The son of a local magistrate in Svay Rieng province, where he was born in 1931, Khieu Samphân attended the same junior high school as Pol Pot, who was in the class above him. A precocious and exceptionally gifted student, he won a scholarship to France in 1953, where he joined the PCF and succeeded Ieng Sary as head of the Cercle Marxiste. His fellows considered him as particularly clever and ambitious (Chandler, 1993: 41). He first studied in Montpellier, then in where he completed in 1959 a doctoral thesis on Cambodia’s economic development, in which he argued for economic autarky and the reduction to an absolute minimum of “unproductive activities”, among which he included commerce and government bureaucracy (L’économie du Cambodge et ses problèmes d’industrialisation). His ideas influenced the debate among Cambodian progressives in the 1950s and ’60s, and helped to frame the policies which the Khmers Rouges would enforce when they came to power (Sher, 2004).
On his return to Cambodia in 1959, Samphân founded a progressive weekly journal, l’Observateur, while supporting himself by teaching, first history, geography and French in a lycee, then law at university. He was co-opted by Sihanouk as a member of parliament and briefly became a junior minister as part of the Prince’s efforts to maintain a political balance between leftists and conservatives. During these years he was renowned among Cambodians for his honesty and incorruptibility, becoming one of the most popular and respected politicians in the country. He also showed considerable personal courage in refusing to be cowed by Sihanouk’s secret police – most notably in 1960 when plain-clothes thugs stripped him naked in the street outside the Observateur’s offices in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate him. He was also imprisoned in August and September of the same year. Throughout this period, he acted on the instructions of the clandestine Phnom Penh committee of the CPK (Debré, 1976). In 1967, accused to have stirred up the unrest of Samlaut and threatened with trial by Sihanouk’s military court, he fled with Hou Yuon to the jungle, where he spent the following three years under the protection of Mok.They were soon joined by the third progressive minister of Hu Nim and were designated as the “three ghosts” by the press: the rumor of their murder set ablaze the leftist circles. After the 1970 coup, Samphân re-emerged as the most prominent public face of the Khmers Rouges. He served as deputy prime minister, minister of Defense, and commander-in-chief of military forces during the GRUNK. But he never rose to the topmost circle of CPK leadership, the Standing Committee. This later allowed him to claim that he had had no part in the atrocities of the regime. An alternate member of the CPK Central Committee from 1971, Samphân, alias “Hem”, became a full member in 1976 and succeeded soon afterwards Sihanouk as Khmer Rouge Head of State. This mainly ceremonial role made him appear abroad as the honorable regime representative. He was however not only a stooge. Samphân played an important role in the CPK secretariat and, though he denies it today, he may have been promoted to chairman of ‘Office 870’ which operated as a form of cabinet for the CPK Central Committee. He was not in a decision-making post, but had the duty to “keep track of the implementation of the Standing Committee policy decisions”. Samphân also made many public statements supporting the DK underlying policies and inciting to the struggle against “traitors” and “enemies” (Heder and Tittemore, Seven Candidates, 2004: 92-100). Pol Pot trusted him implicitly, and at the end of his life viewed him as a potential successor. Samphân is described as having in his prime a nimble, even mischievous mind – but at the same time was meticulous, doctrinaire, slavishly obedient to his party superiors and extremely rigid in his thinking. He did exactly what Pol Pot asked, no more and no less (Short, 2005).
After the Vietnamese invasion, Samphân fled with Pol Pot to the Thai border. From 1979 to 1982, he led the exile DK government. Then he officially succeeded Pol Pot as leader of the Khmers Rouges and served in this position until Pol Pot’s death. He played an increasingly public role, heading the Khmer Rouge delegation at international conferences and at the peace negotiations in 1991 that led to Sihanouk’s return. In the last years of Pol Pot’s life, he hesitated to build a new political force, allied to Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranarridh, which would compete for power legally. But the moment had long since passed. He remained faithful to the Khmers Rouges until December 1998, when he and Nuon Chea defected to the government. He lived in Pailin on the Thai border with his family until November 2007, when he was arrested to await trial before a mixed Cambodian international tribunal. In 2004, Samphân published his memoirs, Cambodia’s Recent History and My Successive Standpoints.
HEDER, Steve, TITTEMORE, Brian D., 2004, Seven Candidates for Prosecution. Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia.
KANE, Solomon, 2007, Dictionnaire des Khmers rouges, IRASEC, Aux Lieux d’être.
SHORT, Philip, 2004, Pol Pot. Anatomy of a Nightmare, New York: Henry Holt.