Son Sen (Khmer: សុន សេន) was a leading member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. He was also a leading member of the other various incarnations of the Khmer Rouge until his death in 1997.
In the “brother system” of the Khmer Rouge he was “Brother number 89”. There is no clear reason for this, but due to the fact his wife was also on the committee it could have meant 8 and 9. During the regime of Democratic Kampuchea it could be said he was the 6th/ 7th most important member.
Early life of Son Sen
Son Sen was born in the village of Huong Hoa, Trà Vinh Province in southern Vietnam to a minor landowning family. Ironically being of Sino-Vietnamese descent should have had him killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. He was born on June 12th 1930..
Joining the Paris clique
In the 1950’s he received a scholarship to study in Paris. Here he became a member of a communist group of Cambodian students centered around Solath Sar, who would later become Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. Others would join later, all of whom would form the backbone of the radical leadership of Democratic Kampuchea.
In the late 50’s he returned ot Cambodia as a teacher, joining the clandestine Workers Party of Kampuchea (later to become the Communist Party of Kampuchea). AS known communist against the Sangkum regime of Sihanouk he was quickly forced underground.
Sen went underground in 1964, hidden in the car boot of a Chinese diplomatic vehicle. From here things become a bit hazy until around 1968. He is known to have spent some time in Ratanakiri Province, as well in the north-east of the country. During this period he had built a formidable reputation in guerilla warfare and had risen to a high rank within the party.
Head of the Khmer Rouge Military
Following the coup of 1970 and the formation of the GRUNK government in exile, Son Sen was to gain more power. Although not part of the GRUNK government he was made chief of staff of the CPNLAF, the Cambodian People’s National Liberation Armed Forces. Along with Ieng Sary, he was responsible for the North-Eastern Zone, the main stronghold of Angkar. At times he was considered too “bourgeois” and was criticized by Hou Yuon (who was later killed by the Khmer Rouge). Ironically his blind devotion to Pol Pot made hm almost impervious to criticism. Something which would eventually play a hand in his death.
Son Sen in Democratic Kampuchea
After the Khmer Rouge came to power Son Sen was appointed deputy Prime-Minister in charge of defense. Essentially the Minister of Defense for Democratic Kampuchea. In this role he was also more importantly in charge of the internal security of the country. This meant control of Santebal (Khmer: សន្តិបាល), which has the rather nice meaning of “keeper of the peace”, but in actual fact was the feared secret police of the state. This made him in direct control of the notorious S-21 prison camp, as well as the numerous purges that epitomized the Khmer Rouge regime.
He was said to go about his activities in an almost school master like manner. He onec apparently tried to have Ieng Sary killed, but failed. It was during this time that he developed his strong Anti-Vietnamese views. Again ironic considering he was partly Vietnamese.
He was also responsible for reorganizing the CPNLAF forces into what would become the Revolutionary Army of Democratic Kampuchea. With the failure in the war against Vietnam, this can largely be viewed as not being a success..
Interestingly it is alleged that prior to the Vietnamese invasion Son Sen was himself under suspicion of traitorous deeds. Particularly with regards to the bizarre murder of Malcolm Caldwell.
To read about Malcolm Caldwell click here
The Khmer Rouge in Exile
Having ironically been saved by the Vietnamese invasion he was then to become the commanding officer of the rebel National Army of Democratic Kampuchea. This was the strongest fighting force in the internationally recognized Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. Once again he was in league with King Sihanouk.
Son Sen and the peace process
In 1991 Son Sen and Khieu Samphan traveled to Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge representatives for the peace process. This created the bizarre situation of war criminals being wined and dined by world leaders.
It would appear that Son Sen genuinely wanted the peace process to work and for the Khmer Rouge to be integrated back into society. Why he felt this no one really knows, but perhaps knowing of his previous crimes felt it his only way out.
As it would transpire the rest of the Khmer Rouge leadership did not follow the views of Son Sen and were to boycott the elections of 1993. Again they would become a rebel army. By this point Ta Mok had become increasingly powerful and Son Son became largely marginalized.
The Last Khmer Rouge State
The Khmer Rouge leadership fled to their strongholds of Pailin and Anlong Veng. This rump government were called The Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation of Cambodia (PGNUNSC. And although completely unrecognized still controlled around 6% of the country. Also due to the failure of UNTAC to disarm the Khmer Rouge, they still had an incredibly strong military.
But the game was largely up for the Khmer Rouge and senior members such as Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary defected in 1996 and 1997. This essentially lost Pailin and left Anlong Veng as the last Khmer Rouge stronghold (where Son Sen was now living).
Death of Son Sen
Although the Khmer Rouge was very much on its last legs there was still time for one final power struggle. In June 1997 Pol Pot ordered the murder of Ta Mok and Son Sen after becoming suspicious they would defect. The killing of Ta Mok was a failure, Son Sen was not.
On June 15th Son Sen, his wife (also a former government minister) and 12 of his family (including children) were shot and then run over by a truck. The site of this being one of the more surreal Dark Tourism spots in Anlong Veng.
Ironically Ta Mok was not only to survive, but would claim leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was put under house arrest from where he was to die a year later of “old age”. Ironically on Khmer New Year, meaning that even in death his shadow would haunt the Cambodian people. In a recorded interview Ta Mok can be seen laughing when discussing of the Khmer Rouge killed millions, or merely hundreds of thousands.
Technically the last vestiges of a Khmer Rouge state and the Cambodian National Unity Party (the successor party) were wound up in 1998. In reality Ta Mok was to flee further into the jungle with handful of loyalists. He was eventually captured on March 6th 1999. The Khmer Rouge were finally over.
Ta Mok was to retain a somewhat cult like figure in Anlong Veng, where he was seen to have brought prosperity to the area by building schools, hospitals and the like. His house is basically a shrine and there is a large memorial dedicated to him. You can see a very surreal clip of his funeral here.
And as for Son Sen? His brutal death at the hands of Pol Pot meant he was one of the few Khmer Rouge leaders to actually face some kind of justice. Now a poorly written plaque where he died is all that is left of him.