KIEN SVAY DISTRICT, Kandal province – Thirty-five years after General Dien Del proclaimed that the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF) would oppose the new Hanoi-backed communist regime in Phnom Penh, veterans of the resistance movement gathered Wednesday to remember their fallen.
Formed along the Cambodian-Thai border in Battambang province on March 5, 1979, by Gen. Del, veterans of the movement celebrated the anniversary at the Son Sann Memorial Stupa in Kandal province.
Gen. Del, who passed away last year, had organized opposition to Cambodia’s communists in Paris with former Prime Minister Son Sann from May 1977, and the KPNLAF served as the armed wing of Son Sann’s political movement, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), during the civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The force was decommissioned in February 1992 under the watch of General Sak Sutsakhan, who served as defense minister under Lon Nol and lent repute to the KPNLAF by joining as its commander in early 1981.
At Wednesday’s short ceremony, which lasted half an hour and centered on a memorial inscribed with the names of KPNLF soldiers and civilians killed in the civil war, the group of about three dozen mostly opposition figures lit incense and prayed before a statue of Son Sann, who died in 2000.
Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst who worked as a lecturer in KPNLF-controlled areas along the Thai border and later led the faction in talks to end the war in 1991, said after the ceremony that the sacrifices made by ordinary soldiers are often forgotten among the personality politics of the 1980s.
“In fact, some of [the KPNLAF soldiers] had been fighting the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists before 1975,” he said. “If they had won, we would not have had a genocide or any of the massacres.
“We still do not appreciate that many of them sacrificed themselves like this.”
Kem Sokha, the vice president of the opposition CNRP who first became a lawmaker for Son Sann’s Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) in 1993, said he had not taken up a military position in the KPNLAF but had decided to join and help the group from his home in Phnom Penh.
“I did not leave to go to the struggle on the border,” said Mr. Sokha, who worked as a commune official in the capital between 1979 and 1980 before working with foreign humanitarian organizations active in Cambodia and studying in Czechoslovakia on a scholarship to flee apparent death threats.
“I joined the secret [KPNLF] movement inside the country and the resistance there. I joined the meeting with them two times, and [the Phnom Penh government] knew I joined with the resistance, so they punished me,” he said.
“They [the KPNLF] needed food for their networks inside the country. I brought the food for them. They had one group in Muk Kompol in Kandal province,” he said.
“That is why, to this day, the CPP still accuses me of stealing rice.”
Pol Ham, the chairman of the CNRP’s standing committee, who forged his political career as the head of the resistance’s radio operations, said that Son Sann had placed an emphasis on educating and informing the population.
“On the Voice of Cambodia radio station we had a full program of 12 hours every day. We had entertainment, information, and education,” Mr. Ham said, lamenting the present barriers to media access faced by the CNRP.
“Now, some people can access the Voice of the CNRP [program] but mostly it is mouth-to-mouth from people who the radio program can reach…. That is why we are fighting for the media. It is important for our party.”
Son Soubert, who is Son Sann’s son and led the KPLNF on the joint committee in 1993 that wrote the Constitution, said that one of the toughest military challenges at that time was maintaining relations with the higher-profile royalist resistance forces led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who he said were not always cooperative.
“We understood the Funcinpec side’s suspicions about the generals who served under the Khmer Republic, as Lon Nol overthrew the Prince [Sihanouk] in 1970,” Mr. Soubert said, citing Gen. Sutsakhan as an example.
“Prince Sihanouk himself, I remember at a press conference in Tokyo that he declared the KPNLF as republican, and [Son Sann] answered back: ‘I am a democrat—whatever the people want, I will abide by that,’” he explained.
“The suspicions of Funcinpec never really let them trust the KPNLF,” Mr. Soubert said.
Mr. Sokha said unity between former Funcinpec and KPNLF figures under the CNRP was the secret to the opposition’s recent sudden upsurge as a political force.
“The CNRP has been built from two sources: Sam Rainsy is formerly Funcinpec, and I am formerly KPNLF,” Mr. Sokha said.
“The ideas of Funcinpec that were good, Sam Rainsy has brought. The good ideas of the KPNLF, I have brought. And we’ve joined together and it seems that we’re stronger.”
“The groups that are not good are in the CPP now,” Mr. Sokha added, referring to members of the BLDP and Funcinpec who disappeared from opposition politics after finding comfortable positions in the government.
Son Chhay, who serves as the chief whip of the CNRP and was also first elected for the BLDP in 1993, left a KPNLF-run border refugee camp in the early 1980s to live in Australia, where he served as a foreign representative of the resistance movement.
Mr. Chhay later paid frequent visits to the border area throughout the 1980s to teach and provide aid to refugees, he said, praising Son Sann for his unique commitment to education among the three resistance factions based on the Thai border.
“It was not just about caring for the refugees. He was thinking: One day when we return to the country, people must have skills and training so they can hope to rebuild the country,” Mr. Chhay said, adding that democracy was part of that.
“Son Sann said you have to fight corruption from the top down, but you can only develop the country from the bottom up,” he said.