​A fluid policy trail on how to treat "ex-DK" | Phnom Penh Post

A fluid policy trail on how to treat "ex-DK"


Publication date
19 March 1999 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Steve Heder

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Academic Steve Heder continues his analysis of Cambodia's

culture of impunity. In this issue the early history of a flip-flop policy on how

to deal with Khmer Rouge defectors is examined, starting with pronouncements made

even before the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.

Debate by Speech: Conflicting Narratives at the Foundation of the Front

Heng Samrin gave mixed signals back in '78 on defector issue

The Front Central Committee was introduced to Cambodia and the world at a ceremony

held just inside Cambodian territory in the East Zone.

Its chairman was Heng Samrin, a one-time East Zone division commander and Vice-Chairman

of the East Zone Military General Staff who had participated in the armed resistance

to purges there that began in May 1978. He gave the keynote address.

The thrust of his presentation was that those, such as himself, who had continued

as part of the CPK even as late as May 1978 were nevertheless fully acceptable as

leading members of the Front.

They were to be more or less automatically exonerated from any punishable guilt in

connection with what Heng Samrin himself would later describe as his own "activities

with the treacherous clique" of "slaughtering people" before May 1978.

His version of events indicated that a "traitorous" takeover by Pol Pot

and Ieng Sary of the Communist Party had not occurred until 1975.

This left uncondemned policies pursued before then, including the dismissal and sometimes

execution of ex-regroupee cadre such as had occurred in the East Zone, as elsewhere.

By omission, he also min-imized the complicity of East Zone cadre in deaths among

new people who had been evacuated to the East Zone from April 1975.

By remaining silent about the involvement of the East Zone in pre- and post-1975

killings, Heng Samrin was promoting the political and personal salvation of those

cadre who had, whether enthusiastically or with the utmost reluctance, participated

in them through May 1978.

Recalling "the long period when Cambodia was under the yoke of colonialism,

imperialism and feudalism", and how "cadre and combatants" had "relentlessly

struggled with sublime heroism against French and US imperialism", Heng Samrin

extolled "the glorious victory of April 1975".

However, he said, immediately upon victory, "the reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary

gang. . . totally usurped power, sought by all means to betray the country and harm

the people, causing innumerable suffering and mourning to our fellow Cambodians,

and threatened our people with extermination".

Heng Samrin began his narrative of the crimes of the post-April 1975 Pol Pot-Ieng

Sary usurpation by noting that "only a few days after liberation, ... they razed

the towns and forced millions of people in cities and urban centres to leave their

homes and property for the countryside to lead a precarious life and die slowly through

hard labour."

He did not mention that he had, as an East Zone regimental cadre, participated in

implementing the evacuation plan.

Instead, he emphasized "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary's" purges of his zone since May

1978, which he said were "worse still" than what had come before.

He declared that "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary" intended "to massacre more than

1,700,000 people in the East Zone," and stressed the extent to which they had

killed "cadre, Party members and authentic revolutionaries and patriots, and

cadre and combatants who had contributed to the liberation of the country and proved

absolutely loyal to the motherland."

He left unclear how exactly the "intended" massacre of the 1,700,000 people

of the East Zone was "worse still" than forcing "millions of people

[from] the cities and urban centres" to "die slowly from hard labour in

the countryside".

Heng Samrin went on to explain that his Front was open to "all patriotic forces

regardless of political and religious tendencies - workers, peasants, petty bourgeois,

intellectuals, Buddhist monks and nuns, patriots still in the ranks of the ruling

clique", who were prepared to join it "to topple the reactionary and nepotistic

Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang ..., to establish a people's democratic regime."

The Communist ex-regroupees present probably agreed with Heng Samrin's rank-ordering

of the social classes and strata that should form the class coalition of a Cambodian

"people's democracy".

However, both they and the "petty bourgeois" and "intellectual"

elements present were uneasy with the way in which Heng Samrin was keeping the Front

membership door wide open to "patriots still in the ranks of the enemy clique",

regardless, implicitly, of their crimes.

They were unhappy that this gave virtually unlimited opportunities for ex-East Zone

leaders in the Front to link up with their former colleagues and subordinates still

with "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary", potentially overwhelming the Front with other

ex-DK elements.

This policy vis-à-vis cadre and combatants still in DK ranks was elaborated

in point eight of an 11-point Front Programme that Heng Samrin then presented.

He declared the Front was ready "to warmly welcome and create favourable conditions

for officers and soldiers, as well as public servants, in the administration of the

reactionary regime to rally with the people and fight back against the Pol Pot-Ieng

Sary gang."

Heng Samrin promised that although the Front had plans to "to duly punish diehard

reactionary chieftains who have committed bloody crimes against the people",

it was for the time being going "to practice leniency toward those who sincerely

repent" and "to give appropriate rewards to those with feats of arms in

serving the revolution".

The political drift of Heng Samrin's contrasted markedly with that of Chen Ra, a

representative of the Front's fledgling army who followed him to the podium.

Described as a battalion commander, Chen Ra had gone in 1973 as a 14-year-old refugee

from Svay Rieng province to Viet Nam, where he had been trained by the Vietnamese

army and began to work with the ex-regroupees.

He declared that the "great, final victory" of April 1975 had been the

result of "a most courageous struggle" during which the Cambodian people

and what he termed the "pure Cambodian revolutionary combatants" had "united

closely with the people of Viet Nam and Laos in Indochina".

Not only did he give explicit emphasis on unity with Viet Nam in the context of an

Indochinese struggle, he put forward a distinction between "pure" and "impure"

elements in the pre-1975 military ranks.

According to this distinction, the "pure revolutionary combatants" were

those who, like himself, had become a properly proletarianized element capable of

acting as a correct vanguard for a revolution in Cambodia by virtue of ideological

formation under the auspices of the Vietnamese Communist movement.

Speaking of the post-victory phase, Chen Ra declared pointedly that "everywhere

in Cambodia", the "reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" had "unhesitatingly

killed patriots and true revolutionaries".

It had "transformed the army . . . into a band of murderers", which, moreover,

had "crossed the border and massacred the fraternal Vietnamese people",

a fact that Heng Samrin, whose unit had been involved in such incidents, had conspicuously

failed to mention.

Chen Ra's formulations erased the distinction between the pre- and post-May 1978

"Pol Pot-Ieng Sary" crimes, and had the effect of saying that Heng Samrin

had once been the commander of a "band of murderers".

Chen Ra also made no specific reference to the May 1978 events in the East Zone.

Instead, he declared more generally that the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique had "ostracized

and persecuted the uprising movement of the pure revolutionary combatants,"

a formulation that alluded not only to killings before 1978, but to intra-Party purges

before 1975.

He implicitly contradicted the Heng Samrin account that portrayed May 1978 as a fundamental

turning point and the role of East Zone cadre since that time as crucial.

Instead, citing the necessity of an armed struggle to "remake our revolution",

he insisted that all armed forces units must be placed "under the leadership

of the pure patriotic revolutionaries", that is, of the ex-regroupees.

A Shift Toward a Harder Line

As DK seemed to evaporate in the face of the invasion that the Vietnamese launched

to seize control of the eastern half of Cambodia on 25 December, the Front radio

replaced Heng Samrin's policy pronouncement by a new, eight-point "immediate

programme" for implementation in territories "liberated" by the Vietnamese

military advance.

Broadcast on 6 January, the programme significantly revised policy vis-à-vis

DK elements. It declared:

Those who formerly worked in the enemy administration apparatus or armed forces,

and now abandon their offices or units to return to the families and villages in

the liberated zones, will be welcome.

After the people's self-management committees [organs of local administration] have

inquired into and confirmed their true desire to return to the people, they will

be issued certificates and will enjoy all citizen's rights.

Those who return to the revolution with exploits will be warmly welcomed and given

certificates of merit by the Revolutionary People's Committee for future proper commendation.

Individuals or units who mutiny or rise up against the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique will

be registered for commendation.

Those who want to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces will be admitted; those who

wish to go back to their families will be issued permits and helped in their trips

home. ...

With regard to enemy troops who are captured or surrender, they are considered as

children of the people who have been deceived or forced to work for the enemy; therefore,

after five days of re-education, they will be allowed to go back to their families

or assigned to work in production teams of other people if their families are not

in the liberated zone.

Those who refuse to mend their ways or were seriously imbued with reactionary viewpoints

will have to undergo re-education.

Thus, the door that had previously been left wide open for DK elements was now beginning

to be closed.

In Heng Samrin's programme, even persons who simply abandoned DK ranks were to be

"warmly welcomed" and be given "favourable conditions" to "rally

with the people and fight back against the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang".

Such defectors were now merely to be "welcomed" and would have to undergo

investigation by the newly established "people's self-management committees",

which the programme specified should be led by victims of "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary".

They were empowered to inquire into and confirm "their true desire to return

to the people" before issuing them "certificates" without which they

would be unable even to return to their villages legally and safely.

It was only those who "return[ed] to the revolutiosn with exploits" that

had been of concrete assistance to the new regime who would be "warmly welcomed".

Yet, they, too, were worse off than at the time of the eight-point programme, which

had promised that those with "feats of arms in the service of the revolution"

would be rewarded.

"The people in the liberation zone are willing to pull down the traitors and the reactionary Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and the expansionism of China," reads a banner behind a group of Cambodians liberated from the KR regime.

Now they, too, would have to be investigated by the self-management committees and

get their exploits certified, at which point they might expect "future commendation".

Even combatants in the DK army who had engaged in mutinies against DK would evidently

at best be rewarded by being allowed to join the Front army.

Otherwise, they could return home, but only with "permits" issued by the


There was no longer any hint of direct co-optation into the upper ranks of the Front

power structure.

Nevertheless, the stance vis-à-vis defecting DK elements was still not one

of total exclusion.

Even those who could claim no "exploits" would, after investigation and

certification, return to their villages and "enjoy all citizen's rights".

Moreover, those with certified "exploits" could even join the local self-management

committees, which the programme said should incorporate those who could demonstrate

"meritorious service to the revolution".

Even prisoners of war were generally to be released after five days of re-education.

For many people, especially but not exclusively ex-new people, these provisions were

all too mild.

Not without justification, they suspected that they were not simply a manifestation

of humanitarianism and a spirit of reconciliation on the part of the Solidarity Front

leadership, but were rather an attempt to protect, or at least have at hand the policy

means to protect, certain of their former comrades.

Heng Samrin Announces a Policy Reversal

Six and one-half hours after Vietnamese troops took control of Phnom Penh on 7 January

1979, the Front radio broadcast a new message from Heng Samrin.

Declaring that DK was near "collapse", the Front Chairman's message seemed

even-handedly to inform all Cambodians that, as the Vietnamese advanced, their last

chance to become founding members of the new regime was passing.

To his ex-comrades, inside and outside the East Zone, Heng Samrin declared that,

"the fraternal cadre and employees in the state apparatus of the Pol Pot-Ieng

Sary clique should desert the reactionaries and come to join the revolution."

Similarly, "officers and men" in the DK army were told: "you should

turn your guns against and shoot your cruel commanders and switch to join the people

in toppling the traitorous Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique".

Clearly, the implications was that they should switch sides before it was too late.

Heng Samrin again promised that if they did, the revolution would "forgive"

their past deeds.

One week later, the Front radio broadcast a further appeal by Heng Samrin (dated

13 January) that ignored the provisions of the immediate programme and reinstated

the position he had taken in early December.

Heng Samrin began on a conciliatory note by addressing himself to his "beloved

comrades throughout the country" who remained among the "cadre, personnel

and soldiers" of the overthrown "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary administrative apparatus".

He reiterated his generous policy towards defectors from the DK, calling on:

. . . the cadre, Party members, commanding officers and soldiers of the toppled Pol

Pot-Ieng Sary administration who are being coerced into following the reactionaries

in their flight and opposition to the revolutionary administration, or who are in

hiding, [to] return immediately to their families, relatives and friends in their

respective hometowns so as to restore their normal, happy and harmonious lives.

Anyone who deserts the enemy and rallies to the people's side will be warmly welcomed

and properly treated by the revolutionary administration.

Anyone who desires to join the revolutionary work will be examined and judged by

the revolutionary administration and will be accordingly authorized to do so. . .

Anyone who has carried out tasks for the revolution will be assigned important functions.

Anyone who turns his guns against the recalcitrants, kills the leading torturers,

returns to the revolution with arms and brings along with him a large number of people

or finds and helps discover enemy arms caches and equipment will be properly commended

and rewarded.

Those who have committed crimes, show true repentance and who return to the revolution

will be forgiven. . .

Not only did Heng Samrin's appeal renew the promise of a "warm welcome"

for simple deserters and play down the role of self-management committees in judging

defecting DK cadres and combatants, it also explicitly reintroduced the promise of

allowing direct leaps from DK to the Front, including leaps into "important


However, Heng Samrin never repeated this generous offer.

In fact, he soon became virtually silent about policy toward ex-DK cadre and combatants.

When, in March, he was interviewed by foreign Communist journalists and asked specifically

to comment on this issue, he reverted merely to making unmodified, formulaic references

to the eight-point and 11-point programmes. Nor was Heng Samrin's open door offer

ever endorsed by any other Front leader.


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