20 Years On, Historic Khmer Rouge Defection Remembered

PAILIN PROVINCE – For Y Chhean, a former bodyguard for Pol Pot who went on to command this province on the Thai border, the seeds of the defection he led in August 1996 were sown during a meeting with notorious Khmer Rouge leaders Ta Mok and Son Sen two years earlier.

Twenty years ago this week, after decades of war, it was announced that battle-weary communist soldiers in Pailin would lay down their arms and join government forces in a move that precipitated the complete collapse of the Khmer Rouge over the next three years.

Former Khmer Rouge soldier Khim Thorn speaks outside his home in Pailin City on Sunday. (George Wright/The Cambodia Daily)
Former Khmer Rouge soldier Khim Thorn speaks outside his home in Pailin City on Sunday. (George Wright/The Cambodia Daily)

During an April 1994 Khmer Rouge congress in Battambang province, Mr. Chhean, who became a powerful commander in the mountainous forests around Pailin in the 1980s, said he raised the idea of negotiating with the government in Phnom Penh, then led by co-prime ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

“I said that if you want to solve the issue by means of war, it will not end,” Mr. Chhean said by telephone on Sunday. “It has to be solved peacefully but we have to make concessions with each other,” he recalled saying.

Incensed, Ta Mok, a powerful Khmer Rouge commander, and Son Sen, the regime’s defense minister, asked the roughly 700 soldiers in attendance to raise their hands if they considered Mr. Chhean a traitor for suggesting such a thing.

“They did not raise their hands,” Mr. Chhean said. “If the brothers had raised their hands at that time, Ta Mok could have arrested me or maybe Son Sen would have arrested me.”

Certain that his life was in danger, Mr. Chhean embarked on a covert operation to extend an olive branch to his longtime adversaries in Phnom Penh.

The former commander said he began visiting local brigades to drum up support for the negotiations. Before long, commanders of four units from Pailin and Banteay Meanchey provinces had agreed to back the talks.

With the war still slogging along, Mr. Chhean said he knew it would be too dangerous to travel to the capital himself. So he sent a lesser- known commander, his close confidant Prum Pat, in an attempt to open negotiations with Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Mr. Pat said he initially pretended to be a businessman recently returned from abroad when he met lower-level officials before eventually securing a meeting with General Banh. He said he withheld his true identity when introduced to the general.

“I did not dare tell him who I was because I was afraid he would arrest me and send me to prison. It was a risk because we were still fighting each other,” he said on Sunday.

During the meeting, however, Mr. Pat eventually exposed his true identity and his aim of starting talks between the government and Khmer Rouge.

“We met with His Excellency Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh and told him about the situation and reconciliation,” he said. “At first, he did not take it seriously.”

Mr. Pat eventually managed to set up a meeting between the defense minister and Mr. Chhean in the Thai resort town of Pattaya, which laid the groundwork for the defection.

In his book “Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare,” historian Philip Short recounts how Ta Mok visited Mr. Chhean in Pailin in July 1996 on orders from Pol Pot after Son Sen reported that the leader’s former bodyguard was ignoring commands. However, Ta Mok—known for his ruthlessness and not his tact—only fanned the flames.

Ieng Sary, left, Ieng Thirith, right, and Y Chhean, far right, in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)
Ieng Sary, left, Ieng Thirith, right, and Y Chhean, far right, in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)

“He went to put out the fire and he made it worse,” a former aide of Pol Pot is quoted as saying in the book. “Mok was good at messing things up. He just said what came into his head, cursing and blaming people. He was not a thoughtful man.”

Son Sen then ordered troops to storm Pailin, according to Mr. Short, but was met with a mutiny.

“[By] this stage it was hard enough to get the soldiers to fight Hun Sen’s forces; they had no interest in killing each other,” he writes.

Although Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary would ultimately step in to finalize the defection—securing a pardon for a conviction for crimes committed by the regime and posing for iconic photographs with Mr. Hun Sen—locals view Mr. Chhean as the driving force behind the peace talks. He would become governor of the province after the deal, a position he held until 2014.

Soam Sovann, 62, a former soldier who now serves as chief of Otapuk Krom village, about a kilometer from the center of Pailin City, said Khmer Rouge soldiers told him that Ta Mok arrived in the area in July 1996.

“Ta Mok came directly to meet Y Chhean and asked him to come to Malai [in Banteay Meanchey] but Y Chhean refused. He was afraid he would be killed if he went with Ta Mok because they knew he was negotiating with the government,” he said.

Soon after Ta Mok left Pailin empty-handed, Mr. Sovann, who joined Pol Pot’s revolution in 1972 and spent the 1980s fighting state forces and transporting ammunition, explained how excitement grew with rumors that the war would soon be over.

Then, one day in August—Mr. Sovann could not recall the exact date—the commander in charge of his village called a meeting of 40 to 50 families and announced the defection to the government.

“I was so happy,” Mr. Sovann said. “I could have lifted up those people, who brought us peace, onto my head. Nothing can compare to that feeling.”

The jubilation was shared by former Khmer Rouge soldier Khim Thorn, now 60, who lost both of his legs during fighting about eight years before the defection. After two years recovering in the forest, Mr. Thorn and his family moved to the provincial capital in 1990, and now spends most days lying in a hammock.

The former soldier described returning to a city that was already far more liberal than Cambodia had been under Khmer Rouge rule.

“During that time, they started to create markets and allowed people to make their own businesses for the gem industry,” he said.

Prior to the announcement of the defection in 1996, Mr. Thorn said rumors of reconciliation started circling in the town as sporadic gunfire still echoed in the mountains.

“About two or three months before, villagers said we might become peaceful again,” he said. Then, in August, commanders began going house to house telling locals that the war was over.

Mr. Thorn recalled his commander’s words: “He said: ‘We are going to integrate with the government…. Soldiers, be ready for a new uniform.’”

“We could do whatever business we wanted, buy a house, move where we wanted,” he said. “Life completely changed.”

Sann Voeun, 51, a moto-taxi driver who stations himself next to Pailin City’s market, recounted his shock upon hearing about the defection directly from Mr. Chhean during a gathering in the city.

“They said: ‘We have national unity. The blood of the Khmer has stopped flowing,’” he said. “I was so surprised because there had been such bloody fighting—then it all changed in the blink of an eye.”

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