Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan Still At Large in Jungle
The last of a crippled Khmer Rouge fighting force and its commanders have given up armed confrontation and defected to the government in what they say will mark the beginning of their “political struggle.”
About 1,000 hard-line troops will join the defecting commanders in what analysts say comprises the rank-and-file of a Khmer Rouge force that earlier this year was defanged as a serious threat and dispossessed of its last military command post.
The defections further isolate Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the three former standing committee members of the brutal 1975-1978 Democratic Kampuchea regime who are still in the jungle, location unknown.
“We have completely finished the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia,” Meas Sophea, the RCAF deputy chief of staff who has overseen defection negotiations, said Saturday. “Ta Mok has no soldiers except his children and grandchildren who are committed to staying with him.”
There were few details available over the weekend on Ta Mok’s whereabouts and top defectors have declined to offer any information.
Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a Saturday letter welcoming the hard-line defectors and resistance returnees back into the government fold. “At this new historic stage, your actions have reflected your good will in strengthening peace and national unification,” Hun Sen wrote.
The rebel troops agreed to split from Ta Mok in unconditional defection Friday following negotiations in Preah Vihear, Meas Sophea said.
“There is no way for a military solution. No weapons. Only political struggle,” top defector Khem Nguon told Far Eastern Economic Review reporter Nate Thayer in a telephone interview over the weekend.
Military analysts say various influences contributed to the timing of the defections, including the capitulation of most of the Funcinpec-led resistance forces after 17 months of struggle and dwindling access to cross-border trade since Defense co-Minister Tea Banh in a pre-election meeting asked Thailand’s help in sealing the border.
Government spokesman Sieng Lapresse said he hoped the defections would show the international community that Cambodians are capable of solving their internal problems.
“The Cambodian people know how to break their own back and they know how to fix it,” Sieng Lapresse said on Sunday. “That’s very important. Hopefully, it won’t go down that same path again.
Asked if it is safe to integrate such hard-line forces and commanders into society, Sieng Lapresse said that Cambodia has no other choice if it wants to achieve national reconciliation. “We just must somehow trust that it is safe,” he said. “I really strongly believe [Hun Sen] has to have what we call effective measures to make sure that they are not just coming for their own benefit.”
Khem Nguon announced the defection Saturday from the Thai-Cambodian border at Preah Vihear Temple, a 10th-century symbol of the Khmer empire that fell to the government in late March after five years of Khmer Rouge control.
Among the eight defecting commanders are Ta Mok’s top military and policy aides, including Pol Non, Dul Saroeun, Ta Them, Khem Nguon and Nuon Nou.
Also, Iem Phan and Ta Mok’s son-in-law Ta Muth, who have commanded troops from Samlot district in Battambang for the last 17 months, will defect with troops, according to military officials.
One military analyst said Sunday that allowing the hard-liners into society is a gamble, but noted that it is important for Cambodia’s international image for all fighting forces to “be under the government.”
“It’s a risk,” the analyst said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The government must believe it’s worth the gamble for seeking national reconciliation.”
Khmer Rouge defectors in April identified Ta Them as the commander of division 785, the unit thought responsible for the massacre of 22 Kompong Chhnang villagers in April.
Ta Them also rallied hard-line soldiers against mutineers in Anlong Veng on March 24 in a vain attempt to put down a mass defection that delivered the rebels’ nerve center for military operations into government hands, the military said at the time.
Just after Pol Pot’s death in April, Khem Nguon said he would rather die than join Hun Sen. “I will shoot myself before I work with Hun Sen and the Vietnamese,” he told the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Nuon Nou was Pol Pot’s jailer before the man blamed for nearly 2 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1978 Democratic Kampuchea regime died in April.
And Dul Saroeun, commander of division 519, directed flanking attacks against RCAF soldiers in 1997, helping Funcinpec resistance chief Nhiek Bun Chhay successfully defend O’Smach.
Although it’s unclear how many rebel fighters the deal covers, Meas Sophea put the number of civilians at 40,000 while Khem Nguon told Thayer that said he represented 5,000 fighters and 15,000 civilians. Analysts, however, say the soldiers number is closer to 1,000 and Defense Ministry sources say the number could be as few as 500.
The defection also looks to be a big step in returning more than 35,000 Cambodian refugees sheltering in UN-attended camps on the Thai soil.
Many of the refugees are believed to be Khmer Rouge families who have fled RCAF offensives in various regions of the north and west over the last 17 months.
Nellie Chan, director of the Phnom Penh office for the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, said Sunday that the director for the Asia and the Pacific bureau, Francois Fouinat, would take up the matter of repatriation in a meeting today with Hun Sen in Phnom Penh.
Military analysts say that the two sides have been talking for months about such a deal and that original talks may have begun in April after RCAF took Anlong Veng. “I’m sure this thing has been cooking for awhile, they were just waiting for how things would break,” one analyst said Sunday.
Khem Nguon in April demanded the dissolution of the government in return for complete defection.
An agreement for the commanders to meet in Preah Vihear was reached about a week ago when a Military Region 5 delegation traveled to Samlot, analysts said. And Meas Sophea said the last of several meetings with hard-liners was on Nov 25 before all parties met at Preah Vihear on Friday.
(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)