Archive | October, 2013

Vietnam Era Renegade Army Discovered: Lighting the darkness: FULRO’s jungle Christians

28 Oct

Lighting the darkness: FULRO’s jungle Christians     

Vietnam Era Renegade Army Discovered

By Nate Thayer

(This story appeared in the Phnom Penh Post and  as the cover story in the Far Eastern Economic Review.  I discovered, in the remote Northeastern Cambodian jungles along the Ho Chi Minh trail along the Vietnamese border, an army literally lost in time. Eventually all 398 FULRO fighters and families were given political asylum in the U.S., after the high pressure intervention of their former U.S. army special forces comrades learned they were still, 17 years after the Americans withdrew, fighting the Vietnam War. They are all now settled in the U.S., mostly in North Carolina.

Friday, 25 September, 1992

By Nate Thayer

MONDULKIRI, Cambodia – Accompanied by a chorus of crickets and the steady drumming of rain on the leaf roofs of their huts, scores of Montagnard fighters and their families gather in the jungle darkness each night to pray and sing.

Having long ago fled ideological restrictions in Vietnam for a religious sanctuary deep in the forest, the soldiers are members of FULRO–the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races-which has fought for a separate homeland in Vietnam for their hill tribe people since 1964.

Lamps fueled by chunks of slow-burning tree resin give light to the few shared tattered bibles and hymnals as Christian songs of worship echo through the otherwise uninhabited forest. Familiar gospel hymns are sung in the tribal dialects of the mountains.

For many at FULRO’s scattered guerrilla bases, the ability to pray freely was a main motivation to flee their villages in Vietnam’s central highlands 17 years ago.

Fulro Catholic Priest at Servies in Jungle Church Where They Fled From Religious Persecution in Vietnam

Fulro Catholic Priest at Services in Jungle Church Where They Fled From Religious Persecution in Vietnam

“The communists will not let us pray. They say that Christianity is an American and French religion, so we came to live in the jungle,” said Lt.-Col. Y Hinnie. “In our land under the communists, people pray at home secretly or in the rice fields. They cannot worship together like we do in the jungle. Here we are free.”

Each of the five jungle encampments in the FULRO rear base area have an Evangelical church, while there is a lone Catholic church in the main guerrilla camp. Nearly 40 people share a single bible for the daily Catholic Mass and at weekend services. The church consists of pews of wooden logs lined neatly in a clearing, a towering rough-hewn cross behind the altar.

Similar Evangelical churches, cut into clearings surrounded by 30-meter high hardwood trees, are packed with more than 350 worshipers for the daily two-hour evening service and brief early morning prayers. Each church has its own pastor, and worshipers bring large green leaves as hassocks to kneel on the damp forest floor.

These believers are the legacy of Christian missionaries who lived in the Central Highlands until 1975, when the last of them were expelled by the current government in Vietnam. Many of the missionaries had mastered the local dialects, translating Bibles and hymnals into the region’s Rade, Jarai and Koho languages.

The guerrillas also tune into weekly radio sermons delivered in their native languages by a powerful shortwave radio station in Manila operated by the Christian Missionary Alliance.

A guerrilla congregation reels off the names of “their” missionaries like a litany: “In Pleiku, Mr. Long and Mr. Fleming and in Dalat, Helen Evans, she is from America too. Ken Swain from Darlac, he preaches in our language on the radio every Saturday now.”

FULRO officials say some of the missionaries’ involvement with the Montagnards went beyond simply bringing the scriptures to the area. They said some of them were active in the waning days of U.S. involvement in the early 1970s in running guns to the guerrillas.

Following the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, FULRO leaders say, the communists set about systematically dismantling Christian churches. Many of the Montagnards’ religious leaders were arrested and killed after the communist victory in 1975, they say.

“They take our pastors, preachers and Christians and put them in jail,” said FULRO’s military Commander-in-Chief Col Y Peng Ayun. “We don’t hate any one man because we are Christians, but we can never trust the communists,” he added.

Two prominent Montagnard pastors from Ban Me Thuot, Y Ham Nic Hrah and Y Lico Nie, died in the early 1980s after many years of harsh conditions in prison, according to the guerrillas. “Here, we worship no matter what,” said Pastor Budar Su Khong, 52, from Dalat. “Jesus said ‘Come to me whoever is tired, and I will bring you rest.’ We are very tired. Please take a message to Christians in other countries to pray for us, and we will pray for them.”

Vietnam War Era Renegade Army Discovered In Mondulkiri

By Nate Thayer

Abandoned for years by their own leaders and former foreign military backers, an anti-Hanoi Montagnard army based in northeast Cambodia has a plea for protection.

The military combatants of FULRO-the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races-have waged a lonely battle for a separate homeland in Vietnam for their hilltribe people since 1964.

The recent discovery of the Montagnard army in Mondulkiri province prompted Phnom Penh’s Interior Ministry to inform U.N. peacekeeping forces that unless the group-formerly given sanctuary by the Khmer Rouge-is disarmed they would attack them.

Under threat from the Phnom Penh regime, expelled by the Khmer Rouge, and a thorn in the side to Vietnam, FULRO is presenting an interesting if not painful dilemma to U.N. officials in Phnom Penh.

UNTAC-mandated to verify the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Cambodia-may be obligated to ensure the return of the group to Vietnamese soil if they insist on continuing to wage war.

But UNHCR-responsible for protecting people with a “well founded fear of persecution”-may have to offer asylum to the fighters if they are in danger of being sent back to Vietnam, where they certainly would face imprisonment.

That, in turn, could open the floodgates to thousands of requests for political asylum from Vietnamese living in Cambodia.

“We have enough problems in Cambodia dealing with the four factions, and now this army we never even heard of turns up,” said one UNTAC military official.

American diplomats in Phnom Penh and U.N. military officials in Cambodia are urging that UNHCR grant the group refugee status to begin the process of third country asylum, and give them temporary protection from military attack.

But FULRO Commander-in-Chief Y Peng Ayun and his forces are reluctant to accept giving up their fight without first getting U.N. protection.

“If we give up our weapons, they will take us back to Vietnam or the Vietnamese will come get us,” Ayun said. “If I go to the U.S., I don’t want to stay a long time there, because I have responsibility to liberate my country.”

When two correspondents visited FULRO’s remote guerrilla headquarters last month, they found an army unaware of the world around them and desperately seeking instructions and resupply from their leadership.

Col. Ayun and his lieutenants gathered around the reporters, hungrily seeking information. “Please, can you help us find our president, Y’Bham Enuol?” Colonel Ayun asked. “We have been waiting for contact and orders from our president since 1975. Do you know where he is?”

Neither Ayun nor his troops, who gathered around to meet the first journalists to find them since they fled to the jungles after the American defeat in Indochina in 1975, knew that their leader was executed 17 years before by the Khmer Rouge.

They fell silent when informed; some wept quietly.

Situated in a string of five villages carved out of dense forest along a raging river, the group of 407 guerrillas and their families have no access to even the smallest luxury items except from fighters returning from Vietnam.

There is no medicine or schools, and many of the soldiers and their families have only the clothes they wear and rifles. Bamboo huts with roofs of leaves provide shelter.

“The food we get from the forest. The forest belongs to FULRO.” said Lt. Col. Y Hinnie. “We don’t have food or medicine, so it is difficult. But with food and medicine the jungle is a very nice place. We are used to it.”

The rivers nearby abound with crocodiles, huge catfish, and fresh water porpoises and the surrounding jungle-thick with mosquitos-is home to elephants and a host of deadly snakes.

The combatants and their families are traditionally rice eating people, but they are unable to farm rice here with the enemy constantly forcing movement.

A staple of corn, with jungle cucumbers, pumpkins, and hot green peppers are all they have. For part of the year they survive on poisonous potatoes that must be carefully processed for five days to extract a deadly toxin.

“We must eat it slowly until our bodies get used to it or it will kill you,” Hinnie said, “But the poison is also the medicine we use to cure snakebites.” Nearby a soldier lay paralyzed from a snakebite he received three months before.

“This tree has the medicine we use for malaria and this one here we can use to treat diarrhea,” Hinnie said, pointing.

The army has no maps or compasses. “But we can guide ourselves by stars and winds of the seasons. We can tell by which side of the tree is wet during different months exactly which direction we are going,” he said.

Hinnie spoke credible English from his days as a young boy with Christian missionaries, as well as Khmer, Vietnamese, and French, and several tribal dialects, and translated for others who spoke in Rade. His skills have given him the title of “the FULRO Military Delegation’s Representative of Foreign Affairs.”

But his knowledge of world events is spotty. “We would like you to take a message to U Thant,” he said, referring to the former U.N. Secretary-General. Asking about the cold war, he said, “I hear that President George Bush now contacts with the Russians.”

He is charged with listening to the shortwave radio each morning, tuning in VOA, BBC, Christian radio, and Radio Vietnam to keep the group abreast of foreign developments.

Hinnie told amazed fighters of the fax machine: “You take a letter and put it in a telephone and it comes out in one minute in America,” he explained.

The Forgotten Army

A number of soldiers appeared to introduce themselves in English as having fought with the Americans.

“You are the first foreigner I have seen since 1975,” said Bhong Rcam, 47, “The Americans usually call me Tiny.”

Like many of the fighters of FULRO, he worked with the U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War. After the U.S. withdrawal he was jailed by Hanoi, before joining FULRO in the jungle in 1976.

During the Vietnam War FULRO was supplied with millions of dollars of U.S. equipment, and before that, used as allies to further the objectives of the French and various Vietnamese regimes.

When the North Vietnamese launched decisive offensives in March 1975, FULRO leaders say that senior U.S. officials in Saigon promised continued support for the Montagnards and pledged to covertly support their fight.

Well equipped with American weapons and promises of more as South Vietnam crumbled in the spring of 1975, FULRO waited for the Americans who never returned, eventually re-grouping in the jungle.

“The Montagnard people and the Americans are like one family,” said Lt. Col. Hinnie. “I am not angry, but very sad that the Americans forgot us. The Americans are like our elder brother, so it is very sad when your brother forgets you.”

FULRO continued to launch attacks on Vietnam for four years after the U.S. withdrawal, fielding a fierce army of 10,000 fighters. But by 1979 they were running low on ammunition and had suffered huge casualties, with more than 8,000 of their fighters killed or captured.

In 1979 FULRO abandoned their bases in Vietnam and moved to the jungles on the Cambodian side of the Vietnamese frontier, switching to underground networks and small guerrilla strikes in their four regions of operations in Vietnam-Quang Duc, Darlac, Pleiku, and Kon Tum.

Previously given sanctuary by the Khmer Rouge in areas under their control, FULRO was expelled from Khmer Rouge zones in January to a remote area of Mondulkiri province. Khmer Rouge officials in Phnom Penh say they had given FULRO sanctuary since 1979, despite having fallen out with their leadership in 1986.

“They had no political vision. Their fighters are very, very brave, but they had no support from any leadership, no food, and they did not understand at all the world around them,” said one senior Khmer Rouge official.

Jungle Christians

Col. Ayun complained bitterly of the treatment of his people by the Hanoi government.

“My people suffer terribly under the Vietnamese communist regime,” he recounted from a thatched hut in the forest. “They came and took our land, and made it theirs. They try to erase our language and force us to speak Vietnamese. They have taken our fertile land and forced us to the bad land.

“They say they have come to build progress for my people, but they have come to kill, arrest, and oppress my people.”

For many at FULRO’s scattered guerrilla bases, the ability to pray freely and practice Christianity was a main motivation to flee Vietnam. Each of the five villages in the FULRO area have an evangelical church, while there is a lone Catholic church in the main guerrilla camp.

“The Communists will not let us pray,” Col. Hinnie said. “They say that Christianity is an American and French religion, so we came to live in the jungle.”

Col. Ayun requested to meet with the American ambassador to seek advice on whether his group would get the aid he said was long promised and to seek proof of the death of their leader.
“We are the troops of President Y Bham Enuol,” he said.

“If he has died, we want proof from the United Nations. The Americans had a whole plan for Indochina. I want to meet face to face with the American ambassador. I have a plan for the future, and they should know clearly our position for the revolutionary struggle. We want to know whether they will help us or not.”

But the chances of U.S. support for Ayun and his forces are dim, and FULRO faces a whole new series of difficulties.

Montagnard leaders now living in the U.S. appealed to Col. Ayun to give up the fight. “Due to unfavorable circumstances, I suggest it is time to stop fighting, to find different ways to reach our ultimate goal,” said Pierre K’briuh in a recent message to the FULRO fighters.

K’briuh is a leader of the former FULRO troops now in the United States and he himself was jailed by Hanoi until the early 1980s.

“President Y-Bham Enuol and his entourage were executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975,” he wrote.

“Therefore, based on common sense, lay down your weapons and appeal at once to the U.N. for political asylum to join us here. We don’t have any other choice.”

Col. Ayun and his troops say that if they have proof that Y Bham Enuol is indeed dead, they will consider going to the U.S.

“But even if we go to another country, our resistance will continue until we get our own land, until we get back the land that belonged to us before,” Ayun said.

“I don’t want to go to a free nation,” he added. “I want to stay here because this is my battlefield. It is my responsibility. But I have no supplies or help from free countries.”


The Childhood Education of a Cantankerous Journalist

28 Oct

The Early Education of a Future Cantankerous Journalist: 7th grade English class papers from a 12 year old

By Nate Thayer

October 28, 2013

I recently moved several hundred boxes of books, papers, and various possessions I have acquired through my decidedly nomadic, itinerant life from a storage unit into the basement of my new flat. I have spent many hours in recent days discovering all sorts of treasures which have brought back many long forgotten memories.

Some of the most special forgotten treasures are from my childhood schooldays that my mother had the foresight to know might be meaningful to me someday, and she surreptitiously secreted away and tucked in boxes to keep safe and give me when I was old enough to know they would be meaningful.

I was a difficult child.

I went to 13 schools prior to graduating high school. Let’s just say I did not leave them all by my own choice. “Nate is very smart and finds academics easy and does well in class. He has a bright future if he would only apply himself. He lacks discipline and appears to have some serious problems with authority,” read one report home to my parents on how I was faring, prior to the school insisting it would be in all parties best interest if I did not return to that institution the following academic year.

That was when I was 14. That was the fifth school I had attended in 3 years.

I made it a point, if one is too appoint a very acrobatically creative narrative, to do original research in my youth of the entire spectrum of educational styles and institutions.I went to fundamentalist Christian missionary schools, private day schools, all boys boarding schools, coed private day schools, Christian coed blue-blood boarding schools, alternative open class room schools, and public high schools. That was prior to college.

Most of them were social penitentiaries for the reproduction of the ruling class.

They were a lot of boarding schools. Their purpose was to ensure one did not attempt to poison one’s mind with the misconception that you could think for yourself. By the time, if they were successful from preventing your escape and you were allowed out on parole to the public at large upon graduation, one was 18 or so, and sufficiently safe to be allowed to experience the real world without threat of diverging from the, by then,  quite effective brainwashing.

I went to 13 schools before I was released into the civilian population at 18.

I was required to wear a coat and tie. I was required to attend church daily.

There were a lot of rules. I broke most of them. For lesser infractions, one would be disciplined with “work hours” as penance and assigned a mundane task to perform as punishment, such as janitorial duties etc. At one school, I accrued 578 work hours—an historical school record which, I am guessing, still stands. That was so many punishment “work hours” that there was no hope I would ever be able to complete them prior to graduating, not that the latter chance was either likely or proved true. But I saw this as a plus and a relief, because it really didn’t matter how many more rule breaking infraction hours I accrued as a result. And, hence, how many more rules I broke in the future.

I am finding all sorts of stuff in these boxes of memories.

Yesterday, I found a box with my 7th grade English class school paper assignments, with the teacher’s comments and my responses to his comments.

It is dated October 28, 1972—41 years ago to the day from today.

I was 12 years old. That is 7th grade for the American school system. It was in an all boy’s Christian boarding school in Connecticut.

Every second was regimented. One of my jobs was to get up at 0600 each day and ring the tower school church bell to awake the entire student body sleeping in dormitories. We had exact times to file in for breakfast. Our bedrooms were inspected for cleanliness each day. Church. Class. Recreation, meals–every minute was regimented. All lights had to be out at bedtime—which was 9:30 PM. Everyone had to be up by 0600, showered, dressed in coat and tie, bed made and room clean for inspection by 0630.

An adult dormitory monitor who lived on the dormitory would inspect each room at precisely the assigned hour to make sure innumerable infractions were not violated.

I lasted exactly one semester at that penitentiary, at the age of 12, before the school and I parted company. In this case, I told them—which was not the usual scenario—that I was leaving.

A solemn meeting was held in the principal’s office where a school psychologist was brought in. The stern duo of headmaster and psychologist did their most somber, almost grave best to try and persuade me to stay.

I had, at the time, the highest grades of any student in the school. I remember, because they would post every student’s grades next to their names on a public bulletin board for all to see. What a horrible thing to do to a child, in retrospect, if one was not performing at their peak for whatever reason.

I remember the exact words of the psychologist that day sitting in the principal’s office when I, 12 years old and 4 feet 11 inches tall, informed them I was leaving their institution because I determined it was not in my interest to continue that relationship.

“If you leave this school, you will be a failure. You will never be a man. Men don’t give up.”

I didn’t like that man in 1972, and I don’t like that man today in 2013.

I suppose I was a contrarian then, which has its downside, i am well aware.

Here is an English paper assignment dated October 27, 1972—41 years ago to the day from when I found it in a box this morning.

It includes my original paper and the notes and comments of my teacher, as well as my responses to his comments on the quality of my writing, which I returned to him for review.

Nat Thayer

English 7-1

October 27, 1972

Teacher: Sir Andy Rutman

“Last summer while in North Carolina, I had a chance to go rock climbing. Now rock climbing is my favorite sport and I always jump at a chance to do it.

A party of eight of us went to a gorge in the middle of the Carolina wilderness where we knew were some good climbs. We practiced on many little climbs until we knew we were ready.

Early one morning we woke up, had a light breakfast, and hiked for about two miles down a very steep path. After about an hour we came upon a huge rock, 350 feet in the air. I could not believe my eyes! It looked like an endless wall bounding up into the clouds. I had no hope of going to the top of this mountain rock.

We got all our ropes ready and within fifteen minutes we had started to climb the rock. At 4:30 in the afternoon we were on the top of the rock eating lunch. I had climbed the rock! At times I was sure I was right on my first conclusion. But I had climbed it. I had done the impossible. I had done a “five dollar job”.

The teacher “Sir Andy Rutman” graded the paper a 95%. He commented at the bottom, in all capital letters: “VERY GOOD. BUT IN SOME PLACES YOU LEFT OUT WORDS, SO IT DID NOT MAKE SENSE. QUESTIONS?”

“Sir” Andy made several corrections and criticisms which I detail un-redacted below.

In the second paragraph, first sentence regarding the phrase “A party of eight of us went to a gorge….” Sir Andy circled the two words “of us” and wrote in the margin: “Not necessary.”

I wrote in the margin under his comment: “Yes it is and does make sense!!!”

In the last paragraph, fourth sentence, “I was sure I was right on my first conclusion” Sir Andy put a big question marked and circled it, indicating he didn’t know what I meant.

I scrawled in the margin next to his circled question mark: “Just what I said!”

I wrote, in a summary of my response to his grading conclusions and skills in the returned paper to him addressing his criticisms and comments: “Your corrections do not make sense. You just want to find something wrong.”

Forty-one years later to the day, this now 53 year-old sticks by my then 12-year old comments as correct.

I was a difficult, problem child, I suppose.

And, reasonable people argue,  I am a difficult adult man.

But I still loathe to this day my early English teachers who did their best to suck the life out of a young child’s imagination, in the stead of nurturing and encouraging it.

We won’t even begin to speak of my 9th grade English teacher who failed me for starting my sentences with the word “and”.

I have made a point of starting sentences with the word “and” in hundreds of stories I have published as an adult professional writer in the ensuing years, and I think of him and smile each time. Well, and say a quiet “fuck you”, to be honest.

Freelance Investigative Journalist Who is Convinced Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington are Satan

23 Oct

Freelance Investigative Journalist Who is Convinced Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington are Satan

By Nate Thayer

October  23, 2013

I was invited to speak in a couple of weeks at a conference on the new-fangled world of the tatters of credible journalism at Columbia University. The topic: how to come up with a viable business model for the new world of digital journalism.

First, they invited me for the three-day conference in NYC. I said: “Sure, I assume all expenses are paid.” They said yes. Then, it turns out, that doesn’t include eating food and transport from the train station to the hotel or between the conference and the hotel in NYC for three days, which, anyone who knows NYC, knows easily can run several hundred bucks at hotels and restaurants and taxi cabs etc. I then retracted my acceptance to speak at said conference. They then came back to me and said they would make an exception, and pay all my actual expenses. We are not talking any speaking or appearance fees.

We have been corresponding on the necessary details.

From today:

They asked for a bio and a pic for their publicity efforts: I sent them the standard self promoting, more than slightly embarrassing pabulum:

“Hi K,

Here is a brief bio and attached pic. You can feel free to edit the bio with abandon. It is longer than you will want, I am sure:

Nate Thayer is an investigative journalist based in Washington D.C. he spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, much of that based in Asia with the Far Eastern Economic Review, and currently specializes on North Korea. His work has been published in several hundred media outlets worldwide, and he has been on staff or long-term contract with a number of media organizations, including the Associated Press, the Phnom Penh Post, Agence France Press, Soldier of Fortune magazine, the Washington Post, and Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Thayer’s reporting has earned him “The World Press Award’, the “British Press Awards Scoop of the Year Award”, and the “Francis Frost Wood Award for Courage in Journalism”, given to a journalist “judged to best exemplify physical or moral courage in the practice of his or her craft.”

He was the recipient of the “Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) “Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting of the Year.” Upon awarding Thayer the ICIJ Award, the judges noted: : “He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle, in a truly extraordinary quest for first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and their murderous leader. His investigations of the Cambodia political world required not only great risk and physical hardship but also mastery of an ever-changing cast of Political faction characters.”

Thayer was given a prestigious “Peabody Award”, broadcast journalism’s highest honor, and was the first person in 57 years to turn it down because of unethical practices of the American broadcast industry, saying: “I in no way want my name associated with such egregious violations of journalistic and professional ethics.”

Thayer is also the recipient of “The Overseas Press Club of America Award” and the “Asian Society of Publishers and Editors Award for Excellence in Reporting.”

Thayer was also honored with the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Novartis Award for Excellence in International Reporting.”

He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by The Wall Street Journal.

He was a visiting scholar at the Paul H Nitze School of Advance International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

He can be contacted at or 443 205 9162″

The nice woman who is organizing said conference replied: “Thanks Nate, this is great. Whittled down to a paragraph, but tried to include the main highlights. Could you please let me know what your “title” is? I.E. what should we put in the program?

Thanks so much,

I replied: “Hi K,

Freelance Investigative Journalist or Freelance Journalist or some such thing. Starving Investigative Freelance Journalist, Formerly Quite Financially Well Off Investigative Journalist Now Living Below the Poverty Line. Pissed Off Investigative Freelance Journalist, Freelance Investigative Journalist Who is Convinced Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington are Satan, Freelance Journalist Deeply Disturbed by How Few People Appear to get That Quality Journalism is Dead”…..feel free to play around with any related variations…..”

“I am scared that tonight I will die” A reporters diary from Baghdad @Nate_Thayer

16 Oct

I have been sorting through old files these last few days and came across this article I wrote in March, 2003, from Baghdad, after the American’s had launched their  “awe and shock” aerial campaign, but before they reached the capitol. I was very frightened. This story was written for my local small town newspaper, “The Star Democrat”, mainly because I had a court date of which I was going to miss because I was in Iraq, and I wanted the judge to have evidence I had a good reason why I didn’t show up. He issued a warrant for my arrest anyways, but I am glad I went to Baghdad and I am glad I wrote this article and I am glad I found it today, sparking very unpleasant but real recollections of what war has meant to me, and means to many who experience it.


The last tourists in Baghdad



MARCH 26, 20003



BAGHDAD–Night has just fallen here in Baghdad, and I am scared that tonight I will die. Last night hundreds were wounded where I am. The American missile attacks for two days have shattered my windows. We have 300 bottles of water, the windows are covered with duct tape to limit the shrapnel of the shards of glass from the concussion of the Tomahawk and Cruise missiles landing less than 500 meters from us. Balls of flames from the long-range missiles vaporize buildings with remarkable accuracy.

The American aerial assault is awesome in its accuracy. Two kilometers of government buildings, four presidential palaces, the Foreign Ministry, oil refineries, and the Defence Ministry and many other government buildings were all hit on first shot. Baghdad, as I write, is sliced apart by lines of blood red fire and black smoke. Huge fireballs erupt everywhere but we cannot see or hear the incoming missiles before they hit, perched on the balcony, cameras and videos on tripods, and watch the anti-aircraft fire rain in vain. Baghdad has been under attack for four days now, but today deteriorated to the point where we are all frightened we will die. Mary, sweet Mary, is scared also. We never let each other out of each others sight. The few minutes between explosions we hold each other tight.

Our fear is superseded by only our desire not to die. Every day journalists are arrested by the security forces and disappear, or are forced into cars to drive to the Jordanian border. CNN was kicked out en masse yesterday morning. It is only the dozen of freelancers with no bosses to order us out left here now. The young CNN Turkish correspondent hugged me, her eyes welled with tears, as security forces forced them into  four-wheel drive vehicles for the highway to the Jordanian border with Iraq. That checkpoint was leveled yesterday. I should not have told them that my friends car was strafed by American jets on that road a few hours ago.

My first night I was checked into a hotel on the west bank of the Tigris river. I sussed out the neighborhood. The oil-fired power plants outside my window with 100-foot smokestacks demanded that I must insist on a change in accommodations. Last night, I watched those stacks be hit twice by Tomahawk missiles. My hotel, which I paid for through next week, no longer exists. It is a facade of burnt concrete. Mary and I were the last guests to check out. “You must move,” the hotel manager told us. “It is not safe here.”

But that was a long time ago. Yesterday. Yesterday, the Iraqis lit a ring of fire around Baghdad. Trenches filled with oil were lit in the afternoon and fires and smoke encircled those of us still here trapped in Baghdad. It does make it harder to see the effects of incoming attacks. The city is dark in the day from the smoke of war and burning oil. But it is the psychological mood of defiance that reflects the mood of the people in Baghdad. I am met every day by a cacophonic mixture of gifts and kisses and genuine solidarity–on a strictly human level–by Iraqis everywhere who know we are past the point of political debate. Nobody knows what will happen and we all fear we will die.

Today for the first time the bombings did not come only after dusk. It lasted all day. It did not come from only long range missiles today. Allied planes flew overhead and dropped their payload. Today, for the first time, small arms fire is coming from inside the city.

Anti-aircraft emplacements are now set up outside the perimeter of out hotel. That is not good. Yesterday, those that were 500 meters from us were destroyed by long range missiles. The smart bombs, we all agree are a lot smarter than they were 12 years ago in Kuwait. But all of the former was to be expected

Today, we all–those very few journalists and human shields–and the very much smaller subgroup of Americans within us–are being zeroed in on. Journalists are being expelled every hour. They are being put into cars and sent on the 1,000-mile drive to the border. Who know where they are now.

Independent western sources have seen 100 dead civilians and five captive air crew. Three Americans are shown on television over and over. They are frightened and their legs covered with bandages from their wounds.

After an allied jet dropped its payload at 1600 Baghdad time, Mary and I got into our car and drove toward the site. The light was good and pictures are part of our job. The blasts from the bombs are so intense that the liquid in your body gurgles and warms and the concussion sucks the air from your lungs.

One of my hotel rooms and safe houses has three balconies. 16 floors above the city. We can see anything. We turn the lights off and take pictures. I turn the tape recorder on and dictate to myself.. The concussion from the bomb blasts are too much for the tape recorder, overwhelming its ability to be clear.. But the pictures are phenomenal. Tonight we all know will be worse. The Americans are moving north with less resistance than expected. But if they come to Baghdad, it will be very, very different. There will be a bloodbath. Like all wars, it is the civilians who are suffering.

But everyday has been a struggle not to be expelled, taken hostage, placed as a human shield at military targets, or arrested. I have been threatened with each every day. Day after day, we have been threatened with being taken prisoner by the government. This morning we were ordered expelled. “You have two choices, you can be a human shield or you can leave the country,” said my government minder. He was not smiling his usual smirk.

What about my visa, I asked.

He responded by confiscating my passport. “Your visa is now to heaven,” he said, forcing a laugh.

I talked my way out of this. A visa extension was given but I had to take an HIV test, they insisted.. As usual, I brought my own syringes, and I swabbed Mary’s arm and extracted the vial of blood in our room and she did that to me. We went to the HIV center to submit it, but they insisted on their own injections.

Cruise missiles landed around us as we partook in this ridiculous charade. Two journalists were killed today outside of Baghdad. Seven are missing. Five are in prison.. Mary, my sweet Mary, was taken from my room in the dead of night. One cannot leave Baghdad now. Every vehicle  on the roads out of the country are being strafed by American airplanes.

Our other option is to be a human shield, to be placed at a power plant, or electrical facility, or other targets on the allied list of vaporization. Explosions are rocking the computer as I speak. The paint from the walls covers the floors from the concussion of the long-range missiles.

But back to this afternoon: as we crossed the bridge of the Tigris River–one of four from the east to the west of the Tigris River, there was a traffic jam. Hundreds of armed men and civilians were looking down on the river below. It was 1637 hours. Scores of cars had stopped. We grabbed our cameras and gear and got out, the only two non-Iraqis there.

An allied plane had been shot down. Two pilots or crew were floating down the Tigris through central Baghdad. One had just been captured. When we arrived, they were searching for the other.  He was captured as we watched. Thousands of cheering Iraqis chanted and clapped.. People in both uniform and civilian clothes shot AK-47’s in the air in celebration. Others took potshots at sightings along the banks. Small boats with heavily armed soldiers raced through the river searching the banks for the remaining pilots.

“Where are you from?” an armed Iraqi demanded, pointing at me, poking my chest.

“Germany,” interjected my government guide, abruptly grabbing me by the arm, yanking me away.

“Do not tell them you are American,” he whispered as he rushed me to the car. “We must leave. It is very dangerous here for you.” The captured pilots had been hiding in the reeds along the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad. And hundreds of guns and cheers went off celebrating the capture of the second pilot. Where their aircraft was shot down, I do not know.

After we crossed the bridge to the west side–where all the American bombardments had been centered–the military shut down all four bridges. We were stuck at the epicenter of this horrific scene of 96 hours of carnage. We were trapped in the kill zone and there was no way back. Mary did not want to go at first. But I wanted to get a feel of the mood on the street. And now my heart raced both with guilt and our predicament.

To flee, we had to drive through Baghdad’s most dangerous area. We passed Saddam’s palace, which was a shell of burnt rubble. The Foreign Ministry, also, was a shell of concrete with no windows and lurking, sullen soldiers. Apartment buildings, hours ago filled with civilians were charred, burnt, leveled and empty. Hundreds of apartments and no people. Where were they all?

And now tonight as I write this the bombs are dropping again  on Baghdad. This time I can see the B-52’s drop their payloads on the cit’s outskirts. Bursts of red light turn night to day. Mary is downstairs where we have the satellite phone set up covertly. She is trying to file her pictures. I rush to her.  We promised each other we would not be separated, ever, during the battle for Baghdad. All the international lines are cut now and if we get caught with a phone we will be arrested.

My room has food for weeks of a possible siege, a small generator purchased at the market, fire extinguishers, gas masks for chemical warfare and body suits to protect us from biological weapons attacks. We have 150 Jerry cans of petrol bought at the black market stored at a safe house in case we have to flee the Hotel Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River that snakes through central Baghdad.

We have electronics from computers, cameras, communication devices, but now they are wrapped in Reynolds wrap–the aluminum foil deflects the e-bombs that will destroy the data of these electronic devices that are the tools of our craft. We have safe houses. I have four hotel rooms. We have flack jackets and helmets and gas masks equipped for chemical warfare in our room.

But it is not the American bombs we mostly fear. Between us, Mary and I have covered wars from Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Burma, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia among other conflicts.. So it is not the war, it is the mood of the people that we fear. There has been a sea change since yesterday. The city is thick with anger and defiance. George Bush’s name has been spit out with venom. And as an American, it is understandable that rage and venom for the American government is a veneer ready to be punctured and directed at us.

. Mary and I arrived by road from Jordan one week ago. Mary and I and a motley group of six peace activists and freelance journalists, all of us under the cover as tourists. We arrived at the Iraqi border at 0400 huddled in the dark  listening to George Bush live on the BBC shortwave announcing that the war had begun.. But our driver refused to drive the next 560 kilometers thought the deserts of Iraq to Baghdad. WE literally hijacked his bus, forcing him out of his seat and threatening to drive the bus ourselves. We were serious.

“You are the last tourists to Iraq,” smiled the Iraqi at the Iraqi Tourist Bureau in Baghdad.

“How many tourists are here in Iraq?” I asked.

“About 100,” he said.

” How many real tourists are here in Baghdad?” I asked.

He paused, smiled in appreciation and held his hand up, his forefinger and thumb forming a circle. “None.” I was glad we got that out of the way.

I was listed as a farmer from Dorchester County, Maryland. Mary a singer from Washington, D.C. I have 300 animals. Mary has a beautiful voice. She sang to me softly as we sped west through the night towards Baghdad. Our near empty coach bus was the only vehicle heading towards Baghdad. Hundreds of cars stuffed with personal possessions headed towards Jordan, the opposite direction.

A few days later, when they closed the bridges while Mary and I were on the west–the wrong side of the Tigris river, we drove north to find a way back to the Hotel Palestine. As we sped past charred government buildings and civilian housing reduced to rubble in the last hours, the city silent and absent of people, our driver turned and said: “This is the road to Babylon.”

Indeed, I thought to myself. We are already there.

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

14 Oct

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

Excerpts from “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalists memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

An unpublished manuscript (Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

By Nate Thayer

One day in July 1996, while in my office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. , where I was a Visiting Scholar after being expelled from Cambodia for writing about corruption and the rise of organized crime in control of the government, I received a telephone call from a friend in Europe with an urgent message. The Khmer Rouge wanted to see me in their guerrilla control zones in Northern Cambodia. Could I come to the jungle immediately?

The message was an urgent request I fly across the world to Bangkok and make my way to a particular small, sleepy hotel in the remote Thai border town of Surin, as soon as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I was to call a number in Europe and give my hotel room number. I was then to wait and someone would “contact me.” That was the entirety of the message. It was a typical set-up for a meeting with the Khmer Rouge. There was no mention of who I was to meet, when I would be contacted or by whom, where I was going to go, how I was to get into the Cambodian jungles, or what the subject matter would concern. I didn’t even know who within the Khmer Rouge was contacting me.

The routing of the message was typical in its circuitous layers to obscure any prying eyes or ears. And it was designed for the Khmer Rouge to keep complete control over the process that would end in me arriving at one of the most forbidden territories on earth, It denied me any ability to double cross them if I was so inclined, or to pass on information to American or other intelligence officials or other enemies. Importantly, anyone monitoring my communications or movements would also be frustrated if they had nefarious intentions. But it also left me very vulnerable if something were to go wrong.

There was always a palpable undercurrent of dark unease for me when I began the clandestine process of accessing their leaders and the clandestine territories from which they opererated.

A Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris, who was married to a Frenchwoman and therefore held French citizenship, had called my friend. My friend, a Franco-Khmer, was trusted by the Khmer Rouge, but was not a member of the Party. He, in turn, was known to be close to me. The French based former Khmer Rouge diplomat had been contacted by another “former” Khmer Rouge diplomat living underground in a safe house in Bangkok. In actuality, that safe house was operated by an extremely clandestine unit of Thai military intelligence which, technically, did not exist. That Bangkok based Khmer Rouge diplomat maintained human runners who would be dispatched back and forth overland across the the Thai border, slipping into and out of the Cambodian jungles.

The Khmer Rouge in the jungles had relayed information or invitations to me in Washington, Asia, and Europe and elsewhere this way for years. None of the compartmentalized operatives involved would be told more than they needed to know to get the information to their intermediary contacts, destined, ultimately, to me. My response would travel a similar maze to obscure the entire communication process and content. That information was limited to simply the logistics of accomplishing a rendezvous. Even if they were arrested, monitored or inclined to talk, they didn’t have any information useful to their enemies.

The diplomat in Paris did have one fully equipped man, a specialist trained in China to transmit coded communication, who was able to transmit and receive top secret messages from a counterpart in the jungle in times of crisis or extreme urgency.

But for the purposes of my rendezvous, it could routinely take weeks between a message being dispatched from the jungle and a reply from  me arriving back in their jungles.

So, as always, I told my friend in Europe to relay the message that I would depart immediately and would be checked into the Petchkasem hotel in Surin, Thailand within 72 hours. I boarded a plane from Washington’s Dulles airport that night for the 36 hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok, it was a ten hour drive to the obscure Thai border town abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles, which were over and down the mountain escarpment to the east.

From the Petchkasem hotel, I dialed the contact number in France and informed my friend simply what hotel room number I was checked into. No names were used. No countries were mentioned. Even the name of the hotel was omitted. “How are you, my friend? I said. “I have arrived fine. I am in number 302. I will wait here.”

“I will let my friends know now, “he said. “They will contact you. Be careful.” He couldn’t tell me, even if he wanted to, when, by whom, where I was going, who i would meet, or what to expect.

Then, I waited…..for days.

I forget how many, but several. mainly I stayed semi-drunk. I did sit ups and ran in place.I left the room for one hour each night to swim at a lap pool in the town. I ate noodles and rice from the lobby nightclub, a neon lit coffee shop which doubled as a whorehouse. From there I had a view of the lobby through which all had to enter or leave. I cleaned my camera equipment and read literature and documents on the Khmer Rouge I always kept for interesting distraction. I had read everything at least once before.

As usual, I had no idea whether I was to have to walk through the jungle for days, whether I would meet important leaders, including Pol Pot, or when the contact liaisons would arrive to retrieve me.

So all that uncertainty and the various potential scenarios required contingency preparation. Jungle clothing, still camera, video-camera, charged and extra batteries, film, notebooks, hammock, mosquito nets, food, rolls of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and zip-lock bags of all sizes to protect against the monsoon rains and other jungle elements.. Everything had to fit perfectly into a small Khmer Rouge knapsack on my back in case I had to walk for days.

And i couldn’t really leave the hotel room, not knowing when the Khmer Rouge operatives would arrive, and not wanting to draw attention to myself in the interim. The small hotel staff knew me well, after years of passing through, and it was no secret what, in general, I was up to. They knew I was going to nearby Cambodia, where there was a war. But they really didn’t want to know any more than that. I would always leave, usually before dawn, and never checking out, utterly failing at being inconspicuous as I passed through the lobby dressed in jungle clothing with a backpack laden with camera equipment. Often, I would return days later, muddy and dirty and accompanied by fit men who didn’t speak much, wearing sunglasses even after dark.

On a number of occasions, I was escorted by Thai military intelligence operatives, whose demeanor didn’t require them to show the ID cards they carried, which struck fear in anyone towards whom they were flashed The hotel staff knew better than to ask any questions.

To get to Surin, the Khmer Rouge had to sneak across the border from their mountain base camps, through numerous Thai military checkpoints and, if everything went smoothly, drive several hours through remote rice farming regions dotted with small villages to get to Surin. Lots of things could go wrong, and often did. Getting a simple message from one Khmer Rouge base to another in order to dispatch a runner to pick me up could itself take several days.

Then one rainy morning while still dark at 0500, there was a firm knock on the door. I asked who it was, first in Thai. Silence.

Then in English. Again, no answer.

Then in Khmer. After a long pause, a hushed whisper replied, in Khmer, “It’s me.”

A non-descript Khmer Rouge soldier, dressed in civilian clothes, waived me out nervously and went ahead of me to check to see whether the hallways were clear He then motioned me urgently out and through the lobby to the parking lot and into a beat up old pickup truck with Thai military license plates.

He refused to tell me where I was going, or who I was scheduled to meet. “You will see, ” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know. But he would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel in the neighboring country and deliver me, illegally across international borders, to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing attention to anything or from anyone.

Now, In July 1996, more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed there were enemies everywhere. And they were right.

The pickup truck from my hotel was driven by a very frazzled Thai in civilian clothes with a mobile telephone who insisted he was not a serving Thai military officer. I believed him. He was nervous, grim faced, his eyes darting, not wanting to talk, clearly uncomfortable, and drove like a fucking maniac.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche and could pull rank with a flash of an ID card, receiving a no questions asked salute and a slight look of fear at checkpoints as the grunt trotted briskly to lift the concrete barrier poles that blocked the road. I had seen it many times. This fellow clearly had no permission to transport a foreigner towards,  through, and across the Thai frontier still under military martial law. And certainly not to smuggle me across national borders into zones controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel group at war with the Cambodian government of which Thailand had diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly denying claims they had any contact with the Khmer Rouge.

He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back farm roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, to avoid Thai military checkpoints. I wrote down every turn, drawing a map in my notebook, in case I needed to find my way back. or was ever inclined to sneak back in via this route in the future.

After more than a hour, the pickup truck turned down a small dirt path into a a cluster of bamboo huts that constituted a Thai village and pulled over at a noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows protected me against the solemn staring eyes of the half a dozen peasant farmers milling about in the early morning hours, the heat already promising to become stifling. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper, east, into the rice fields down rutted tracks used only by water buffalo and crude farm vehicles.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan Tree and halted. And waited. I was told to stay hidden in  the truck. I was given a hat, told to put on sunglasses and wrap my traditional checkered Cambodian peasant scarf–a krama–which was around my neck over my shoulders, around my face.

Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through rice fields,  a battered pickup truck with no license plates and tinted windows approached from the east, where there was a jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border in the not far distance. The truck pulled alongside us and an uniformed Khmer Rouge officer got out, greeting my escorts. With very little small talk and no smiles, I was promptly ordered in the back of the newly arrived vehicle, where there was a bench seat behind the driver. The uniformed Khmer Rouge officer, his face serious, and a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gear shift, its 30 round ammunition clip inserted in the weapon, got in the drivers seat. Young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel room door earlier that morning, got into the passenger seat. We sped toward the treeline to the east.

Quickly, the rice fields devolved into fallow, unproductive land, abandoned. This always is a mark of danger lurking. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, the fields were totally abandoned, the scene of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar, unsettling scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are a sure sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holding–literally the source of the food on their table and in their stomachs. Things have to be pretty bad for a rural Asian peasant to abandon their rice fields.

Periodically artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, and villagers would be maimed or killed. Soon, they would simply retreat from their land, to wait for the latest, seemingly endless war to ebb. Hand painted,  signs on trees of skull and crossbones painted in blood red colours, were everywhere, a crude attempt at warning local peasants of hidden landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionally as we neared our destination, as they do to denote  the importance of the area–either a strategic road or military base or encampment of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers or contested area between front-lines of enemies.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through fallow fields, empty and silent, towards the tree lined mountain escarpment in the horizon coming into clearer focus. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In this part of the Thai-Cambodian frontier, if their were trees, there were guerrillas with guns hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle in front of us, I was told–a Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge officer checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, tradional Cambodian scarfed covering my face, only my eyes exposed.

“If they ask, tell them you are visiting your family,” he instructed rather preposterously. It was highly unlikely a 6 foot two inch Caucasian had relatives in the nearby jungles controlled by one of the world’s most notorious revolutionary political movements.

The checkpoint consisted of of a single hewn log suspended across the dirt track, weighted on one end by a concrete slab and held down on the other by a rope tied to a stump. A bamboo hut was beside it. next to the structure, in the late morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped on a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade.

And we entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai grunt never suspected an American journalist was just smuggled through past his prone and droopy eyes. I relaxed, even though I could hear the rumbling of artillery, closer and closer, in the direction we rumbled toward, picking up speed……..

(Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

Lunching With Mass Murderers: Khmer Rouge leaders explain why they slaughtered their own people, and why it was, really, for the best: Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil” By Nate Thayer

12 Oct

Lunching With Mass Murderers: Top Khmer Rouge leaders explain, in their own words, why they killed 1.8 million people, why it was not their fault, and really for the best.

Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A journalist’s memoir from inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” By Nate Thayer

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No republication, quotation from, copying or dissemination in whole or in part without prior written permission from Author)

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution style “People’s Tribunal” held to denounce  Pol Pot in the jungles of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia in July 1997, a middle age man dressed in a pea green military uniform, hobbled up on his amputated leg and one crutch, and stood in front of the gathered crowd.

Bang Man was very angry, very confused, very sad and very sincere.

Pol Pot sat only a few feet away, cheeks shaking trying to maintain his composure, in a simple metal folding chair. He stared off into the distance avoiding eye contact with anyone, including me who circled freely around him taking close up portraits inches from the face of the mass murderer who had not been seen in the 18 years since he was driven from power, leaving behind the corpses of 1.8 million of his countrymen. Next to Pol Pot, sat three manacled, surly Pol Pot military loyalist comrades, under arrest, their fate certain.

Pol Pot was not being condemned for genocide, mass murder, or crimes against humanity. He was charged with “crimes against the revolution.”

Bang Men introduced himself as “a representative of the people.” He spoke with sincerity and passion, his voice strong, as he stood at the crude podium under an aluminum roof that served as a warehouse for artillery and other weapons of war. On the dirt jungle floor, a microphone was  hooked up to a car battery the crude sound broadcast over loudspeakers tied to the cut forest trees that served to hold up the roof of the open air structure where several hundred peasants and cadre squatted in the dirt, their lives work collapsing, after thirty years at war and in the jungle. Their once infallible leader was being denounced:

“The people and masses of Anlong  Veng, tens of thousands of people, have abandoned their land, homes, their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren for close to 20 years, with the aim of solving the problem of the nation, the race….not thinking of the danger, their lives. This struggle is an exceedingly hard and difficult struggle, which has never been encountered before in the history of our nation. In the spirit of loving the nation, of loving the race, we have striven to achieve and express this most lofty and supreme heroism, to continue the struggle. But finally, the result was not in keeping with most of our wishes, our intentions. We have been separated and lost tens of thousands, millions, and then in the period of 1996-1997, we encountered the most terrible, the most barbarous incident of Pol Pot, who continually had us study about the view, the stance, fighting, enduring to fight, the stance becoming even stronger, the situation becoming ever more difficult. They saw enemies everywhere, saw them as rotten flesh, swollen flesh, enemies surrounding them, enemies in front, enemies behind, enemies to the north, enemies to the south, enemies to the west, enemies to the east, enemies in all eight directions, enemies coming from all nine directions, around them, closing in, with no place to breathe…Pol Pot wanted to further strengthen our stance. Strengthen over and over and over, including measures to successfully kill and purge our own ranks, including strugglers in the movement of the same rank….Looking backward, Cambodia was dissolving into nothing…fighting continually and Cambodia steadily dissolving.”

Nuon Chea, the chief political ideologue of the Khmer Rouge and number 2 in  rank behind Pol Pot,  was a rural peasant from Battambang province in western Cambodia who was educated in Thailand after the Thai’s temporarily invaded and annexed that part of Cambodia. He graduated from the prestigious Thammassat University in Bangkok and joined the leftist Thai Democratic Youth League in 1946 and the Thai Communist party in 1950. That same year he joined the Vietnamese controlled Indochinese Communist Party.

Ieng Sary, the third ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge, was born in former Cambodian territory annexed by Vietnam for more than a century in the Mekong delta of Vietnam to a Chinese immigrant to Vietnam and an ethnic Khmer citizen of Vietnam of middle to upper class origins. He received his higher education in France and joined the French Communist Party during his studies there.

Ta Mok, the top military field commander of the Khmer Rouge, was an uneducated peasant whose family ran a lumber mill in rural Cambodia. He received Buddhist religious training to be a monk, and joined the anti-colonial Democratic Party in 1946 and later the anti-French underground armed nationalist movement, the Khmer Issaraks.

The other leaders were mainly all dead.

In several interviews with Ta Mok in 1997 and 1998, until the days before he was arrested when the final remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed, he expounded in straightforward detail to me about the politics and theory the fueled the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Mok was a military man who, while ranked number five in the party hierarchy, had no formal schooling, and his marginally more sophisticated comrades at the core of power despised and dismissed him, cringing when he spoke of politics. But in Cambodia, whoever has the guns has the power, and Mok had recently overthrown Pol Pot in a day’s long duel of life and death after Pol Pot had ordered him killed. Mok acknowledged to me that “hundreds of thousands died. Hundreds of thousands yes. Not millions like the Americans say.” He contended that the “Communist Party had sucked the blood of the people” and that “Pol pot had clearly committed crimes against  humanity.” But Mok was clear in parsing the distinctions of who was legitimately killed. All the thousandshe ordered murdered deserved their fate. “I joined the movement when I was 16. I have no theoretical ideology. My ideology is patriotism. Before I joined the Communist Party, but I had no idea what communism was!” he said, throwing his arms in the air and chuckling. “They said the Party was a patriotic one. That is why I joined the party. Later I found out that the Communist Party was sucking the blood of the people.”

He added that his one regret was working with Pol Pot “whose hands are soiled with blood….each of us has our own lessons to learn from ourselves. Ours is Pol Pot.”

But there was a reason Mok had earned the nickname “the Butcher.” ‘I never killed Khmers,” he said. “ Vietnamese, yes.” When I asked about the purges of other of his senior KR cadre comrades he was known to have been dispatched to kill, Mok claimed that thousands of ethnic Khmer were in fact agents of Vietnam.

“Sao Phim. He was Vietnamese,” Ta Mok said bluntly, referring to the former number four in the Standing Committee of the CPK who headed the eastern zone military on the Vietnamese border. The tens of thousands of ethnic Khmers Ta Mok massacred when he was the top battlefield commander who launched military attacks on the eastern zone forces of the Khmer Rouge were not, in his mind, Cambodians, and therefore their murder was not only justified, but necessary. “They were Vietnamese,” he said dismissively. There is a saying in Cambodian “Kluen Khmer, Kbal Yuon.” It means “To have a Khmer body but the mind of a Vietnamese.” Mok was deeply implicated in the purges of thousands of civilians and cadre during the KR rule. Including his own deputy who he sent to his death at Tuol Sleng. “He was Vietnamese,” Mok told me. Three westerners who ventured to close to his control zone in the months before my visits in 1997 and 1998, were captured and executed—two European humanitarian workers sightseeing near ancient temples and a British former military officer who was volunteering training Cambodians how to unearth buried landmines.

Son Sen was born in South Vietnam, studied in Phnom Penh and Paris, and returned to teach at the prestigious secondary school of Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh. Son Sen, during the Khmer Rouge period was directly in charge—as Army Commander and chief of National Security—for the activities of the CPK secret police, including overseeing S-21, the Tuol Sleng torture and extermination  center. He, his wife and 18 of his family members were killed in an orgy of violence on the orders of Pol Pot in June of 1997—an event that sparked the internal power struggle at the core leadership of the Khmer Rouge which Pol Pot lost and Ta Mok won.

Khieu Samphan was born in the eastern province of Svay Rieng and educated in Paris, receiving a Doctorate of Economics. He returned to Cambodia to be elected to the National Assembly, and was widely idolized for his reputation as incorruptible while in parliament under the regime of Norodom Sihanouk. He served briefly as Sihanouk’s minister of commerce, before fleeing to the jungle in 1967 after public threats by Sihanouk. While serving as the public face of the Khmer Rouge, he was never a member of the CPK most powerful body, the Standing Committee. He never revealed his affiliation with the CPK.

In a February 1998 meeting in the jungles of Anlong Veng, I sat at a roundtable luncheon over fresh fish and warm soda in Ta Mok’s house. The lunch guests hosted for three hours by Ta Mok included Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and several other senior Khmer Rouge cadres. I was allowed to film and record the entire event. Mok had by then captured Pol Pot and controlled the army and therefore the power. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan hated Mok with a passion, considering him a competent military commander but wholly ignorant of political theory and a loud and course peasant soldier.

Ta Mok began to recite the names and ranks of the Party leaders who had been executed. “ That is right, a (“a” is a pejorative Khmer term meaning ”the contemptible’) Nhim was what number? A-Chong was what number?”, referring to their ranks in the Standing Committee of the CPK. “ A-Phong was what number? Why do I want to count them all? Because I want to relate clearly that all of them were what?” Ta Mok was naming top party leaders arrested, tortured, and executed at Tuol Sleng. “ From number One Pol Pot to all of those I mentioned, some of them were Yuon ( a derogatory term for Vietnamese). Was Pol Pot Yuon or not? I don’t know, it is not clear. But So Phim is clear. He was Yuon. From the east. He was Yuon through and through, a pure Yuon. Chong was Yuon. He was a person of the Yuon.”

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were seething sitting to my right with Ta Mok on my left. Their loyalties were still with Pol Pot and they despised Ta Mok. They looked like they were about to explode. Revealing Party secrets is an offensive that had always meant certain death, and to do so in front of an American was unfathomable to them. I knew they had already concluded I was a CIA agent, but considered me a useful back channel.

Cor Bun Heng, a young intellectual, asked “Chong was from where?”

Ta Mok replied: “Koh Kong. Or CIA. It is the same.”

Mok then laughed and pointed his finger at me. “CIA! Have you heard of them?” while laughing menacingly, grinning broadly and gazing his narrow eyes locked on mine, laughing louder and more. I had been told earlier by Khmer Rouge confidantes that Mok was convinced I was an agent of the CIA. I said nothing. “So within the leadership, there were Yuon and CIA. And there were Americans. Have you heard of them?”  , he asked me again, perhaps trying to be both funny and menacing.

Mok laughed again. “ A-Thuch, what was his original name?” laughing and cackling, clearly enjoying making the whole table very uncomfortable for very different reasons.

Khieu Samphan, who was decidedly not laughing and decidedly annoyed, answered: “Koy Thuon.”

“Koy Thuon was an American,” Mok declared.” This is what I want to explain to you.“ Mok continued. “It was like this. It was a mess. And it is this that causes the talk of two million or three million killed. Because internally things weren’t good, they carried on killings. The Yuon group wanted to kill the American group. The American group wanted to kill the Yuon group and kill the Khmers. Internally, there were these three, three parties: The American party, the Yuon party, and the Khmer party. I want to tell you this just honestly, straightforwardly.”

It was the first time Nuon Chea had ever granted an interview in the 50 years since he joined the revolution. And he wasn’t happy. Mok presided and was periodically sarcastic, animated, and demeaning towards his senior colleagues, whose expressions seethed at Mok’s flippant and derogatory remarks.

Mok put down Khieu Samphan, who was seated next to him, saying: “Pol Pot, it is like the Americans say about Khieu Samphan, that he is only a figurehead. Because where are the forces? Who is Cambodia? I am not saying this to boast. Ask the Army. Pol Pot had only himself. The forces were the Southwest,” he said referring to the zone he ruled as military commander during the Khmer Rouge years in power.

I asked Nuon Chea about the alleged coup attempts against Pol Pot and Nuon Chea between 1975 and 1979. “ During the three years holding power, it was the Yuon and the henchmen of the Yuon, “ Nuon Chea replied through clenched teeth.

“What happened?” I asked.

“This is a historical matter of long past, long ago. There were assassination attempts, there were attempts to poison, from what I could gather,” Nuon Chea replied. “But most of it, some places, it is hard for me to recall. I don’t know what Ta would say,” he continued trying to avoid an answer. “ This I am telling you frankly,” Nuon says. “They accuse us.”

Ta Mok then interrupts, offering specific and never before revealed details to the extreme consternation of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. “Okay, I’d like to tell you. This matter isn’t something that is clear and transparent, it is very difficult, because internally who was it who was in charge? Who was responsible? It was Pol pot who was responsible. There wasn’t anyone else who was number one but Pol Pot. Pol Pot was number One.”

Then Mok turns to Nuon Chea, smirks, his eyes twinkling and his lips pursed in a mixture of menace and mockery, and says ”Brother, you were number two, right?’

Nuon Chea glares, pauses, and answers curtly, “Yes.”

“Yes, you were number two,” Mok repeats, “ Ieng Sary was number three. So Phim was number four. And Ta Mok was only number five. And A-Nhim was what number?” Mok asks Nuon Chea, in a clear attempt to goad and implicate him.

“I don’t know what number, Ta,’ Nuon Chea says.

“It is the number two individual who knows the most,” Mok continued, laughing and mocking Nuon Chea,” But I didn’t understand much. I just looked from the outside. I observed. I just want to express that opinion.”

Although popularly labeled as Communists, evidence from previously unpublished interviews with all the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge show the Khmer Rouge movement and its murderous policies was founded on an amalgam of ideologies and homegrown political theory uniquely Cambodian.

The handful of core leaders who comprised the all-powerful apparatus of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea came from disparate backgrounds, widely divergent political influences, and  training, or absence of training, that clearly suggest a CPK structure of organized power based on no external models. Their policies and tactics drew firmly from the mainstream of their Cambodian historical and contemporary political predecessors  with influences from anti-colonialist movements, extreme nationalism, previous political rulers who assumed the role of all powerful God Kings, and, almost tangentially, various non-Cambodian communist parties in Europe and Asia in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In fact it is more accurate that they had no single central organization or ideology when they seized power, but rather were dominated by a unique amalgam of loosely allied regional fiefdoms with little uniform central ideology, coordination or control. In effect, in April 1975, six separate armies, long void of a unified command leadership converged on Phnom Penh, simultaneously overthrowing the U.S. installed Lon Nol government. These loosely coordinated regional armed  Khmer Rouge factions then struggled against each other for dominance within the framework of the CPK to assert influence and control.

Once in titular power, there was a stark absence of predetermined strategy or national leadership that implemented what evolved into an orgy of internal power struggles and shocking comfort level with employing tactics of crimes against humanity as routine policy, and a bumbling, delusional, ill prepared and wholly unskilled and incapable cadre of government leaders  and technicians that was predestined to implode in disaster, surrendering in defeat to their own incompetence and failed policies after three years, eight months and 20 days in power.

It is useful to introduce a historical overview of the Khmer Rouge movement and its leadership prior to them seizing power on April 17, 1975.

Cambodia in the 1960’s offered few conditions that traditionally provided fuel to ignite and sustain a communist movement. It had virtually no industrial base or manufacturing sector from which to recruit a working class base of an exploited labor force by those who owned the means of production. Almost all its peasants—85% of the population—owned their own land, eliminating the opportunity to recruit popular support based on the exploitation of tenant farmers by a landlord class. The country was rich in natural resources, with abundant rice crops and some of the most productive fishing waterways in the world. It was a leading exporter of rice until after the war that engulfed the country in 1970. The population was very small compared to the productive land mass and there was virtually no malnutrition or starvation. Cambodia was at peace, despite being surrounded by the regional Indochinese wars that raged on all its borders. Despite its many failings, throughout the mid-20th century, the Cambodian government under royal control, led by Norodom Sihanouk, maintained delicate political neutrality, deftly juggling outside pressures of alliances during the superpower struggles that rendered much of the world allied with one of the three great powers of the era. As a result there were no significant Cambodian proxy armies fighting for the power interests of foreign nations. Importantly, Cambodia was largely ethnically and religiously homogeneous, precluding a racial or religious pretext to foment resentment or strife.

The conditions for revolution were not abundant. The Khmer Rouge–formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea–remained an infinitesimal and marginal organization with less than 5000 members until 1970.

While a number of anti-colonialist movements and nationalist armed groups flourished in the 1940’s and 50’s, the signing of the French granting independence to Cambodia in 1953 and the subsequent Geneva accords in 1954, spelled the demise of virtually all the armed underground movements in Cambodia. The Cambodian branch of the Indochinese Communist Party—entirely controlled by the Vietnamese—withdrew their entire ethnic Khmer cadre to Hanoi in 1954. The anti-colonialist Khmer Issarak party evaporated. The leftist Pracheochon above ground political party and the anti-Sihanouk Democratic Party were neutralized. While leftist sentiments lingered and Sihanouk’s autocratic rule kept alive a movement seeking more democratic rule, it was largely marginalized by his heavy handed tactics.

So to what does one attribute the rise of the ultra-radical Communist party of Kampuchea that seized power in 1975 to, leaving millions of bones stacking the killing fields that testified to the Khmer Rouge unprecedented political experiment which ended with the military conquest of Cambodia by Vietnam that brought a halt to the CPK’s 3 years and 8 months in power? What was the genus of its ideology or origins in political theory that allowed them to burgeon and drove the implementation of its disastrous rule?

On September 30, 1960 a group of 10-15 men gathered at a secret meeting in the Phnom Penh railroad station for the first party Congress and formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. For three days and nights they hammered out and approved a party line and statutes. A Central Committee was chosen with Tou Samouth as Party Secretary, Nuon Chea as Deputy Party Secretary, Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot, as member, Ma Mong as member, Ieng Sary as member, Chong as member, and Kaev Meas as member. The more powerful sub grouping of the Standing Committee of the CPK compromised Tou Samouth, Nuon Chea, and Pol Pot. As Pol Pot was a teacher, as was Ieng Sary, (as well as both their wives, who were sisters), they were limited to working from Phnom Penh. Nuon Chea was tasked with travelling to the countryside.

According to unpublished interviews I conducted on three separate occasions in January, February, and March 1998 with Nuon Chea, he said: “ We implemented the principle of absolute party leadership in accordance with the slogan: a protracted, difficult, hard struggle, self-reliance, self-mastery, independence…As for the party statutes, the principles of Marxist-Leninism were used and the principle of Democratic centralism. And the Party had to build from the countryside as the foundation and the towns as following behind.”

Nuon Chea’s reference to Marxist-Leninism as a guiding party principle was the sole reference I heard from any senior or other party figure of the CPK. These included  extensive and repeated interviews with hundreds of Khmer Rouge senior political and military cadre, including every surviving member of the party leadership in research from the 1980’s to date. These included interviews with Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Ta Mok, Son Sen, Ke Pok, and Khieu Samphan, the only surviving members of the CPK Central Committee after their internal purges and the end of their rule in power. Other research also included hundreds of interviews with other senior political cadre and military commanders who mostly had joined the movement in 1970 or the late 1960’s.

Each of the leaders had their origins as members of other political parties that formed and disintegrated in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In 1962, the Secretary General of the CPK, Tou Samouth, was arrested while riding his bicycle to get medicine for his sick child in Phnom Penh and taken to the home of then Sihanouk security chief Lon Nol, and interrogated in an unsuccessful attempt to reveal the names of other CPK members, tortured and then executed. He had been betrayed by a government double agent, Siev Heng, who was a former Secretary general of the earlier Vietnamese dominated Communist Party–the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP).

The KPRP  had effectively dissolved after the 1954 signing of the Geneva Agreements which mandated the withdrawal of armed forces to Hanoi, and the 1953 bilateral agreement of Cambodian independence between France and Cambodia, which returned Cambodia to independence from Colonial French rule.

After Tou Samouth’s execution, another Party Congress was held in 1963, and Pol Pot was named Secretary General. While logically Nuon Chea was slated to be Secretary General, he was the nephew of the traitor Siev Heng, and deep suspicions of his loyalties—given the impossible to minimize influence of family loyalty in Cambodian culture—precluded him from assuming the top post of the CPK.

The 1963 Party Congress elected Pol Pot as Secretary General, Nuon Chea as Deputy Secretary, and Ieng Sary, Chong, Keu (Sophal), Vorn Vet, Ruoh Nhem (Muol Sambath), Ta Mok, Ma Mong, and Sao Phim to the Central Committee of the CPK. The highest ranking body, the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was comprised of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Phim, and Ieng Sary. Of these ten, six were executed by the Khmer Rouge themselves in a series of purges once they obtained power.

Later in 1963, Prince Sihanouk, in his inimitable style, tauntingly announced that he would name 24 specific people as co-Prime Ministers of his government. They were the exact list of all 24 members of the central committee of CPK including Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Khieu Samphan, and three leftist CPK supporters who were then members of Parliament, Khieu Samphan, Hou Nim, and Hou Yuon. The decision was made that most named would have to flee the city and go underground to various jungle redoubts.

This splintered the party leadership undermining its ability at communicating with one another or central organization and implementation of a coherent national policy to be in place when they seized power in 1975. It resulted in the development of essentially autonomous regional fiefdoms without any effective central party leadership. This is central to explaining the confusion over the origins of the killings after 1975 when essentially six separate Khmer Rouge armies converged on Phnom Penh simultaneously. The struggle for consolidating leadership and consistent national policy cannot be overemphasized, as the political policies and ideological philosophies differed widely on the ground in the different Khmer Rouge regions throughout the country.

The leadership themselves had scarce communication or coordination with each other, with Pol Pot based in the far Northeastern province of Rattanakiri, Ta Mok based in the Southwest, Nuon Chea travelling from Phnom Penh to the countryside, and Sao Phim based on the Vietnamese border to the East.

It is instructive to note, in an analysis of the origins of the political influences of the ideology that drove the CPK policy, that the CPK didn’t fire a shot for 7 years after its founding in 1960. A spontaneous peasant uprising in 1967 in the remote Battambang district of Samlaut over abusive government tax collectors sparked the CPK to make a decision to react in support. On 17 January, 1968, the Khmer Rouge raided a police post in Samlaut, killed a handful of government soldiers, stole weapons, and fled into the jungle. It was the beginning of a nascent armed struggle that would bring Pol Pot and the CPK to power 7 years later.

And it is crucial to recognize that they chose to embark on this guerrilla war after directly rejecting the plea’s not to initiate an armed struggle by both the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Party leadership, according to Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ta Mok in independent interviews with each.

“The Chinese and the Yuon (Vietnamese) told us that ‘If you decide to fight, it is like fighting your own father,” Ta Mok told me in February 1998, referring to Sihanouk. “But we saw that if we didn’t use arms the movement would be finished. Therefore we decided that we had to mobilize the armed movement. And it wasn’t as if there was a proper leadership. The southwest was the southwest, the east was the east, enjoying independence-self-mastery.”

This stands as a stark early example of the CPK refusing to follow the leadership or strategy of the international communist movement, even from the countries key to their short term tactical survival.

Mok’s analysis that there was no central leadership of the Khmer Rouge forces contributes to explaining the later purges by Pol Pot and his loyalists of most of the other senior leadership of CPK after 1975.

Of the ten members of the CPK standing committee named in 1963, 6 were executed by Pol Pot after they took power in 1975 and before they were deposed in 1979.

In 1975, when the CPK seized power, they had never publicly announced that the CPK even existed, and it wasn’t until September 1977, more than two years after the seized power, that it was announced that the CPK was ruling Cambodia. Previously, they had publicly contended that a united front government of divergent political ideologies were running the government, naming a fictitious group of United Front personalities who held nearly zero internal influence in formulating State policy but represented a broad sector of well-known figures, including King Sihanouk. Sihanouk remained the public Head of State while in fact under strict house arrest.

In September 1977, the CPK held another Party Congress and named as their standing committee members, in order of rank, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Phim, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Ta Mok, Vorn Vet, and Nheum. Of those 8 members, 3 were executed during the Khmer Rouge reign in power—Sao Phim, Vorn Vet, and Nhuem. They also named 22 members to the central committee of the CPK. Of these, 18 were ordered executed by the time the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979.

Among the first to be purged was Hu Yuon, who as finance minister, objected to the abolishment of markets and the elimination of the use of currency. He was believed to have been executed in the months after the 1975 liberation of Phnom Penh.

Hun Nim, Minister of Information, was arrested  and executed in 1977. It wasn’t the first time Hu Nim had been purged. In 1967, while a member of Parliament, Sihanouk publicly berated Nim as “a little hypocrite” whose “words carry the scent of honey, but hides his claws like a tiger”, and he “had the face of a Vietnamese or Chinese.”  Sihanouk added Hu Nim would be “subjected to the military tribunal and the execution block”.  He promptly fled to the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles. After Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970, and he himself joined in alliance with the Khmer Rouge, he called Hu Nim “one of our greatest intellectuals.

Hu Nim served as Minister of Information for the Khmer Rouge until arrested and tortured and executed in Tuol Sleng in 1977. In a  handwritten Tuol Sleng confession of 28 May, 1977 he wrote: “I have nothing to depend on, only the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Would the Party please show clemency towards me?” He also wrote “I am not a human being, I am an animal.”

“You say the enemy was trying to assassinate you, but most of your central committee was executed in Tuol Sleng before your years in power were finished, “ I asked Pol Pot, during an interview in October 1997, the only public sighting or comments he made after he was driven from power in January 1979. “Did they deserve to die, or was it a mistake?”

“You raise this question, but let me clarify this. These people were in the central leadership of Democratic Kampuchea, but they were not the people of Democratic Kampuchea,” Pol Pot responded. “In 1976 and 1977, that group of people you were talking about set up a coup d’état committee, especially against me. In that committee there were Vietnamese agents in the majority.”

“And among the leadership, they included whom?” I asked.

“My memory does not serve me well on that,” he answered rather incredulously, unable to remember the names of his top comrades he had ordered executed. He paused for about 30 seconds and then exclaimed, pointed his finger at me and fixed his gaze on my eyes, “but among those who were in the coup committee were Ya. He was a Vietnamese agent since 1946.”

Ya, alias Maen San was the zone secretary for the northeast appointed in January 1976, the same month he was arrested. He was also a member of the Standing Committee of the CPK.

The confession of Ya is particularly chilling. In an S-21 (Tuol Sleng ) document dated January 10, 1976, the Khmer Rouge chief executioner, Duch, wrote a note to Ya’s interrogator that “I reported to Angkar ( a reference used either for Pol pot or Nuon Chea. However Duch said he reported only to Son Sen and Nuon Chea and never directly spoke to  Pol Pot until 1988) at ten minutes to nine on the case of Ya based on the documents that comrade (you) provided…Angkar says that in the case that Ya remains reluctant and continues to hide his traitorous connections and activities, Angkar has decided to have him killed…Angkar has decided it is a case of having him looking down on the Party, not just down on our state security. Therefore for Ya, you can use the hot measures and for a long time. Even if those measures led to his death, comrade will not be wrongful toward Angkar’s discipline.” Duch signed off with “warm revolutionary fraternity.”

Pon, S-21’s top interrogator, added a note to the document in handwriting designated to be read by Ya. “Brother Ya, read this and think it through thoroughly.” The document was then given back to Ya.

Included among those executed were many top leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea named in power in 1975. They included Ya, Vorn Vet (ranked #7), Ruo Nheum alias Muol Sambat, Chou Chet alias Thang Si, Sao Phim, Koy Thuon, alias Thuoch (ranked #5), Chey Suon alias Non Suon (ranked  #11) and Ruos Nhim. All were members of the Standing Committee of the Party. Among the Central Committee members of the CPK who were arrested tortured and executed included Pang alias Chheum sak-aok alias Seuang, Chan, Pin, Reran alias So Sarouen, Mon, Meah Tal alias Sam Huoy, Nat alias Im Long, Koe alias Kung Sophal alias Kan, Phuong, and Chong, who was Ta Mok’s chief deputy and an ethnic Thai from Koh Kong province whose real name was Prasith.

An October 30, 1976 party  document entitled “Decision of the Central Committee on a Number of Problems: the Right to decide on extermination within and outside the ranks” named the following; All 6 zone heads, the 22 members of the central Committee of the CPK, the Standing Committee of the CPK, and the top leaders of the Armed Forces.

Many of these same leaders would also be arrested and executed at the instruction of other members of these bodies in the period between 1975 and 1979..

In 1999 interviews I conducted with Duch, the head of S-21 (Tuol Sleng), the primary internal security service responsible for arrests and executions, he blamed the genesis of the killings on Pol Pot’s 1973 decision to have all leaders come from the peasantry, eliminating educated cadre from positions of influence.

“ At that time many things changed, and many people were killed. After liberation in 1975, Pol Pot said ‘We must protect our country by finding enemies within the ranks of the party. We are not strong enough to attack enemies from the outside, so we must destroy them from within.’ First we arrested the people from the North, then the Southwest, then the Northwest, then the East. He used Nuon Chea to do the work. Pol Pot never directly ordered the killings. Nuon Chea was always cruel and pompous. He never explained to the cadre. He only ordered them. For arresting people, it was the everyday job of Nuon Chea and Son Sen. Pol Pot knew about S-21, but did  not direct it personally. He left that job to Nuon Chea as number 2 in the Party and Son Sen as head of the Army and Police,” Duch said.

“They arrested nearly everyone by the end…it is a permanent rule,” said Duch. “Whoever is arrested must be killed.”

In May 1978, Sao Phim, a top Standing Committee member and head of the Eastern Zone under Khmer Rouge rule, was ordered arrested and killed at a secret meeting of select top party leaders. In more than two weeks of recorded interviews, totaling 40 hours, with Duch while he was in the jungle living clandestinely under an assumed name immediately prior to his arrest, the commandant of the Khmer Rouge security service S-21, the killing machine of the regime, the man who actually personally carried out the orders to arrest, interrogate and execute that came from the top political leadership, he said: “It was brother number one (Pol Pot) who decided that Sao Phim would die…a very secret meeting was held—Pol Pot ordered it. Khieu Samphan was there—He was the note taker. Three men and especially one man ordered it. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen were at the meeting–not Ieng Sary or Vorn Vet.”

By late 1978, another sweeping purge  was starting to crest. Among high ranking victims was Vorn Vet, a Party Standing Committee member who was also the deputy premier in charge of the economy. He was a long time protégé of Pol Pot, who had personally inducted Vorn Vet into the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In his “confessions” under torture,  Vorn Vet discussed his opposition to Pol Pot’s purges, which in turn was used as proof that was a traitor and enemy agent.

When the Vietnamese invaded in late 1978, documents found at Tuol Sleng revealed that another two senior leaders were also targeted for arrest and liquidation. One was long time Pol Pot associate and comrade, Son Sen, the Deputy premier in charge of National Defence, Chairman of the Armed forces general Staff, and  Standing Committee member. In practice, Son Sen was head of the entire Khmer Rouge Military and Security Services, including the secret police and execution and torture apparatus, during their years in power. As such, he was,  along with Nuon Chea, the CPK party representative that was the link between the political leadership and the killing machine itself. He was in fact the direct supervisor of the S-21 torture and execution center and the man to whom S-21 commandant Duch reported directly, alongside Nuon Chea. In Mid-1978, Son Sen was dispatched to command the troops fighting the escalating war with the Vietnamese on the eastern front, and relinquished his duties as S-21 liaison with the Party leadership to Nuon Chea. With the war going badly against Vietnam, the CPK leadership blamed not the superior military strength, troop numbers, battlefield experience, and superior firepower and morale of the Vietnamese, but Son Sen as an enemy agent because it was unfathomable that the CPK’s strategy was untenable in itself. With that logic used, it had to be purposeful sabotage of “enemies from within” that was responsible for the war not succeeding.

Another target for execution found in the files of S-21 from the last days before the Vietnamese overran Phnom Penh, showed that Ke Pok, Party Secretary and commander of the Central zone, also a member of the Standing Committee, was also targeted for arrest and execution. Ironically both Ke Pok and Son Sen were saved by the Vietnamese invasion before their arrests could be carried out.

The remaining five in the years after, all turned against each other.

Ieng Sary broke with Pol Pot in 1996 calling him a “dictator worse than Hitler” and sentencing him to death.

Pol Pot and Ta Mok announced that Ieng Sary was a “Vietnamese agent” and in turn sentenced him to death.

The irony that both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary had been sentenced to death, together,  as the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” in a 1979 political show trial by the ex-Khmer Rouge installed by the Vietnamese invasion as the new Cambodian leaders, went largely unnoticed.

Pol Pot ordered the arrest of Nuon Chea, Son Sen and Ta Mok in November 1996, blaming them for the defection of Ieng Sary. He later, in June 1997, ordered the execution of Son Sen and Ta Mok, succeeding in killing Son Sen.

Khieu Samphan went on the clandestine jungle radio controlled by Pol Pot on June 10, 1997, calling Son Sen a “traitor and Vietnamese agent.” Ta Mok fought back and captured Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea.

Days after the execution of Son Sen, Khieu Samphan went back on the radio—this time on behalf of Ta Mok—referring to Son Sen as “comrade” and announcing that “Pol Pot” was under arrest as a “traitor.”

During several interviews in the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles with Khieu Samphan from October 1997 through1998, I asked if he was a hostage of Pol Pot during the internal fighting, he said: “You could call it something like that.”

So in the end, all ten of the original members of the 1963 Standing Committee of the CPK had been arrested, murdered, or sentenced to death by each other as “traitors.”

In fact by the end of Pol Pot’s rule in 1979, of the 22 members of the central committee of the CPK that were named in 1975 when they seized power, 18 had been executed or named to be executed as ‘enemy agents”  covertly plotting from within the CPK ranks.

Many cadres who fled to Vietnam in 1977 and 1978, including current premier Hun Sen, ruling party president Chea Sim, the titular head of the original  Vietnamese installed government Heng Samrin, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and Defence Minister Tea Banh fled in 1977 and 1978. Many were loyal officers who remained in power with the Khmer Rouge while hundreds of thousands died  at the hands of the government they were still loyal to, well after the disastrous policies and purges were implemented. They left the Khmer Rouge, not because of objection to Pol Pot’s policies, but rather because they were aware they were next on the list of targets.

During the massive purge of mid 1978 against “internal enemies” in the Party, the Khmer Rouge publicly announced that they were not just preparing for war against Vietnam, but the extermination of the entire Vietnamese race and the military re-capture of territory on the Mekong Delta that had been lost centuries before.

The Khmer Rouge strategy was clearly tactically, strategically and psychologically delusional. But they were no doubt serious.

They announced on State radio that Cambodia, with a population of 8 million, would eliminate the entire Vietnamese population of battle hardened 60 million, and explained their crude strategy. The May 10, 1978 Khmer Rouge radio proclaimed in a public broadcast. “ The party has instructed that we destroy as many of the enemy as possible, and try to preserve our forces to the maximum. We are few in number, but we have to attack a larger force. This is our slogan:  In terms of numbers, one of us must kill 30 Vietnamese. If we can implement this slogan, we surely can win. Using these figures, one Cambodian is equal to thirty Vietnamese. And 100 Cambodians are equal to 3000 Vietnamese. We should have 2 million troops for 60 million Vietnamese. We don’t have to engage 8 million people. We need only 2 million to crush the 60 million Vietnamese, and we would still have 6 million left We must format our combat line in this manner in order to win victory. The entire army, party, and people must be made fully aware of these views, lines, and stands. We must review our history. Have the Vietnamese succeeded in swallowing Cambodia? No, they have not. We must purify our armed forces, our Party, and the masses of people in order to continue fighting the enemy in defence of Cambodian territory and the Cambodian race. If we do not try and defend our territory, then we shall lose it, and then our race will disappear. The Vietnamese will bring in one or two million people into Cambodia every year, and then we will lose our territory, and our race will be completely swallowed up.”

This official Khmer Rouge strategy was not a secret later unearthed from an internal party document. It was broadcast on their radio for both internal and foreign consumption in 1978 in their final months in power. Their military and political formula was patently delusional, and based on no remotely viable military strategy. It was simply ludicrous.

The “victory” was that the Khmer race would remain, in theory, with 6 million alive, ancient Khmer territory lost centuries ago would be re-conquered, and current territory would be saved from fictional, delusional, non-existent, foreign plots of foreign designs of annexation rooted in age old historical grievances.

It was nothing less than the manifestations of delusions of grandeur, still oozing the puss of the deep humiliation, resentment, and fixation for vengeance for the defeats now ancient history, seared into the minds of the popular Cambodian consciousness, harking back 800 years to the still forever at the forefront of contemporary political agenda of the Great Angkor Empire, which had evaporated by the 14th century.

This deep sense of racial and cultural insecurity, a national psychological disorder of a shared racial and cultural inferiority complex combined with a shocking national acceptance of the need to exact eventual revenge and a deep sense of humiliation, preceded the Khmer Rouge and remains at the very core of mainstream political and psychological culture. But when mixed with Stalinist style internal political power structures under Pol Pot, the inevitability of an implosion into an orgy of unspeakable violence and collapse seems retrospectively both logical and predictable.

Pol Pot’s other major internal central policy focused singularly on the rapid creation of a patently untenable rise in agricultural production. He based his goals on the superior racial abilities of the Khmer peasants. He set unachievable quotas for rice production that were guaranteed to fail.

He was obsessed  with an ability to create a superior agrarian utopia based on self-reliance on Khmer resources, which largely didn’t exist. Pol Pot’s domestic policies of agricultural production goals, the regional production of rice quotas mandated by the central party, were simply unattainable, guaranteed to fail, and a queer mixture of delusion, incompetence  and a stark false sense of self grandeur.

Cambodia’s mechanized resources were simply non-existent, its agricultural productive capacity and infrastructure decimated by 5 years of warfare when Pol Pot came to power, and its trained human resources and technically skilled cadre with even minimum expertise  minuscule in number and capability. In addition, anyone with foreign training and the skills, who returned from abroad upon victory to build a new society, were deemed suspected spies and most were killed. In addition, local and regional cadre who questioned the ability to meet the quotas were deemed foreign enemy agents intent on sabotaging the revolution and arrested and executed.

“They fought against us, so we had to take measure to defend ourselves,’ Pol Pot told me in 1997, blaming “enemies from within” for sabotaging the regimes’ policy goals. He blamed starvation that killed hundreds of thousands on “enemies within our ranks” who “withheld food from the people. There was rice but they didn’t give rice to the population to eat.”

The list of enemies ranged from officials of the defeated Lon Nol regime, to “internal agents” within the Party and the army, to Vietnamese, CIA, and KGB plots, often working simultaneously in coordination with one another, to his contention of six attempted coup attempts to depose assassinate and him, to finally the entire nation and race of Vietnam.

In 1977, Khieu Samphan stressed the rejection of foreign aid as a “science.”

“In the old regime did the school children, college children, university graduates know anything about the true natural sciences? Could they tell the difference between an early crop and a six month rice crop…they relied completely on foreigners, expecting foreign equipment and even foreign experts to do their job for them. Everything was done according to foreign books and foreign standards. Therefore, it was useless and could not serve the needs of our people, nor could it be of any help building our nation. By contrast, our children in rural regions have always had useful knowledge. They can tell you which cow is tame and which cow is skittish. They can mount a buffalo from both sides. They are masters of the herd. They have practically mastered nature. Only this should be called natural science because this type of knowledge is closely connected with the realities of the nation, with the ideas of nationalism, national construction, and national defense.”

In its place the Khmer Rouge mandated thousands of underfed and overworked forced labour to build poorly designed water irrigation systems, planting and harvesting at a pace that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands from sheer overwork and exhaustion. The nationwide system of irrigation and water canals was designed with the help of North Korean engineers and can be clearly seen criss-crossing the entire country from space satellites. None of the irrigation  canals or dams work today, a colossal failure in clueless technology . untrained expertise and delusional visions of racial grandeur that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, starved and worked to death, forced to hand build the absurd scheme.

The ban on the use of money was also a direct consequence of the CPK hyper focus on foreign enemies trying to destroy Cambodia. “Pol Pot was convinced that only the ban of the use of money could prevent the CIA from carrying out any activity in Cambodia because in his view the CIA used money to buy people and recruit agents,” said CPK Standing Committee member and Pol Pot’s brother in law Ieng Sary after he defected in 1996.” He boasted that if we used money, his regime would not have lasted three months and so far no other country could do the same.”

In July, 1976, the Khmer Rouge embarked on a Four Year Plan in all Fields, 1977-1980.” The document acknowledged “we are extremely weak” in industry and technology, but said “technology is not the decisive factor; the determining factors of the revolution are politics, revolutionary people, and revolutionary methods.” It also rejected  accepting foreign assistance saying “we would certainly obtain some, but this would affect our political line…there would be political conditions imposed on us without fail.” The document concluded that Cambodia “had leaped over the feudalists and capitalists of every nation, and have achieved a socialist state right away.” They even said they had out achieved North Korea, China, and North Vietnam, saying “ we are faster than them…nothing is confused as it is with them…we don’t need a long time for the transformation.”

But while modern Cambodia bears no political or geographical resemblance to the ancient political and military and cultural antecedents of the Angkor period, the Angkor empire is crucial to understanding the motives and psychology of Pol Pot and, indeed, the modern Cambodian society that  created the Khmer Rouge rise to power, and to a significant degree the political culture that succeeded it and remains dominant today.

Pol Pot’s political contemporaries almost all shifted allegiance in recent decades to serving alternately as military and political allies and adversaries to the Khmer Rouge. Sharing many similar objectives and characteristics, the political leaders succeeding and preceding Pol Pot in power, comprise a consistent modern political culture remarkably still dominated by the same cast of characters from French independence in 1953 to the present. They together share key responsibility to the disaster wrought by the Khmer Rouge and their short tenure in power.

But it reelected the sincere belief of Khmer racial and cultural and political prowess that was superior to all other nations and theories in history and this belief was carried out in all sectors of government policy.

A look at the backgrounds and statements of the leaders of the CPK provides little substantiation of the theory that their murderous policies were inspired by any allegiance to communism, but rather points instead to its roots in traditional Cambodian political themes of nationalism, anti-colonialism, vitriolic abhorrence to foreign domination, sovereignty, retaking territory lost in past centuries to neighboring powers, racial superiority of Khmers and racial hatred for foreigners, particularly Vietnamese.

In detailed personal interviews with every living  member of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, only once did I ever hear a reference to Communism as an influence in their ideological development

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge was a disparate grouping of individuals with few shared teachings, backgrounds, ideology, or unified vision.

Pol Pot was a failed radio technician student from a rural middle class background influenced by anti-colonialist and nationalist movements who dabbled in leftist politics while a student in France and was inducted into the French Communist Party. Upon his return to Cambodia in the early 1950’s, after failing out of his radio technical school, he was inducted into the predecessor to the CPK, the  Indochinese Communist Party, by the Vietnamese, who held firm control over the communist movement in the three Indochinese countries at the time. Before joining the original formation of the CPK in 1960, he taught school and wrote articles under pseudonyms signed “The Original Khmer” and the “The nation, the People, and the Race.” The latter was the same pseudonym he used to sign his radio broadcasts from the jungles in the 1980’s and 90’s, after being deposed from power.

In 1997, when I asked Pol Pot about his political influences and what drove his policies during his reign, he said: “I would like to say that my conscious is clear. Everything I have done is for the nation the people and the race of Cambodia. I want to tell you, I am quite satisfied with one thing: If there was no struggle carried out by us, Cambodia would have been Kampuchea Krom (a reference to areas of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam which were annexed by Vietnam in the 1700’s) in 1975.”

“ During 1975-78 there were of course some conflicting views, this is true,” he said, obliquely avoiding my questions of mass murder under his rule. “There was opposition to Democratic Kampuchea, and, of course, Democratic Kampuchea had to do something about that. The Vietnamese carried out activities for some time. Naturally we had to defend ourselves. They wanted to kill me.”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Mainly the Vietnamese. They knew without me they could easily swallow up Cambodia.”

Pol Pot saw himself literally as the personal embodiment of the Cambodian nation. Any opposition to him was interpreted as treason against the Khmer race and Cambodian nation itself, by definition. This fealty to a single infallible God King like ruler, who demands unquestioned, obsequious loyalty, has been the dominant characteristic of Cambodian organization of government power for 800 years, both historically and immediately preceding Pol Pot’s rise to power and the dominant feature of his successor, the ex-Khmer Rouge officer, the dictator Hun Sen, who has held power since Pol Pot was forced back to the jungle in 1979.

Pol Pot, the ugly truth remains, is very not only Khmer, but fits comfortably in mainstream contemporary Cambodian political culture, sharing dominant core traits with his ostensible contemporary adversaries.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No republication, quotation from, copying or dissemination in whole or in part without prior written permission from Author)


%d bloggers like this: