"DO not allow the worm to come into our flesh," is an old adage taught
to Khmer Rouge cadre.
It may be a wise rule, for one of the KR's greatest fears - the "worm"
of outside influences, political or financial - appears to be nibbling away at the
paranoid, secretive Maoist movement.
That Ieng Sary should be the one to let the worm in, and emerge as the leader of
a KR internal revolt, is no surprise.
Ostracized from the guerrilla leadership for years, and criticized as an intellectual
and moderate, he is likely to have garnered some grass-roots support for his more
"If anybody in the movement was to leave, it would be him, because of fundamental
differences he has with the rest of the leadership," says Christophe Peschoux,
author of the New Khmer Rouge.
"The others probably see a future only by struggling. He may be the only one
who realizes this is stupid, this war is stupid and is achieving very little, and
that it's better to pursue a political solution, make a political party and look
toward contesting the elections in 1998."
American scholar Stephen Heder adds: "For various reasons, for his liberal or
what I would call non-proletarian political style, his lack of talent for military
affairs, he has been increasingly left as the odd man out.
"Ieng Sary and people close to him... have been recognized and criticized as
relative liberals for quite a long time."
Apparently spurred by the threat of internal repression - and possibly the death
or severe sickness of Pol Pot - the simmering rivalries have come to the fore to
splinter the KR.
The trigger, it seems, may have been the foreign parasite of money. From his domain
of strategic Phnom Malai on the Thai border, Sary oversaw part of the KR's huge logging
trade and permitted his followers greater economic freedom than in other guerrilla
The centers of the Ieng Sary breakaway - Pailin and Malai - are key logging and gem-mining
areas at the hub of the KR's money-making venture. Rebel chiefs, by most accounts,
have not ignored the opportunity to line their own pockets, as well as the KR war
The theory of a struggle between 'capitalist' moderates and die-hard communists is
supported by statements by KR cadre who are claiming loyalty to Sary.
"People want to live under a free democracy system where they can earn their
living and have the right to hold property as their own," one cadre told a Thai
reporter in Pailin.
Others said that the split was sparked by attempts from the KR leadership to reimpose
"collectivization" of property, and ban cars and motorcycles, from Pailin
The key players in the breakaway are historically close to Sary: Y Chhean - commander
of KR Division 415 and effectively the boss of Pailin - was formerly a bodyguard
to Sary during the Pol Pot regime; Sok Pheap, commander of Div 450, has been Sary's
military chief in Malai for years.
Sary was a natural leader for a KR rebellion, having long since fallen from the grace
of the guerrilla's supreme leadership - most notably Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok
- according to historians.
Since around 1990, Sary has been excluded from highest-level KR political and military
meetings, according to information from defectors collected by Christophe Peschoux.
At the same time, Sary lost his greatest position of influence within the movement
after China - main supplier of guns, food and other supplies to the KR during the
anti-Vietnamese resistance - decided to phase out its aid. Sary, former Foreign Minister
under the Pol Pot government in the 1970s, had been the KR's main point of contact
with the Chinese after the Vietnamese ousted the regime.
The KR increasingly turned to the sale of timber and gems to Thai traders to fund
its war. Sary, from Phnom Malai, was a key player.
"Ieng Sary was selling huge amounts of timber to the Thais," says Peschoux,
who interviewed defectors in Thai refugee camps before and after the 1991 Paris Peace
Sary had two "very nice" villas, one near a refugee camp in Thailand and
another at Phum Dong (Coconut Village) at the base of Phnom Malai on the Cambodian
Though he has no direct evidence, Peschoux says it is quite plausible that - as KR
radio alleged when news of the split emerged - Sary and others got personally rich
from such deals.
Several defectors reported that Y Chhean in Pailin, for example, was not putting
all the gems and timber money into party coffers, he says.
Meanwhile, Sary's KR zone - Sector 120, around the strategic military point of Malai
- was considered as the most liberal guerrilla area.
"In 1992 I interviewed defectors who said [Sector 102] was the best place,"
says Peschoux. "There was a Buddhist temple there, monks were allowed to come
there, travel was easier, with people able to move between Poipet or Sisophon. They
said they could start small businesses, even allowed to make a small profit. They
could travel to Thailand to buy things."
There may be another, more personal reason for mistrust or bitterness between Sary
and the rest of the leadership: Pol Pot's first wife, Khieu Ponnary.
Ponnary - sister of Ieng Sary's wife, Khieu Thirith - reportedly suffered mental
problems in the mid-1980s and was dispatched to a psychiatric home in Beijing. Pol
Pot remarried a younger female cadre, to the ire of Sary's wife, who objected to
Pot's treatment of her sister, according to defectors.
But despite plenty of reasons for disgruntlement, Peschoux doubts these alone would
be enough for Sary to "betray the movement." A critical factor, he believes,
is the likely death, serious illness or otherwise unexplained loss of control of
If true, other simmering rivalries within the KR could come to the fore. Of the other
top leaders, the best-known division is between rival military chiefs Ta Mok and
Son Sen - and possibly also Sary - was reportedly temporarily relieved of his duties
in 1992. Sen and Sary have similarities: both are considered intellectuals, not credited
with great military expertise.
In recent weeks, Son Sen has been privately reported by both Prime Ministers to have
been considering defecting to the government. Speculation is rife he may join Sary's
However, forces loyal to Sary have claimed Sen was a key figure in the hardliners'
crackdown and is currently working closely with Mok in controlling the rebellion.
Not all, however, are convinced that the KR split is in fact genuine. An alternative
theory - being entertained by more than a few MPs, government officials and apparently
even First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh - is that it is an elaborate charade.
Ranariddh, in a meeting with foreign ambassadors last week, spoke of the possibility
of a KR "Trojan Horse" policy to get some of its forces accepted into Cambodian
But historians say all the elements are there - and have been for years - for a major
splintering of the KR.
While money may well be a factor, Stephen Heder says political and ideological differences
should not be discounted as key reasons too.
"It's important to recognize that the Khmer Rouge, like any political movement,
has real politics going on inside it. There are policy differences and people get
promoted and purged and killed because of policy differences."
Sary and those close to him have probably been the most exposed - or willingly exposed
themselves - to outside influences, he notes.
As one former cadre told Christophe Peschoux: "We...try to avoid bad influences,
corruptive ideas that may infiltrate our brains and spirits. This is an important
point. 'Do not allow the worm to come into our flesh,' say the instructions."
Another foreign KR expert says: "I think the hardliners made a pact with the
devil. They needed a way to fund their cadre and population beyond what they may
be able to provide with purely ideological ideals.
"So they built a two-tiered organization: a core which remains pure, and the
other tier, a cordon sanitaire if you will, that was engaged in business with the
outside world. The cordon sanitiare has leaked."