A TIGER, according to Gen Khem Nguon, can indeed change its stripes. And if foreigners
doubt that the Khmer Rouge movement has done just that, he said, they should come
and see for themselves in the jungles of northern Cambodia.
That's the message that the movement's new military chief-of-staff wanted to send
in an unprecedented interview at his headquarters of Anlong Veng.
Anyone who accepts that invitation will find a mixed picture. Clearly, the purge
of Pol Pot and a generational transfer of leadership has profoundly changed the secretive
movement. In the interview, Khem Nguon spoke with openness about past "crimes"
and future plans, and he showed no interest in communist ideology.
At the same time, however, the group continues to sound the drum of rabid anti-Vietnamese
ultranationalism, and remains bent on the overthrow of Cambodian Premier Hun Sen.
Some of the older leaders who orchestrated the 1975-78 Cambodian reign of terror
still wield influence, and younger cadres' talk of "democracy" rang hollow
against the backdrop of a Cultural Revolution-style show trial.
The movement is opening up for a reason: It wants to build alliances both in the
country and overseas for its crusade against Hun Sen and the "Vietnamese aggressors"
that it claims are still occupying the country. Specifically, it wants to join forces
with Funcinpec - whose leader, co-Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was ousted by
Hun Sen in a July 5-6 coup - as well as with other political parties opposed to Hun
But Khem Nguon and other new leaders are aware that if they're going to have any
hope of winning Western support, they have to break with the movement's blood-soaked
past. "The reason we put an end to the Pol Pot regime is because we want the
international community to see and help us in our struggle with other movements in
order to fight against Hun Sen and the Vietnamese," Khem Nguon said.
To an international community that equates the Khmer Rouge with genocide, it's going
to be a hard sell. But Khem Nguon says the Khmer Rouge - or more precisely, Pol Pot's
Democratic Kampuchea Party - no longer exists. The movement is now called the National
"If they still call me the Khmer Rouge, they haven't seen what I have just done.
I am the one who has destroyed Pol Pot, who has been in power for many years,"
he said after the group's long-time leader was publicly denounced. "Even the
United States and the Vietnamese failed to get rid of him, but I can. So how can
you call me the Khmer Rouge?"
In an unprecedented admission, he said that "crimes" had been committed
during the Khmer Rouge's nearly four-year rule of Cambodia. But even when pressed,
he would not go much farther, blaming individuals rather than the group. "We
do condemn those who committed crimes, which were not right," Khem Nguon said.
"At the time, I committed no crimes, only Pol Pot and some of his close people.
Now they are gone, while Pol Pot is arrested. Some of them have defected to the Vietnamese
side, and the rest I don't know where they are."
According to Khem Nguon and other cadres, the movement is now led by a nine-member
standing committee that includes only one member of the old guard: Khieu Samphan,
the head of the committee, a diplomat who for years has been the public face of the
Khmer Rouge. Khem Nguon, who's aged about 50, is the second-ranking member, but his
power is bolstered by his being the top military figure.
Yet Khem Nguon freely acknowledged that older leaders such as Gen. Ta Mok and Nuon
Chea, who were key members of the murderous 1975-78 Khmer Rouge regime, still have
a say in "all important matters." Khem Nguon, who did military training
in China, is the righthand-man of the one-legged Ta Mok. "I'm the one who is
in charge of the armed forces right now, but I keep consulting him all the time,"
Once Hun Sen is driven out, the National Solidarity Party would be happy to participate
in democratic elections, Khem Nguon said. Tep Kunal, another top-ranked standing
committee figure, also spoke of liberal democracy as desirable. It seems that the
new generation is driven less by the ultranationalism that has long underlaid politics
in a country squeezed between more powerful neighbours.
Khem Nguon claims there are 10,000 guerrillas and 60,000 civilians around Anlong
"Our movement is pure and clean," he said. "I hope that the international
community will help us." For starters, he urged, "Please ask them to stop
calling us 'Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.'"