Preah Vihear and the 'Former Khmer Rouge'

The conflict over the temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding 1.6-1.8 sq. miles of land continues, like a constantly recurring nightmare. It’s Nietzschean in its aspect of banal and violent repetition, but not nearly as inspiring or enlightening.

The United Nations’ Security Council had agreed to hear Cambodia’s complaint against Thailand’s incursion into the territory, couched as the abrogation of national sovereignty. In countries as touchy about lost territory and national sovereignty as Thailand and Cambodia, bringing such a complaint to an international body is big stuff. But then, at Cambodia’s request, they canceled the meeting, and are currently, reportedly, involved in a second round of talks.

Whether this has something to do with yesterday’s CPP-claimed massive win in Cambodia’s national elections is anybody’s guess – and lots of people are doing just that, including comparisons to 2003’s election. Was Hun Sen merely waiting until after the elections? Will he now settle quickly, having used nationalist sentiment to buoy his party’s big win? Or is he as genuinely interested in this issue as the majority of Khmer people seem to be (I make no personal declarations of support or detraction here – just noting the preference).

Of course, Thailand’s national sovereignty is important to national pride for reasons different from Cambodia’s. Thailand builds much of its self-image on the idea that they were ‘not colonized,’ and in fact are exceptional in this regard among their neighbors. This gives them the sense that they are exceptional not merely as a matter of historical accident, but as a matter of national destiny, national character, and relative national worth.

Cambodia, on the other hand, finds itself deeply invested in its territory and national sovereignty precisely because of it’s self-image as a once-great former empire, ruling “all of mainland Southeast Asia,” whose territory, national self-respect, and former greatness has been slowly and repeatedly eroded through the immoral, and duplicitous actions of its neighbors and its european predators. This leads to the connection between the recovery of lost territory and lost national pride.

And this raises the specter – again – of the “Former Khmer Rouge.” I’ve been blogging about this topic for awhile now. In 2006 I noted that

The question of ‘former khmer rouge’ constantly recurrs, like acid after a bad meal. Many people were Khmer Rouge, and are therefore ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ but in an example of social common sense, it seems that the appelation “Former Khmer Rouge” is most often applied to those who use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral, often regardless of whether or not the people in question are actually former cadre or not.

This has been noticed by others in the metonymic use of the word “Pol Pot” to signify simply “Khmer Rouge Soldiers,” though in both cases it needs to be carefully noted that these are post-experiential uses, since the Khmer Rouge never referred to themselves as Khmer Rouge (They were the minions of Democratic Kampuchea, or more universally, simply “Angkar,” the ‘organization’), and Pol Pot was not widely known inside of Cambodia until after 1979, and became famous largely through the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. But people are still referred to as ‘Pol Pots’ or as ‘Former Khmer Rouge,’ in a way that acts as political shorthand for a shared, constructed historical consciousness.

After a recent spate of articles referencing, again, the “Former Khmer Rouge,” this time their involvement with the Preah Vihear conflict, I feel obliged to revisit this idea, and also to reformulate it. When the international press refers to ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ they tend to signify only the aspect I pointed to in my earlier post – the idea that the Khmer Rouge use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral. This is the major implication in current reportage on this – ‘isn’t it horrifying, or amusing, or ironic, or <whatever>,’ the articles seem to imply, ‘that these former Khmer Rouge fighters are now fighting on behalf of the current government?’

These uses miss the fact that while this image of the Khmer Rouge is very strong within Cambodia as well, there is another, equally potent image of the Khmer Rouge fighter within Cambodia, one that is not shared without Cambodia’s borders: the Khmer Rouge as powerful nationalist – those who will defend the country at any cost. This image was constructed primarily after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were forced to the Thai border. The Thai took in a few refugees, whom they housed in horrific camps, and also began re-arming the ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ this time to fight against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge would almost certainly have disappeared as a plausible fighting force without this rearming.

One of the upshots of this was the continuation – for nearly 20 full years – of the civil war in Cambodia. During the forced conscription of the K5 program in Cambodia, young people were drafted to go plant landmines and cut down trees on the Northwest Frontier, and where they died in proportions similar to the period of 1975-1979, under Democratic Kampuchea. During this period, the Khmer Rouge progressively shed their communist ideology and practices. Never practitioners of anything resembling a ‘mature’ communism, it was perhaps particularly easy to shed. What remained was the rabid nationalism of the groups –  a nationalism which predated 1979, but which was now their sole rationale.

With this in mind, let’s read again some of the recent quotes in which “Former Khmer Rouge” fighters talk about Preah Vihear. For instance, when they say, “I am read to fight the Thais.” What are they saying? And how? Here’s a lengthy quote from a recent article on the issue from Bronwyn Sloan:

Former fighters say they would be at war already if Prime Minister Hun Sen had just said the word, but instead he and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expected to be handsomely returned to office after the elections, have urged restraint. Some are frustrated.

“I only have one leg, and I am old, but my former troops are still in Preah Vihear, and I am willing to give military advice or any other assistance I can to protect Cambodian sovereignty,” said former Khmer Rouge fighter Try Nin, 56.

“We are former Khmer Rouge. We are not scared of foreign aggressors. We respect the government’s decision to meet the Thais with diplomacy, but if that fails, everyone here is ready to fight.”

Former photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Toul Sleng torture centre turned CPP commune leader, Nhem En, 47, who claims Anlong Veng’s several thousand voters are 99 percent CPP, agreed.

“I am ready to fight the Thais. All we wait for is an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We don’t want war – we want peace and development. But we need tourists, and while the Thais do this, the tourists do not come.

“Thais already have their own problems in their south,” he said, referring to Muslim insurgency. “Why do they want an extra problem?”

Note the repeated assertions of loyalty to Hun Sen (though, given the source – a CPP commune leader – the reality might be somewhat different). But note also the tone of impatience and readiness to fight: There is no stated preference for diplomatic solutions, merely a willingness to abide by the Cambodian government’s decision to meet the Thais. Nope – the stated preference is for fighting, dying, and protecting the nation.

It will be interesting to see how these fighters feel about the government if it quickly settles with the Thai after the election win.


9 thoughts on “Preah Vihear and the 'Former Khmer Rouge'

  1. Bronwyn says:

    Hi Erik

    My name is Bronwyn Sloan. Thanks for quoting my article. Without this, I may not have discovered your excellent blog.
    I would like to dispute one claim you made. Actually the “former Khmer Rouge” do frequently refer to themselves now as “at te tah Khmei Krahom”, perhaps partly because of their categorization as such by outsiders over so many years and sometimes due to mass alienation post-1996 which they feel has been somewhat addressed by national reconciliation rhetoric.
    What the “former Khmer Rouge” may not understand is the foreign need to place them all in one category – a need I think you are falling into just slightly in your comments. We are not all parachute journalists and we did not all arrive yesterday.
    As you correctly note, the “former Khmer Rouge” lived through it so they are acutely aware of the political shades and changes of the movement – something some say foreigners have been deliberately under-educated on by post-Cold War media.
    Reporting on the former Khmer Rouge is all about context. By me noting earlier in the article you quote that the interviewees in my article were loyal to Ta Mok, I expect people who understand the movement and its history to identify that these are former Nearadey troops, and therefore make assumptions on their level of extremist eduction within the movement, just as I would expect that if I said they were from Kampong Cham that people who had any level of understanding would suspect they were Bophea and grade their comments accordingly – allowing for individual variences, obviously.
    Given my job and the fact I often need to compact history into 500 words, please understand I also have to communicate these nuances to foreigners who may know nothing about the workings of Cambodian politics, so on this point maybe we see eye to eye that news is sometimes less detailed than an ideal academic paper. That’s media, but I do strive to convey quotes and sentiments of interviewees accurately.
    There is a newfound nationalism and sense of identity amongst “the former Khmer Rouge” of the north who spent years as outcasts in their own society. I don’t understand why you argue that point because it sounds like you have been there.
    There is also a strong Sam Rainsy Party sympathy with the ex-Khmer Rouge who retain the strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment the movement was famous for, but obviously this is not going to be illustrated in quotes from former KR soldiers who defected for RCAF posts – ie the ones I quoted for this particular story.
    The quotes for the story you note were not gathered by myself but by a veteran Cambodian journalist who survived the Khmer Rouge (to be specific, the Nearadey), albeit using my interview direction and focus, which brings up another question – how much of which version of Khmer history do we incorporate as foreigners when helping to write about someone else’s past, present and future?
    Again, love your blog. Nice to have some intelligent debate on issues such as this.

    Bronwyn Sloan

  2. erikwdavis says:

    Dear Brownyn, Thanks for checking in. I didn’t mean to imply that your article itself was feeding into this stereotyping of history, though in retrospect I can see how you could take it that way. My apologies. I’m aware of your writing and your history in Cambodia, and know that you are neither a parachute journalist nor brand new to the territory.

    I’m also very aware that folks – especially in the Northwest (I’ve made a number of trips to Anlong Veng, since 2002, for my own fieldwork) often like to refer to themselves as អតីត ខ្មែរ​ក្រហម – but as you point out (I think completely correctly), this has historically be a self-attribution they have adopted long after the end of Democratic Kampuchea. No self-respecting member of the CPK or DK would have ever called themselves by a name coined for them by Sihanouk – at least not until long after Sihanouk threw his weight to them.

    There are lots of good points, and lots of additional context, alluded to in your comment – I won’t pursue them here, but as you say, they are all relevant and deeply important. The divide between local coverage and engagement with Khmer Rouge stereotypes and that of international coverage will never be overcome completely, in Cambodia or elsewhere – I just get tired of the constant repetition of a single trope – the “khmer rouge” who live among us. Your article was not my target, though I did use it to highlight the issue.

    Cheers, and thanks again,


  3. Bronwyn says:

    No worries. I think we are both arguing the same point at the end of the day – I frequently get pissed off with foreign pre-conceptions of an extremely complex issue too. For instance Hun Sen is repeatedly called a former member of the Khmer Rouge by international media in a modern political context without any analysis of factions within the movement nor any reference to the way various parts of the movement evolved, especially after 1977-78, and the way it is done seems to serve mainly to place him in our Western, post-Cold War perception. The fact he was KR is actually fairly inconsequential in light of subsequent history. Margaret Slocomb has written an excellent book on the Heng Samrin era – the regime foreigners don’t talk about. Monument Books has it at the airport outlets.
    Generalizations such as the above are a means of dumbing down history and in many ways it’s extremely patronizing towards a very complex and politicized culture.
    And you are right – if you don’t have the space to spell out the implications, maybe you shouldn’t be using all-encompassing terms. It’s a media dilemma. I try to write both for people with a greater depth of knowledge and those who are skimming the paper and have never even met a Cambodian, so it’s hard.
    Michael Vickery’s work is also particularly excellent on the points you raise, BTW.
    If you bump into me in the future, say hello. Would love to put a face to the name. Again, fascinating blog.

  4. Bronwyn says:

    PS The former Nearadey were (and in many cases still are), by definition, extreme nationalists. The Bophea form the foundations of the CPP, which of course has strong ties to Vietnam, but are nationalists in a more pragmatic way. The majority of rank and file in the north – ie Preah Vihear, Anlong Veng etc are former Nearadey, which was Ta Mok’s faction. They follow orders, and they love to fight.

  5. erikwdavis says:

    Hey Bronwyn, thanks for these. Regarding the post-1979 Heng Samrin period, I agree that Margaret Slocombe’s book provides possibly the best coverage. Are there other sources, especially online ones, that you could point readers to, in order to help fill in the gaps? I’ve been quietly ranting about the ignorance of the West over the 80s for awhile now, but with little positive or constructive to do about it.

    I may very well be visiting Cambodia this ‘winter’ – will get in touch if that works out!

  6. Bronwyn says:

    I think Margaret’s book is pretty much the only one on the period, and absolutely the definative one, but there are many Cambodians who are happy to converse, including, I believe, Samdach Heng Samrin himself, with the appropriate overtures. You could also speak to Vietnamese news veterans and a bunch of people from the Central and Permanent committees of the CPP. The information may not be unbiased, but it will be first hand. For an alternative view, former leader Penn Sovann is always happy to be interviewed. He is still a bit pissed off from being jailed in 1982 and therefore provides an interesting alternative view.
    Margaret spells her name unusually, by the way. Not the Are You Being Served way. I hear she is living in Australia now but meeting her would be absolutely fantastic. Her research is unrivalled. Awesome woman. I think she would be the natural starting point for any research by foreigners for foreigners on the regime if you can locate her and converse.

  7. erikwdavis says:

    Thanks for catching the misspelling. Here’s a link to the book, for those interested in following up, along with a few other books also on the topic.

    •Slocomb, Margaret. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, 1979-1989.
    •Gottesman, Evan. Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. Inside the politics of nation building.
    •Vickery, Michael. Kampuchea: Politics, Economics, and Society.
    •Brown, MacAlister, and Joseph Jeremiah. Cambodia confounds the peacemakers, 1979-1998.

  8. Pingback: Two Excellent Articles on Preah Vihear « deathpower

  9. Thanks for the good work both of you do – and for letting me listen in on your exchange. – I am fighting every day with the media dilemma you mention: “I also have to communicate these nuances to foreigners who may know nothing about the workings of Cambodian politics, so on this point maybe we see eye to eye that news is sometimes less detailed than an ideal academic paper. That’s media, but I do strive to convey quotes and sentiments of interviewees accurately.” – “And you are right – if you don’t have the space to spell out the implications, maybe you shouldn’t be using all-encompassing terms. It’s a media dilemma.”
    I have my self-chosen dilemma, trying to “mirror” the Khmer press with selected translations – but having not too much space (and time and energy) to do so, it is an impossible task – but I am happy to know that we still have an increasing number of readers.


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