to hand him over in return for concessions such as amnesties for themselves.

In the absence of definite evidence to the contrary, Peschoux does not entirely rule

out the possibility that Anlong Veng remains united behind Pol Pot, and agreed on

a switch in emphasis to political, rather than armed, struggle. Their problem would

be to arrange his "disappearance", by exile or other means.

The alternative is that there is a genuine split within Anlong Veng over future strategy

and control of the movement - most likely between Pol Pot and Ta Mok (Nuon Chea appears

out of the picture, sick or dead.)

Several KR researchers believe this is more likely, citing KR radio's denunciation

of Pol Pot as a traitor as too uncharacteristic to be a ploy.

"Any vague notion of a grand conspiracy in all of this is just not realistic,"

said historian and KR expert Steve Heder, in Cambodia to follow the Anlong Veng events.

"It's not part of their political repertoire and never has been. You don't win

by pretending to be in conflict with yourself. You might pretend to be unified when

you're not, but you don't pretend to be not unified when you are."

Fellow KR researcher David Ashley agreed that a Pol Pot-Ta Mok split is "more

likely" and that Mok is in charge of Anlong Veng. "What we don't know is

what Ta Mok really wants," said Ashley.

If Mok's motivations - particularly over whether to pursue political struggle - are

unclear, so to, to some extent, are Funcinpec's.

For months, the party has been publicly wooing the hardliners, to get them behind

the National United Front established by First Prime Minister and Funcinpec leader

Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Is Funcinpec, faced with a deadlocked parliament and government and continued attacks

by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's CPP, primarily interested in securing the KR's

military or political muscle?

The answer, say diplomats and other observers, is likely a combination of both, but

politics may be most important. The estimated 1,000-1,500 guerrilla fighters in Anlong

Veng and about 700 in northern Preah Vihear may be useful allies for Funcinpec but

are not critical to the balance of military power with CPP, according to military


"The perception and psychological impact is far more important than the strength

of a few thousand people, even if a few thousand people can create a few thousand

more problems," agreed one CPP official last week.

Politically, what do the KR offer Funcinpec? For a start, and perhaps most important,

there is Pol Pot. His public unacceptability poses both a great obstacle to Funcinpec's

dealing with the hardliners and, precisely because of his notoriety, a potential

political goldmine.

To be able to campaign as the man who rid Cambodia of Pol Pot - whether he be dead,

exiled or trialed - would bolster Ranariddh, tarnished by tireless political maneuvering

by Hun Sen. To be able to claim to have ended Cambodia's years of war, by striking

a deal with the remaining KR of Anlong Veng, would make it that much more politically


"It's a very potent political tool," said one close observer of politics.

"To say 'I brought peace to Cambodia and I brought justice to Pol Pot'."

Then there is the KR as a political ally - and one with guns, if there is a fight

with CPP - for Funcinpec. Ranariddh has made plain his desire to bring the KR, under

the auspices of a new political party or movement, into the fold of the National

United Front (NUF). To do so would add to the array of political forces, including

Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party and Son Sann's BLDP faction, lined up against CPP

in the next election.

This is a more thorny issue for Ranariddh, say observers. Some in NUF, particularly

those in the BLDP, may not be too keen to have former KR as their partners in democracy.

Internationally, several countries, particularly the United States, have made plain

their opposition to any role in politics for senior former KR.

"It's one thing to amnesty someone and leave them to live out their days in

a remote province," said one senior diplomat, who requested anonymity. "It's

another thing to give them a role in national politics. To put it bluntly, Cambodia

would lose a lot of international sympathy."

As with Pol Pot, Ta Mok - notorious for his role in purges during the 1975-79 KR

regime - is unlikely to be a palatable partner for Funcinpec. Even more so given

the King's public refusal to consider an amnesty for Mok.

If Mok retains power over the triggers of Anlong Veng's guns - while also wanting

to pursue a political struggle - Funcinpec will likely have to deal with him, say

analysts. But a go-between - a more publicly acceptable frontman - will be needed.

The obvious choice is to stick with the same frontman: Khieu Samphan, the so-called

"moderate face" of the movement for years.

Educated in France, where he was a classmate of Pol Pot and other future KR leaders,

Samphan has for decades been one of the leading "intellectuals" of the


As a newspaper editor under then Prince Norodom Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum,

Samphan was beaten, stripped naked and imprisoned without charge for two months in

1960. Later a controversial parliamentarian under the regime, he eventually left

for the maquis in 1967, rising to be commander-in-chief of the guerrilla army which

seized power in 1975.

Officially the president of the KR's provisional government, Samphan has since the

ouster of the Pol Pot regime been the movement's main diplomat and negotiator. He

retains apparently cordial relations with Sihanouk, who has several times expressed

willingness to grant him amnesty.

Although KR scholars say Samphan has for years been a loyal apologist for Pol Pot

and the KR, he supposedly retains a degree of respect from Cambodians, according

to several diplomats and researchers.

While his true popularity is impossible to gauge - the only semi-scientific data

is a 1996 poll by an NGO linked to Sam Rainsy which saw 6 percent of respondents

choose Samphan as their political favorite - he is the best that the KR have got.

A friend and confident of Pol Pot for decades, Samphan's whereabouts and loyalties

in the current Anlong Veng drama are unclear. But Funcinpec is openly wooing him

- Ranariddh had admitted meeting him about a month ago. So too, it seems, is Ta Mok:

KR radio, believed to be under Mok's control, continues to broadcast in the name

of Samphan.

"Khieu Samphan is the only political figure the Khmer Rouge have," said

David Ashley. "People know him and he does have a slightly better image than

the rest of the movement.

"Even if Ta Mok didn't want to, he may have no choice [but to use Samphan].

And it's fairly clear that Funcinpec wants to deal with Khieu Samphan. At the moment,

the [KR] military need him perhaps more than he needs them."

Hun Sen, meanwhile, has made it plain that if Samphan is considering politics, he

should forget it. Samphan would be "hacked" with knives if he showed his

face in Phnom Penh, said the Second Prime Minister.

The statement is significant, given that Samphan - when he was a KR delegate to the

UNTAC-era Supreme National Council - was attacked and beaten by a mob in the capital

in 1991.

Cambodian political observers and government officials, including at least one senior

CPP official spoken to by the Post, say that attack was orchestrated by the CPP.

"The mob - everybody knows who sent them," said one Cambodian official

last week. "The Khmer Rouge know, and they don't like it. They will never trust

the CPP."

Whether or not Anlong Veng is permitted to form a party, what political impact can

they have? In the short-term, a worsening of relations between Funcinpec and CPP

is the biggest worry.

Recent KR radio broadcasts have said precious little about "defection",

"peace" or "reconciliation"; they have continued to spew forth

customary diatribes about Vietnam and its "puppet Hun Sen", while expressing

strong support for Ranariddh and the NUF.

"Obviously this is not how you should negotiate a peace settlement. It breaks

every rule," said one observer.

"The KR are trying to push Funcinpec and Ranariddh into a strong anti-CPP position,"

said David Ashley. "It's dangerous in the sense that their interests will be

to push Funcinpec in a direction that is going to make power-sharing within the coalition

very difficult."

A diplomat agreed: "It's all tied to the relations of the coalition partners.

If they are on the brink of war all the time, particularly a war that CPP looks like

winning, then it's dangerous: the temptation [for Funcinpec] to get close to the

KR, on their terms, possibly."

A key question is: are the KR in a position to influence Funcinpec, to push them

to war and even to turn on Funcinpec in the long-run?

"The KR are not scared of Funcinpec," said Son Chhay, a BLDP MP close to

Funcinpec. "The KR believe that Funcinpec troops are peanuts, that Funcinpec

is not tricky like the CPP.

"Whatever Funcinpec is going to do, the KR will know and will be able to predict

it. They [the KR] will walk under the Funcinpec shadow to establish themselves. They

will remain the watchdog, they will help the victim if, after the elections, the

loser does not give up power. The future is looking bad right now."

The CPP line is that the KR will always pursue their own agenda, and to open the

door to them comes with great dangers. Said one party official: "CPP believes

that the hardliners of the KR are always trying to divide the government from the

inside. CPP knows that the Khmer Rouge will never submit to be a true subordinate

to Ranariddh."

Steven Heder added: "At the very worst, it seems to me we are seeing the integration

of the Khmer Rouge into the Funcinpec political structure. Just as we have seen the

integration of other remnants of the Khmer Rouge into the CPP political structure.

"[The question is] is either side going to be dominated by those elements? I

don't think so. Nor do I think these elements can suddenly compose themselves back

into one unified force."

There is the conspiracy theory - one believed by many in the CPP, and entertained

by some diplomats in Phnom Penh as well - that last year's Pailin and Malai defections

were a "Trojan horse", and that they can reunite with Anlong Veng.

"It's certainly not a conspiracy," affirmed David Ashley, who has interviewed

Pailin and Malai defectors at length.

But he doesn't discount reconciliation between the various arms of the former KR.

"What might be true, the same as with KNP and Funcinpec, the same as with Hun

Sen and Ung Phan, is in the way that Cambodian politics work, personal relations

are so important.

"You can't discount that sometime in the future, if the circumstances lead them

to think it necessary, they [Anlong Veng] will say 'We know Ieng Sary, we can call

him up, we can deal with him.'"

Which leads to the biggest long-term question: can the various remnants of Khmer

Rouge, post-Pol Pot, maintain the unity and shared objectives necessary to make them

a cohesive force?

Steven Heder: "The bottom line is, however it happens, and it's clear that it

is happening now... whether it's exile or execution or whatever, the older generation

is now kaput."

In reality, the KR - in terms of a "a hierarchically structured, organizationally

coherent" movement intent on a socialist revolution - has long been in the grave,

he said.

"People continue to try to pin this label [of being the Khmer Rouge] on disparate

groups of people.

"The reality appears to be that there is a group of more or less senior divisional

commanders, each of them in a position to assert local authority, make local deals,

maneuver politically with Funcinpec and CPP, and attempt to get the best deal for


Heder and other KR researchers suggest that, ironically, the remnants of the KR will

become much like the CPP - their arch-enemy, also once communist, who include more

than a few former KR officials.

The pursuit of power for sake of money and personal benefit - rather than for any

utopian better world - would be the aim of former KR, much like some of the CPP,

said one observer.

"What does the CPP stand for? Nothing. It's a bunch of people who stick together

because of their historical relationships and because they want power and money."

David Ashley said: "It's difficult to work out what the KR will be without Pol

Pot. Pol Pot basically determined a line... Pol Pot could never have come to terms

with a peaceful, prosperous, capitalist Cambodia.

"I think the others are not quite the same old socialists... in the right circumstances,

there are elements prepared to give it in for the sake of their own personal benefit."


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