Government Flyers Bombard Hard-Line Minds

At about 100 riel each for 500,000 government propaganda leaflets, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’s divisive campaign against Khmer Rouge fighters was much more cost-efficient than, say, buying second-hand guns, tanks and helicopters.

All told, based on printing ex­penditures, each of the estimated 2,000 hard-line soldiers who switched sides in late March cost the government 25,000 riel, or roughly $7.

This does not take into account expenses such as gasoline, food, uniforms, medical care, ammunition, nor the loss of lives in two months of sporadic fighting.

But the barrage of leaflets drop­ped by helicopters on rebel-held territory reflects how the cash-strapped government found a way to exploit tensions within the guerrilla movement and nearly finish it—with minimum financial expense.

A full-fledged military offensive was not possible this year due to budgetary shortcomings, military and government officials have said.

The government army has been dropping leaflets on Khmer Rouge-controlled areas for years. This year, though, the propaganda added fuel to the fire that analysts say had been gradually consuming the 30-year-old guerrilla movement at its core since military commander Ta Mok seized leadership last June by overthrowing longtime supremo Pol Pot.

“Those who defected were loyal to Pol Pot,” said a Western military analyst. “They defected because he was ousted, not because of the leaflets. What [the government] has done well for the moment is to exploit the situation.”

An Asian diplomat agreed that Ta Mok’s bloody putsch last year was the primary factor for the mass defections from Anlong Veng. He said the government was able to take advantage of the internal disenchantment.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen last week paid tribute to the importance of the defections in light of repeated and frustrating military defeats over the past 15 years.

“If we cannot finish off Anlong Veng, how can we finish the legacy of Pol Pot,” he told several thousand people at Olympic Stadium’s coliseum. “Military operations cannot finish the Khmer Rouge and we cannot end the Khmer Rouge by bringing their military and political representatives to Phnom Penh.”

The idea for it began late last year, according to sources, following the December defection of two high-ranking Khmer Rouge military officers.

Cheat Chum, commander of rebel division 417, was based roughly 50 km southeast of Anlong Veng at the Siem Reap/Preah Vihear provincial border, and Chea Keo, commander of rebel division 801, was based in northern Siem Reap province, roughly 60 km southwest of Anlong Veng. By first securing zones on the periphery of Anlong Veng, the government established footholds from which to penetrate the rebels’ core.

Military analysts call the strategy conventional psychological warfare, where one side seeks to isolate the enemy leadership by blitzing the rank-and-file with alluring promises.

The US military used the strategy in Vietnam, flying over enemy areas in helicopters and blaring pro-US messages over a loudspeaker, encouraging North Vietnamese forces to surrender.

The collective mind of the hard-line Khmer Rouge was penetrated various ways, beginning in January. A vanguard of rebels who defected in December—including Cheat Chum and Chea Keo—and army reconnaissance teams ferried propaganda and personal messages into rebel areas surrounding Anlong Veng, including in adjacent Preah Vihear.

Deputy Chief of RCAF General Staff Pol Saroeun, an influential CPP member, then traveled to Preah Vihear in January to pioneer talks with rebel commanders there.

Another Western military analyst said Preah Vihear rebels “went cold” on the government for two months, afraid the vengeful rebel chief of staff Ta Mok would discover the talks.

Pol Saroeun confirmed this week his clandestine January mission there with other RCAF officials, but said the two-month delay was spent ironing out the logistics of a mass defection.

During the first week of February, about 30 government helicopter flyovers dumped up to 300,000 leaflets over the swath of land known as Anlong Veng, RCAF general staff officers said. And Pol Saroeun continued to spearhead clandestine negotiations through telephone and radio contact.

Ironically, it appears that Ta Mok’s paranoid reaction to the propaganda campaign led to the Anlong Veng defections—not the propaganda campaign itself.

Ta Mok conceived a plot to purge his commanders suspected of being in contact with RCAF after he found out his Preah Vihear forces had been infiltrated by government propaganda.

Defectors in the refugee camps of O Bai Tap and RCAF officials said recently that Ta Mok had marked for elimination several rebel division commanders and regiment commanders.

Those targeted in the purge, on March 25, rose up and forced the rebel chief of staff and his loyalists out of the isolated town of Anlong Veng and into the inhospitable Dangrek Mountains, beginning some 7 km to the north.

“If Ta Mok hadn’t planned his purge, I believe Anlong Veng would still be standing now,” the analyst said.

Divisions 980, 417, 612, 912, 902 and 801 comprising 1,545 soldiers on March 27 announced their complete defection to RCAF by radio, according to official RCAF data.

The switch over capped a month in which soldiers from Divisions 920, 612 and 709 also defected, bringing the number up to an estimated 2,000 soldiers, and the historic Preah Vihear Temple fell into government hands.

Government troops finally secured Anlong Veng village, the rebels’ center of military operations for the last eight years, on April 5.

One of the primary leaflets used in the campaign carries the color photographs of five former ranking members of the Khmer Rouge military and civilian infrastructure, including Cheat Chum and Chea Keo.

“Cadre and their families together have fled from the oppression of commander Ta Mok to join the government in Preah Vihear province and Siem Reap province,” the leaflet reads.

“We met with the provincial authorities who have received us warmly and supplied us and sheltered us. It has been like a reunion of family who have been separated for a long time.”

The leaflet behooves the remaining hard-liners to rebel against Ta Mok for the sake of ending civil war and building the nation.

“Whenever you rebel, we will all be waiting for you,” it promises.

The switch over of Cheat Chum and Chea Keo came at the right time for the government to use the pair as defection poster boys. Like the dry-season military offensives of the past years, a propaganda campaign needs dry weather to work.

Otherwise, the relentless monsoon rains destroy the fragile leafs of paper valuable only for the message they carry.

“If we try to spread propaganda to the Khmer Rouge during the rainy season, we need to do it by radio,” explained a spokesman for the RCAF office of psychological operations.

Asked why the propaganda campaign was successful, Lieutenant Heang Sareng said this time the Khmer Rouge believed that, if they did switch sides, they would be safe from government retribution.

The new campaign stressed Ta Mok’s alleged past betrayals of his loyalists and that prominent Khmer Rouge who left the hard-liners in 1996, like Ieng Sary and Y Chhien, had not been killed or punished.

Malai and Pailin guerrillas did not buy into the promises of safety and prosperity when a propaganda campaign was employed four years ago in the northwestern town, he said.

“Then they believed that if they came to Cambodia, they would be punished,” Heang Sareng said. “They were convinced that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces would kill them.” (Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong, Touch Rotha and Chris Decherd)






Related Stories

Latest News