Relative Claims Ignorance of ‘Warlord’ Sao Phim’s Leadership

A distant relative of Sao Phim told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday that he could not respond to a British journalist’s claim that the East Zone commander was a “quintessential warlord” because he did not know enough about his leadership.

Under cross-examination on Monday by the defense attorney for Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea, who is on trial alongside head of state Khieu Samphan, the witness was pressed on how much he knew of Sao Phim’s position.

East Zone commander Sao Phim, center in black, stands with fellow cadre while visiting a unit of Vietnamese combatants in 1973. (DC-CAM)
East Zone commander Sao Phim, center in black, stands with fellow cadre while visiting a unit of Vietnamese combatants in 1973. (DC-CAM)

Mr. Koppe has repeatedly pushed the narrative that regime leaders in Phnom Penh did not have all-encompassing control over the country—and were in fact struggling against rebellious factions—that would have made them responsible for crimes committed while the regime was in power.

Testifying for a third day, the medic who had been stationed along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where he treated wounded Khmer Rouge forces before defecting to join the Vietnamese, reiterated his testimony to previous hearings in response to questions from Nuon Chea’s lawyer, Victor Koppe.

Known only as 2-TCW-1065 because of his involvement in ongoing investigations, the witness told the court that the pair did not talk about their work during regular conversations so he knew little about Sao Phim’s daily activities.

British journalist Philip Short, in his book “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” said Sao Phim was “a quintessential warlord, in other words, he was a truly a warlord in the sense he was truly a very hardcore military commander,” Mr. Koppe recounted.

“Mr. Witness, you know Sao Phim well, would you agree with Philip Short that Sao Phim was a quintessential warlord?” he asked.

“For a journalist who had that view, that is his business,” the witness responded. “I could not say whether he was a warlord or not.”

“You were a military person within the East Zone. You were family of Sao Phim. You spoke to him often. Is there anything you can say about his military capacities?” Mr. Koppe asked.

“I do not know about his capacities,” the witness said. “As I said, we were separate from him. We were at the military side and I did not know about his business at the zone level.”

The witness agreed with Mr. Koppe that there was a “civil war” going on within Cambodia between May 1978 and January 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was still in power.

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