P UBLICLY abandoning a long but ambiguous policy of neutrality, former Khmer Rouge
foreign minister Ieng Sary appears to have thrown the weight of his Democratic National
Union Movement (DNUM) behind Hun Sen.
In a surprise visit to Phnom Penh last week- his first since he and the rest of the
Pol Pot regime's leadership were sent scurrying out of the city by the Vietnamese
invasion of January 1979 - Ieng Sary met with the Second Prime Minister and other
At an Oct 30 press conference, Sary declared that he accepted the fighting of July
5-6 was not a coup d'état and pledged cooperation with the government and
While it was the firmest indication to date of DNUM taking sides in the political
wrangling between Hun Sen and ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, many observers are
waiting to see what Sary's public commitment will mean on the ground.
DNUM - comprising thousands of former Khmer Rouge in the northwestern zones of Pailin
and Phnom Malai - is widely considered to be the critical holder of the balance of
military power in the north. Observers have noted that, should its forces join the
Funcinpec resistance and the KR hardliners in Anlong Veng, it would likely turn what
has been isolated guerrilla conflicts into a major civil war.
Since July, DNUM had been wooed by both the Hun Sen government and the Funcinpec
resistance, who have claimed support from Pailin and Malai. Until now, it has sat
on the fence, endorsing neither Hun Sen and Ranariddh and appealing for a peaceful
settlement to the conflict.
Since defecting to the government last year, Ieng Sary and his military chiefs Ee
Chhean and Sok Pheap have retained considerable autonomy over their territory.
In his press conference and a subsequent interview with the Post, Sary appeared to
play a delicate balancing act. He denied that Pailin and Malai were "autonomous"
zones and said the government could do what they wanted there - including sending
troops through the territory to fight the guerrilla resistance at Samlot - but suggested
that was not a good strategy.
He acknowledged that DNUM had faced unspecified "accusations" from Hun
Sen's government, including that it wanted to "take over" the country.
But he agreed to change the name of DNUM - taking the loaded word "movement"
out of it - pledged his support for Hun Sen's military action in July, and even entertained
the idea that DNUM officials could participate in a future coalition government with
The circumstances of the visit to Phnom Penh by Sary - who had not been to the capital
since his defection, although Hun Sen has visited Pailin - remain unclear.
His visit was not publicized, supposedly not even within the CPP. Senior members
of Hun Sen's cabinet claimed they learnt of it only after he arrived here.
One source said the trip was requested and organized by the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces (RCAF) high command. Military matters - including meetings with Minister of
Defense Tea Banh and RCAF general chief of staff Ke Kim Yan, both key CPP officials
- occupied much of his three-day visit.
Sary said publicly that the government was free to use the territory of Pailin to
attack Funcinpec and Khmer Rouge rebels at Samlot, about 40km south of Pailin.
"It is up to the government. Pailin is part of Cambodia," said Sary, who
was accompanied by Ee Chhean, the Pailin governor and formerly one of the strongest
KR divisional commanders.
But Sary later disputed a report that Pailin troops had moved, in support of RCAF,
to block a key supply route for the Samlot rebels.
Mol Roeup, Hun Sen's military advisor, said he would go to Pailin soon to continue
discussions on military cooperation. But he added that the government army had already
secured the area around Samlot and did not need a big offensive on the pro-Ranariddh
Adding a strong political message to his visit, Sary threw his support behind the
Hun Sen/Ung Huot government. At his press conference, he said that Hun Sen had explained
the causes of the July 5-6 fighting.
"The government had taken legal action for the national and people's interest,"
said Sary. "On behalf of DNUM, I think [the fighting is] a tragedy for my country.
But the government had taken action in conformity with the constitution. DNUM had
never called it a coup."
Ieng Sary's new pro-government line may be a serious setback for Ranariddh's supporters.
Due to the links that existed between the Khmer Rouge and the royalist forces during
the 1980s resistance, observers have said that Pailin and Phnom Malai would be likely
to support Ranariddh's men. Sary did acknowledge that his group had been in contact
with Ranariddh's supporters since July.
Funcinpec resistance leader Nhek Bun Chhay, who has previously claimed support from
Pailin and Malai, said there were still informal contacts. Asked whether he feared
Ieng Sary's soldiers would fight against the Samlot guerrillas, Bun Chhay said: "Until
now, I have not yet seen his soldiers attacking our side. We still have contact with
Bun Chhay, speaking by telephone from the northern Cambodian-Thai border, specifically
said that his forces would not attack Route 10 between Pailin and Battambang town.
On Ieng Sary's apparent political shift, Bun Chhay said: "When he arrived in
Phnom Penh, he was asked to say what the CPP wanted him to say. In fact Ieng Sary
does not know anything. They asked him to declare his support for CPP... he is acting
under Hun Sen's orders."
Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge hardliners from Anlong Veng lashed out at Sary in a Nov
1 radio broadcast, labeling him a "a traitor who went to worship Hun Sen".
Independent observers and government officials were divided on the significance of
Sary's visit, and its impact on the military situation and Hun Sen's foreign relations.
One western observer expressed surprise that Ieng Sary was received at the same level
as a "head of state", saying: "He met with Hun Sen and the other dignitaries
in one-to-one meetings. It could send a very bad signal to the international community.
"I am surprised that [Sary] can come and get involved in the political stage.
He always tried to keep a neutral position and then played referee between the two
enemies," said the observer. But he added: "He certainly wants to be on
the side of the strong one."
Another western observer was not convinced by Ieng Sary's speech, surmising that
DNUM is still keeping its options open.
"They made a few concessions to Hun Sen. But they do not want to join in the
election. They are still in the position of wait and see," he said. "We
need to wait to see what will change on the ground after what Ieng Sary announced."
One CPP official agreed, saying that Ieng Sary had "nothing to lose" by
coming to Phnom Penh and declaring support for the government. But the official strongly
doubted that Sary or Ee Chhean would be prepared to put their soldiers on the line
against the Samlot resistance.
The official suggested that Sary was simply trying to ensure the Samlot fighting
did not spill over into Pailin. At the same time, he sought to preserve "what
they've got" - control over gem and logging profits - while still keeping the
door open for their "political rehabilitation" in the future.
A first sign of that could be a scheduled Nov 8 trip by new First Prime Minister
Ung Huot to Pailin for a ceremony recognizing the town as a municipality.
Ieng Sary, meanwhile, has returned to his home after reacquainting himself with some
of the Cambodia he had not seen for more than a decade. His Phnom Penh visit included
a sightseeing tour around the capital, and he later spent two days at the beach in
Sihanoukville and also went to see the Angkor temples in Siem Reap.
In Sihanoukville, Sary ironically happened to stay in a hotel room next door to that
of Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which is compiling
evidence of crimes against humanity under the Pol Pot regime.
"If I had known he would be there, I would have taken the files with me,"
said Chhang, who has sought Sary's assistance in identifying signatures on KR documents.
Chhang - who said there were also documents implicating Sary in the workings of the
regime's Tuol Sleng prison - said that he had been given a message that the DNUM
leader would be prepared to meet him in Pailin.
Sary, for his part, reiterated at his press conference that he considered he held
no responsibility for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Asked if he would be prepared
to testify against Pol Pot at an international tribunal, he said he would do so if
he believed it was in the interests of national reconciliation.