Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Inside a secret Khmer Rouge base

Special to The Callby Daniel Burstein

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 11, March 17, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Dangrek Mountains, Kampuchea – Day breaks in a banyan forest. The sound of tropical birds mingles with the soft sunlight to offer the visitor a picture of unparalleled calm and tranquility.

Yet not 20 miles from here, Vietnamese armor is rolling and guerrillas are staging hit-and-run tactics against it. This is Cambodia, or what the people here call Kampuchea. It is a nation that has known little else but war for the last 10 years and is now engulfed in a battle for its very existence with the far more numerous, better equipped Vietnamese army.

The banyan forest, home to a secret base of the side that calls itself Democratic Kampuchea, has become a momentary island in this war. It is here that Khieu Samphan, the new chief spokesman of the movement more familiarly known as the Khmer Rouge, has invited a small group of foreign journalists to hear his version of what has happened since the January 1979 Vietnamese invasion that drove the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh and into their current jungle bases.

Samphan, 49, who was referred to in the early 1960s by Prince Sihanouk as “my only honest minister,” has replaced Pol Pot as the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea. The change is part of an effort to improve the international image of the Khmer Rouge and win wider support for their anti-Vietnamese resistance. Pol Pot continues as leader of the guerrilla army which Samphan says still has 50,000 troops and has survived Vietnamese “mopping-up operations” during the current dry season.

Over the next two days, Samphan will expound what he calls the “new strategic policy” of Democratic Kampuchea – a policy aimed at putting aside past differences among Khmer political factions and seeking a single front to oppose the Vietnamese.

What emerges from those two days is bound to be a limited and superficial picture of the war in Kampuchea. But it strongly suggests that the Khmer Rouge are by no means finished. Rather, they appear to remain as a credible fighting force, capable of fulfilling Samphan’s pledge of waging a “protracted people’s war” against Vietnam and its Heng Samrin client regime in Phnom Penh “ into the foreseeable future.

The figure of 50,000 troops mentioned by Samphan is derived from the fact that prior to the Vietnamese invasion, Kampuchea had a standing army of a little over 80,000, and that there have been about 30,000 battlefield casualties since the war started a figure which, in a rare point of convergence, is cited by both the Khmer Rouge and the Heng Samrin side.

But in addition to battlefield casualties, it must be assumed that the rampant hunger and of last summer and fall also took a heavy toll on the Khmer Rouge fighting forces. While many guerrillas were able to obtain refuge in Thailand long enough to recover their health and filter back into Kampuchea, many more did not survive the ordeal.

Today, however, the guerrillas have been able to reorganize and regroup. If the actual number of combat ready troops is combined with local militias and support forces; then Khieu Sarnphan’s figure of 50,000 may not be at all wide of the mark. These fighters are dispersed through a string of base areas that stretches from Poipet to the Cardamon Mountains along the Thai border, as well as a number of key pockets deep inside the country.

Able to operate in small guerrilla teams, intimately knowledgeable of the terrain, highly disciplined and fiercely loyal to the Kampuchean cause, the Khmer Rouge are a military force far more potent than their numbers alone. And it is these factors which help explain why, after 14 months, the Vietnamese have not been able to eradicate the resistance, even with the tremendous firepower of their 200,000-man occupation army.

Although their guerrillas have proven capable of survival, the Khmer Rouge are in no position to contemplate winning a military victory by themselves in the near future. This is where the political factor, and particularly Khieu Sarnphan’s new policy, enters into the picture.

If, and it is certainly a big if, the Khmer Rouge can succeed in potting past differences aside and forging the united front they talk about – including themselves, Prince Sihanouk, Son Sann and other elements of the Khmer Serei – then two important changes will take place.

First, the guerrilla forces will be augmented not only by the combined strength of the existing groups, but by having a single front into which young people from the refugee camps and those chafing at the bit in the Heng Samrin zones can be recruited. This is especially important considering the fact that by almost all accounts, the Heng Samrin puppet regime has failed totally at building any kind of popular base and is opposed by the vast majority of Kampucheans. Second, material aid and political support internationally, and particularly from the U.S. and other Western countries, could be greatly expanded.

Under those conditions, Vietnam, which is already suffering the consequences at home of its Kampuchea operation in the form of food shortages, draft dodging, and declining public confidence in the leadership, might find continuing the war simply too costly. Alternately, if the Vietnamese did push on, the conditions for military success in a national liberation war would be greatly enhanced if that struggle could be led by a united front that had the support of all Kampucheans.

But there is a long road to travel before any such scenario might unfold. In the meantime, the Khmer Rouge are concentrating on their guerrilla war, taking pains to preserve their remaining forces while putting enough pressure on the Vietnamese to keep them off balance. In another six weeks the rainy season will come and, with it, stepped-up guerrilla activity.

Seventeen-year-old Ket Mon, in green combat fatigues with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, offers a glimpse of the dedication to the cause that characterizes the Khmer Rouge guerrilla.

“Earlier in the fighting,” he says, “I was pushed by the Vietnamese forces three times into Thailand. But always I came back to fight. It does not matter if I die. So many of our people have already died. What matters is to oust the Vietnamese from Kampuchea.”

The commander of the 105-man unit of the Second Division that has been assembled especially for review by the foreign visitors says candidly, “I can tell you that when we fight the Vietnamese, we do not fight like this – in big units with heavy weapons. When we go on missions against the Vietnamese, we go in small units of four or six, or at the most, twelve. We can send our guerrillas almost anywhere in the country. They need almost nothing because they are used to living on only a few spoonfuls of rice a day. They can fight even if they run out of weapons and ammunition. That is the way we have trained them.”

The village that lies adjacent to Khieu Samphan’s temporary headquarters gives every indication of being fully mobilized behind the guerrilla effort. This is another characteristic of the Khmer Rouge movement – there is little distinction between civilian and soldier as every individual is seen as having some role to play in the war.

Among 600 adults in the village there are few men: it is said that most are off fighting. Women, are cultivating rice and tuber crops to be sent to the front, despite the parched earth of the dry season. Many healthy babies abound – a rarity in Kampuchea these days – suggesting that the Khmer Rouge themselves believe that they will be around long enough for repopulation of their depleted ranks to be a meaningful concept.

Boys, no more than eight or nine years old, hone pungi stakes – the sharp six inch sticks, often poison tipped, which are set in traps for the Vietnamese. Khmer guerrillas have used these weapons ever since the ancient days of the Angkorian empire.

In a makeshift school, students are taking apart radios and rebuilding them, readying for the day when these skills will be needed to keep their guerrilla unit In touch with its command center. A small field hospital, where a dozen patients are being treated for malaria, exhibits a wide variety of medicines from Thailand, China, Switzerland, Italy and France, indicative that falling prey to disease is no longer the certain death warrant it was in a more difficult period earlier in the fighting.

Late in the afternoon, an unannounced return to the same village brings a more candid look at daily life for the Khmer Rouge. Dinner is being taken by a large group together. It consists of three spoonfuls of rice for each person in a soup made from leaves.

A political meeting is apparently taking place. About 16 people – perhaps one working team from the village – are gathered in a semi-circle discussing the day’s events. Their leader, a beautiful young woman garbed in the traditional black pajama-type outfit and checkered Khmai scarf, is explaining to the villagers why it is important for foreigners to visit Kampuchea. It is an object lesson in the “new strategic policy.”

The extremism of the Khmer Rouge political system, as perceived by many of the refugees and by observers in the Western countries, has long been a subject of international condemnation. But whatever the nature of that system was, the fact remains that the Khmer Rouge, unlike other Khmer political factions, retains the ability to act as a cohesive political movement.

According to Khieu Sarnphan, there is an effort underway to turn over a new leaf politically and break with many of the most radical and controversial policies of the past. While stopping short of directly criticizing the Pol Pot years, Samphan acknowledges that many mistakes were made in the course of trying to solve the complex problems that confronted Democratic Kampuchea after the destruction of the U.S. war and in the face of Vietnamese sabotage and subversion.

The total evacuation of Kampuchea’s cities, the abandonment of currency, and the restrictions on freedom of movement and religion and other policies that were enacted in Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1978 under Pol Pot would not be repeated again, according to Samphan, whether the Khmer Rouge came back to power alone or in coalition. Samphan is also prepared to admit to as many as 10,000 executions having taken place from 1975 to 1978, while rejecting charges that the Pol Pot government engaged in systematic mass murder or genocide.

Samphan says that today, the Khmer Rouge “are not trying to build up socialism. We are trying to save the Kampuchean nation. That is the most important thing at this point.”

Asked if he really believes the past can be put aside and a new united front forged with Sihanouk after the prince’s vitriolic denunciations of the Khmer Rouge, Samphan says:

“I know the prince. He is a patriot. He thought maybe we would be wiped out this dry season by the Vietnamese. But now he sees very clearly that we have not been wiped out. He knows we can fight on, and on the other hand, he also knows that he himself has no forces. This struggle will be a very long one, but on its road, eventually, all patriots will meet.”

Although the removal of Pol Pot as prime minister is taken by many observers to be only a partial gesture, since he remains as army chief, the Khmer Rouge are quite serious about bringing old guard Sihanoukists and prominent Khmer intellectuals into their ranks. My Man, an aging former leader of Kampuchea’s Democratic Party, casually smokes a pipe in his hammock in the base area, reading the Bangkok Post and Time magazine. He acknowledges that life for intellectuals in Democratic Kampuchea was not easy in the past. “But now,” he says, “there is an important place of them. There is a place for all patriots who resist the Vietnamese. ... ”


Democratic Kampuchea wants the help of the U.S. and other countries around the world. It is not so much arms that are needed, but political support.

Speaking with great composure, punctuated by an occasional gentle gesture, Samphan said that he appreciated U.S. government positions taken at the United Nations and elsewhere against the Vietnamese aggression. He urged the U.S. to find more ways to put pressure on Vietnam for a total withdrawal from Kampuchea, and linked Soviet support for Vietnamese ambitions in Indochina to the invasion of Afghanistan and global Soviet strategy.

“There is a worldwide problem of Soviet expansion,” says Khieu Samphan, “and a worldwide front must be built to stop it.” Stopping the Vietnamese in Southeast Asia, he added, is a key task in preserving world peace.

At a banquet for the newsmen in their jungle redoubt, Khieu Samphan and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary fuss over their guests, explaining the intricacies of how to eat the 14-course traditional Kampuchean meal whose fresh ingredients have been trucked in from Thailand for the occasion. The meal is exquisite and is accompanied by sturdy rounds of Kloster beer and Johnny Walker, with packs of Pall Malls on the table.

This is a meal with a message. And the message is, that even here inside Kampuchea, 18 miles from major Vietnamese positions, Messrs. Samphan and Sary are so confident of their own position that they can entertain the outside world with traditional lavish Khmer hospitality.