Researchers of the Khmer Rouge and legal experts have sounded caution over claims that the Mao-inspired movement’s struggle has ended, despite a mass defection that has effectively wiped out the guerrillas’ last armed force.
Many agreed this week that Friday’s defection deal could finally mean the end of the low-intensity guerrilla war. But they warned it is too early to declare as complete the national reconciliation process that began in 1991 with the Paris Peace Accords.
Experts harbor a host of concerns about Cambodia’s ability to integrate at least 20,000 people who were not involved in the election of the present government, have not been counted in the 1998 national census or lived in an open society before.
For the millions who suffered under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, scars remain because the surviving leadership has not been prosecuted for crimes against humanity, experts said.
And one Cambodian lawyer warned Tuesday that the base social conditions that fueled the group’s doctrine and attraction still exists, such as a sharp polarization between the rich and poor and a reputation for widespread government corruption
Others voiced suspicion that the former members’ ideological indoctrination and semi-autonomous zones keep the fabric of the Khmer Rouge alive and unified. The government has yet to take full control over large swaths of northern and western Cambodia left to guerrilla commanders who have previously defected.
While some discounted the “Trojan Horse” theory—that the Khmer Rouge remain in cahoots and are slowly infiltrating Cambodia to overthrow the government—others did not.
Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher with the US-based International Monitor Institute, declared that capitalism killed the “Trojan Horse” theory.
“All the militants hiding inside the Horse long ago suffocated from lack of ideological fresh air,” Craig Etcheson e-mailed from the US. “Their highest aspiration in life now is to get a job dealing blackjack at the Pailin casino.”
Youk Chhang, whose Documentation Center of Cambodia compiles evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, said Tuesday the government needs to publicly present measures in case the Trojan Horse is, indeed, alive. “If you look back on Cambodian history, the enemy usually fights from the inside, not the outside,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group Cambodia Project, said the Khmer Rouge’s indoctrination of “communist” values in at least 20,000 people expected to mix into society will be difficult to break down.
“The Khmer Rouge are ignorant people,” he said. “It is very hard for us to change their mind and if the government still has the reputation of corruption, we cannot end the Khmer Rouge.”
Reintegration will be a delicate, say experts and government insiders. “It could be that this integration doesn’t work out for any number of economic, personal or political factors,” said one Khmer Rouge historian, who requested anonymity. “And, in such a scenario, people will automatically turn to their former colleagues. But that is not the same as a strategy to undermine the system from within.”
The group, which began as the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1953 and picked up arms in 1968, signed a defection deal Friday that Cambodian military officials and defectors call the end of the guerrilla Khmer Rouge.
Youk Chhang said Khmer Rouge leaders believed responsible for crimes against humanity must be caught and prosecuted before the group is finished. “The Khmer Rouge started with a few people and those few are still around. So we should not underestimate our enemy. They can still come back.”
The Cambodian lawyer said conditions of “social breakdown” on which the Khmer Rouge fed in the 1960s and 1970s still exist. “[The people] had no choice to pick up arms.”
Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, who were on the Khmer Rouge standing committee of the 1975-1978 Democratic Kampuchea regime, remain at large.
The defecting commanders publicly pledged an end to war Monday and said Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea can never raise forces again.
Ta Mok’s top aide, Khem Nguon, told the Far Eastern Economic Review last weekend that the three are “retired.”
Youk Chhang disputed the idea that the men could move from a Khmer Rouge career to retirement. “What employer have they worked for in the last few decades?” he said. “They haven’t even worked for the society, but in fact, they have destroyed it.”