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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.