Who Was Who in the Khmer Rouge

Read about leaders of the Khmer Rouge, including Pol Pot and General Ta Mok, in this article about the radical Marxists who controlled Cambodia from 1975-79.
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Beyond Pol Pot and Ta Mok

by Borgna Brunner

This article was posted in March, 1999.

The Khmer Rouge, the radical Marxists who controlled Cambodia for four nightmarish years from 1975–79, are infamous for their state-sponsored massacre of between 1 and 2 million Cambodians. They are also known for their impunity— in the two decades since the regime was toppled, not a single Khmer Rouge has been tried in a court of law.

Pol Pot, the regime's "Brother Number 1," has become, along with Hitler and Stalin, synonymous with brutal despotism. His death from natural causes on April 15, 1998, deprived the world of a sense of justice and closure to the Khmer Rouge era.

Because neither Pol Pot nor any his followers were ever held accountable, the weight of their crimes has fallen on the last of the Khmer Rouge leaders —General Ta Mok, who was captured on March 6, 1999. Although Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has for years allowed many of the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge officials rejoin Cambodian society without as much as a slap on the wrist, it is clear he plans to exploit Ta Mok as a scapegoat, pinning the atrocities of an entire regime on him.

Hun Sen will thereby short-circuit any plans for a full Nuremberg-style accounting of war crimes. The unrepentant Ta Mok—whose name is easily pronounceable by Westerners and whose sobriquet, "The Butcher," is equally media-friendly—is a convenient rogue to pay for the sins of Marxist excess.

The press' focus on Pol Pot and Ta Mok has provided a protective cloak of obscurity over other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, a remarkably cohesive group who have operated together from the Khmer Rouges' ideological inception, through their four-year reign of terror, and then in the jungles where they retreated after defeat.

After the Khmer Rouges' downfall, the "Party Centre" and its soldiers waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Cambodian government from the remote northwestern region of Cambodia. But by 1996, growing factionalism caused the Khmer Rouge to self-destruct, and by March of 1999, all remaining troops had at least nominally surrendered. Their leaders had either given themselves up, died, or been captured. What follow are profiles of some of the party faithful.

Pol Pot

Brother Number 1

On April 15, 1998, Pol Pot died. His body was hastily cremated without an autopsy, and there has been some speculation that his former comrades poisoned him. He died without remorse, having declared during the past year, "My conscience is clear."

(May 19, 1925?–April 15, 1998) After the Vietnamese toppled his government, Pol Pot went into hiding along the Thai border and was not seen by foreigners for almost twenty years. Rumours of his death circulated sporadically, but the highly secretive Khmer Rouge, operating from the jungle, successfully confused the press for two decades.

In 1997, Pol Pot was suddenly in the news again: he had reportedly arranged for the murder of his longtime comrade, Son Sen, and his relatives, accusing him of being a traitor. In an internal coup, Ta Mok retaliated against Pol Pot by usurping the Khmer Rouge leadership.

The world community began calling for the handover of Pol Pot, but in July 1997 the Khmer Rouge staged their own show trial, at which they sentenced Pol Pot to lifetime house arrest. The broadcasted trial gave the world its first glimpse of Pol Pot in nearly two decades—old, frail, and suffering from malaria.

Less than a year later, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot died, reportedly of a heart attack. His body was hastily cremated without an autopsy, and there has been some speculation that his former comrades may have poisoned him. He died without remorse, having declared during the past year, "My conscience is clear."

Nuon Chea

Brother Number 2; Prime Minister of Khmer Rouge government

Pol Pot's second-in-command and chief ideologue, Nuon Chea has been called Pol Pot's alter ego and his most trusted associate. Formulator of Cambodia as a Marxist agrarian utopia composed of a "purified" Khmer race, he is believed to have instigated many of the mass killings.

Nuon Chea preferred to remain behind the scenes; nevertheless, there are "more documents in the archives that implicate him in crimes than implicate Pol Pot," according to the Cambodia scholar Stephen Heder. Faithful to Pol Pot until the end, Nuon Chea came under Ta Mok's rule after his 1997 coup against Pol Pot.

After arranging an immunity deal with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Nuon Chea defected with Khieu Samphan in December 1998. The Prime Minister warmly welcomed them back into mainstream Cambodian society, but after a vociferous criticism from the press, Hun Sen equivocated about whether he had in fact granted the pair immunity.

The two returned to the Khmer Rouge-controlled enclave of Pailin after taking a brief vacation at a Cambodian resort, where Nuon Chea was goaded into accounting for his crimes. He responded, "We are very sorry, not just for the human lives but also animal lives that were lost in the war." A Buddhist response perhaps, but chillingly insensitive in this context.

Ieng Sary

Brother No.3; Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs

Pol Pot's brother-in-law and comrade since youth, Ieng Sary is believed to have called for the return of Cambodian émigrés to their homeland, where they were then tortured and murdered.

He became the first high-level Khmer Rouge leader to break ranks, defecting in 1996 with 3,000-4,000 former soldiers, more than half of the estimated guerillas who had remained in the jungles. Prime Minister Hun Sen granted him amnesty over the strong objections of the international community.

Ieng Sary is currently a leader of the Pailin enclave, which is a stronghold of former Khmer Rouge guerillas, and where he has grown wealthy from the logging and gem trades. Ill with heart disease, Ieng Sary is reportedly providing sanctuary for a number of top Khmer Rouge leaders, including Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, and Pol Pot's first wife, Khieu Thirith.

Son Sen

Khmer Rouge Defense Minister

(June 12, 1930–June 10,1997) Called chief executioner for the Khmer Rouge, Son Sen was responsible for the torture and killing of tens of thousands of Cambodians. In June 1997, Pol Pot had Son Sen, his powerful wife Yun Yat, and nine relatives killed, and then ran over their bodies with a truck.

Son Sen had been reportedly negotiating with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was reviled by most Khmer Rouge because the Vietnamese had installed him as a puppet ruler after ousting the Khmer Rouge. Two of Son Sen's relatives had defected earlier and Pol Pot believed Son Sen was planning to follow them.

Khieu Samphan

Former Khmer Rouge President

A French-educated intellectual, Khieu Samphan was the face of the Khmer Rouge to the outside world. Urbane and diplomatic, he is believed to have been merely a figurehead behind those in real power. In 1991, after the Khmer Rouge had signed a U.N. peace agreement, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen returned to Phnom Pen for the first time in more than 20 years. They fled immediately after mobs attacked them.

After he came under Ta Mok's rule in 1997 (after Ta Mok's coup of Pol Pot), he and Nuon Chea negotiated safe passage and an immunity deal from Prime Minister Hun Sen and defected in December 1998. Their brief sojourn in Cambodian society was accompanied by angry mobs of Khmer Rouge victims. After being prodded at a hostile press conference, Khieu Samphan apologized for the killing fields (but did not accept personal responsibility) and urged that Cambodians "let bygones be bygones."

Ta Mok

Brother Number 7, Current Khmer Rouge leader; Southwest Regional Secretary under Pol Pot

As commander of the country's southwest zone, Ta Mok's troops conducted bloody purges that earned him the nickname "The Butcher." In the 1990s, as part of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement, Ta Mok is said to have been responsible for several massacres of ethnic Vietnamese.

Ta Mok ("Ta" is equivalent to "Uncle" or "Grandfather") took over the reins of the Khmer Rouge from Pol Pot in 1997, after Pol Pot murdered Son Sen. Ta Mok then orchestrated the show trial of Pol Pot in July 1997, in an apparent bid to distance himself and the remaining Khmer Rouge followers from the brutal history of Pol Pot's regime.

A Khmer Rouge hardliner to the end, Ta Mok was captured near the Thai border on March 6, 1999, and is expected to be brought to trial in Phnom Pen within the year.

Ke Pauk

Brother Number 13

Believed to have killed hundred of thousands in the "purge of the east" in 1978, Ke Pauk claims he was "just a simple farmer." In 1998, Ke Pauk was welcomed by the Cambodian government after he defected and denounced Ta Mok on television. In fact, he has been promoted to one-star general in the Cambodian army.

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