Pol Pot (second right, both hands raised) and KD leadership,
outside Pochentong airport.
"As regards the question of what the prerequisites are to make a judgment
to determine what is right and what is wrong, the answer is: Strength! Strength!
If you possess strength, then you are right, and if you lack strength, then you are
wrong." - Pol Pot, 1992.
If he truly believed that, then he can have had few illusions about how history would
judge him and his movement. Pol Pot may have died just in time to escape international
justice but he still lived just long enough to see his revolutionary dream expire.
He died with his Democratic Kampuchea (DK) movement at its weakest for at least 30
years, and his greatest enemy, the Vietnamese-backed CPP, in its strongest-ever position.
He died having been betrayed by almost everyone. In his final months, he did not
even have the comfort of hiding behind his beloved personal secrecy. Despite his
prodigious ability at self-delusion, Pol Pot must have died aware that his life's
work had ended in total failure.
How did it come to this? How had one of the world's most feared guerrilla movements,
after nearly 50 years of struggle, come to such a pathetic end?
Pol Pot, like successful communists elsewhere, believed his success was due to mass
popular support for the Party's correct line and leadership, but the truth was the
masses were never allowed to know the Party's true line and leadership.
The Party was actually only successful when it could ally itself to traditional nationalism,
a united front with Prince Sihanouk, and outside military assistance. The Khmer Rouge
only won the 1970-75 war due to foreign help and only recovered from its disastrous
defeat in 1979 due to the help of the Thais and Chinese. When the movement was left
on its own it's leadership was not only astoundingly brutal and ruthless but also
fractious and strikingly unrealistic and incompetent.
Despite this, Pol Pot retained leadership into the 1990s because he was by far the
best strategist on the central committee and he had the ability to inspire loyalty.
But in the end, as one former DK intellectual said, Pol Pot's initiatives may have
sounded good at the time but each failure eroded his leadership.
"Of the leaders, only Pol Pot was good at thinking and analyzing. When speaking
about an issue, Pol Pot was very good at explaining it in a very lucid, clear way
which convinced you that he had found a complete solution to the problem," he
"But when it came to implementation, his solution would fail.
"Then he would put forward another idea which would again seem very convincing
and yet the same thing would happen again. And so, after a time, I no longer believed
By late 1978, Pol Pot had reluctantly recognized the failure of his "super great
leap forward" into communism and instead reverted to the united front tactics
which the Party had successfully employed before 1975.
After the Vietnamese invasion, when for the first time the DK nearly collapsed, Pol
Pot managed to rebuild his movement by reverting to a prolonged struggle using "guerrilla
and people's warfare".
To gain recruits and secure a united front, all local propaganda focused on anti-Vietnamese
nationalism at the same time a new international approach was tried.
The Communist Party of Kam-puchea was formally dissolved and the movement publicly
adhered itself permanently to liberal economic and political norms.
The renunciation of communism was for the consumption of capitalist countries - privately
Pol Pot and the senior leaders remained hostile to capitalism. They also feared the
outside influences on members who traveled or traded with outsiders. Therefore they
used the excuse of the war to justify temporary limits on the freedoms they publicly
While the new tactics succeeded in the short-term, bringing an increase in military,
diplomatic and political strength, they created longer-term difficulties. In particular
it became impossible to work out who was loyal to the party and who would be satisfied
with a foreign withdrawal, peace, democracy and a Sihanouk-led government.
By 1990 most Vietnamese troops had withdrawn and pressure was increasing from the
KR's foreign patrons for a settlement.
They were in no position to recapture power militarily or politically so Pol Pot
concluded that a peace settlement could defend and even further the movement's interests,
provided two conditions were met.
The first was that the settlement ensured the dismantling of the CPP state apparatus
and the withdrawal of the Vietnamese. Pol Pot believed the CPP had no social basis
in Cambodia and would collapse without outside help.
The second condition was that any settlement had to lead to a quadripartite government.
By having an independent role in the government and army and by retaining its liberated
areas, the DK would have much-needed political legitimacy, an economic foundation
and the capacity to defend itself.
The Khmer Rouge would thus be able to survive the loss of Chinese aid and sanctuaries
in Thailand by building up an economic, political and military power-base within
the country. Pol Pot believed the Paris Peace Agreements, by combining a large UN
presence and a quadripartite Sihanouk-led super-government (the Supreme National
Council), met his two conditions.
Within weeks of the October 1991 ceremony, however, Pol Pot had revised his analysis
and instead decided that the UN presence and the return of Sihanouk to Phnom Penh
was going to bolster, rather than undermine, the CPP state structure. The perceived
change was the intervention of a "new enemy" - the "Western Great
Powers". Pol Pot saw the November 1991 alliance of Hun Sen's CPP and Prince
Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC as a US-inspired arrangement to isolate the Khmer Rouge and
prevent the CPP's collapse.
Whilst he believed the old and new enemies had "contradictions because they
both would like to devour all of Cambodia by themselves", he saw them as united
in wanting to eliminate DK as the main obstacle to their ambitions.
The events of 1992 and 1993 only served to confirm his analysis. Pol Pot viewed UNTAC's
failure to dismantle the CPP state apparatus and the subsequent establishment of
the "two-headed" coalition government as a Western attempt to legitimize
the "Vietnamese puppet" regime. To accept "peace" while the CPP
retained administrative control would, he believed, be suicide. Beginning in early
1992, Pol Pot thus sanctioned a return to military struggle designed to force UNTAC
and, later, the coalition government to acknowledge that the DK couldn't be excluded.
Pol Pot's strategy depended and foundered, however, on a grossly over-optimistic
idea of the movement's political and military strength. His belief that the DK's
offensive could prevent the elections being held and that its boycott of the elections
would be overwhelmingly supported were both dramatically disproved. His hope that
massacres of ethnic Vietnamese civilians would provoke a mass pogrom went unanswered.
By June 1993, Pol Pot acknowledged that the movement was now isolated domestically
and internationally but he nonetheless persisted in his delusion that the DK had
popular support, and that an extra push militarily would drastically weaken the CPP.
This would then force Prince Ranariddh and King Sihanouk to revert to the quadripartite
option. But he, like many others, were to be betrayed by Ranariddh and outwitted
by Hun Sen. Instead, it was the DK which was put on the military defensive with the
government offensive against Stoung and Phnom Chat: despite prior warnings, Pol Pot
refused to believe that Funcinpec and former KPNLF forces were going to mount an
attack on his new base at Phnom Chat.
It was then that Pol Pot made his fateful, final move to Ta Mok's Anlong Veng.
Any hopes for an early settlement finally died in July 1994 when the government ended
negotiations and formally outlawed the DK. Pol Pot concluded that a friendless Khmer
Rouge had no choice but to continue a potentially endless military struggle alone.
But its ability to do so had been severely weakened in the meantime.
First, the loss of foreign material and logistical support critically affected the
DK's military strength. And while the KR radio constantly boasted of the success
of homemade weapons for offensives, their main use was in defending base areas, not
For those used to fighting with B-40s and heavy artillery, the change to crossbows
and punji stakes signified the lack of progress the DK was making. Meanwhile, the
lack of ammunition and the need to defend the base areas led to an end to attacks
on big population centres, like Siem Reap and Battambang, and a withdrawal of forces
from long-troubled interior provinces like Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom. Cadres
at all levels of the movement could not help but conclude that the armed struggle
was getting nowhere.
Second, the gamble of signing the peace agreement backfired. Many hitherto loyal
Khmer Rouge, were sick of fighting after 20 years and were disappointed that they
had seen their hopes of peace come and go with UNTAC. As one cadre from Phnom Malai
put it: "After the elections, the leadership started talking about fighting
'till the end of the world'," he said.
"I remember asking the question 'what was the final goal, what was this means
of ending the war' but they couldn't answer. So Pol Pot and the others were very
good at making theory in terms of the ten-point elements, the eight-this, the six-that
and all the rest of it, but when it came to the basic question of how to end the
war, they didn't have an answer."
Thirdly, the DK was far less capable than the other factions to take advantage of
the political openings. Its structure, thinking and leadership were out-dated and
inflexible. Its appeal had deliberately focused on an anti-Vietnamese message whose
potency steadily declined after the Vietnamese troop withdrawal in 1989.
Also the end to foreign aid meant that many KR started to become involved in trade.
This lead to military units and individuals being exposed to areas of peace and freedom,
a move that sapped the will to fight among the vast majority of them.
Faced with this situation, Pol Pot withdrew all the post-1991 freedoms as well as
the moderate "united front" policies in place since 1979.
Since the West and bourgeois forces were against them anyway, there was no longer
any need to play by its rules. Instead, Pol Pot reintroduced the brutal class-struggle
rhetoric, discipline and tactics.Where it was impossible to persuade local officials
to stop working for the government, soldiers were now permitted to kill.
After a decade of telling his men to avoid anything which harms the people, Pol Pot's
new strategy mandated burning villagers' houses, in part to create refugees and thus
increase the burden on the government. Internally, the aim was to reintroduce past
discipline and reinvigorate the struggle.
To prevent the infiltration of government spies, the leadership ended freedom of
movement, and thus trade, between their zones and government areas, closed down noodle
shops and brutally dealt with any villagers entering DK areas without permission.
To focus people on the struggle, it was officially decided that "cars, motorcycles,
consumers goods are unnecessary for the liberated zones".
Markets and temples were closed down and plans were reportedly even drawn up to confiscate
televisions, ox-carts, jewelry, and forbid anyone from having more than 1.5 rai (.24
hectares) of farmland. Those who protested were purged.
The effect, unsurprisingly was to lead to further defections, both when it was first
employed in Ta Mok's areas in Siem Reap-Oddar Meanchey at the end of 1994, in Son
Sen's areas in the west in 1996 and, most recently, when the policy was reimposed
on Anlong Veng.
Not only did the changes remove any economic benefit of remaining in the movement,
but they also removed any incentive in fighting for victory. As a DNUM official put
it: "Pol Pot had always said that with one more effort the other side would
collapse and we would win, but now people saw that if we won we would return to the
'three-years' period." [i.e. 1975-78]
Resentment at the unending war and the return to the old policies was common throughout
the movement. But developments in Phnom Penh also meant that Khmer Rouge soldiers,
units and even entire regions had a means to defect.
Ironically, however, while power-sharing was crucial to creating the conditions for
the split in the Khmer Rouge, the development and evolution of that split was greatly
accelerated by the split within the government itself. The tension between Ranariddh
and Hun Sen in early 1996 led each man to court the Khmer Rouge, dissidents and hardliners,
in an attempt to bolster his own position and weaken that of the other. Each side
now offered attractive terms: continued control of armies, resources and territory;
financial opportunities; senior military or civilian positions; and amnesty for leaders.
But if Funcinpec had the advantage of greater political affinity and the shared pre-1991
experiences, Hun Sen could offer far more in terms of guarantees of peace, wealth,
position and even effective amnesty, such as was granted to Ieng Sary and, more recently,
It was a combination of all these developments that led to the ultimately fatal series
of splits in the Khmer Rouge. In mid-1996 the revolt began in Pailin and Malai mainly
because they had historically pursued more liberal policies, had never been under
Son Sen, and had the military and economic power to stand up to the leadership. When
Pol Pot's delegate, Mok, backed Son Sen rather than the Pailin-Malai rebels, the
rebellion rapidly transformed from one against a specific order and a specific leader
to one against the movement itself.
Whilst the rebellion began in Pailin and Malai, the repercussions spread to areas
historically under Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok and ultimately led to the desertion
of the entire movement in western and southwestern Cambodia (although one small faction
associated with Mok re-defected in 1997)
As for the few remaining "hardline" DK forces, by 1997, they were limited
to a few northern and northeastern provinces and almost entirely occupied with defending
their last significant base, Anlong Veng. The same factors that had led to the earlier
large-scale defections and breakaways, however, continued to undermine even this
The senior leadership also had to come to terms with the questions of who was to
blame for the disastrous decline of the movement and how to politically deal with
its consequences, now that military victory was out of the question. Pol Pot's ill-health
also required a resolution to the perennial question of the "succession".
All these tensions were exacerbated by the fact that, for the first time ever, all
the leadership was in one place. The division of geographical responsibility which
had previously eased tensions was no longer possible: whereas before Ta Mok controlled
Anlong Veng, and Pol Pot the entire movement, now the entire movement was Anlong
Pushed to answer these fundamental questions by Funcinpec's increasingly urgent offers
of a more-or-less overt alliance, the remaining senior leadership collapsed in enmity.
Pol Pot blamed Son Sen (designated Pol Pot's successor in 1985) and Nuon Chea (long-time
Brother Number Two) for the collapse of the west, for which Chea and Sen had responsiblity
since 1994, and blamed Mok (promoted to No 2 in 1994) for failing to resolve the
rebellion. Pol Pot thus put all three under house arrest and took complete charge
Rather than use Mok's people and with few of his own, Pol Pot appointed two of Son
Sen's former protégés, Saroeun and San, to run the army. Hun Sen, meanwhile,
managed to play on Pol Pot's paranoia by giving government positions to relatives
and close associates of both Son Sen and Ta Mok and, no doubt, trying to establish
contacts with one or both of them.
Believing both were about to betray him, as he suspected they had tried to do in
1978, Pol Pot tried one last purge, successfully against his former defense minister,
Son Sen - killed - but unsuccessfully against his long-time military commander, Ta
Mok. Instead Ta Mok and his followers took over: Pol Pot and his favored commanders
were captured, put under house arrest and removed from political influence.
Exploiting the political advantage which the arrest of Pol Pot brought, the remaining
Khmer Rouge were able to join up with Funcinpec in an alliance which sought to bolster
Prince Ranariddh militarily and politically in the face of the imminent armed threat
posed by Hun Sen.
But if Funcinpec's aim had been to intimidate Hun Sen into inaction, it failed. Hun
Sen had already decided on military action and, if anything, the possibility that
Ranariddh might now be able to pose as the bringer of justice, peace and national
reconciliation whilst strengthening Funcinpec's military forces made such action
seem even more urgent. Less than one month after Ta Mok's military coup, Hun Sen
staged his own.
In the end Anlong Veng was the entire movement, but they backed the wrong horse.
Their hopes that Prince Ranariddh would be able to secure them peace and a political
role proved mistaken. Their expectation that the end of Pol Pot would lead to renewed
international aid proved similarly mistaken.
Neither the context, the rhetoric, the strategy nor the tactics had ever changed
and, hence, neither have the problems. Politically and militarily there's no way
out. Even without Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge is ending as a few brutal old men in the
jungle with some soldiers and a radio station.
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