Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Son Sen and all that - challenging the KR pundits

Son Sen and all that - challenging the KR pundits

Son Sen and all that - challenging the KR pundits

M ichael Vickery questions the assessments of foreign "specialists" on the Khmer Rouge since the recent

split, and before.

FOR long-term observers of Cambodian affairs the flurry of punditry surrounding the defection of Ieng Sary arouses

amusement. Brother No.2 was of course never No.2, that was just Vietnamese propaganda; he could not have been more

than number 4 or 5, and the real No.2 was Nuon Chea, to whom not much attention had been paid. Was Ieng Sary responsible

for genocide? Of course not. He wasn't well enough connected, not really in the inner circle. The inner circle,

then as now, the hardliners, were Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, and Son Sen. But Ieng Sary must have been involved

too, because he was such a nasty guy - allowed himself to be carried around by flunkies and drank champagne. What

we have here are ad hoc responses to an unexpected situation from 'specialists' who, to maintain that reputation,

have to say something. I am reminded of the 'Pen Sovan affair' of 1981. Pen Sovan, after 1979 treated by specialists

as Hanoi's proconsul in Phnom Penh, was going to be the agent of Cambodia's absorption by Vietnam, and the new

Government in Phnom Penh was labeled by one specialist the 'Pen Sovan regime'. Then in December 1981 Pen Sovan

was suddenly removed and disappeared. Since of course Vietnam decided everything in Cambodia, his removal could

not have been by another faction of Cambodians, and for Vietnam to remove its own proconsul he must have betrayed

them to some other foreign power, so a Soviet connection was devised. [see Michael Vickery, Kampuchea Politics,

Economics, and Society, pp.45-7.]

I do not pretend to know any more about the recent KR collapse than those who have emitted the excited speculations

of the past few weeks. I did not predict that Ieng Sary, nor anyone else, would be the first KR leader to split,

although everything that has happened since 1993 made a breakdown in KR solidarity a strong possibility. It was

clear that the PRK/SOC had hoped for such a break for years, and the only so far unpublished information to which

I lay claim is that the insistence by PRK propaganda on the 'Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique', to the exclusion

of other KR leaders was started at a timewhen there was a serious belief that the defection of Khieu Samphan could

be effected. Obviously by 1991, at least, that goal had been given up.

The degree of credibility to be accorded the punditry may be reflected in the case of Son Sen, about whom various

rumors of uncertainty in his position within the KR circulated over the years but have now been put authoritatively

at rest by David Ashley, wondering how "leaders of the stature of Nuon Chea...and Son Sen could have been

in such a poorly-defended base" (Samlot) - Nuon Chea "No.2 in the KR hierarchy for decades", and

Son Sen, "believed to rank No.3 or No.4. ["Mystery surrounds Son Sen..." PPP 18-30 Oct 1996, p.4.]

Careful readers of the Phnom Penh Post may well do a double take. Early in 1994, à propos of nothing, Nate

Thayer revealed a "Shakeup in KR hierarchy" in May 1992, when Ieng Sary was said to have been purged,

and Son Sen relieved of duties after losing a high-level dispute over whether the KR should pull out of the UN

peace plan. Son Sen, according to that analysis, had wanted to enter phase two, and for that, "sources say"

(a favorite Thayerism), he "went through...reeducation from June to December 1992". [Nate Thayer, PPP,

28 Jan-10 Feb 1994.] Perhaps other readers than I wondered at that time why there had been a delay of two years

in discovering the information presented in this, as we shall see, over-hasty revelation.

On the military side of the revamped Khmer Rouge, Thayer continued, there was a group of about seven commanders,

who formed a collective committee for strategy and tactics. They included: So Hong, a nephew of Pol Pot; Son Sen's

brother Nikorn (or Ny Kan); and a son and son in-law of Ta Mok. This was hardly new information, nor evidence of

a 'shakeup'. Ny Kan had figured in reports on high-level KR leadership since 1980, and the importance of Ta Mok's

family members had also been recorded since that time. [Vickery, Cambodia 1975-1982, pp.99, citing reports by Stephen


Finally, still in the context of the alleged shakeup, Thayer wrote of "a group of younger political cadre

who analyze, carry out, and formulate policy...made up of about 15 highly educated intellectuals" who, in

spite of youth," have been with the movement since the 1960s and...1970s". He did not name them, perhaps

because some readers might recognize that they had all been named before and did not owe their prominence to a


I speculated at the time that Thayer's belated and, as we shall see, hip-shot revelation of events in 1992 might

have been to head off questions inspired by subsequent research on the alarming and misinformed announcement by

[UNTAC chief] Akashi in May 1993 that "the KR are stronger than before", a great risk to the elections;

"their military strength has increased by at least 50 per cent, they have new weapons, they are operating

in larger units, they are led by leaders who are more extreme than in past years, so we have to be prepared".

[For example, a paper I gave in Canberra in November 1993, published in early 1994 as "Cambodia: A Political

Survey", Discussion Paper Series, Number 14, Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of

Pacific Studies, Australian National University; Akashi's remarks from The Nation, Bangkok, 20 May, 1993.] This

set off a panic among UNTAC and NGO personnel and many fled to Bangkok. Peculiarly, no journalists at the time

seemed interested in the identities of the alleged, more extreme, new leaders.

The extreme haste with which Thayer pushed his piece into print is seen in his forgetting that in August 1992,

while showing off his access to "internal documents of the Khmer Rouge", he had identified Son Sen as

"Commander-in-Chief of the Army", and second in order after Khieu Samphan (making him No.3 or No.4, depending

on where one placed Ieng Sary), ahead of Nuon Chea (apparently not then No.2) and Ta Mok; and when in November

1992 "the KR announced the formation of the Great National Union Party", it was "headed by Khieu

Samphan and Son Sen". And had Thayer checked the wider historical record before unloading his much delayed

analysis, he would have seen that Son Sen attended the June 1992 Tokyo conference as 'Defense Minister' and 'military

chief', and deputy to Khieu Samphan, certainly not indications that he had been relieved of his duties the previous

month. What a load of homework Son Sen must have had with this public activity, all the while undergoing reeducation

too! [Thayer, "KR Blueprint for the Future includes Electoral Strategy", PPP, Aug 27 1992; Jacques Bekaert,

"The Khmer Rouge's Dangerous Game", Bangkok Post, Dec 5 1992; Kavi Chongkitta-vorn, "Tokyo talks

clouded with uncertainty", The Nation, June 20 1992.]

Eventually Thayer seems to have checked the record, for just five months later, in July 1994, the subject came

up again. [Nate Thayer, "Split formalized as KR declare 'govt'", PPP, 15-28 July 1994, p.11.] Reporting

on the formation of a new Khmer Rouge government structure, the 'Provisional Government of National Union and National

Salvation of Cambodia', Thayer insisted once more that the absence of Son Sen's name proved, as " analysts

say", that "he has been purged", but, this time, only after June 1993. Thayer also still insisted,

trying to save the phenomena, that Son Sen was purged because "he lost a power struggle" over whether

they "should comply with the UN phase two process". This simply will not do. That question could have

arisen, as Thayer said the first time, in May 1992, but by June 1993 the election was over and phase two long in

the past. By June 1993 the Khmer Rouge were trying to negotiate entrance into the new royal government through

the back door, and if Son Sen lost a struggle then, and for that reason was not in the new PDK government, it would

appear that the line he wished to follow was not too soft, as implied earlier, but too hard, opposed to negotiating

a new cooperation with Phnom Penh, consonant with his allegedly rigorous position now.

Thayer's July 1994 list of new KR government personalities included the names of the first tier of seven (still

the magic number '7', but different) headed by Khieu Samphan, the rest being "united front personalities,

mainly intellectuals, who were announced as founding members" of a new KR party at the end of 1992, and who

"served in diplomatic and political posts during the 15 years since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power".

They thus seemed to be more or less part of the unnamed "group of younger political cadre who analyze, carry

out, and formulate policy...made up of about 15 highly educated intellectuals" who, in spite of youth, "have

been with the movement since the 1960s and...1970s", whom Thayer had in his first article cited as evidence

for the alleged shakeup in May 1992, perhaps justifying Akashi's alarming announcement a year later.

Finally Thayer supplied some of the names. Besides Khieu Samphan, Chouen Choeun (usually written Thiounn Thioeun)

and Chan Youran were already prominent in their fields before the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, and the former

was a member of Pol Pot's inner circle all through Democratic Kampuchea. In Sopheap's name had been well-known

as a leftist and then DK intellectual since the 1970s, and Mak Ben was a KR spokesman in Phnom Penh during the

UNTAC period. They do not, and did not in 1992, represent either a shakeup nor a radicalization of the KR. [I do

not have detailed information about Kor Bun Heng or Pich Chheang, but the latter name has been mentioned among

DK intellectuals for years.]

As for Son Sen, the attribution of the portfolio of "Minister of National Army" to Khieu Samphan, with

Pich Chheang as his deputy, may have meant that Son Sen had lost the Ministry of National Defense, although he

might still have been Commander-in-Chief of the army. Nor, since the last announcement of a position for Son Sen

had been as "Vice President of the Great National Union Party", was his absence from the new government

list necessarily significant. Pol Pot was not mentioned in the new government either.

Whence came the new and revised information which Thayer seemed to have acquired only, apparently, with a delay

of almost two years after the event? He did not provide his sources, at least not directly, but a background detail

about Son Sen which he inserted the first time, that Son Sen had allegedly been in danger, and on the next list

for elimination in 1978, and was only saved by the Vietnamese invasion, was "according to recent [1993-early

1994?] analysis of confessions of other party cadre at Tuol Sleng prison, Cambodia scholar Stephen Heder told the

Post". Note that Heder was not identified as Deputy-Director (Analysis) of UNTAC 12, responsible for providing

Akashi with the type of information which Akashi recited in his May 1993 announcement.

The analysis which Heder provided Thayer on this point was in no way 'recent'. Elements of it, via Heder, appeared

in 1986 in Elizabeth Becker's When the War was Over, and the full statement, that "men marked for arrest and

death" when the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978, "included...Son Sen", was included by Heder,

following then 'recent' research in the Tuol Sleng files, in a talk at the Australian National University in September

1990. Even then the story about Son Sen's shaky past was nearly ten years old. Serge Thion presented it in a 1981

paper, with details from some other source than Tuol Sleng, writing "Son Sen was denounced as a traitor in

high administrative circles for at least a month before the Vietnamese intervention saved him from being purged...[he]

hid himself in the forest for eighteen months, with a handful of bodyguards, before resurfacing in the DK apparatus,

apparently with strong Chinese and Thai support". [Elizabeth Becker, When the war was Over, pp.447-448; Stephen

R. Heder, "Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot: Moloch's Poodle", p.7, printed for distribution by Campaign to

Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge, Washington DC, a version of which with the same detail on p.20 was presented

at the Association for Asian Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1991; Serge Thion, "The Cambodian Idea of Revolution",

in David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan, eds., Revolution and its Aftermath in Kampuchea: Eight Essays, New Haven,

Yale Monograph series No. 25, 1983, p.30 and reprinted in Serge Thion, Watching Cambodia, Bangkok, White Lotus,

1993, p.93. Thion did not identify his source, presumably a Khmer Rouge defector.] Heder still maintained this

view in early 1996, referring to "the PDK facade for the covertly communist leadership group headed by Pol

Pot, Nuon Chea, and Ta Mok" period! [Steve Heder and Judy Ledgerwood, Propaganda, Politics, and Violence in

Cambodia, p.73.]

These articles by Thayer were as peculiar as Akashi's announcement of a revamped Khmer Rouge in May 1993, on which

Thayer did not choose to comment at the time. Do they indicate continuing sensitivity in some circles over the

events preceding the election, and the advice given to Akashi by his experts? As for Son Sen, he is again among

the 'hardliners', without even speculation about when he might have been rehabilitated.

But what was the truth about KR strength in May 1993? For several years before the 1993 election, western estimates

of KR armed strength had been in the 30-40,000 range, which, so it went, made them too strong to exclude from the

'peace process'. For the public who had followed the news, Akashi's May 1993 announcement would have meant that

UNTAC had suddenly discovered that their true strength was in the 45-50,000 range, in fact alarming. This was what

I thought he meant at the time. Suddenly, once the election was over, public estimates of KR strength plummeted

to the 10-15,000 level, about where Hun Sen had always placed them, in his efforts to downgrade KR importance in

negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement.

It is intriguing that a year later Stephen Heder told the Phnom Penh Post that "in the UNTAC period we calculated

that their armed force was about 17,000 before the Paris Peace accords [emphasis mine, that is before October 1991]...then

they self-demobilized". Moreover, "of these 17,000 not everybody was armed... they didn't have enough

arms...they don't want too many people running around with guns...then they began remobilizing...they may be close

to that number again...I would guess they have 15,000 troops". ["What lies behind KR's moves", Heder

interview, PPP, 20 May-2 June 1994, p.8.] Heder said in that interview that he "interviewed a lot of self-demobilized

NADK defectors". There were 81 to be exact, and very low level, according to Heder and Ledgerwood, op. cit.,

p.76, but in this latest publication no troop totals are supplied, and it seems that the 17,000 figure is from

a different source.

In July 1992 Christophe Peschoux, responsible for some of the best, but at the time ignored, research, and who

subsequently brought his expertise to UNTAC 12, told a meeting in Aranyaprathet that Khmer Rouge strength might

have dropped to around 10,000 from a maximum of 17,000 in 1989. Peschoux also said that the estimates of 30-40,000

had been deliberate exaggerations in order to be able to include them as a credible factor in the movement against

the PRK, on the grounds that '"they're strong, we can't avoid them, must deal with them". [Note from

a talk by Kavi Chongkitthavorn and Christophe Peschoux, Aranyaprathet, 13 July 1992, provided by Bob Maat, SJ of

CPR. Peschoux later confirmed his statement to me.]

This is in all important details a contradiction of Akashi's 1993 announcement. Even if there had been a 50 percent

increase in DK strength from the previous year, the total was still only half of what the international public

had been led to believe, and not alarming. If what Heder said in that 1994 interview was really what UNTAC 12 had

concluded from investigations in 1993, then UNTAC 12 was involved in at least passive disinformation, in not warning

Akashi that the wild estimates he had received from some other source were not true. But should we believe that

Akashi went public on a subject like this without consulting his Cambodia 'experts'?


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