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Shakeup in KR heirarchy

Shakeup in KR heirarchy

T here is a popular adage among Khmer Rouge (KR) cadre: "If you keep a secret a

secret, you have already won 50% of the victory." As a result of an almost

fanatical commitment to keeping secret the inner workings of their organization,

almost nothing is known by outsiders about the leadership of one of the world's

most resilient guerrilla movements.

But two of the KR's most powerful and

prominent of their small group of top leaders have been purged over policy

differences since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the Post has


Ieng Sary-long time member of the Party standing committee,

Foreign Minister during the KR rule, in charge of the Party's economic

portfolio, and liaison for all Chinese military and financial aid until the

Paris Agreements-has been stripped of power in a bitter break within the


As an indication of his position within the KR

organization, the KR were referred to by the Vietnamese and other Soviet bloc

enemies as the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique" and Ieng Sary as "brother

number 2" within the organization.

Son Sen-also a member of the Party

standing committee, the Minister of Defence, and one of the two official KR

members of the Supreme National Council set up by the Paris Peace agreements to

administer the country prior to elections-was relieved of his duties in May 1992

after losing a high level dispute over whether the KR should pull out of the UN

organized peace plan.

He supported entering into the phase of the peace

agreements that called for the four warring factions in June 1992 to demobilize

their armies. It was the KR refusal to comply that led to their effective

withdrawal from the UN sponsored peace process.

The revelation of Son

Sen's dismissal from his position as KR Minister of Defence is particularly

important as it is the first firm evidence of high level debate within the

leadership over whether to pull out of the UN sponsored peace process and

elections in May 1992.

Both men have been top leaders of the organization

since they fled to the jungle in 1963 with Pol Pot.

Purges of senior

officials within the KR are of course part of their legacy. Indeed, a majority

of the top officials of the KR who came to power in the party and state organs

after their 1975 victory were executed during their 3 and 1/02 year rule. There

is no indication that disagreements among leaders are resolved by execution in

recent years.

Son Sen was days away from being arrested and most

certainly executed in late 1978 during the waning days of the KR regime. He was

saved, ironically, by the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, according to recent

analysis of confessions of other party cadre at Tuol Sleng prison, Cambodia

scholar Stephen Heder told the Post.

A former deputy Prime Minister in

charge of defence during the KR years in power and an alternate on the Standing

Committee, Son Sen is a graduate of the Sorbonne and was a director of one of

Phnom Penh's most prestigious universities before fleeing to the "maquis" in

1963. While defence minister throughout the 1980's of the guerrilla army, he

began to rise further in influence in 1987, when the KR prepared him for a

future political role as they prepared for a political solution to the


When he was appointed as KR representative to the SNC, along with

Khieu Samphan, Son Sen became chief negotiator and liaison with UNTAC for the

key issues of ensuring a cease-fire, UN military access to KR zones, and the

demobilization and cantonment of the KR army.

Internal KR documents show

clearly that at the time of the Paris agreement October 1991, the KR planned to

comply with the essential components of the peace plan.

But within the

first few months of 1992, they became concerned that the UN was not seizing

"control" of the key components of the state-as called for in the Paris

agreements. They believed that their enemies, the Vietnamese installed

government of the Cambodian People's Party, would remain in effective control of

the country in the run up to elections.

The group had expected,

according to internal KR documents, that the UN peace plan would permanently

disable the Vietnamese installed government if the UN controlled the five key

areas of government and empowered the SNC. Instead, it became clear that UN had

little ability or political will to assert real control. The KR accused the UN

instead of strengthening and propping up the State of Cambodia regime making a

neutral political environment in which to hold elections impossible.


was during the first half of 1992 that debates emerged within the KR over

whether to refuse to give up control of their zones and dismantle their armed

forces. Many KR leaders believed that to dismantle their armed forces and allow

access by the UN and other factions to their zones would be suicide. Only the

leverage and protection of their military protected them from their enemies

(among which they included most of the major world powers in charge of the UN

operation) and to allow demobilization of their army would result in their

destruction as a viable force, many of their officials argued.

Son Sen

argued, during April and May 1992, that the KR's future also depended on

remaining sincere in the eyes of the world for desiring a peaceful, political

solution to Cambodia's conflict and participating in a democratically elected

coalition government. To pull out would undermine the groups already rock bottom

credibility both domestically and internationally which the KR continue to see

as vital to reestablishing their ability to play a role in future Cambodian


This period also marked the dismantling of a carefully developed

group of tactical and strategic military alliances with FUNCINPEC, the KPNLF,

China, the United States, and other powers. The absence of this decade old

alliance, which provided political credibility to the KR cause, left the group

dangerously isolated and vulnerable. Some leaders saw a pullout from the peace

process as resulting in isolation they believed would cause an unacceptable

degree of political damage.

These arguments did not prevail during high

level meetings of the leadership held near the Thai border in May


As a result of his purge, sources say Son Sen went through a period

of what appears to be reeducation from June to December 1992, when he is said to

have agreed that he had been mistaken in his initial views.

His change

of heart came when Sihanouk himself in December 1992 began to publicly condemn

the UN operation and indicate that a provisional government should be formed

under Sihanouk's leadership and elections perhaps abandoned. Internally, the KR

interpreted this as Sihanouk entering into an alliance with them to oppose the

UN operation and elections.

Son Sen is expected to play a role in the

future in KR political activities, sources say, but his influence remains far

less than before and he no longer has a military role.

Ieng Sary's demise

came in 1992 after years of friction within the party. He was in charge of

foreign relations during the KR rule, and most of the intellectuals who came

back to Cambodia after the KR victory in 1975 were under his charge. Hundreds

perished, and others, distrusted by the Party, were kept in reeducation camps or

virtual prisoners doing menial work in state ministries.

After the KR

fled to the jungle in 1979, Ieng Sary caused a major rift within the Party by

acknowledging to a journalist the existence of the Tuol Sleng torture center in

which at least 16,000 people died-mostly party cadre and their families.

He also appeared to criticize the leadership by saying he was out of the

country when certain senior KR officials were arrested and executed. This was

seen as a breach of solidarity within the KR who hold firmly to collective

decision making that strictly prohibits independent public statements by leaders

on political and policy issues.

But Ieng Sary had the support of the

Chinese, who insisted that all covert Chinese assistance-both military and

financial-be passed through him. As a result he was in charge of the Finance

portfolio and disbursement of weapons, which gave him significant power.

But he is known to have had several disputes with Pol Pot in the late

1980's, and angered many field commanders and intellectuals for his autocratic

style and abrasive personality. When the signing of the Paris agreements ended

all Chinese direct support to the faction, Ieng Sary's influence


His headquarters, along the Phnom Malai escarpment on the

Thai border, was also the center for KR diplomatic operations and housed the

group's intellectuals and their families. Intellectuals, many who hold him in

contempt, moved their headquarters and families to another KR base in 1993,

further isolating Ieng Sary.

While he still controls a small swath of

territory in western Cambodia, he no longer controls significant troops or

money, and appears to have been removed from the standing committee. Some

sources say he retains an "observer status" on the standing committee. KR

sources say that he has permanently lost influence within the decision making

structure of the party and army.

While Pol Pot is said to remain in full

overall control of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea and it's political

wing- the Party of Democratic Kampuchea-through his position as chairman of the

Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Party, there has also emerged

a group of younger military commanders and intellectuals who have risen in

influence and are being groomed for power.

While the KR officially

dissolved their communist party in December 1981, and announced they supported a

" liberal parliamentary democracy," most analysts dismissed the claim. They said

it was designed to attract united front allies among other Cambodian factions

who also opposed the new Vietnamese controlled government in Cambodia. It was

also seen as an attempt to draw western political support for a coalition of

anti-Vietnamese resistance groups that formed along the Thai border to wage war

against the Vietnamese and their installed government.


dismissed were KR public announcements in the mid- 1980's that the three top

ranking members of Party-Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, and Ta Mok, also "


Evidence is strong that most of the same "old guard" leadership

that comprised the last official standing committee before 1981 remain in

control of the organization today, continuing to carry out essentially the same

functions they have since the late 1970's.

Pol Pot remains a highly

effective and respected figure among the top cadres, who view him as the one man

who can bridge differences among other leaders. He spends much of his time

developing political strategy. He rarely travels to bases and is said to almost

never meet cadre under the rank of division commander. Described as a" genius"

by his supporters, he is said to be remarkable orator and occasionally delivers

lectures. He still officially holds the title of director of research at a KR

military "institute." Many cadre worry that if the 66 year old leader were to

die there would be no one to replace him and major infighting could break out

within the leadership.

Also remaining in the same position, is the little

known Nuon Chea, who has been described as Pol Pot's "alter ego." He fled to the

jungle with Pol Pot in 1963, and has made one public appearance since then-in

the late 1970's to a Danish communist party. He is charge of party organization,

deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, and number 2 on the standing


It is Ta Mok, the number three on the standing committee, who

has seen a significant rise of influence since the Paris agreements. He serves

as chief of the general staff of the KR army and military commander of the

northern region. But when, in 1992, Son Sen gave up control of 6 Divisions under

his control, they fell under the command of Ta Mok, who now controls at least 12

Divisions and is responsible for KR cadre and troops from the northwestern Thai

border, throughout the north and the entire eastern region abutting Vietnam.

This gives him control of perhaps 70% of the KR army and most of the


The one-legged commander is of peasant origin and controlled the

southwestern military region during the KR years. It was troops under his

command who carried out campaigns against "internal enemies," attacks on

Vietnam, and arrests of other KR leaders before the Vietnamese invasion. As a

result he has earned the nickname "the butcher."

But despite his fierce

reputation among foreigners and other Cambodians, Ta Mok engenders tremendous

loyalty among his forces. His troops are said to well paid, fed, and armed, and

their morale remains high and their commitment to the KR cause strong.

But as would be natural in any organization with aging leaders, a new,

younger group of political and military leaders are currently rising in power

within the organization. In 1987, according to KR sources, Pol Pot issued a

directive to groom this younger generation of leaders.

On the military

side, a group of about 7 commanders-division level or higher-now form a

collective committee that proposes military tactics and strategy which is

submitted for approval to the standing committee.

In their 40's and

50's, virtually all of this group fled to the jungle with Pol Pot to join the

underground revolution between 1963 and 1967. Many were students or teachers in

urban areas when they joined the movement, but have spent virtually their entire

adult lives in the jungle.

They hold significant power because of the

trust given to them by the leadership, and, importantly, because they control

"concrete forces." It is these leaders who have long exerted direct control over

troops, administer civilians in their "liberated zones, are trained in and

conduct "political work" among their rank and file and the peasantry, and

disburse funding and oversee economic activity in their zones of control. Their

practical experience gives them as much the role of "governor" as military

commander in the 20% of Cambodia controlled by the KR.

Included in the

group of 7 are important family ties as well. So Hong, the commander of military

zone 1002, is a nephew of Pol Pot and was a senior official in the KR Foreign

Ministry during their years in power. Mit Nikorn, who was elevated to the

position of commander in charge of all western military forces in 1992 with at

least 5 divisions under his command, is the younger brother of Son Sen. And Ta

Mok has at least one son and one son-in-law who are powerful division level

field commanders.

Family ties play a vital role in Cambodian culture and,

consequently, in access to power in Cambodia politics, including the KR. Son

Sen's wife is in charge of propaganda for the Party. Ieng Sary's wife, Ieng

Thirith, was minister of social affairs during the KR rule and continued to

wield significant influence until her decline accompanied her husband's in

recent months. She also suffers from ill health.

She, significantly, is

also the sister of Khieu Ponnary, Pol Pot's wife until the mid 1980's. Khieu

Ponnary suffered a mental breakdown in the late 1980's and was divorced from Pol

Pot. He has taken a new wife by which he has two young children. It is generally

agreed by observers that the severing of direct family links between Pol Pot and

Ieng Sary after the divorce played an important role in the purging of Ieng


There are three primary power bases that now make up the KR. Aside

from the all powerful standing committee and the younger collective of military

commanders, there is a group of younger political cadre who analyze, carry out,

and formulate political policy for the KR.

Made up of about 15 highly

educated intellectuals who have been with the movement since the 1960s-and a

lesser amount the early 1970's- they have mostly served in KR diplomatic posts

and advisors to the top leaders until the Paris agreements.

Many senior

intellectuals have quietly left the movement in the 1980's complaining that the

organization remained hostile to real change and they were only being used to

put an "acceptable face" to the KR.

In Nov. 1992, the KR announced the

formation of the Great National Union Party and listed 10 intellectuals as it's

founding members. Headed by Khieu Samphan and Son Sen, all the men are well

known technocrats who have been with the organization since before they came to

power in 1975. It's members-all with advanced degrees fromi European

universities-include one lawyer, three economists, one mathematician, four

engineers, and an educator.

In the announcement of the new party, there

was no mention of the hard-line figures that are said to remain in real control

of the party. They announced that the founders of the new party would play the

leading role for them in any national reconciliation government that emerged

from the peace process.

While dismissed by most scholars and analysts as

merely a front group with no real decision making authority independent from the

old guard remaining in the jungle, they nevertheless have seen an increase in

power and influence as the KR increasingly becomes a political


"When Cambodia will have peace within the framework of a

liberal democratic regime-a capitalist regime, the dominant role will be a

political one. Who will play that role will certainly be intellectuals," Khieu

Samphan said in an interview with the Post in mid 1993, "Now the situation is

very clear, if we were to go to socialism or communism, this would be a suicidal

policy.....so we can say clearly that the old leaders of the KR will have to

retire because of age, political conditions, and health. It is quite normal that

those who have capabilities to lead rise now, and those are our


While the stripping of power of two of the movements most

important leaders indicates friction within the leadership over policy, there is

no indication that the group is suffering from internal strife that threatens to

weaken it from within. The KR maintain a strict collective decision making

structure that inhibits developing autonomous power bases within the

organization. What is more likely is that power will shift towards the

comparably moderate political cadre as they move away from military

confrontation and towards a political solution and participation in a new


The group considers their future lies on the "political

battlefield" with military campaigns only a tool that forces their enemies to

take their positions into account. As long as peace talks remain stalled and

they concentrate on defending their rural zones, the power of the military will

dominate within the organization. If current peace negotiations can achieve a

political agreement that ends fighting and brings the faction into the new

government in some role, it is likely that the power balance will shift to more

moderate political figures, such as was evident during the months before and

after the signing of the Paris agreements.


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