The protracted death throes of the Khmer Rouge took a new twist this month. In a series of reports and interviews on the rebellion in the KR of Anlong Veng, Jason Barber and Bou Saroeun describe the characters involved, and just what happened. And why.
A secret committee which wooed recruits in discreet one-on-one talks; a surprise tip-off which saw the one-legged warlord Ta Mok dash off into the night without firing a shot; and two days of uneasy peace followed by 10 to 20 minutes of light fighting - the turmoil in Anlong Veng wasn't so much an explosion as a muted meltdown.
Control of Cambodia's revolutionary capital - the target of costly, failed government offensives in recent years - slipped out of Mok's clutches with remarkable ease, at least to begin with, as the uprising against him unfolded.
Just when the idea of a breakaway was first raised is uncertain - disgruntlement had been brewing for years, senior defectors say - but it had gathered support among several key commanders by late last year.
An eight-member "breakaway committee" was set up by a group of officers from KR Div 980, headed by Yim Phanna, the former division commander. Phanna, a supposed Mok loyalist who was promoted after the ouster of Pol Pot last June, had decided he didn't want to fight anymore.
"All of the planning to break away from Ta Mok was very, very secret," Phanna said last week, chuckling at a question about whether he had feared being found out and executed.
"I believed I could do it. The people in Anlong Veng didn't want to fight. Of all the people, most of them do not follow Ta Mok's ways," he said from his new command post at the O'Bai Tap refugee camp about 50km south of Anlong Veng.
One of Phanna's deputies named Raem, the Div 980 political cadre chief and a breakaway committee member, explained how the plotters worked: "We talked to each other one by one, and we went around other commanders to talk to them. In our conversations, we would ask 'Do you like this regime?' If they said no, we talked with them some more."
The plan began to take shape; the committee identified particular officers and units within Div 980, based south and southwest of Anlong Veng, which it was important to win over.
The plotters were also confident of support from divisions on the other side of Anlong Veng - particularly 417 and 801, based in eastern Siem Reap and Preah Vihear province respectively - which were historically closer to Pol Pot than to Ta Mok.
Several top officers had defected from those divisions in recent months, and were almost certainly being used by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to contact their former comrades to solicit more defections. Meanwhile, word was reaching the government side that key people in Div 980 were ready to give up the fight too.
By late February, with the help of Siem Reap woman Rat Sitha, a cousin of Yim Phanna, RCAF officials aligned to the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) established a line of communication with the breakaway committee.
It is uncertain when Ke Pauk - a former Pol Pot regime zone secretary with much blood on his hands, who has emerged as the official leader of the breakaway - entered the scene.
"I am the man who pushed Ta Mok out... I planned this defection for two years," said Ke Pauk, a former Div 417 commander, in an interview in Siem Reap town last week.
At O'Bai Tap, however, Div 980 defectors told a different story. "Mr Ke Pauk, he just came to see Yim Phanna 10 days before the breakaway. He is an old man and has a lot of experience, so we took him as the leader," said one senior defector.
Regardless of the truth about Pauk's involvement, it was Phanna who sent four delegates to Siem Reap town to meet the province's deputy governor, Nouv Sam (CPP), on March 13. A deal was struck, but RCAF asked that the breakaway be delayed a little until it could move troops into position to help the defectors.
In the meantime, the plan went dangerously wrong: Ta Mok found out.
"After I sent a delegation to meet the government in Siem Reap, some of the soldiers from the government side told him - some people wanted to stop the breakaway," said Phanna. Asked if he believed it was Funcinpec soldiers, he said he could not blame any party, "but it was not the CPP".
The news was presumably leaked to Mok on March 22. That night, he collected his family, bodyguards and some weapons and took off up one of the many hills in the sprawling Phnom Dangrek mountain range along the Khmer-Thai border north of Anlong Veng.
It may have been a peak called Kbal Tansang, where the KR's mobile transmitter for its clandestine radio broadcasts was reportedly based and where - less reliably - Pol Pot's prison is said by some to have been.
Yim Phanna, Ke Pauk and other defectors all believed that Pol Pot, since his show trial last July, had been held in a prison on Phnom Dangrek, but none had seen it or were sure of its location. According to rumor, "it's an iron tiger cage, small, not big enough to stand up in," Pauk enthusiastically chattered. "One person for each tiger cage," he said of Pol Pot and six of his loyalist generals. "They have long hair and whiskers - they aren't allowed to cut their hair or shave."
Pol Pot and the radio station were taken away by the retreating Mok either on the night of the 22nd or the next day, Pauk and Phanna said, adding that the jailed generals may have been killed. Mok also may have met up with Nuon Chea, Brother No 2 to Pol Pot for decades, who supposedly lived on the mountain.
Why Mok didn't stay and fight in Anlong Veng on the 22nd is unclear; he may have been unsure of the extent of the resistance against him, or unable to collect his loyalist forces quickly. Regardless, some analysts suggest that he followed his classic tactics - retreat, assess the situation and then counter-attack - a la 1994, when the government captured and then lost Anlong Veng within days.
The next day, March 23, must have been an eerie one in Anlong Veng, as each side awaited the other's move.
"On the 23rd, Ta Mok just prepare his troops to fight," said Phanna, who said that Mok's most loyal division - 912 - as based in two places, 1km and 4km from Anlong Veng town.
"He ordered his staff to check on our troops, but we were quiet," said Raem, one of Phanna's deputies, who evacuated his family and began alerting his forces to be prepared to move. "Most of our forces were on the frontlines, so we had to call them back. Div 980 had about 100 troops in Anlong Veng central, but they had only a little ammunition."
The next day, Ta Mok made his move. He sent his bodyguards to collect the KR's political leadership - Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran, Tep Kunnal, Mak Ben, Pech Bunreth, Kor Bun Heng and the rest of the historical "intellectuals" of the KR movement - and take them up the mountain.
"During the day, Khieu Samphan called me and asked me to see him. I said I could not leave my house," said Phanna. "Some people told me that he was crying; he was afraid of Ta Mok."
That night, "Ta Mok ordered a small force to arrest Phanna, myself and some others," said Raem. "So I sent some soldiers to meet them. There was some small fighting. It was about 10 to 20 minutes of fighting, then quiet. No one was killed."
Mok's troops withdrew for the night and then, on the morning of March 25, there were heavier clashes. "We secured the school, the hospital and Ta Mok's house," said Ke Pauk. "I had planned to take Khieu Samphan and those people, but it was too late."
Thousands of refugees began pouring out of Anlong Veng toward the government area of O'Bai Tap to the south, as RCAF troops moved in to secure the road there, and thousands more headed toward Thailand. "We didn't know why the fighting started - people just tried to flee," said Vung Arth, whose family walked for four days to get to O'Bai Tap.
Mok's bodyguards and Div 912 troops began rounding up what civilians they could - including their own families - to take them up Phnom Dangrek.
Defections from more than half a dozen other KR divisions in greater Anlong Veng were reported; wildly varying figures of between 1,000-4,000 defectors were bandied about by RCAF officials, who said that Mok had only 200-300 soldiers.
One key defector was Pich Chheang, the former KR ambassador to China during the Pol Pot regime and an experienced military chief who was until last year a Anlong Veng region deputy commander. "My wife had an operation on her stomach five days earlier, so I couldn't leave Anlong Veng when the other families did," said Chheang, aged 60. "On the 26th, some soldiers helped me to escape. Ta Mok sent some forces to kill me, and they chased us, but our forces stopped them."
The fall of Anlong Veng was proclaimed by RCAF on the 26th. Soon after, defector and RCAF forces were reported to have pushed Ta Mok's loyalists toward Schras Chuk, about 10km to the north.
Over the next three days, Ta Mok's forces continued to round up civilians and soldiers from outlying villages around Anlong Veng. Defectors spearheaded by Div 980 reportedly captured Schras Chuk, site of one of Anlong Veng's main irrigation reservoirs. By the 29th, the defection of Preah Vihear temple - and most of the guerrillas throughout the province - was announced. "Maybe today is the day the Khmer Rouge are finished," Chea Saran, RCAF chief of operations, happily remarked to journalists.
Mok's forces - numbering anywhere between 200-500, according to differing accounts - were ensconced with at least two artillery pieces on so-called Mountain 200 in the Dangrek range.
Several thousand civilians under his control had been taken to Mountain 808 to the west.
Funcinpec resistance troops from O'Smach, more than 60km to the west, had moved through Thai territory to go to Mt 200 to help Mok, RCAF officials claimed. "Nhek Bun Chhay, Lay Vireak and Khan Savoeun - they eat Ta Mok's rice," scoffed Ke Pauk of the resistance leaders.
RCAF Deputy Chief of General Staff Meas Sophea was quoted as saying March 29 that Ta Mok and Khieu Samphan had sought permission to enter Thailand with 3,000 people, but the Cambodian government had objected. "If Thailand closes the border and does not allow Ta Mok to pass, he will be captured soon," Chea Saran said the following day.
Other RCAF officials privately insisted that Ta Mok, Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and others had already crossed into Thailand through Samang pass, northwest of Anlong Veng.
Lower-ranking defectors and RCAF troops said Mok either had to "retire" in Thailand, or be killed.
"Ta Mok cannot stay in Cambodia. If he stays in Cambodia, there will only be more fighting," said one defector.
A government soldier, asked about the prospect of Mok being turned over to a court in Phnom Penh or abroad, replied: "If I find Ta Mok, he will not see Phnom Penh, or even Siem Reap. The only way to end this is with a bullet."
On the night of April 1, Mok's forces launched counter-attacks around Anlong Veng and near the jungle camp of Andong Bei, 8km south.
"Ta Mok is coming back to kill us," yelled terrified women as they jostled with about 50 other refugees to get aboard a truck which evacuated civilians from the camp.
"RCAF doesn't fight with us. They want us to do all the fighting, but they don't give us enough big guns," complained a bitter guerrilla as he and a small force of KR defectors and government soldiers took up defensive positions.
The next day, Mok's forces entered the heart of Anlong Veng town again, RCAF officials conceded, triggering a renewed tug-of-war over the KR capital.
Mok, or at least his presence, was back. The real battle - not to capture, but to hold Anlong Veng - was beginning.