T he final chapters of history are being readied for one of the most brutal
regimes in recent times, the Khmer Rouge. Nate Thayer
ANGKOR CHUM, SIEM REAP - Along this isolated stretch of
provincial highway, 19 blown bridges isolate the remnants of villages that were
burned to the ground in recent months by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
craters in the road explain the carcasses of trucks destroyed recently by
anti-tank mines. Dozens of soldiers with protective eye-wear gently expose
thousands of land mines laid in rice fields, as truckloads of ragged government
troops pass by on the way to nearby front lines.
deafening explosions mark another mine detonated in place. The automatic weapons
bursts puncturing the quiet have been a regular feature of life in rural
Cambodia for more than 25 years.
The tree line on the other side of the
rice paddy marks Khmer Rouge zones, where the remnants of one of the worlds last
communist guerrilla movements wages what now seems a war without issue. But
despite the depressing scenario of ongoing warfare, most Cambodians and analysts
agree, the Khmer Rouge appear, ultimately, to be doomed.
In the wake of
a vicious military campaign of terror targeting civilians begun late last year,
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge have suffered significant defeats in northern Cambodia in
recent months. Nearly half their forces in this once key stronghold of Siem Riep
have defected to the new government, unwilling to continue fighting what they
say is a hopeless cause with no clear objective. While it may be a few years
away, analysts agree that the group is dying a slow death, with little chance of
recovering as a potent political force.
"The Khmer Rouge must die because
they have lost their political base, their support base, their ideological base.
Now they just have an army, and the army has turned against the masses," said
Siem Riep governor Toan Chhay.
The governor is not just spouting
government propaganda. Since 1979 until 1993's UN-sponsored election, Toan Chhay
was chief of staff of the royalist guerrilla army that fought with the Khmer
Rouge. His forces shared jungle supply lines, covert Chinese aid, and
battlefield strategies with Pol Pot, aimed at ousting the Vietnamese occupation
army and the government they installed.
Now, as a senior official of the
government that emerged from those 1993 elections, he is welcoming Khmer Rouge
defectors using psychological warfare and political and economic incentives.
Against the recalcitrant hard-core cadre still fighting from increasingly remote
jungle outposts, he and the army are coordinating military assaults.
the government, the combined use of amnesty where Khmer Rouge elements are
sincerely invited to defect without retribution and effective but cautious
military pressure has turned Siem Riep province into a model of national
reconciliation that has brought a level of peace and development unseen in
In many areas long under guerrilla control, Khmer Rouge
defectors have rallied to the government and continue to administer the same
zones they did as guerrilla cadre. Four months ago, much of Ankor Chum district,
30 kilometers from Angkor temple, was at war, inaccessible to government forces.
In January, after Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders ordered troops to kidnap
and execute local officials, burn villages, and mine roads that connect the
desperately poor communes, many long time cadre said enough is enough.
552 Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Angkor Chum alone defected to the
government after their commanders cut a deal with provincial authorities. Last
week, in a bizarre scene, hundreds of armed Khmer Rouge, still in their Chinese
PLA style uniforms, lounged in village markets, flirting with vendors and
providing security against the remnants of their former comrades now hunkered in
small groups in the surrounding jungle.
"When we received the order to
carry out the policy to attack the people and villages, I led the people into
the forest to protect them, but of course then my commanders wanted to kill me,"
said Tung Yun, 38, who commanded two regiments of 600 guerrilla fighters until
January. He smiled as a 152 mm artillery parked near his house shook the earth
as it fired at his former Division commander, who with less than 75 men, had
retreated to the jungle a few kilometers away. "Don't worry, I took all the big
weapons with me, they can't fire back."
Tung joined the Khmer Rouge in
1974. "Wherever I looked in 21 years I never found a happy place," he said over
lunch in a handsome village house that belongs to relatives. "The happiest I
have been is now." Tung continues to command his troops, and the government now
pays his salary and provides his ammunition. "I don't know why they are still
fighting, I guess they just want power."
Meanwhile, the defections have
meant unprrecedented levels of security in many areas of Siem Riep, allowing an
array of development projects such as road construction, dam repair, demining
around former front-line villages, and agricultural infrastructure improvements.
These efforts have increased levels of local support for the government, further
eroding the rebels' ability to appeal to the sympathies of long neglected
The Khmer Rouge leadership view forces like Tung's
differently: "In certain units, 50 to 60% (of our troops) are organized enemy
elements" who are "poisoned by enemy ideas", say written directives from Pol Pot
and Ta Mok issued in late 1994 and obtained from defectors in Siem
But despite the clear-cut successes of the government in
marginalizing the Khmer Rouge in Siem Riep, it stands in stark contrast to the
other primary area of guerrilla influence-Battambang.
There, the guerrillas
have been able to deflect government military offensives effectively and remain
capable of sustaining themselves.
Cancerous levels of corruption from
top to bottom in government and military abuses continue to be a major source of
popular discontent and provide a ripe breeding ground for anti-government
sympathy. Says a source close to the Khmer Rouge: "Corruption is the basis of
the regime. Personal gain has replaced any ideology. Reasons to resist the
"The weakness of the DK should not be considered by
itself. It should be considered in the framework of a balance of forces," says a
source close to the Khmer Rouge leadership. "Even a weak DK remains something
strong compared to this government."
Agrees Toan Chhay: "We need to
strengthen the discipline of our own soldiers. It is not a Khmer Rouge problem,
it is our problem."
In Battambang there have been no significant
defections in recent years. Analysts say that the military and provincial
government there is sufficiently corrupt and brutal that there is little
incentive or atmosphere of trust that encourage the Khmer Rouge to come over to
the government side. Human rights workers and government sources in Battambang
say that the military continues to carry out murder, intimidation, and extortion
of innocent civilians as well as families suspected of having Khmer Rouge
connections. Government sources say that there have been several cases of Khmer
Rouge forces attempting to negotiate to defect, only to be scuttled by local
military leadership more interested in confrontation and revenge than
The legendary resilience of the Khmer Rouge organization
should not be underestimated, say those who know the Khmer Rouge well. They
point out that, except for their disastrous three years, eight months, and 20
days in power in the late 1970's, Pol Pot and his top cadre have lived
underground in difficult jungle conditions since the 1960's fighting a series of
governments considerably more formidable than the current regime.
while these failures of the government may allow for the Khmer Rouge to continue
as an army for years, there is little to indicate that they have a future as a
political movement. The Khmer Rouge no longer seem to have a political program
of significant credibility in the countryside. They are fighting for survival,
say analysts, resembling warlords more than revolutionaries, rebels without a
cause. Defectors speak of a hierarchy isolated, demoralized, and increasingly
unable to get their troops to implement the directives of the leadership.
Intelligence sources and defectors say that more moderate elements who favored a
political solution to the conflict have waned in influence and more hard-line
field commanders are on the ascendancy.
"The first priority of the DK
has always been to defend and preserve their leadership and forces," says a
source close to the movement. "It is the number one priority before launching
offensives or actions against the enemy."
For the first time since they
were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge are
employing new tactics in the countryside that include targeting normal peasants
and burning whole villages effectively abandoning their previous hearts and
"In 1979, we were on our deathbed. We should have died
in 1979. Why didn't we die? Because even though we made alot of mistakes, and
had many enemies who hated us... in every situation we have kept control of the
countryside, and that is the reason we have been able to survive," Pol Pot said
in a 1992 speech to senior cadre. "Our army was completely defeated and
dismantled, but was rebuilt from the countryside. The necessity for us is the
countryside, not communism."
But their renewed campaign of terror in
rural villages - scores of which have been razed in recent months - have deeply
alienated much of their previous base of support and many of their own fighters.
Many of the villages are populated by families of their own cadre, who have
abandoned the movement and joined the government after being asked to attack
their own kin. As a result the remaining Khmer Rouge cadre in some key areas of
the country have been denied access to food and provisions which came from these
"The Khmer Rouge strategy is to regroup, keep the struggle
alive and tell the world they are still alive," said Toan Chhay. "Blow up
bridges, lay mines. OK, we will rebuild the bridges again and
Both sources close to the Khmer Rouge and western intelligence
officials confirm that the Khmer Rouge leadership has approved the use of
terrorism - including urban attacks - as a new tactic. "Many people in the
leadership want to use terrorism now. I can't be more specific," says a source
knowledgeable of current thinking within the leadership. Western intelligence
officials say they have hard evidence that the Khmer Rouge have sanctioned
targeting westerners for terrorist attacks. Such attacks, analysts agree, would
be extremely difficult to prevent because of widespread availability of weapons
and explosives and lack of effective control of Phnom Penh by security
But perhaps most importantly, for the first time in 30 years,
the Khmer Rouge have found that both foreign and domestic allies that were
essential for the groups survival have evaporated. The United Nations, the US,
and ASEAN who backed the Khmer Rouge-dominated guerrilla coalition during the
Vietnamese occupation, now are focusing on strengthening the current government
and helping destroy the guerrilla faction. The political and material support of
China has halted. In recent months Thailand has gone to great lengths to
diminish crucial cross border access. And the Khmer Rouge's former battlefield
allies during the 1980's are now the internationally recognized government that
emerged from the $3 billion UN peace plan that culminated in elections in May
In his Feb 1992 speech, Pol Pot predicted the current scenario:
"Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) cannot be strong all on it's own. When
these guys (UN and western powers) strafe everybody else and leave Democratic
Kampuchea on it's own, it is possible for Democratic Kampuchea to be weakened.
Once that happens they will attack Democratic Kampuchea and drag the other
forces into joining with Phnom Penh. It would become an alliance between the
West, the (Vietnamese), the contemptible puppets, and two of the three parties.
If this were the case, then the Chinese, the Thai and ASEAN would all accept it
whether they liked it or not... that is why we need friends among the three
parties until the day we die, and we need (foreign) friends until the day we
die." But if one thing is clear, the Khmer Rouge have few, if any, friends these
The crackdown on covert Thai military support has hurt the Khmer
Rouge deeply, according to sources close to the faction. Without access to
Thailand, the key guerrilla rear bases along the Thai border would be unable to
sustain themselves, deprived of foodstuff, fuel, medicine and other key
commodities. While smuggled support continues it is greatly diminished, sources
close to the guerrilla faction say.
Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge are now
threatened with losing much of their main sources of gem and timber income. Thai
businessmen and intelligence sources confirm that the vast majority of the gem
fields near Pailin which brought millions of dollars a month to Khmer Rouge
coffers in recent years, have virtually dried up.
In the Thai border
town of Borei, where cross border gem trading was centered, most of the scores
of banks and big gem companies have closed since last year. "Now it is small
scale, nothing significant," said an Asian diplomat who monitors the trade. "In
terms of economic strength, the Khmer Rouge are very shaky, unless they have a
lot stored away."
Furthermore, cross-border logging through Khmer
Rouge-controlled check-points is expected to be greatly diminished in coming
months as the Cambodian government has vowed to end logging exports. "If the
government has a policy not to issue logging licenses to Thai companies, the
Khmer Rouge logging will finish," said the Asian diplomat. "Thai companies now
get export licenses from the Cambodian government for Khmer Rouge
The Cambodian authorities, motivated by kickbacks, issue licenses
to Thai companies to take logs from KR border areas, effectively helping finance
With an effective clamp down on logging in Khmer Rouge
areas, which now allow trucks to cross in from Thailand smuggling other crucial
goods to the guerrillas, these supplies would also dry up, say Thai border
Intelligence estimates now put the fighting strength of the
Khmer Rouge at between 5,000 and 6,000 regular troops under arms. About 2,000 of
them are holed up in remote, sparsely-populated jungles of the far north, with
the rest in the mountainous western provinces of Battambang and Pursat. Small
pockets of guerrilla fighters - usually numbering less than 100 - remain in
numerous jungle outposts in other areas of the country collecting "taxes" at gun
point. They are more a minor irritant than a political threat.
Rouge sources and intelligence officials agree that the faction is suffering
from significant ammunition shortages. In recent months Khmer Rouge radio has
repeatedly called for villagers and soldiers to produce quotas of "pungi sticks"
to defend bases. Analysts say that captured soldiers and defectors complain of
ammunition shortages, and the guerrillas are stepping up campaigns to buy
supplies from corrupt government commanders.
"It is similar to the
situation in 1973 after the peace agreement signed with Vietnam," Pol Pot said
in a communique to supporters in 1993. "At that time we were isolated from
external support. We had to rely on the people and we had to get our ammunition
from the enemy."
But what seems to be the Khmer Rouge's biggest obstacle
to survival is their lack of any coherent political program that appeals to the
population. Their directives to cadre and radio broadcasts are almost singularly
focused on the ridiculous claim that millions of Vietnamese troops and civilians
have flooded Cambodia as part of a massive plot by Vietnam to "swallow"
Cambodia. But the racist invective - while attempting to appeal to deep strains
of racial hostility many Cambodians harbor towards their eastern neighbor -
rings particularly hollow in the rural areas of Cambodia where the war is
conducted and virtually no Vietnamese have been seen since the Vietnamese army
pulled out in 1989.
"Their line on the Vietnamese issue does not fit the
reality in many parts of the country, particularly the north and west," says one
Cambodian source close to the Khmer Rouge. "Once the people realize there are no
Vietnamese, all the DK logic collapses."
"Most of us do not believe that
Vietnamese control Cambodia," said former Khmer Rouge regiment commander Tung
Yun who defected in January. "When we went to fight we did not see other
nationalities. We fought because we were ordered to do so but in our hearts we
did not want war anymore."
The Khmer Rouge daily attack the United
States, Australia, and France who they say, in collusion with Vietnam, "are
waging war against the Cambodian nation and people." But such talk also rings
hollow to villagers who see millions of dollars of donor assistance coming in to
build roads, healthcare, and other infrastructure development. For most
Cambodians now, including many who once sympathized with the Khmer Rouge during
the Vietnamese occupation, after 25 years of warfare, destruction, and
disastrous political experimentation, there is little motivation to fight and no
enemy except those who continue to wage war.
Khmer Rouge attacks late
last year in Siem Riep province created 70,000 new refugees from poor rural
villages, but most have returned home and vast areas of the province long under
guerrilla influence are now with the government. Development workers who had
been restricted because of security from many areas for years say that they are
getting unprecedented access and security, much provided by former KR soldiers
British and French NGO's are clearing thousands of mines
from roads and villages. They are followed by UN-supported road building crews,
many who employ Khmer Rouge defectors and their families. After the roads are
built, other NGO's are entering to repair irrigation systems and provide
veterinary health care.
"You can see in Siem Riep that many areas have
suddenly opened up," said David Salter, chief project engineer for the
International Labor Organization in Siem Riep, whose mandate is to build roads
to rural areas. "Because of improved security, access to development has
improved. Everyday we employ 1400 people. A lot of those people are defectors or
their families. It brings them into the economic life and development process.
When they have a job they protect their jobs. When the road gets built the value
of their land goes up. When their lives are improved it encourages more
defections and security is further improved and more development work can be
Last week in Siem Riep town, scores of military officers and
officials gathered to celebrate the Cambodian new year. "Together with the Khmer
Rouge and the government working together we will build roads, build schools,
build happy places," Toan Chhay said in a toast. Scores of drunken former Khmer
Rouge and government officers cheered wildly.
In 1988, Pol Pot told his
followers that "peace will bring many new complications" and the "enemy will
come at us even more strongly, this time flush with money."
Said an ASEAN
diplomat with long ties to the Khmer Rouge: "There is no way out now for the
Khmer Rouge, they will die slowly."
Said Toan Chhay " I think it will
take ten years to get rid of the Khmer Rouge now. Contain them, isolate them,
development, development. It is a political strategy."