Roughing Up The Khmer Rouge

Khieu Samphan didn't look like a mass murderer. But as the pudgy, 60-year-old economist cowered in an upstairs room at a villa in Phnom Penh, an angry mob of Cambodians howled for his head. "Khieu Samphan's hands are dripping with Cambodian blood," some of them shouted. Then dozens of rioters burst through an invitingly thin screen of policemen and soldiers. Racing upstairs, they attacked Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the hated Khmer Rouge, and several of his aides. They kicked and punched them and showered them with rocks. Someone threw a wire over a ceiling fan, apparently for the purpose of stringing Khieu Samphan up. Finally the Cambodian authorities intervened in force, and when order was restored, foreign journalists found the Khmer Rouge leader huddled against a wall, wearing a steel helmet and bleeding profusely from a superficial head wound. "Please help me," he whimpered in French. "Please don't leave me."

When the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to early 1979, more than a million Cambodians perished on the killing fields in a pathological purge of Western influence. Their brutality was used to justify Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, and the result was a long civil war between the government that Hanoi had installed and opposition guerrilla groups, including the Khmer Rouge. That struggle finally ended with a peace agreement last October. It called for free elections in 1993 and set up a Supreme National Council, representing the government and the opposition factions and presided over by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the once and now restored head of state. The United States and the other parties to the agreement reluctantly accepted a role for the Khmer Rouge, concluding that the guerrillas could do more harm on the outside than on the inside. That brought Khieu Samphan to Phnom Penh, but less than eight hours later, he fled ignominiously to Thailand, forcing the council's first meeting to be moved out of Cambodia.

The protest at the villa had to have been organized, or at least condoned, by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his pro-Vietnamese government, which has overwhelming force at its disposal in Phnom Penh. Presumably the purpose of the demonstration was to make a propaganda point: unlike the rural areas, where the Khmer Rouge still have scattered support, the cities of Cambodia have no use for the political movement that brought them so much misery. If anything, the government underestimated the depth of the loathing that city dwellers feel for the Khmer Rouge, who had focused some of their worst cruelties on the urban elite. Once the protest was underway, however, passions got out of hand, and in a radio address the next day, Hun Sen seemed almost to apologize, denouncing political violence. "If you are not happy with the Khmer Rouge, just do not vote for them," he told his people. "Hatred can only beget hatred."

A great deal of it was begotten during the reign of terror in the 1970s. At the time, Khieu Samphan was concerned mostly with economic policy-a disaster in itself. Although he is titular head of the Khmer Rouge, real power lies with Pol Pot, the ironhanded guerrilla leader who has remained underground for more than 10 years. Son Sen, who was chief of security when the Khmer Rouge ruled, also was directly responsible for the killing, and he, too, was roughed up last week, as he, attempted to hide in a closet at the villa. Khieu Samphan has never expressed regret for all the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. "I -want to tell people to let bygones be bygones," he said before his return to Phnom Penh. Despite the indignities he suffered there, Khmer Rouge radio expressed continued support for the peace plan. "All Cambodians should unite and look to the future," it said.

The Khmer Rouge cannot resume the civil war without support from China, their closest ally, and acquiescence from neighboring Thailand, where many guerrilla bases and refugee camps are located. Neither country wants to see the war flare up again. Recognizing that the Khmer Rouge cannot win on the battlefield, China negotiated for their inclusion in the peace process and the impending elections, but it has done nothing to guarantee their political survival after that. Beijing seems to have given up on the Khmer Rouge; instead, the Chinese are betting on the politically agile Prince Sihanouk to keep Cambodia neutral-and out of the clutches of Vietnam, China's ancient nemesis.

The Khmer Rouge apparently were outmaneuvered by both Hun Sen and Sihanouk. They now face a united front between their erstwhile ally, Sihanouk, and the Hanoi-backed regime. Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has been appointed a deputy prime minister in the government his father fought against for years. After the riot, Sihanouk moved the meeting of the Supreme National Council to Thailand this week, where it will be attended by representatives from the United States and the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Sihanouk also said the Khmer Rouge will return to Phnom Penh "on the day Hun Sen can give a solid, serious guarantee of safety for them." That could happen soon. But when Pol Pot's lieutenants come back to the Cambodian capital, they will be completely isolated from the people they once terrorized.

Join the Discussion