Academic Steve Heder continues his analysis of Cambodia's
culture of impunity. In this issue the early history of a flip-flop policy on how
to deal with Khmer Rouge defectors is examined, starting with pronouncements made
even before the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.
Debate by Speech: Conflicting Narratives at the Foundation of the Front
Heng Samrin gave mixed signals back in '78 on defector issue
The Front Central Committee was introduced to Cambodia and the world at a ceremony
held just inside Cambodian territory in the East Zone.
Its chairman was Heng Samrin, a one-time East Zone division commander and Vice-Chairman
of the East Zone Military General Staff who had participated in the armed resistance
to purges there that began in May 1978. He gave the keynote address.
The thrust of his presentation was that those, such as himself, who had continued
as part of the CPK even as late as May 1978 were nevertheless fully acceptable as
leading members of the Front.
They were to be more or less automatically exonerated from any punishable guilt in
connection with what Heng Samrin himself would later describe as his own "activities
with the treacherous clique" of "slaughtering people" before May 1978.
His version of events indicated that a "traitorous" takeover by Pol Pot
and Ieng Sary of the Communist Party had not occurred until 1975.
This left uncondemned policies pursued before then, including the dismissal and sometimes
execution of ex-regroupee cadre such as had occurred in the East Zone, as elsewhere.
By omission, he also min-imized the complicity of East Zone cadre in deaths among
new people who had been evacuated to the East Zone from April 1975.
By remaining silent about the involvement of the East Zone in pre- and post-1975
killings, Heng Samrin was promoting the political and personal salvation of those
cadre who had, whether enthusiastically or with the utmost reluctance, participated
in them through May 1978.
Recalling "the long period when Cambodia was under the yoke of colonialism,
imperialism and feudalism", and how "cadre and combatants" had "relentlessly
struggled with sublime heroism against French and US imperialism", Heng Samrin
extolled "the glorious victory of April 1975".
However, he said, immediately upon victory, "the reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary
gang. . . totally usurped power, sought by all means to betray the country and harm
the people, causing innumerable suffering and mourning to our fellow Cambodians,
and threatened our people with extermination".
Heng Samrin began his narrative of the crimes of the post-April 1975 Pol Pot-Ieng
Sary usurpation by noting that "only a few days after liberation, ... they razed
the towns and forced millions of people in cities and urban centres to leave their
homes and property for the countryside to lead a precarious life and die slowly through
He did not mention that he had, as an East Zone regimental cadre, participated in
implementing the evacuation plan.
Instead, he emphasized "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary's" purges of his zone since May
1978, which he said were "worse still" than what had come before.
He declared that "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary" intended "to massacre more than
1,700,000 people in the East Zone," and stressed the extent to which they had
killed "cadre, Party members and authentic revolutionaries and patriots, and
cadre and combatants who had contributed to the liberation of the country and proved
absolutely loyal to the motherland."
He left unclear how exactly the "intended" massacre of the 1,700,000 people
of the East Zone was "worse still" than forcing "millions of people
[from] the cities and urban centres" to "die slowly from hard labour in
Heng Samrin went on to explain that his Front was open to "all patriotic forces
regardless of political and religious tendencies - workers, peasants, petty bourgeois,
intellectuals, Buddhist monks and nuns, patriots still in the ranks of the ruling
clique", who were prepared to join it "to topple the reactionary and nepotistic
Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang ..., to establish a people's democratic regime."
The Communist ex-regroupees present probably agreed with Heng Samrin's rank-ordering
of the social classes and strata that should form the class coalition of a Cambodian
However, both they and the "petty bourgeois" and "intellectual"
elements present were uneasy with the way in which Heng Samrin was keeping the Front
membership door wide open to "patriots still in the ranks of the enemy clique",
regardless, implicitly, of their crimes.
They were unhappy that this gave virtually unlimited opportunities for ex-East Zone
leaders in the Front to link up with their former colleagues and subordinates still
with "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary", potentially overwhelming the Front with other
This policy vis-à-vis cadre and combatants still in DK ranks was elaborated
in point eight of an 11-point Front Programme that Heng Samrin then presented.
He declared the Front was ready "to warmly welcome and create favourable conditions
for officers and soldiers, as well as public servants, in the administration of the
reactionary regime to rally with the people and fight back against the Pol Pot-Ieng
Heng Samrin promised that although the Front had plans to "to duly punish diehard
reactionary chieftains who have committed bloody crimes against the people",
it was for the time being going "to practice leniency toward those who sincerely
repent" and "to give appropriate rewards to those with feats of arms in
serving the revolution".
The political drift of Heng Samrin's contrasted markedly with that of Chen Ra, a
representative of the Front's fledgling army who followed him to the podium.
Described as a battalion commander, Chen Ra had gone in 1973 as a 14-year-old refugee
from Svay Rieng province to Viet Nam, where he had been trained by the Vietnamese
army and began to work with the ex-regroupees.
He declared that the "great, final victory" of April 1975 had been the
result of "a most courageous struggle" during which the Cambodian people
and what he termed the "pure Cambodian revolutionary combatants" had "united
closely with the people of Viet Nam and Laos in Indochina".
Not only did he give explicit emphasis on unity with Viet Nam in the context of an
Indochinese struggle, he put forward a distinction between "pure" and "impure"
elements in the pre-1975 military ranks.
According to this distinction, the "pure revolutionary combatants" were
those who, like himself, had become a properly proletarianized element capable of
acting as a correct vanguard for a revolution in Cambodia by virtue of ideological
formation under the auspices of the Vietnamese Communist movement.
Speaking of the post-victory phase, Chen Ra declared pointedly that "everywhere
in Cambodia", the "reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" had "unhesitatingly
killed patriots and true revolutionaries".
It had "transformed the army . . . into a band of murderers", which, moreover,
had "crossed the border and massacred the fraternal Vietnamese people",
a fact that Heng Samrin, whose unit had been involved in such incidents, had conspicuously
failed to mention.
Chen Ra's formulations erased the distinction between the pre- and post-May 1978
"Pol Pot-Ieng Sary" crimes, and had the effect of saying that Heng Samrin
had once been the commander of a "band of murderers".
Chen Ra also made no specific reference to the May 1978 events in the East Zone.
Instead, he declared more generally that the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique had "ostracized
and persecuted the uprising movement of the pure revolutionary combatants,"
a formulation that alluded not only to killings before 1978, but to intra-Party purges
He implicitly contradicted the Heng Samrin account that portrayed May 1978 as a fundamental
turning point and the role of East Zone cadre since that time as crucial.
Instead, citing the necessity of an armed struggle to "remake our revolution",
he insisted that all armed forces units must be placed "under the leadership
of the pure patriotic revolutionaries", that is, of the ex-regroupees.
A Shift Toward a Harder Line
As DK seemed to evaporate in the face of the invasion that the Vietnamese launched
to seize control of the eastern half of Cambodia on 25 December, the Front radio
replaced Heng Samrin's policy pronouncement by a new, eight-point "immediate
programme" for implementation in territories "liberated" by the Vietnamese
Broadcast on 6 January, the programme significantly revised policy vis-à-vis
DK elements. It declared:
Those who formerly worked in the enemy administration apparatus or armed forces,
and now abandon their offices or units to return to the families and villages in
the liberated zones, will be welcome.
After the people's self-management committees [organs of local administration] have
inquired into and confirmed their true desire to return to the people, they will
be issued certificates and will enjoy all citizen's rights.
Those who return to the revolution with exploits will be warmly welcomed and given
certificates of merit by the Revolutionary People's Committee for future proper commendation.
Individuals or units who mutiny or rise up against the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique will
be registered for commendation.
Those who want to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces will be admitted; those who
wish to go back to their families will be issued permits and helped in their trips
With regard to enemy troops who are captured or surrender, they are considered as
children of the people who have been deceived or forced to work for the enemy; therefore,
after five days of re-education, they will be allowed to go back to their families
or assigned to work in production teams of other people if their families are not
in the liberated zone.
Those who refuse to mend their ways or were seriously imbued with reactionary viewpoints
will have to undergo re-education.
Thus, the door that had previously been left wide open for DK elements was now beginning
to be closed.
In Heng Samrin's programme, even persons who simply abandoned DK ranks were to be
"warmly welcomed" and be given "favourable conditions" to "rally
with the people and fight back against the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang".
Such defectors were now merely to be "welcomed" and would have to undergo
investigation by the newly established "people's self-management committees",
which the programme specified should be led by victims of "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary".
They were empowered to inquire into and confirm "their true desire to return
to the people" before issuing them "certificates" without which they
would be unable even to return to their villages legally and safely.
It was only those who "return[ed] to the revolutiosn with exploits" that
had been of concrete assistance to the new regime who would be "warmly welcomed".
Yet, they, too, were worse off than at the time of the eight-point programme, which
had promised that those with "feats of arms in the service of the revolution"
would be rewarded.
"The people in the liberation zone are willing to pull down the traitors and the reactionary Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and the expansionism of China," reads a banner behind a group of Cambodians liberated from the KR regime.
Now they, too, would have to be investigated by the self-management committees and
get their exploits certified, at which point they might expect "future commendation".
Even combatants in the DK army who had engaged in mutinies against DK would evidently
at best be rewarded by being allowed to join the Front army.
Otherwise, they could return home, but only with "permits" issued by the
There was no longer any hint of direct co-optation into the upper ranks of the Front
Nevertheless, the stance vis-à-vis defecting DK elements was still not one
of total exclusion.
Even those who could claim no "exploits" would, after investigation and
certification, return to their villages and "enjoy all citizen's rights".
Moreover, those with certified "exploits" could even join the local self-management
committees, which the programme said should incorporate those who could demonstrate
"meritorious service to the revolution".
Even prisoners of war were generally to be released after five days of re-education.
For many people, especially but not exclusively ex-new people, these provisions were
all too mild.
Not without justification, they suspected that they were not simply a manifestation
of humanitarianism and a spirit of reconciliation on the part of the Solidarity Front
leadership, but were rather an attempt to protect, or at least have at hand the policy
means to protect, certain of their former comrades.
Heng Samrin Announces a Policy Reversal
Six and one-half hours after Vietnamese troops took control of Phnom Penh on 7 January
1979, the Front radio broadcast a new message from Heng Samrin.
Declaring that DK was near "collapse", the Front Chairman's message seemed
even-handedly to inform all Cambodians that, as the Vietnamese advanced, their last
chance to become founding members of the new regime was passing.
To his ex-comrades, inside and outside the East Zone, Heng Samrin declared that,
"the fraternal cadre and employees in the state apparatus of the Pol Pot-Ieng
Sary clique should desert the reactionaries and come to join the revolution."
Similarly, "officers and men" in the DK army were told: "you should
turn your guns against and shoot your cruel commanders and switch to join the people
in toppling the traitorous Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique".
Clearly, the implications was that they should switch sides before it was too late.
Heng Samrin again promised that if they did, the revolution would "forgive"
their past deeds.
One week later, the Front radio broadcast a further appeal by Heng Samrin (dated
13 January) that ignored the provisions of the immediate programme and reinstated
the position he had taken in early December.
Heng Samrin began on a conciliatory note by addressing himself to his "beloved
comrades throughout the country" who remained among the "cadre, personnel
and soldiers" of the overthrown "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary administrative apparatus".
He reiterated his generous policy towards defectors from the DK, calling on:
. . . the cadre, Party members, commanding officers and soldiers of the toppled Pol
Pot-Ieng Sary administration who are being coerced into following the reactionaries
in their flight and opposition to the revolutionary administration, or who are in
hiding, [to] return immediately to their families, relatives and friends in their
respective hometowns so as to restore their normal, happy and harmonious lives.
Anyone who deserts the enemy and rallies to the people's side will be warmly welcomed
and properly treated by the revolutionary administration.
Anyone who desires to join the revolutionary work will be examined and judged by
the revolutionary administration and will be accordingly authorized to do so. . .
Anyone who has carried out tasks for the revolution will be assigned important functions.
Anyone who turns his guns against the recalcitrants, kills the leading torturers,
returns to the revolution with arms and brings along with him a large number of people
or finds and helps discover enemy arms caches and equipment will be properly commended
Those who have committed crimes, show true repentance and who return to the revolution
will be forgiven. . .
Not only did Heng Samrin's appeal renew the promise of a "warm welcome"
for simple deserters and play down the role of self-management committees in judging
defecting DK cadres and combatants, it also explicitly reintroduced the promise of
allowing direct leaps from DK to the Front, including leaps into "important
However, Heng Samrin never repeated this generous offer.
In fact, he soon became virtually silent about policy toward ex-DK cadre and combatants.
When, in March, he was interviewed by foreign Communist journalists and asked specifically
to comment on this issue, he reverted merely to making unmodified, formulaic references
to the eight-point and 11-point programmes. Nor was Heng Samrin's open door offer
ever endorsed by any other Front leader.