SISAKET, Thailand - Yet again, they are finished - almost. But as the dregs of the
Khmer Rouge wash up along the Thai border, there are, as there always have been,
places for them to float away to.
Knocked off their perch overlooking Anlong Veng, the ragged remnants of the KR are
mountain-hopping to other enclaves along the rugged northern border with Thailand
which they know so well. Their families, and many of their guerrillas, are safe and
secure in refugee camps across the border.
Ta Mok, beset by mounting dissent within his ranks, is holding on. Should he fall,
there is, a short distance away to the west, Funcinpec resistance chief Nhek Bun
Chhay, who will take Mok's troops. If not, they can likely cut a deal with Hun Sen's
government to join their former comrades who broke away from Mok in late March in
a new, autonomous haven in Anlong Veng.
Or, as the KR commanders hope, the coming rainy season will wash them back into Anlong
Veng, as Hun Sen's arsenal of tanks and artillery are bogged down. Until the next
dry season, the next government offensive.
For a revolutionary movement best known for tenacity and mass murder, extinction
doesn't come easily.
The latest convulsions in its death throes was the loss of Phnom Pi Roy (Mountain
200), on the Cambodian side of the border about 18km north of Anlong Veng, on May
4. KR forces were dislodged from the hill after several days of pounding by government
forces armed with more than a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The KR went to another mountain about a kilometer away, Kbal Tung-soung (Wild Ox's
Head) - believed to be where the KR's mobile radio transmitter and the second home
of political leader Khieu Samphan were based - according to Thai military officers.
The KR, apparently retaining at least one artillery piece, and government forces
lobbed shells at each other from the neighboring hills. From Kbal Tungsoung, the
KR could flee west if necessary, military observers said. "Hun Sen can take
this hill, that hill and that hill, but still the Khmer Rouge will not be finished,"
said one. "They wait a month or two, until the rainy season. Then everything
Meanwhile, about 15,000 KR civilians and unarmed soldiers, who had been sheltering
on a small plateau behind Mountain 200, crossed the border May 1 to two makeshift
refugee camps in Sisaket province.
They number considerably more people than Mok was previously thought to have. His
troop numbers are still uncertain but estimates are rapidly being revised from the
200-500 previously suggested. Several thousand men in KR army uniforms were in the
camps also, and may return to the battlefield soon, but it is unclear whether there
are weapons for them all.
The latest drama unfolded amid mounting speculation of more KR internal splits. Nhek
Bun Chhay, who had previously said the bulk of the guerrillas were prepared to "defect"
to his resistance, claimed a three-way split: Ta Mok and his chief of staff Khem
Nguon wanted to fight on; several of their commanders and most of their troops wanted
to defect to Bun Chhay; and the movement's veteran political leaders Khieu Samphan
and Nuon Chea wanted to cut a deal with the government to form a political party
and run in this year's election.
Signs emerged of a competition between Bun Chhay and the government to entice defectors.
"If I don't accept them, they will join Hun Sen," Bun Chhay said April
30. A few days later, he reportedly complained to the Thai military that he didn't
trust the KR - first they said they wanted to join him and then they tried to talk
with Phnom Penh.
There were persistent reports of revived negotiations between Khieu Samphan and Nuon
Chea - either for themselves or on behalf of Mok - and the Cambodian government.
Bun Chhay claimed that Sok Pheap, the former rebel in charge of Phnom Malai, had
been sent to negotiate with Mok's chiefs, and independent sources on the border also
said that Pheap or his representatives had been there. Pheap denied any involvement
to the Post.
KR radio on May 3 denied that Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea would defect to the government,
declaring that they were "struggling by all means to serve the country and the
There were rampant rumors that the one-legged Mok had lost control of the KR, and
had even fled the area. But KR cadre and civilians, and Thai and independent sources
all put him near the battlefield. Several observers suggested he was most likely
just inside Thailand, safe from the fighting but in close contact with his people.
Certainly, he appears in control of the refugees. His chief of staff Khem Nguon -
who, spotted in one of the camps by a Reuters reporter, declared that all
the commanders were loyal to Ta Mok - is believed to have responsibility for the
refugees. Nguon has appointed two deputies, Ta Ly and Ta Heng, to run the camps,
Although most of the refugees toed the party line when speaking to journalists, there
were credible indications of antipathy toward Mok. "Many, many people don't
like Ta Mok. He is a dictator," one man told the Post. "I have no
will to fight. I know they are Khmer in front of me," he said, rejecting the
propaganda that their battlefield enemy is the Vietnamese.
The man said that several commanders and many soldiers, loath to defect to Hun Sen's
government, wanted to join with Nhek Bun Chhay. There were two options: for the KR
and Bun Chhay's forces to remain independent but work more closely, or for them to
merge under the Funcinpec commander's control. "The second solution is better,
but Ta Mok did not want to do that. His commanders did - they can have room to breathe
if they join Nhek Bun Chhay."
KR chiefs still publicly maintain that Mok is no longer in charge.
"Ta Mok is retired," Non Nou, a senior KR cadre and Mok's economic manager,
said by telephone May 6. The KR no longer existed, he continued, but were now the
National Solidarity Party led by Khieu Samphan.
As for Nhek Bun Chhay, Nou said: "We are all together in the struggle. We have
to have relations between us, but we cannot defect to each other."
Nou denied any negotiations with the government by Khieu Samphan but confirmed that
the "party" wanted to run in the elections "if the fighting ends".
He asked the Post to call Hun Sen to see if he agreed to their participation,
and to please call him back if the Second Prime Minister said yes.
General Meas Sophea, a RCAF deputy chief of the staff, had bad news for Nou. The
KR were outlawed, and it was also too late for new parties to register for elections.
The government welcomed defections from the lower ranks of the KR but not Samphan,
Nuon Chea or Ta Mok, Sophea said. The KR refugees wanted to defect to government-controlled
areas, he added, and Hun Sen would ask the Thai authorities to permit this.
At Post press time, it was unclear whether that request was made during a
May 6 visit to Thailand by Hun Sen to meet Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. Earlier,
a diplomatic minefield of issues was expected to be on the agenda including: an extradition
treaty between the two countries which could have implications for Nhek Bun Chhay,
sentenced in absentia to 24 years' jail by a Phnom Penh court; the reintegration
of Bun Chhay's forces; repatriation of more than 80,000 Khmer refugees in at least
four camps in Thailand; and, possibly, a US-led bid to bring Ta Mok and senior KR
leaders to an international trial.