Former Khmer Rouge Cadre Tells of Dramatic Defection to Vietnam

A former soldier told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday about fleeing a mass execution, being chased through the jungle and eventually making it to Vietnam as the regime’s purges in the East Zone intensified.

Chhun Samorn, who is testifying in the tribunal’s current segment relating to internal purges, joined the Khmer Rouge shortly after the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime when he was 18, and was soon engaging in combat with Vietnam and laying mines along the border in Svay Rieng province.

By 1977, suspicions of the East Zone cadre had grown within the party center, resulting in soldiers from the more trusted Southwest Zone being drafted eastward and many senior officials near the border disappearing.

About a year later, Mr. Samorn said, he was targeted for execution along with 28 others in his unit as the regime sought to further uproot “bad elements” within its ranks.

“We were tied [up] and there was one soldier who accused us of betraying the party—that we had Yuon heads on Khmer bodies. Then I was hit with the butt of a gun,” Mr. Samorn said, recounting an infamous Khmer Rouge phrase that uses a derogatory term for the Vietnamese.

“Then four of us were untied and taken away to be executed about 20 or 30 meters from where we were,” he said. “We could hear the screaming.”

While he was waiting in the pitch-black night, Mr. Samorn said, he decided he would try to escape. He managed to untie himself and sneak away with two others.

It did not take long for the guards to notice them making their getaway.

“They were chasing us and firing from behind. I jumped into the river while they were still standing at the riverbank and shooting into the water,” Mr. Samorn said.

The three men made it to Vietnam by dawn, he added.

“We were running the whole night before we could cross the border. At the border we also encountered another group of Khmer Rouge soldiers who fired at us, but we were rescued by Vietnamese soldiers who fired back,” Mr. Samorn said.

Once the Vietnamese soldiers had treated the men’s wounds, they were grilled about their backgrounds and intentions, he said.

After recovering, Mr. Samorn switched sides and took up arms against the Khmer Rouge, eventually taking part in the invasion that toppled Pol Pot.

“We stayed there for two days and they asked us what we wanted to do next, whether we wanted to become soldiers again,” he said. “We decided to join the army again and return to Cambodia to liberate our country.”

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