Internal splits within the Khmer Rouge were rising to the surface even before the communists overthrew the Lon Nol regime, with cadres voicing concerns in 1974 that “Khmers were killing Khmers” and Buddhist traditions were being curtailed, according to declassified CIA files.
A February 1974 intelligence document titled “Cambodia: Some Wavering in the Khmer Communist Ranks”—among millions of pages of intelligence documents released online last week—claims that insurgents in the east of the county were developing deep reservations about the movement’s leadership.
“The regional party chairman shared this concern because Khmers were killing Khmers and the economy was being ruined,” it says.
“In addition, he and the other cadre reportedly were upset over the leadership’s insistence of the use of harsh population control measures, which they believed could cause rural unrest to flare into peasant rebellions,” it says, adding that particular exception was taken to the suppression of Buddhism.
The Khmer Rouge’s “heavy- handed tactics” in the huge swaths of the countryside it controlled were leading to considerable alienation in the east, the document states.
“If remarks are accurate, the disaffection has reached significant proportions,” it says.
“There are good indications that the communists’ heavy-handed tactics in rural areas throughout the country are causing growing popular resentment that, in some cases, has led to limited violence,” it adds.
The issue of factionalism within the communist ranks is something that has repeatedly reared its head at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. The defense team for the regime’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea, has argued that powerful factions, particularly in the east, plotted to overthrow the regime’s leadership early on and committed crimes attributed to the leadership.
Judges at the tribunal—along with most researchers—have refuted that theory and painted the Khmer Rouge as a strictly hierarchical regime.
In a 1973 report, “Factions Among the Khmer Insurgents,” the CIA identifies three different groups within the insurgency.
The first and most important group consists of “hardcore Khmer communists,” most of which are allied with Hanoi, it says. A second group, “the Khmer Rouge,” oppose Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was ousted in 1970, while the “Khmer Rumdoh” want to see the monarch restored to power.
“Factionalism represents the insurgency’s greatest internal problem,” the report says.
“The factionalism within the Khmer insurgent movement adds to the difficulties of achieving a settlement to the Cambodian conflict, because of the uncertainty surrounding just who can speak authoritatively for the insurgents,” it later states.
“On the other hand, this factionalism is also a serious weakness for the insurgents— since it raises the possibility that their divisions could be exploited.”
The issue of foreign relationships further added to factional complications in the insurgency, including the tentative relationship with the North Vietnamese, the report says.
“The Vietnamese have had to contend with a deep-seated Khmer racial animosity which has led to many incidents including numerous cases of armed confrontation between insurgents and Vietnamese Communist units,” it states.
“Despite whatever handle Hanoi has on the top echelon leadership, a considerable amount of anti-Vietnamese feeling must exist within the insurgent rank-and-file and perhaps even within the Khmer Communist Party itself.”
After the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the leadership’s anti-Vietnamese sentiment came to the fore, and the East Zone faced huge purges due to accusations of enemy conspiracies.
In his book “The Pol Pot Regime,” historian Ben Kiernan states that by 1979, every single one of the roughly 10,000 Vietnamese who had remained in Cambodia after 1975, when about 150,000 were expelled from the country, had died.