Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dangling by a thread: the Khmer Rouge puppet

Dangling by a thread: the Khmer Rouge puppet

Dangling by a thread: the Khmer Rouge puppet



In the hierarchy of a movement which labels its enemies 'puppets', he is Brother

Puppet No 1.

Khmer Rouge figurehead leader Khieu Samphan - who reportedly put a pistol to his

head and threatened to kill himself during Pol Pot's overthrow last year - is again

caught in the middle of the movement's protracted death throes.

As Ta Mok fights to keep his dwindling guerrilla forces intact, or perhaps attempt

to strike a deal with the government, Samphan is expected to play his part - as chief

propagandist, negotiator and the so-called 'moderate' face of the KR - whether he

likes it or not.

He can be under no illusions that he is playing for his future, and quite possibly

his life. But while Samphan was for years a loyal aide to the movement's doyen Pol

Pot, many believe that he is now a reluctant servant of Ta Mok.

"Khieu Samphan hates Ta Mok," said Yim Phanna, the guerrilla commander

who led last month's dramatic breakaway from Anlong Veng. "But he is very afraid

of him. All the educated men - Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran and the others - are very

afraid of Ta Mok."

Samphan, an intellectual in a revolutionary movement which has proven itself considerably

better at killing than at political theory, knows fear well. According to fresh accounts

from defectors, Samphan almost killed himself rather than be handed over to Mok after

the Anlong Veng leadership struggle last June.

Pol Pot, still fuming over the 1996 breakaway of Pailin and Malai, ordered the killing

of KR defense minister Son Sen, and also reportedly wanted Ta Mok and fellow KR leader

Nuon Chea dead.

Fleeing Anlong Veng when he realized his forces were no match for Mok's, Pol Pot

was chased through the jungle by Phanna's Div 980 troops.

According to Div 980 defectors, Pol Pot took Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran

and other political leaders Tep Kunnal and Mak Ben with him when he fled. Somewhere

along the way, most of them - Nuon Chea and Chan Youran among them - decided to give


"They knew they had no way to escape, and thought it was better to surrender.

They escaped from Pol Pot and came back towards us," said one of Phanna's deputies,

Yim San. "When we met them, they didn't say anything. But they knew they had

to go back to Ta Mok."

Pol Pot and his family went on, accompanied by only Khieu Samphan, his wife and children,

two loyalist generals, Saroeun and San, and a few bodyguards. Somewhere on the Dangrek

escarpment near the Thai border, in so-called Field No 40, Phanna's troops caught

up with them.

"When he saw the soldiers from 980 arrive, Khieu Samphan knew they were going

to arrest them all," said another division soldier, who would not give his name.

"He pulled out a pistol and put it to his head, like he was going to kill himself.

Mr Phanna [bent down] before him and urged him not to, but Mr Samphan kept his gun

there. Mr Phanna said 'Don't do that. We will not hurt you'.

"Mr Phanna called for Samphan's relative [Tean]. He told Mr Samphan 'We know

you are not involved in the coup. We will not arrest you. We will not kill you.'

Finally, Mr Samphan put down the gun."

Phanna was reluctant to comment in detail on the chase of Pol Pot, but the account

of Samphan's suicide threat was confirmed by Yim San and another senior defector,

Ke Pauk.

Pol Pot said nothing during his capture except to quietly ask that his life be spared,

according to Yim San. Pol Pot, Samphan and the rest of their group were taken to

Mok at his house in Anlong Veng. Mok, very happy, declared that Div 980 was one of

the best, and promoted Yim Phanna to be a regional commander.

Nine months later, Samphan must have felt a sense of dreaded déjà vu when

he was again grabbed and marched off into the hills last month, as it was Ta Mok's

turn to lose control of Anlong Veng.

"People told me that Khieu Samphan was crying when [Mok's loyalists] took him

away. He was crying because he was afraid of Ta Mok, and of more fighting in the

Khmer Rouge," said Yim Phanna.

The defectors claim that Samphan would have happily joined their breakaway, but that

no-one was prepared to try to take him from under the close eye of Mok - their houses

were just a few hundred meters apart.

Samphan reportedly knew about the planned revolt against Mok five or six days before

it happened. "His nephew came to me to ask that we take Khieu Samphan out of

Anlong Veng with the breakaway," said Yim San. "I told his nephew that

I could not go and talk or negotiate with Khieu Samphan because Ta Mok might send

his forces to catch us."

Since being marched off by Mok's partisans, Samphan has been fulfilling his duties

at the KR's mobile radio station, broadcasting speeches urging the defectors to return

to the revolutionary fold and denouncing "the yuon communists" and their

"puppet Hun Sen".

As the KR yet again desperately tried to show the world they are rehabilitated, it

was Samphan's name that they used. "Now, after Pol Pot's death, the true leader...

is Khieu Samphan. Ta Mok is an adviser to Khieu Samphan," rebel general Nou

Non told journalists on the Thai border.

Never mind that Samphan has supposedly led the KR since the mid-1980s when Pol Pot

was said to have stepped down to an advisory role. Now, like then, no-one believes

that Samphan is anything but a pawn.

For a man who controls no guns - and therefore has no real power - Samphan is perhaps

more valuable for his name than for anything else. RCAF and government officials

privately say they would welcome his defection, and King Norodom Sihanouk has several

times in the past expressed a willingness to pardon him.

Although KR scholars say he was for years a loyal apologist and accessory of Pol

Pot, Samphan is considered more acceptable to Cambodians and the world than its real

leaders, past and present.

He and other key 'intellectuals' Chan Youran, Tep Kunnal and Mak Ben - the "gang

of four", as one defector called them - between them represent perhaps the last

sliver of legitimacy the KR could claim to have as a political movement rather than

just a bunch of bandits and killers.

Born in 1931 in Svay Rieng, Samphan studied in Phnom Penh and France, along with

Pol Pot, earning a doctorate in economic science. As a newspaper editor under the

then-Prince Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, he was stripped naked and beaten

by police in 1960 and imprisoned without charge for two months. Later a controversial

parliamentarian under the regime, he eventually left for the jungle in 1967, rising

to be commander-in-chief of the KR army.

Since the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, Samphan has served as the movement's main

negotiator and diplomat. He has largely been out of a job since the KR withdrew from

the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, except for a brief period last year when he headed

negotiations with Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec party.

Formerly the president of the KR's provisional government (and now chairman of its

so-called National Solidarity Party), Samphan's main job is to be a mouthpiece -

for years, under Pol Pot and now Ta Mok, he has directed the broadcasts of KR radio.

"Khieu Samphan is important for Ta Mok," said Yim San. "He has a lot

of experience in dealing with foreign countries, and in political matters. If Ta

Mok wants something to be said to his people and to the international community,

he has to get Khieu Samphan to tell them."

"But really he has no right to discuss matters with Ta Mok - for political,

economic and military matters, it is only Ta Mok who decides. When we heard Khieu

Samphan on the radio, we used to say 'This is Ta Mok, using the voice of Khieu Samphan'.

Most of the people felt very sorry for Khieu Samphan, that he has no right to speak

freely about political matters. I don't think anybody thinks he is a bad man like

Ta Mok."

Meanwhile, in post-Ta Mok Anlong Veng, the ransacked house of Khieu Samphan gave

some insight into its former occupant last week. The floor was strewn with his possessions:

books ranging from volumes on the Cold War, ASEAN and communism to English-French

dictionaries and a handwritten notebook of old French fables; copies of old and new

newspapers including the China Daily, the Beijing Digest and the Bangkok Post; speeches

by leaders including Norodom Sihanouk; pages and pages of transcripts of Voice of

America, British Broadcasting Corporation and Cambodia government radio bulletins;

at least a dozen scrapbooks of handwritten notes on international affairs such as

the UN and US interventions in Kuwait, Iraq and Bosnia; political parties' manifestos;

and recent copies of anti-government newspapers and leaflets such as a July, 1997

article Death of Democracy in Cambodia.)

Just maybe Khieu Samphan, aged 66 and working for a mass murderer, still believes

there's a legitimate revolution to be had.


  • Wing Bank opens new branch in front of Orkide The Royal along Street 2004

    Wing Bank celebrates first anniversary as commercial bank with launch of brand-new branch. One year since officially launching with a commercial banking licence, Wing Bank on March 14 launched a new branch in front of Orkide The Royal along Street 2004. The launch was presided over by

  • Girl from Stung Meanchey dump now college grad living in Australia

    After finishing her foundational studies at Trinity College and earning a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Melbourne in 2022, Ron Sophy, a girl who once lived at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump and scavenged for things to sell, is now working at a private

  • Ministry using ChatGPT AI to ‘ease workload’; Khmer version planned

    The Digital Government Committee is planning to make a Khmer language version of popular artificial intelligence (AI) technology ChatGPT available to the public in the near future, following extensive testing. On March 9, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications revealed that it has been using the

  • Ministry orders all schools, public and private, to close for SEA Games

    From April 20 to May 18, all public and private educational institutions will be closed to maintain order and support Cambodia's hosting of the 32nd SEA Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games, said a directive from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Cambodia will host the

  • Wat Phnom hornbills attract tourists, locals

    Thanks to the arrival of a friendly flock of great hornbills, Hour Rithy, a former aviculturist – or raiser of birds – in Kratie province turned Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver, has seen a partial return to his former profession. He has become something of a guide

  • Almost 9K tourists see equinox sunrise at Angkor Wat

    Nearly 9,000 visitors – including 2,226 international tourists – gathered at Angkor Wat on March 21 to view the spring equinox sunrise, according to a senior official of the Siem Reap provinical tourism department. Ngov Seng Kak, director of the department, said a total of 8,726 people visited Angkor Wat to