Hou Yuon, born in 1930, was a close colleague of Khieu Samphân, with whom he attended high school in Phnom Penh, but a man of very different temperament. Where Samphân always religiously toed the party line, Yuon spoke his mind and refused to kowtow to party orthodoxy. In , in the 1950s, where he completed a doctoral thesis in economic sciences (La paysannerie du Cambodge et ses projets de modernisation, 1955), he was immensely popular among his fellow students, a jovial, larger-than-life figure, who was their immediate and unanimous choice to head the AEK, the Khmer Students’ Association (Short, 2007: 85). Like Samphân, his ideas on the Cambodian economy, and in particular the importance of the peasantry, would later influence Khmer Rouge policy (Sher, 2004: 207). In , too, he befriended Pol Pot, who became a member of Yuon’s cell of the Cercle Marxiste, a relationship which would stand him in good stead when in later years he ran into political difficulties.
In 1958, he was nominated to parliament by Prince Sihanouk and became a junior minister as part of the same political balancing act that would later bring Khieu Samphân to government office. Nine years later, when Sihanouk clamped down on the left wing, Yuon joined Samphân again to flee into the jungle. After the 1970’s coup, he held successively the ministry of the Interior and the ministry of communal reforms and cooperatives within the GRUNK. But where Samphân was content to follow unquestioningly party directives, Yuon was not, and, by 1974, his outspokenness had put him under a cloud (Heder). Nominally responsible for collectivization in Sihanouk’s resistance government, he would have been one of those who expressed criticism on the PCK congress in 1971. Hou Yuon thought the cooperative system was being imposed too fast, was against the collectivization of personal objects and food and the suppression of family gardens. He also took stand against the market’s abolition (Sher, 2004: 212). He is alleged to have warned Pol Pot and Nuon Chea (in what may be an apocryphal remark, though still widely quoted by former Khmer Rouge officials): “If you go on like this, I give your regime three years. Then it will collapse” (Short, 2007: chapter 2; Sher).
He was not immediately purged, but was sent to plant vegetables at a small Khmer Rouge base on the Chinit River called K-6. After this penance, he returned briefly to favor, making a broadcast in January 1975 on the Khmer Rouge radio in which he warned the people of Phnom Penh that if they did not change sides they would “die uselessly”. But the following month he was in trouble again, and with two other Khmer Rouge veterans who were regarded as excessively liberal, was made to kick his heels in a series of makeshift camps until Phnom Penh had been secured (Short, 2007). Hou Yuon was however present during the meeting of May 1975 when Pol Pot submitted to the Khmer Rouge leaders his plan in eight points. According to several testimonies, he would have opposed strongly to the cities evacuation and this position probably cost him his definitive eviction (Kiernan, 1996: 33, 59).
The date of his death remains mysterious and there exist dozens of different versions. Most western accounts claim that he was executed right after the Khmers Rouges seized the capital. There is now overwhelming evidence that that version is untrue and according to many Khmer witnesses, his death didn’t occur immediately (Kiernan, 1996: 59-61; 1985: 417). According to a witness recently interviewed by Philip Short, Yuon was seen alive at a Khmer Rouge base at Stung Trang as late as the autumn of 1976. However, the precise circumstances of his death are still debated and hypothetic. Steve Heder considers Hou Yuon could have died of disease after having been “judged”. Others express the suggestion he may have committed suicide. Another account, from Khmer Rouge sources, tells his death occurred when Pol Pot sent a montagnard bodyguard to bring him back to Phnom Penh. When he arrived, the man thought Yuon made a movement as though to draw his pistol and shot him dead. It was treated as an accident (Short, 2007).
A characteristic way the Khmers Rouges talk about their past and historical movement is to change versions over time to adapt stories to different circumstances. In this way, Hou Yuon was restored to favor in Khmer Rouge discourses after 1978 (Sher, 2004: 290) and whenever Pol Pot referred to him he used the term “comrade”, indicating that his loyalty was not questioned anymore.
KANE, Solomon, 2007, Dictionnaire des Khmers rouges, IRASEC, Aux Lieux d’être.
KIERNAN, Ben, 1985, How Pol Pot Came to Power. A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975, London: New Left Books.
KIERNAN, Ben, 1996, The Pol Pot Regime. Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.