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Who was the real leader of the Khmer Rouge?

cpp and khmer rouge

Nuon Chea AKA Brother Number 2 was technically the second most important person in the Khmer Rouge. But just how influential was he?

Who was the real leader of the Khmer Rouge? When it comes to looking back at the fanatical movement and government of the Khmer Rouge, one name stands out, Solath Sar/Pol Pot. His very mention epitomizes the KR movement and is almost synonymous with evil, but was that really the case?

Pol Pot - Communist Party of Kampuchea

Any regime, such as that of the Khmer Rouge/Democratic Kampuchea needed a lot of working cogs, adherents, supporters and indeed leaders. Was Pol Pot the main player and idological leader when it came to the destruction inflicted by the Khmer Rouge?

The Paris Group

The majority of the people that ended up in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea had been educated in Paris. The Paris group deserves and indeed shall get its own article, but it consisted of the following people linked to one main Group. The Khmer Students Association consisted of Cambodian members of the French Communist party. Notably Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sery, Solath Sar (Pol Pot), Hoy Yuon (later killed by the Khmer Rouge), among others (including wives of members). At the center of this group was the Cercle Marxiste (Marxist circle). The KSA would later be banned by the French as being too radical. It later morphed into the Khmer Students Union. At this point it would be fair to say that it was mostly run by Khieu Samphan. Saloth Sar as he was then known was undoubtedly active, but far from the leader of the group.

Workers Party of Kampuchea

The workers party of Kampuchea was allegedly formed in 1960 as continuation/split from the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). The change resulted from differences between urban and rural factions of the party. Although the exact events of this meeting and its history are muddied at best. What is known is that the party changed its name and that Tou Samouth (Khmer: ទូ សាមុត; c. 1915–1962), also known as Achar Sok (អាចារ្យសុក) was appointed General-Secretary of the WPK. Much of what happened at this meeting is not only unknown, but depends massively on if you look at it from a pro, or anti Vietnamese point of view. Tou Samouth apparently advocated cooperation with Sihanouk and his ruling party. Cooperation with the Vietnamese was also a policy.

Tou Samouth ironically would be killed in disputed circumstances in July of 1962. Most scholars believe he was killed by the government of Sihanouk, but there is some debate on if Pol Pot had him killed, so as to become leader of the Khmer Rouge. With what has since been said by the main players and indeed the inner-workings of the Khmer Rouge, it seems unlikely was he killed by his comrades. But, as with anything related to the Khmer Rouge no no one knows, or is likely to ever truly know the truth.

Nuon Chea

Pol Pot is famously known as Brother Number 1, but Nuon Chea was brother number 2. In the Workers Party of Kampuchea he was second in command to Tou Samouth. This meant he should have become the next leader of the party.

Why did Nuon Chea not become leader of the Khmer Rouge?

Why did Nuon Chea not become leader of the WPK?. There were a number of factors that made this difficult. He had an uncle that had been labeled a “traitor” namely Siv Heng. He was also considered rather extreme. By his own admission he approached Pol Pot and asked him to stand as leader, BUT on the provision that they would essentially lead the Khmer Rouge together. Which they seem to have done. Nuon Chea has also said he stood aside in an altruistic fashion as he felt they needed to attract more intellectuals. Nuon Chea was by his own admission not an intellectual. Did Nuon Chea therefore gain power by cleverly grooming Pol Pot to lead in his name?

There are two extremely interesting interviews with Nuon Chea and Pol Pot, which show just how different they were. In the interview with Nuon Chea he is not only extremely unrepentant, but still clearly believes that his policies could and should have worked. He laughs a lot whilst explaining what Year Zero meant, mocking debtors and again justifying everything it stood for. There is also a fascinating part where he is shown the execution of Saddam Hussein. His comments here are very striking about his political and revolutionary beliefs.

Pol Pot on the other hand comes across as a mild mannered gentleman and almost like a deer caught in the headlights. This is not in any way to suggest that Pol Pot was some innocent bystander, but perhaps he was not the “Great Leader” that history has made him out to be.

You can see the Nuon Chea interview here

You can see the Pol Pot interview here

Pol Pot vs Nuon Chea

Nuon Chea was been widely attributed as the main “thinker” for what Democratic Kampuchea aimed to achieve. But it is here that things get complicated and that we can see just how pragmatic Noun Chea was. According to Soviet archives it was Chea that negotiated for North Vietnamese fighters to enter Cambodia and for an extremely long time Nuon Chea was seen as the “Vietnamese ally” by Socialist Vietnam. Something that was to prove disastrously wrong.

Nuon Chea was also considered extremely cruel with Pol Pot being considered a” paragon of kindness” in comparison to his Number 2. Nuon Chea was also the direct commander Kaing Khek Iev (more commonly known as Duch). He described Chea as “the principal man for the killings, of S-21”. He was apparently furious that Duch failed to destroy the records of S-21 before the fall to the Vietnamese. In this respects whilst Pol Pot can certainly not be absolved of his crimes, it does appear that Nuon Chea was pulling far more strings than that of a mere second in command. It should also be remembered that Duch was the only ex-Khmer Rouge cadre to admit his crimes and indeed repent. His testimony therefore holds a lot of weight.

It should also be noted here that when Pol Pot stood down as Prime Minister, Nuon Chea acted briefly as the PM of Democratic Kampuchea.

Nuon Chea after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea

Weirdly after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea things get very grey. Pol Pot stayed in official power until 1985, after which Khieu Samphan and Ta Mok became much more important. Nuon Chea on the other hand seems to have moved into semi-retirement. One thing he did though was remain loyal to the Khmer Rouge, not defecting like Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sery and essentially being the second to last holdout after Ta Mok.

Khieu Samphan

He was initially and controversially given amnesty by Hun Sen, only to later face trial. A show trial was duly had with him dying in custody.. It is worth noting that he lived in freedom in Pailin until 2007. Nine long years after his surrender.

Arrest and Death

He was finally arrested in 2007 and eventually convicted of crimes against humanity in 2014. He was to die in 2019 at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital. One of the last surviving Khmer Rouge members. At his trial he halfheartedly apologized for people that may have been “unintentionally killed’. In his closing statement though Chea “blamed Vietnamese agents for virtually everything that went wrong during Khmer Rouge rule.” He remained a die-hard believer until the very end.

Was Nuon Chea the power behind the throne? And does it matter?

Again the one thing we know about the Khmer Rouge is literally how little we know about them. But, Nuon Chea was certainly much more than just a compliant number 2 to Pol Pot. And as for the extremes of the regime? He was definitely front and center when it came to the audacious plans the Khmer Rouge had for “Year Zero” and the perfect communist society.

Compared to the Nazis there really is scant information and study on the Khmer Rouge. That was part of the reason for this site. So, from a historical point of view understanding the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge is essential. In many ways there will never be a definitive answer for who did what during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, but that does not mean we should stop looking.

Pol Pot will undoubtedly remain the bogeyman when we think of the Khmer Rouge. In this respects he was probably helped by his early death. Having never stood trial has meant that the real Pol Pot remains somewhat of an enigma. Nuon Chea less so. Therefore to truly try to understand the Khmer Rouge and their warped views on Socialism, start with Brother Number 2.

Grave of Son Sen

Son Sen

Khmer Issarak