Tribunal Hears of Vietnamese Hill Tribe Separatist Movement

A Khmer Rouge commander ordered that hill tribe separatists fighting an independence guerilla war in Vietnam be spared of harm when they strayed into Mondolkiri province, a former monk who was defrocked during the Pol Pot regime period told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Wednesday.

Chen Saroeun, now 57, was transferred to the northwestern province after being defrocked by the regime in 1975 and eventually became a military officer in command of a company of 80 cadre.

Chen Saroeun (ECCC)
Chen Saroeun (ECCC)

Under questioning by Victor Koppe, a lawyer for the Khmer Rouge’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea—who is on trial alongside the regime’s head of state, Khieu Samphan—Mr. Saroeun confirmed a previous statement in which he claimed that the Koh Nhek district chief, Svay, was killed for concealing 12 Vietnamese soldiers with a view to waging a “rebellious movement.”

A cornerstone of the Nuon Chea defense is that the regime was rife with infighting, and facing Vietnamese-backed rebellions whose leaders were responsible for crimes that have since been attributed to the Khmer Rouge.

“I said that Svay was affiliated with a Yuon movement because my commander disseminated the information that Svay concealed a group of Yuon nearby his house,” Mr. Saroeun said, using a term for Vietnamese people that is widely perceived to be derogatory.

However, under questioning by prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian, the witness admitted that his commander had later informed him that the 12 Vietnamese soldiers were in fact members of United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, better known as FULRO, a separatist movement made up of hill tribes that laid down arms in the early 1990s.

“At the time that the commander told us, he said they were Yuon. Later on, my commander said they were part of the FULRO movement, so we needed to not cause any harm to them,” Mr. Saroeun said.

The witness recounted seeing FULRO forces—which waged insurgencies against the North and South Vietnamese—inside Mondolkiri in 1976.

“Initially, when the FULRO forces arrived at the border, we assumed that they were Vietnamese forces and we didn’t know FULRO was part of a resistance movement,” Mr. Saroeun said.

“After they made contact with my superior…he told us that they were part of a resistance movement belonging to the Vietnamese ethnic minorities and their plan was to liberate their country,” he said.

But while the FULRO forces were treated better than the Vietnamese, the witness said, the Khmer Rouge attempted to assimilate ethnic minorities into the Khmer race through marriage.

“The plan [was] to have Khmer men to get married with women from ethnic minority origin, it was to assimilate them together, but in reality we simply got married between Khmer and Khmer,” he said.

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