Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge”
(Select excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia” By Nate Thayer. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No publication in whole or part permitted without express written permission from the author)
By Nate Thayer
40 years ago this week, Pol Pot seized power in Cambodia. Whatever happened to his Khmer Rouge?
They are back in full power running Cambodia 40 years after Pol Pot seized control and in the following 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days left 1.8 million people dead .
The dirty little secret that all Cambodians know is Pol Pot fit perfectly comfortably within mainstream Cambodian political culture.
The 1996 “defections” or “surrender” of Ieng Sary and thousands of his Khmer Rouge troops in Pailin was actually, more accurately, the beginning of the final reintegration of the Khmer Rouge to the legitimacy of mainstream political power in Cambodian society.
It also sent shock waves through Pol Pot’s remaining Khmer Rouge loyalists in the north, and rocked the fragile coalition government in Phnom Penh.
The “surrender” of thousands of armed Khmer Rouge at war with the central government did not, as one might expect, strengthen the stability of the country. Rather, it capsized the precarious political balance of Cambodia itself.
It forced to the surface the latent, grave tensions within the coalition government of Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party and Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party percolating under the veneer of their government partnership.
And it sparked the irreversible escalation towards another round of intra-Cambodian warfare, jump starting the inevitable process of the collapse of the government itself.
While Cambodia’s mainstream political factions compete in their anti-Khmer Rouge rhetoric, the truth is far more complicated.
The harsh truth is, that in the heart of most every Cambodian political leader beats a Khmer Rouge.
I never met a Cambodian leader who had any particular objection to mass murder. It depends entirely on the merits of the victim. Mainstream Cambodian political figures rarely take issue with crimes against humanity, but rather object only when they are the targets.
It is instructive to remember that in the current internationally recognized and funded government in Phnom Penh today, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Finance Minister, the Defence Minister, the Interior Minister, and thousands of officers in the army and police were also Khmer Rouge officials under Pol Pot.
The vast majority of the provincial, district, sub-district and village political administration in power today, were, also, Khmer Rouge cadre carrying out Pol Pot’s directives when he ran the country.
The vast majority didn’t leave the Khmer Rouge because they objected to Pol Pot’s policies, but either fled only when they became the next targets on the list or they remained Khmer Rouge officials until the Vietnamese army overthrew the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge, then seamlessly continuing without interruption their official duties under new central government leadership.
By 1996, for both the ruling Funcinpec and the CPP coalition parties in government power, their immediate priority was not the destruction of the Khmer Rouge, but rather the destruction of each other.
In order to achieve this, they each entered into a frenzied competition to embrace the Khmer Rouge, then still in the jungles, as military allies.
The internal schism within Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge that resulted in his powerful brother-in-law and former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, heading a mutiny breakaway faction of thousands of Khmer Rouge cadre, civilians and troops in August 1996, sparked a concerted, frenzied competition between the two Prime Ministers to woo intact the armed strength of the Khmer Rouge and secure their loyalty—not to the government—but to their separate political parties.
And the reason for this was nothing less than a strategic plan by each political party to procure an alliance with a strong-not weakened-Khmer Rouge.
Whichever party successfully romanced the Ieng Sary faction in Pailin in Cambodia’s west and the Pol Potist’s in the north intended to use their new-found strength to launch a coup d’état against their government partners.
So the push to force the “surrender” of the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge in late 1996 was not a harbinger of peace at all.
It was, in fact, an irreversible and calculated preparation for war.
It is a mistaken and simplistic premise to assume that any of Cambodia’s mainstream political factions were or are “anti-Khmer Rouge.”
They indeed were, however, frightened, almost obsessed, that the Khmer Rouge would declare allegiance to their political opposition. Everyone recognized that in the perverted priorities of the organization of Cambodian political power, the Khmer Rouge was an impressive and useful military and political organization.
The government rhetoric against the Khmer Rouge is as cynical and insincere as it is strident. It was and is designed primarily for the gullible ears of their foreign benefactors on whose largesse they have long depended to pay the bills to run the country.
In late 1996, both Cambodian ruling political parties who shared power after the 1993 UN organized fair elections, while boasting to the United States and others that they were the superior architects of the demise of the Khmer Rouge, simultaneously intensified secret negotiations with both the Pailin-based Khmer Rouge and with Pol Pot’s forces holed up in the north.
The objective of both CPP and Funcinpec was to secure the Khmer Rouge military and political fidelity as they prepared to resume civil war to destroy the other political party in the coalition government for which the international community spent nearly $3 billion to coax to power through free and fair elections.
Dispatching their most senior military officers and party loyalists to the jungle, Both Hun Sen and Rannaridh offered sweet deals of high-ranking political positions in the government, military ranks in the army, and control over lucrative economic portfolios to the top Khmer Rouge political leaders and their powerful military commanders who were spread throughout the Cambodian jungles in exchange, not for defecting to the government, but rather pledging loyalty to one or the other government political factions as they quickened the speed of their plan to launch a coup against each other.
And from his jungle redoubt, Pol Pot was playing the same game.
Like a mistress toying with two jealous suitors, Pol Pot schemed how to best manipulate the government factions to secure his maximum foothold in power.
This was Cambodia, and as had been true for 800 years before 1996, the strategy of all factions were the same—seek maximum power with short-term tactical allies to destroy whomever they deemed to be the most immediate threat.
These new tactical alliances with other enemies, the thinking went, could then be, when appropriately vulnerable, later targeted and dispatched with similar eruptions of horrific and violent tactics.
No Cambodian leader had a strategic vision that analyzed the consequences of such an approach.
Peace, political stability, economic development, strengthening institutions of government and society, or coherent foreign and domestic policies were too far-sighted theories. And make no mistake that indeed they were never other than theories. It had been centuries since Cambodia had enjoyed any such organization of internal power.
Coalition politics has never been an end game for any Cambodian seeking political power.
Power sharing is a distasteful, insincere, and temporary step, part of endless military and political maneuvering serving the only shared strategy: to hold sole and absolute power.
Absolute power is demanded not just by a political party, but invariably by leaders within each party. That is why Cambodia’s political parties are always dividing like amoebas. Ambitious leaders, like their God-King predecessors, pursue nothing less than personal and complete hegemony over the country. Until that is achieved, all competition or disagreement, or even policy differences, must be, when the time is appropriate, crushed.
This truth is fundamental to understanding why Cambodia is on a seemingly endless roller coaster of internal upheaval.
The concept of loyal opposition or coalition politics has no successful precedent in Cambodian history. The primary ramification of this paradigmatic tool of ascension to political power is that Cambodia has remained in a constant state of warfare for generations.
The norm of civil war ebbs occasionally to an uneasy temporary political alliance or subjugation between squabbling and scheming enemies, often imposed with force by impatient and frustrated foreign powers.
These were the circumstances in late 1996 and 1997 that preceded the reintegration of the Khmer Rouge back into national society and the violent collapse of the UN elected government.
The Cambodian government’s efforts to romance the Khmer Rouge, intensifying in late 1996, would be central to the series of crisis that would rock the country in coming months.
It would ultimately culminate with a bloody power struggle among the top Khmer Rouge leadership in June 1997 which ousted Pol Pot from power and, days later, a bloody power struggle within the Phnom Penh government which ousted Ranarriddh and his Funcinpec from power. The two events were, of course, parcel to each other.
This turmoil created by the Ieng Sary led Khmer Rouge defections in Pailin in 1996 collapsed the perennially precarious stability of the government and plunged Cambodia back into civil war in July 1997.
Hun Sen quickly dominated the gruesome orgy of torture and violence that erupted to emerge victorious and seizing control in the only lasting path to secure power in Cambodia with historical precedence—the systematic crushing of ones enemies, which in Cambodia, include anyone who doesn’t agree to abject supplication to a single leader.
Once again, as had happened so many times in Cambodian history, after Cambodians were left to control their own destiny alone—this time with the 1993 withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping forces—the country quickly spiraled downward to its sure fate, eventually imploding in an orgy of chaos and violence until one man was left standing.
This time Hun Sen—as Pol Pot, Lon Nol, and Sihanouk before him—lorded over his ‘victory”: a political landscape littered with fresh corpses and the surviving opposition humiliated and beaten into submission.
In his defense, Hun Sen had simply won the game fair and square by the rules his opponents were all willing participants. But of course it was not a victory, because such an organization of power is, in the end, untenable.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the events of 1997 showed once again, that despite Pol Pot being ousted from the seat of government in 1979 after a short but shocking tenure in power, twenty years later he continued to dictate political developments in contemporary Cambodia.
This fact is surely not a reflection of the attributes of the Khmer Rouge, but rather of the extraordinary weaknesses of their opposition.
Even after committing crimes against humanity as a central government policy and unspeakable suffering on a horrific scale, the political options to the Khmer Rouge were so unimpressive that Pol Pot’s political movement remained a viable alternative with sufficient popular sympathy to still be a force to be reckoned with decades later.
In a properly organized country, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge would have utterly collapsed under the weight of its own record immediately after the three years in power in which their policies left millions dead and those who, in many ways, were unlucky enough to survive deeply psychically traumatized.
The tenacity of the Khmer Rouge to remain a force with the mainstream legitimacy to be the dominant political kingmaker two decades after their orgy of repression and brutality brought the entire country to its knees is nothing other than a wholesale indictment of the failures of the entire Cambodian political culture.
The remarkable longevity of the political power wielded by Pol Pot, which actually saw a surge in popular support after they inflicted genocide while in power, provides an essential, if very dark, prism necessary to view and understand the sad and distasteful realities of the Cambodian political culture that preceded and succeeded the Khmer Rouge.
(Select excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” By Nate Thayer. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No publication in whole or part without express written permission from the author)