Five senior Khmer Rouge technocrats walked out of the jungle last week and defected to the government in the former rebel zone of Pailin, prompting speculation that the men cut a deal with their former comrades.
Ek Som On, chief of staff for the Battambang-town based Military Region 5, said Saturday that Pailin military officials secured the defections.
The five men arrived in Pailin on Thursday, said Ek Som On, who speculated that they reached the remote western town by crossing over from Thailand.
The men were not in Anlong Veng during the last two months when the government army, with direction from defecting soldiers, secured what had been the guerrillas’ stronghold since 1990, Ek Som On said.
Prak Sokhonn, an adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Saturday it was unclear why the veterans decided to defect at a time of increasing pressure for hard-line leaders to be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity.
“I do not know exactly what happened but it seems that maybe there has been a deal with [former rebel foreign minister] Ieng Sary,” Prak Sokhonn said.
Meas Sophea, deputy chief of RCAF general staff, and co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh on Sunday asserted that no negotiations were carried out to secure a deal for the men to defect. The group defected of their own accord, both officials said.
“These are the biggest and most important intellectuals of the Khmer Rouge,” Tea Banh said. “People like Thiounn
Thioeunn are very, very senior. This is very good news that finally all of us can end the war and stop fighting each other.”
The defectors are identified as Thiounn Thioeunn, 78; Kao Bun Heng, 52; In Sopheap, 55; Mak Ben, 54; and Chan Youran, 62.
Meas Sophea said he expects more defections of lower-ranking cadre to follow in the coming days. Pailin officials could not be reached for comment.
Last July, Ieng Sary invited remaining hard-liners into a non-military alliance with his Pailin-based Democratic National Union Movement. His non-negotiable conditions were similar to the ones the group declared in their Thursday statement, including ending anti-government propaganda and respecting the Constitution and the rule of law.
Mol Roeup, a military adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Y Chhien, the governor of Pailin and a former Khmer Rouge division commander, played host to a Saturday welcoming ceremony broadcast on state-run television.
Ieng Sary and Y Chhien defected in 1996, along with thousands of soldiers and civilians.
At the ceremony, Chan Youran called them “children of the Cambodian people” and said they defected in an effort to end the 30-year-long civil war.
“Ta Mok has treated us very badly, he did not respect our past struggle for more than 30 years,” Chan Youran said.
Thiounn Thioeunn, a Khmer Rouge Cabinet member since 1975, said he is no longer interested in power. “I don’t want to demand any position in the government, nor any exchange because I am quite old and I want to live in peace,” he said.
Cambodians interviewed Sunday roundly said that while they welcome peace, guerrilla leaders should pay a price for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-78 regime, in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died.
“When they killed people, they never thought about peace,” said Chi Meng, a 22-year-old Faculty of Business student. “Now that they have no choice [but to defect], they say their apologies and defect.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Sunday he considers the defection important because the five high-level officials could provide evidence of the movement’s crimes against humanity for an international tribunal.
Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher with the US-based International Monitor Institute, characterized the defectors as “well-known second-tier types.”
“Whether or not they will be hauled before the tribunal is entirely in the province of the prosecutor,” Etcheson wrote by e-mail Saturday. “But they certainly are candidates.”
Etcheson wrote that British historian Stephen Heder, in testimony Wednesday in front of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “seemed to advocate going so far down into the organization with prosecutions that these guys would end up looking like ‘big fish,’ not little ones.”
French researcher Christophe Peschoux, in an English-language draft translation of his book, “The New Khmer Rouge,” pointed out that the Cabinet of the post-1979 Democratic Kampuchea government has had very little power.
“They are front intellectuals, useful driving belts but unthreatening to the leading circle and perfectly disposable,” he wrote.
Government officials have repeatedly stated that Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok and Nuon Chea—all still at large and are thought to be leading several hundred armed supporters in northern Cambodia—are the only rebels not welcome back.
The defectors said Saturday they would not oppose Cambodian efforts to try top leaders.
(With reporting by Kay Kimsong, Marc Levy and Touch Rotha)