Khmer Rouge Tribunal Hears of Ambush Before Commander’s Suicide

A witness told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday that he accompanied the regime’s East Zone commander on a trip to Phnom Penh in 1978 in an attempt to reason with Pol Pot, only to come under gunfire in an ambush in the capital.

Sin Oeng, 59, recounted making the trip from Prey Veng province with commander Sao Phim and seven others “to sort things out” with Pol Pot amid mounting arrests over suspicions that they were colluding with the Vietnamese.

However, after arriving in Arey Ksat, across the Tonle Sap river opposite the Royal Palace, Mr. Oeng, who was a bodyguard for Sao Phim, said they came under fire.

“We rested there and it was 2 or 3 o’clock when an incident happened. We were surrounded and guns were fired at us,” Mr. Oeng said.

“I thought at the time I would die because I was surrounded by others. I resisted with them. I tried to run away in order to save my life and then I jumped into the lake and I remained staying under the water,” he added.

After managing to escape the gunfire, Mr. Oeng was eventually arrested, but managed to conceal his identity in order to save his life, he said.

About 10 days later, news got back to Mr. Oeng that Sao Phim had shot himself as forces loyal to Pol Pot closed in on him. He later heard that his corpse was gutted and paraded on a horse cart for show.

Sao Phim is a vital figure to the defense of the regime’s “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, who is currently on trial for crimes including genocide with the Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan. His lawyers maintain that Sao Phim colluded with the Vietnamese in an attempt to subvert and overthrow the Pol Pot-led revolution.

But others have said that the argument doesn’t add up because Sao Phim made an attempt to reason with Pol Pot in Phnom Penh, rather than cross the border into Vietnam once purges intensified in the east.

Mr. Oeng said he never heard Sao Phim discussing rebellion. The East Zone leader instead encouraged those under him to work hard in order “to achieve enough to eat,” he said.

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