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Cambodia 1975-79 - Intraparty Conflict

Like Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and in the 1930s, Pol Pot initiated a purge of his opponents, both imagined and real. In terms of the number of people liquidated in relation to the total population, the Khmer Rouge terror was far bloodier than Stalin's. Through the 1970s, and especially after mid-1975, the party was shaken by factional struggles. There were even armed attempts to topple Pol Pot. The resultant purges reached a crest in 1977 and 1978 when hundreds of thousands of people, including some of the most important KCP leaders, were executed.

On the eve of its 1975 victory against the Lon Nol forces, the KCP was, in terms of personnel, ideological viewpoints, and factional loyalties, quite heterogeneous. Etcheson, in The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, identifies six factions: the Pol Pot group (members of which he labels "Stalinists"); internationalists (pro-Vietnamese elements who were based in Hanoi after 1954, and who returned to the country when the FUNK united front was declared in 1970); veterans of the leftist Khmer Issarak (who remained in the country after 1954, mostly in the southern and in western parts of the country); veterans of the Pracheachon Party founded in 1954 (which had contested Sihanouk's Sangkum openly until being driven underground in the 1960s); pro-Chinese or Maoist elements (including Paris-group intellectuals Hou Yuon and Hu Nim); and the pro-Sihanouk Khmer Rumdo.

Ben Kiernan, another analyst of Cambodia, identifies three factions: the Pol Pot faction, the pro-Vietnamese communists, and the adherents of the Chinese Cultural Revolution model. The roles of ideology and of conflicting party lines in factional struggles, however, should not be overemphasized. Behind doctrinal differences lay the dynamics of personal rivalry and the strong sense of patron-client loyalty that has always characterized Cambodian politics.

By the April 1975 communist victory, Pol Pot and his close associates occupied the most important positions in the KCP and in the state hierarchies. He had been KCP general secretary since February 1963. His associates functioned as the party's Political Bureau, and they controlled a majority of the seats on the Central Committee. Khieu Thirith's management of youth groups meant that Pol Pot had ample reserves of zealous young cadres, "the nucleus and wick of the struggle," committed to imposing the party center's will throughout the country. But his domination of the revolutionary movement was not complete. In different areas of the country, especially in the Eastern Zone, pro-Vietnamese and veteran Khmer Issarak commanders were jealous of their independence. They questioned, and at times openly defied, his policies of revolutionary terror and hostility toward Vietnam. The highest ranks of the party were not free of dissension.

Although the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK) was "reestablished" in July 1975 to bring all Khmer Rouge units formally under central authority, real control of regional armed forces remained in the hands of the zone party committee heads. The most important center of regional resistance to the Pol Potdominated party center was the Eastern Zone, comprising part or all of the old provinces of Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Kandal, and Kampong Cham that adjoined Vietnam. Its leader was So Phim, a proVietnamese internationalist.

Differences between the Eastern Zone revolutionaries and the other Khmer Rouge were readily apparent by 1975. While the uniforms of Pol Pot loyalists and their allies were black, the uniforms of the Eastern Zone were a distinctive green. In addition, cadre behavior toward the civilian population in the Eastern Zone was generally exemplary. It seems that some of the Eastern cadres were sympathetic to Sihanouk; refugee Molyda Szymusiak wrote that during the evacuation of Phnom Penh, a "Sihanouk Khmer" soldier advised her relatives (who were distantly related to the royal family) to accompany him to Prey Veng Province on Cambodia's southern border.

At least two coups d'tat against the center were attempted--in July and in September, 1975. The latter incident involved Eastern Zone troops. After April 1975, Hou Yuon, one of the original Paris group, disappeared. His colleague, Hu Nim, who was tortured and killed in the Tuol Sleng detention center in 1977, indicated in his confession that Hou Yuon had been liquidated for opposing the extremism of the center's policies.

In 1975 Pol Pot concluded an alliance with the party head of the Southwestern Zone, Ta Mok, who was a Khmer Issarak veteran and, like Pol Pot, was strongly anti-Vietnamese. During 1977 and 1978, Ta Mok provided the backing that enabled Pol Pot to liquidate the opposition within the KCP and to initiate new terrorism against the local population. In February 1977, Southwestern cadres went into the Eastern, Northern, and Western zones to purge local Khmer Rouge. Four months later, the same process was begun in the Northwestern Zone. The purges intensified following an abortive coup d'tat in August.

After the fall of the capital, Ta Mok's lieutenant, a former high school teacher who assumed the name Mit (Comrade) Deuch, became head of the secret police, and established the Tuol Sleng interrogation and detention center on the site of a former Phnom Penh high school. In the 1975 to 1976 period, Tuol Sleng's meticulous records show that 2,404 "antiparty elements" were tortured and executed. The terror escalated in 1977, when the number of victims rose to 6,330. In the first six months of 1978, records show that 5,765 people were killed; records for the latter half of that year have not been discovered. The victims who passed through Tuol Sleng from mid-1975 to January 1979 numbered about 20,000. Among those who met death in the infamous prison were Paris alumni Hu Nim and (presumably) Hou Yuon.

Similar centers were set up throughout the country (Tuol Sleng's code designation, S-21, suggests that at least twenty other similar sites had been established). Molyda Szymusiak writes that a new wave of terror began in the Batdambang region after cadres arrived from the south. The Sala Som Niat, a school for political education was converted into an extermination center where local communists were tortured and executed. The pattern in these centers was much the same: victims were tortured, forced to write often absurd confessions, and then killed. A young British teacher, captured in a yacht off the Cambodian coast, confessed at Tuol Sleng that he had been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States when he was twelve years old; he was subsequently murdered. Hu Nim was forced to confess that he had become a CIA agent in 1957.

Pol Pot loyalists occupied most of the important positions in the new government that was formed after the March 20, 1976, elections; however, Vorn Vet, a pro-Vietnamese leader, was appointed second vice premier with responsibility over six ministry-level economic committees, and he also headed the special Phnom Penh capital zone. So Phim, a longtime rival of Pol Pot within the communist movement, was first vice president of the presidium and a member of the KCP Political Bureau. (The second vice president, Nhim Ros, was a Pol Pot loyalist who commanded the Northwestern Zone.) The year 1976 appears to have been a time initially of retreat for the faction led by Pol Pot. Many communists were alienated by his authoritarian behavior. Article 4 of the Constitution, "Democratic Kampuchea applies the collective principle in leadership and in work," apparently reflects this opinion. In relation to what had gone before and what was to come, policies during 1976 were moderate. The terror eased. Relations with Hanoi were placed on a friendlier footing. Trade and diplomatic relations were expanded.

On September 27, 1976, Pol Pot resigned as premier "for reasons of health." Nuon Chea, the pro-Vietnamese deputy premier, became acting premier. Little is known of the intense factional maneuvering that was occurring at this time, but by late October 1976, Pol Pot had regained his post. On October 22, his comeback was confirmed with his issuance of a statement in his capacity as prime minister condemning China's "counterrevolutionary Gang of Four," who had been arrested in Beijing on October 6.

The influence of China on Democratic Kampuchea's internal politics apparently was a crucial, though little understood, factor in Pol Pot's defeat of his pro-Vietnamese rivals. Etcheson and Kiernan have suggested, in separate articles, that radicals in the Chinese Communist Party may have backed pro-Vietnamese Internationalist elements in the KCP in 1976 because they were interested in preserving good relations with Hanoi. The fall of the radicals in October 1976, a month after Mao Zedong's death, brought in the moderates, led by Deng Xiaoping. As the subsequent break between Beijing and Hanoi shows, Deng was inclined to regard Vietnam as an agent of Soviet "hegemonism." Chinese support of the Pol Pot faction may have been a crucial element in its ability to triumph over the pro-Vietnamese communists in the fall of 1976.

From an ideological standpoint, the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping and the ultra-radical Pol Pot were polar opposites, but from the geopolitical perspective, the post-Mao Zedong leadership recognized the value of having a well-armed Cambodian thorn in the side of Vietnam. Immediately after making his September 27, 1977, speech revealing the KCP's existence, Pol Pot, accompanied by Ieng Sary and Vorn Vet, visited Beijing, where he acknowledged the importance of Maoist thought to the Cambodian revolution. In early 1978, the Chinese sent substantial military aid, which included armor, artillery, and antitank guns.

The Eastern Zone apparently remained largely unaffected by the purge until May 1978, when So Phim led a revolt that provoked massive retaliation by Pol Pot and his Southwestern henchmen. In the bloodiest purge of the entire 1975 to 1978 period, as many as 100,000 people in the Eastern Zone--labeled people with "Khmer bodies but Vietnamese minds"--were liquidated or were deported to face certain death in other parts of the country. Most of the victims were political cadres, "new people," and Vietnamese or part-Vietnamese residents. So Phim reportedly committed suicide as he faced capture. Some of his subordinates, including Heng Samrin, the leader of the PRK after 1979, fled to Vietnam.



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Page last modified: 29-05-2012 18:41:14 ZULU