Anlong Veng, Cambodia – In late 1998, Peng Samonn, a war-weary Khmer Rouge cadre who had spent decades fighting in the jungles on the Thai border, got wind of a secret plot to desert the notorious ultra-communists and join Cambodia’s government forces.
“A Khmer Rouge commander told me about divisions and that there would be a defection soon, so to spread the news,” 70-year-old Samonn said earlier this month, sitting outside the same home he lived in under the Khmer Rouge.
“But if another faction had found out, I would have been killed. I shared it with 10 families and we all fled.”
Led by military leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge government had been overthrown almost exactly 20 years before that incident by Vietnamese-backed forces. Around 1.7 million Cambodians had perished in less than four years (1975-1979) as a result of starvation, illness, overwork and murder as the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous agrarian revolution unfolded.
Despite their defeat, the Khmer Rouge continued to fight on, retreating to remote areas and controlling small pockets of the country up until late 1998. Anlong Veng was their final stronghold, overseen by the much-feared Ta Mok, a senior Khmer Rouge leader who died in 2006 while awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Yim Choeun experienced first-hand the ruthlessness of Ta Mok in the 1990s. The 61-year-old currently lives on a sizeable plot of land a short drive from Anlong Veng town, in what used to be called the “Village of Swollen and Rotten Flesh” – a term used for enemies and “capitalists” coined by Pol Pot decades before.
“They accused me and my wife of selling pangolins to the Thais. I was put in a human cage,” he said, adding that he was only released due to a need for manpower amid an offensive from government forces.
“I did not expect to be alive.”
Plans for Khmer Rouge defections to the government were cultivated long before 1998.
In 1991, 19 counties signed the Paris Peace Accords in an effort to end Cambodia’s civil war and put the country on the path towards democracy. Under the terms of the agreement, the United Nations would send a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia (UNTAC) until 1993 – the first time the world body would govern a state – to supervise a truce and prepare the country for a new constitution and free and fair elections.
Many in the Khmer Rouge strongholds hoped that the accords could bring an end to the war. These hopes, however, were dashed when the Khmer Rouge leadership boycotted the 1993 national elections and vowed to continue the fight.
The vote was won by Funcinpec, a royalist party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, but Hun Sen, of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), managed to manoeuvre a power-sharing agreement. A former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen had fled to Vietnam in 1977 to join forces opposing the group, before returning to Cambodia to serve as minister of foreign affairs after the Vietnamese installed a new government in 1979. He became a prime minister in 1985.
Confined in isolated areas, the Khmer Rouge grew weaker from year to year. By 1996, two other Khmer Rouge strongholds in Pailin and Malai had reintegrated with the government, raising alarm bells in Anlong Veng.
Ta Mok then attempted negotiations with Funcinpec royalists behind the back of Pol Pot. The move appeared to act as a catalyst for factional fighting between forces loyal to Funcinpec and to CPP in 1997, resulting in the latter securing full control until this day, in what many define as a coup d’etat.
Over the next year, the Khmer Rouge disintegrated further through infighting, as well as defections to the government under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s self-styled “win-win” policy which saw the peaceful reintegration of former fighters into Cambodian society.
“On December 4, 1998, both sides reached an agreement marking the final chapter of the KR (Khmer Rouge) defection and ultimate dissolution of the KR remnants who had struggled against the government for nearly twenty-eight years,” wrote Dy Khamboly and Christopher Dearing in A History of the Anlong Veng Community.
“In addition, all former KR soldiers and civilians would be recognised as legal citizens of Cambodia, with the right to retain their current property as well as hold administrative positions in the area.”
In a set of highly orchestrated “reintegration” ceremonies in Anlong Veng in early 1999, Khmer Rouge soldiers downed their weapons and changed into government army fatigues.
Hun Sen’s “win-win” policy was completed.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the inauguration of the “Win-Win Monument” in the capital, Phnom Penh, to celebrate 20 years since the Khmer Rouge finally fell and two of its leaders – Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – visited Hun Sen for peace talks. Both are now serving double life sentences for crimes, including genocide.
Hun Sen has long credited the “win-win policy” for terminating the fighting, touting the end of the civil war as perhaps his greatest achievement. But while this was a landmark moment in recent Cambodian history, Hun Sen has also been accused of using the term for ulterior motives.
Last year, shortly before the highly controversial dissolution of his only credible electoral threat, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Hun Sen had told opposition commune councillors that they could hold on to their jobs if they defected to the ruling party.
“This is a win-win policy,” he said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the prime minister deserves credit for engineering the military offensives and political deals that led to the breakup of the Khmer Rouge.
However, he believes Hun Sen has since exploited its legacy for his own political objectives.
“Of course, this achievement has since been rolled into a totalising political claim that raises up the CPP as the only legitimate representative of the Cambodian people, and paints its opponents as enemies bent on rekindling the civil war,” he said.
“While all the ‘win-win’ talk is to an extent based on a real achievement, it is now used as a political cudgel to shut down debate and foreclose any feasible alternative to the current ruling party.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay argued that, more than anything, the “win-win” policy was a display of political opportunism on the part of Hun Sen, who is one the world’s longest-serving prime ministers.
“What he did was just a finishing touch to end the war. It was morally questionable, surrendering to evil then rewarding the evil doers, the Khmer Rouge,” said Mong Hay, adding that the move was down to Hun Sen’s efforts to legitimise his rule after losing the 1993 elections to Funcinpec.
Mong Hay also argued it was an attempt to undermine UNTAC, which oversaw the 1993 ballot but failed to end the civil war.
“The CPP lost the election, meaning its rule from 1991 was not legitimate and confirmed the acknowledgement by the international community that the regime was a puppet of Vietnam. That factor contributed to Hun Sen extolling his ‘win-win’ policy’,” said Mong Hay.
“It was like a molehill turned into a mountain.”
But in Anlong Veng, support for Hun Sen and his ruling party is widespread. Despite initial concerns about his assurances over the “win-win” policy, Samonn is thankful that himself and others were allowed to carry on with their lives in peace.
“Right after the reintegration and ‘win-win’ policy, I was sceptical because the Khmer Rouge technically lost the war and from my experience, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, they killed their rivals,” he said.
“But Hun Sen stayed true to his word.”
Kheng Pha, a 64-year-old former Khmer Rouge official who is now a CPP village chief in Anlong Veng, agrees.
“The ‘win-win policy’ is a great policy, it’s one of a kind in this world,” he said, speaking beneath a poster showing Hun Sen sitting in a rural field alongside the words, “Our hope, our village, our country, our future”.
“We could all win and end the war, even the losers could not lose. Soldiers changed from communist to Democrats, we had salaries,” he added.
“Communism couldn’t win against democracy.”
Additional reporting by Phath Bora