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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
"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."